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Uncensored Reality: Sexual Violence Against Women in Conflict Situations

Uncensored Reality: Sexual Violence Against Women in Conflict Situations

By Sohini Chatterjee

Edited by Namitha Sadanand, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

Orchestrated sexual violence against women has been, for centuries, an effective weapon in conflict situations to humiliate and assert symbolic victory over adversaries. Warfare, situations of grave political disturbance or unrest, armed conflicts, communal violence, terrorist attacks et al are united by their shared exhibitionism of aggression against women. The various forms of sexual violence which victims in situations of crises are made to suffer include rape, sexual harrassment, forced impregnation, sexual slavery and prostitution etc. Often underreported, these severe violations of one’s space and person constitute a significant aspect of any troubled narrative of conflict. When a sexual offence is commited against a tumultous backdrop of conflict and chaos, it can hardly be judged as any other criminal act performed in the spur of the moment by a perpetrator whose perverse desires got the better of him. In conflict situations, it is less the act than the site at which it is committed, that reveals the motive of the perpetrator. Hence, the meaning which such sexual cruelties assume go beyond our common understanding of sexual offences and the motivation behind them.

Nancy Farwell in ‘War Rape: New Conceptualizations and Responses’ has cited documented instances of sexual violence which include the rape and murder of Chinese women during the Japanese occupation of Nanking, of Vietnamese women by U.S. troops during the U.S. war in Vietnam, of Muslim women in Bosnia-Herzegovina by Serbian forces, of Eritrean women by Ethiopian soldiers, and rape as state-induced violence during intra-state disputes in Rwanda, Guatemala and Burma. Also, during the Second World War, both sides were accused of mass rapes. India, for its part, has also been witness to sexual violence against women in conflict situations. The literature, both fiction and non-fiction, available on the partition of the Indian subcontinent narrate horrific tales of sexual cruelties committed against women. Feminist activist and writer Urvashi Bhutalia’s ‘The Other Side of Silence’ talks at length about the uncertainties of identity that such violence on women created during the partition. The undivided subcontinent had been witness to grave disputes and graver injustices meted out to women, as has the divided India. The anti-Sikh riots of 1984, or any communal violence has always sexually victimized women. Security Council resolution of 2008 has recognized sexual violence against women and girls not only as widespread and rampant but also as a tactic of war.

To understand sexual brutality against women in armed struggles, a deeper understanding of women’s status in society is unavoidable. The cultural moorings of women’s identity play an important role in deciding their victimization in situations of conflict. Since a woman’s dignity, integrity and purity is thought to be attached to her body, sexual violence uses it as a site to pollute and humiliate her sense of selfhood, as conditioned by society, and also brings shame to those closely related with her. As for the perpetrator, the act is aimed at establishing his dominance and greater might. Thus, sexual brutishness against women serves the two-fold purpose of humiliating the woman and her family and re-affirming the superiority of the perpetrator. Since, a woman’s independent identity is not adequately recognized, she is acknowledged in relation to either her family or community at the helm of which are male superiors. They take upon themselves the task of ‘protecting’ the woman’s dignity, which is why sexual crimes against women are seen as a failure on the part of the units. This is where the trouble begins. Women’s identity is shaped in connection with men at all times and it becomes further magnified in conflict situations. This magnification culminates in rapes in the presence of male members of victims’ family. Mothers are raped before sons, sisters before brothers and wives before husbands. The sexual act becomes a performance aimed at dismissing the authority, vanity and valour of the opponents. The violence not only disempowers the victim but also what or whom she represents. Humiliation of the victim is not the sole concern of the perpetrator. She is also the means to an end. It is worthwhile to stress upon this site where curiously patriarchy hassles itself. Women’s subordination under male dominance ultimately hurts male interests as is represented through the community during armed conflicts. In this way, carnal aggression against women ceases to be solely about gender and assumes a greater significance in troubled times.

The partition of India, which was accompanied by communal unrest and sexual barbarity, gives adequate proof of this. Both Muslim and Hindu men raped, and both Muslim and Hindu women were raped. To each of the two communities, the baton of maintaining the sanctity of their religion fell on the women to a significant extent. Women were hence victimized with the aim to violate the purity of their faith and shock and disgrace their community. The kidnapping and forced impregnation of women became regular affairs. Rape with a genocidal motive is more than apparent here.

The women’s religion became important along with their reproductive ability. A child born out of a coerced union is thought to be emblematic of the violation of a woman’s chastity, failure of her male guardians to protect her and an affront to her religious sanctity. Moreover, since a woman’s honour is lost—as a man of an alien religion has ‘violated’ her—her sense of identity is rendered precarious post conflict. Thousands of women on both sides of the border, were left without means to sustain themselves as their families had refused to accept them as a consequence of such rapes. This unabashedly exposes the obsession with purity and its imaginary relation to a woman’s body. Manoeuvring this compulsive need for purity to their advantage, different groups in conflict zones victimize women.

Even though women’s victimization in warfare is not solely because of the asymmetric power dynamics shared between men and women which favours the former over the latter, but sexual crimes in situations of discord reinforce this power imbalance. While it is undeniable that men are also made victims of sexual savagery, women constitute majority of the victims. The higher number of oppressed being women, it can be said with some conviction that women’s bodies often become the easy and predictable site of conflict. Women’s bodies are not shorn of meaning, they are clothed in patriarchal burdens and values. This baggage is excruciating in turbulent times. Since, violent strifes look for humilating the opponent in a way that is definite and absolute, women come in as viable means to that end. Further, an oppressed woman’s marginalization post-conflict is non-negotiable which amounts to the complete disruption of the woman’s life. The hostility in warfare manifests itself through misogynistic ways and there is a clear conflation of masculinity and violence. Patriarchy reinvents itself in different ways and in different garbs; it is the women who bear the brunt of such arrogant displays of crude might. Unless there’s a radical restructuring of the socio-cultural-political scenario, and the reconstitution of identities, women’s victimization will continue to be a bitter truth of warfare and civilization will continue to embarrass itself in remarkable ways.

Sohini Chatterjee is a student of Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her interest areas include identity politics, Indian culture, mythology, contemporary Indian politics and narratives of diaspora. She identifies as a feminist and believes it defines her more than anything else. Writing is not solely an intellectual exercise for her but a powerful weapon or a magic wand which, she believes, can make the world a better place.

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