Genocidal Rape: Analysis of Tools and Tactics to Dehumanize a Community
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1820 states that, sexual violence is “a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or an ethnic group".
Throughout time we have seen sexual violence, especially in the form of rape, being used to demoralize and destabilize entire communities, destroying the structure of families and societies. In spaces of conflict, we cannot assume sexual violence is inevitable. When village elders are raped in public, sons are forced to rape their mother or soldiers rape the women in a village with their brothers and husbands forced to watch, these acts are strategic and efforts to annihilate an entire community.
According to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of an ethnic, national, or religious group and/or ''deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part'' constitutes to genocide. This Convention does not explicitly state that sexual violence is a crime of genocide.
We must only look to Rwanda when in church convents Tutsi nuns were made to dig their grave prior to being raped killed and dumped into mass graves. Rape was used as a weapon and tool to destroy Tutsi women. Many reports of young children as young as six were also mass raped. By 1997, three years after the end of genocide not a single person was tried with sexual violence and in the international criminal tribunal of Rwanda, any suggestions of rape as a genocide tool was ignored. Radhika Coomaraswamy in her 1998 Rwanda report said ‘sexual violence should be seen not only as rape but be seen as torture, enslavement and genocide’. This shrewd state led military tactic is hard to prove and with no physical evidence compared to killing where there is a corpse, rape is often an invisible strategy. In addition to this, the stigma associated with rape means the majority of women will not report it. Rape victim’s suffering does not stop at the act of rape itself. As the shame of returning to their communities and being ostracised and made ‘into pariahs by their own families’, can often be labelled the ‘second rape’, as mentioned in Lisa Sharlach’s study in 2010. This stigma and shame often makes the investigation into politicised and militarised rape virtually impossible.
Sexual violence is also used to obtain information, for example as a method of torture in detention centres. During periods of genocide and ethnic cleansing, rape and many other forms of sexual violence is used to systematically attack the lineage of a group, for example by impregnating or sterilising women. These patterns can be seen in the case of Bosnia when two million were displaced and there was a mushrooming of detention camps, beatings, forced cannibalisms and gang rapes were commonplace. Serb militias attacked villages and rapes took place en masse. Rape camps emerged and sexual violence took place over a period of time and often they were filmed and shown on Serbian television. Once a woman was impregnated in these camps, she is held until the third trimester so the baby cannot be aborted. The baby now has ‘Serb’ paternal lineage – another attempt at demoralising an entire community. The RAM plan in 1991 outlined the use of rape on Muslim women and children as military policy. FFM estimated between 25-50,000 women aged between 7 and 65 years were raped.
Again, we see the same vicious cycle in the Bangladesh genocide, where thousands of Bangladeshi women and girls were raped. Pakistani soldiers raided houses, raping women and girls and then murdering them by spearing bayonets into their genitals. Mass rape camps were organised and women forced into sex slavery. In 1971 the Government of Bangladesh declared women who had been raped ‘Birangona’, meaning war-heroine. Many of these women were marginalised and eventually committed suicide.
Much like the women in Rwanda, Bosnia and Bangladesh – the suffering of the Rohingya women in the hands of Burmese military and state is unimaginably barbaric. Rohingya men and women were brought into the paddy fields and separated. The army picked “the most beautiful fair girls” to be taken away to either be raped or kept hostage as sex slaves for an individual soldier or groups. The rest were shot dead and dumped in to mass graves. Our decade long research at RestlessBeings revealed that widespread sexual violence, many of which were inhumane in nature, including brutal rapes, gang rapes and other forms of sexual violence using objects - often targeting girls and young women, were carried out to control and spread fear amongst villagers. Girls have been abducted, detained and raped in the military camps. MSF, in their recent report, says more than half the girls it has treated after sexual assaults are 18 or under, including one girl who was nine years old and several others under the age of 10. They have shown fresh and deep bite marks on their faces and bodies, their body parts have been mutilated. Many of the women and girls who were raped have since died from their injuries.
Rohingya women are doubly marginalised; having experienced systematic rape, abduction, and torture and also seeing family members killed. Forced to flee and in a continued state of displacement, women and girls make up just over 50% of the population in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, with one in six families being led by single mothers. Although they are now safer from the violence they faced in Burma, Rohingya women continue to struggle with many suffering silently in the camps. RestlessBeings has interviewed countless women and girls in the last decade and gathered shocking testimonies of suffering ranging from being raped by the military to losing children as they crossed the border. They are dealing with immense trauma which continues into the camps with many cases of sexual violence, child and forced marriages, and trafficking of women and girls into sex work overseas.
One of these women is Shafiqa. I met 28 year old Shafiqa in the winter of 2017. She was pregnant when she arrived on Bangladeshi soil. Her family killed and village burnt, she was then abducted alongside other women and gang raped by Burmese military. She has now given birth and struggling to accept her child and suffering from extreme levels of PTSD. Another case - Nooraya, a pensioner, was gang raped by soldiers who then took turns to urinate on her body. This was after watching her daughter in law also get raped and then killed and her grandchildren burnt alive.
With all its intersectionalities, genocidal rape must be seen for what it truly is – a tool and campaign for political control and attempts to weaken and wipe out communities. Although there are similarities between genocidal rape and the rape in war, both of which involves torture and humiliates, degrades, and demoralises the other, a distinction must be made between the two. Genocidal rape comes with instruction. It is state sanctioned, it is systematic, and it is an order to destroy. Genocidal rape is collective sexual violence carried out on civilians by the state, political group, and/or politicized ethnic group. The perpetrators are typically part of the state and victims are usually discriminated minority groups. This is strategic rape under state order and not uncontrolled rape that occurs in a conflict zone. These various faces of sexual violence are efforts to shatter a society – rapes to kill and which eventually also end the lives of the victims from perpetual mental trauma and societal rejection.
In the case of Muslim Rohingya women and girls, who were deeply bound to their cultural and spiritual ideals of modesty, privacy and dignity, their bodies were used as vessels through which the Burmese military and state attacked the very core of their being and identity. These women and girls were in the eyes of Burma, a mere object through which the destruction of the Rohingya community could take place.
It is essential therefore, to expand our understanding and acknowledgement of gendered violence as amongst the vital instruments in genocide. Ignoring sexual violence as a core tool of control and annihilation will lead to the failure of any attempt to bring justice to the Rohingya community and the individual victims. Academics, activists, international criminal courts – we must all recognise and account all the cases of sexual violence that are indicative of genocide. Failure to do so will perpetuate the efforts made by Burma of genocide denial.