War Time Sexual Violence – A Violation of the Sacred

**Before reading this article, please be aware that it includes a description of some gruesome images and shocking statistics.

Rape has accompanied warfare in virtually every known historical era”  writes women’s historian Gerda Lerner. “The practice of raping the women of a conquered group has remained a feature of conquest from the second millennium B.C. to the present. It is a social practice which, like the torture of prisoners, has been resistant to ‘progress’, to humanitarian reforms, and to sophisticated moral and ethical considerations. I suggest this is the case because it is a practice essential to the structure of patriarchal institutions


A Violation of the Sacred

At one point in my life within the context of a retreat, I got entangled with the collective trauma field of war time sexual violence. It was a form of a trance like shamanic state, where the victims collective consciousness took over me. I was filled with grief, I wanted to die and go to rest. While lying on the floor almost passed out, I could not utter a word. The sentence: This is a Violation of the Sacred repeated over and over in my mind. The sacred being the mystery of life which comes into the world through a woman’s womb.  After this experience, I went on researching these facts which eventually led me to write this article on International Women’s Day 2024 while Israel still has young women abducted in Gaza for more than 5 months.


The Evidence

Violence against women in conflict situations assumes many forms; rape is often only one of the ways in which women are targeted. But while other abuses, such as murder and other forms of torture have long been denounced as war crimes, rape according to Human Rights Watch, has been downplayed until recent years as an unfortunate but inevitable (!!!) side effect of sending men to war and has thus been largely ignored as a human rights abuse.

Only in 2008, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1820, which states “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.” Still, it leaves an opening for ambiguity and this phenomenon is still prevalent throughout the world.

The many forms of gender violence appearing at conflict/refugee zones include:
Multiple rapes and gang rape (with multiple perpetrators), military sexual slavery which includes forced prostitution where women are forced to offer sex for survival, or in exchange for food, shelter, protection etc., rape of young girls, rape with objects such as glass, sticks, gun barrels, and machetes, female genital mutilation etc. Other forms of violence against girls and women include: Sex Trafficking, Sex Selective Abortions, Forced Marriage, Economic Violence, Denial of Education, Sexual Harassment and more.

It was not until the horrors of the systematic, consistent and widespread gang rape, torture and sexual enslavement in the Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Rwandan genocides, that the world started to wake up. The fact that rape in those cases occurred in massive numbers and in an organized fashion, was integral to the explicit identification of rape as a crime under international law.

“It is time that rape during armed conflicts is no longer accepted as an inevitable by-product of war, but is prosecuted as a crime in its own right, like other crimes against humanity” Writes Alexandra Stiglmayer, a journalist who covered the wars in former Yugoslavia between 1992 -1996 and afterwards, published the book “Mass Rape – The War against Women in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

During the Kosovo War, thousands upon thousands of Kosovo women and girls became victims of sexual violence by Serbian paramilitaries, soldiers or policemen. It has been estimated that during the Bosnian War anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 women & girls were raped. The majority of the rape victims were Muslim women raped by Serbian soldiers. At times, Bosnian Muslim men were gathered in town squares where they were forced to dig their own graves, witness their daughters and/or wives being raped in front of them and then beheaded by Serb militias. The existence of deliberately created “rape camps” was also reported. The aim of those camps was to impregnate the Muslim and Croatian women held captive. Often these women were kept in confinement until the late stage of their pregnancy.

During the Rwandan Genocide, from April until July 1994, hundreds of thousands of women and girls were raped or became the victims of other forms of sexual violence.  The report also stated that “rape was systematic and was used as a “weapon” by the perpetrators of the massacres. Sexual violence against women and girls during the Rwandan genocide included: rape, gang rape, sexual slavery (either collectively or individually through “forced marriages”), rape with objects such as sticks and weapons often leading to the victim’s death, sexual mutilation of, in particular, breasts, vaginas or buttocks, often during or following rape.(Sorry for the gruesome images).


Here Are Many More Examples:

Perhaps the most widespread and underreported case of wartime rape occurred during the war of independence of Bangladesh in 1971, where a reported 200,000 women were raped.  Pakistani soldiers terrorised the Bengali people with night raids during which women were raped in their villages or carted off to soldiers’ barracks.

Similarly, Turkish troops participating in the 1974 invasion and occupation of Cyprus, were notorious for the widespread rape of women and girls. In one instance, twenty-five girls who reported their rapes by Turkish soldiers to Turkish officers, were then raped again by those officers.

The term “comfort women” is a euphemism for the estimated 200,000, mostly Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese and Filipino women who were said to be forced to serve as sex slaves in Japanese military brothels during World War II.

In the Nanking Massacre, Japanese soldiers raped tens of thousands of Chinese female civilians who were trapped in the city of Nanjing when it fell to the Japanese on 13 December 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

As soon as Australian troops arrived in Kure, Japan in early 1946, they dragged young women into their jeeps, took them to the mountains, and then raped them.

A large number of rapes were committed by U.S. forces during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 Okinawan women had been raped.

During the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, Soviet and Mongolian soldiers attacked and raped Japanese women, often encouraged by the local Chinese population who were resentful of Japanese rule.  In one famous example, during the Gegenmiao massacre, Soviet soldiers, raped and massacred over 1000 Japanese women and children.

Polish sources claim that mass rapes were committed in Polish cities that had been taken by the Red Army. It is reported that in Kraków, the Soviet occupation was accompanied by the mass rape of Polish women and girls.

Historians estimate that at least 2 million (2,000,000) German women and girls were raped mostly by the Red Army at the end of World War II. That figure is based among others, on hospital and abortion clinic records. Women were often gang raped and for many of them, political fear and shame mixed with guilt about Nazi atrocities, created a kind of code of silence.

Indonesian invasion of East Timor and West Papua caused the murders of approximately 300,000 to 400,000 West Papuans and many thousands of women raped.

On 24 September 1974, in the Malisbong massacre the Armed Forces of the Philippines slaughtered 1,766 Moro Muslim civilians who were praying at a Mosque in addition to mass raping Moro girls who had been taken aboard a boat.

In Burma, too, rape was a part of a campaign to drive the Rohingya out of the country

The most documented type of rape in Sierra Leone has been sexual slavery where many women were abducted by the RUF and detained as sexual slaves.

In Eastern Congo, the prevalence and intensity of rape and other sexual violence is described as the worst in human history. Since fighting broke out in 1998 the toll of the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is staggering: an estimated 5.5 million deaths and 500,000 victims of sexual violence. Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder of the Panzi Hospital in eastern Congo calls this war on women, “the monstrosity of the century”. It has been largely ignored by the international community.

In 2004 it was reported in the news that armed militias in Sudan’s strife-torn Darfur region, were continuing to rape women and girls with impunity,

In 2015, Amnesty International reported that the Afghan Taliban had engaged in mass murder and gang rapes of Afghan civilians in Kunduz. Taliban fighters killed and raped female relatives of police commanders and soldiers.

More than 15,000 women and girls suffered sexual violence, including rape, during Colombia’s civil war, with half of crimes involving children. The report also revealed details of the use of forced prostitution during the war with bar owners turning women and girls into sex slaves for right-wing paramilitary fighters. The real number of victims is thought to be far higher as shame and the fear of reprisals has stopped many from speaking out.

Eight years (9/2014) after Nepal’s civil war ended, hundreds of victims of war-time rape still live in fear with no access to justice, said Human Rights Watch (HRW)

Thousands of women and girls who survived the brutal rule of the Boko Haram armed group, had since been further abused by the Nigerian security forces who claimed to be rescuing them.

Roughly 320,000 South Korean soldiers were deployed to Vietnam to fight alongside the US between 1964 and 1973. Tens of thousands of children were born as a result of rape by Korean troops. “Lai Dai Han” is a pejorative term meaning “mixed blood” in Vietnamese. The Vietnamese-Korean children say their lives have been blighted by stigma in a society that has acknowledged neither them nor the sexual violence suffered by their mothers. Many are illiterate because they were refused an education, and they have poor access to healthcare and social services.

Sexual assault within the US military itself has now reached pandemic levels. A Pentagon report revealed there were 3,553 reports of sexual assault in a 12-month period from 2012 to 2013.

ISIS members suffer from brutal instinctive desire for sex,” report an underground activist group. The report details horrific accounts of twisted sexual perversion despite ISIS’s ultra-conservative boasts. Many young girls are sold to sexual slavery either to individual men or kept in houses where they face multiple rapes by fighters returning from the battlefield.

Syrian government forces and allied militias have raped and sexually assaulted women, girls and men in a campaign to punish opposition communities. “It is utterly repugnant that brutal acts of sexual and gender-based violence, continued to be perpetrated throughout Syria for seven years by most warring parties,” said Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry.



The reality is that its escalation as a deliberate, strategic, and political tactic is now undeniable.
The reality is that there are many motivations for wartime rape, many ways in which rape is perpetrated by members of armed groups and many different characteristics of these armed groups.
The reality is that we have much to learn about the causes, motivations, circumstances and conditions that give rise to war-time rape; that we should also seriously take into account the enormous consequences and intergenerational traumatic effect on both perpetrators and victims.

The horrendous consequences of wartime rape, are not confined to the individual, but rather affect whole families, communities, the society at large as well as future generations. It is a collective trauma which impacts the psyche of the whole of humanity.

Amnesty International argues that in modern conflicts, rape is used deliberately as a military strategy, a claim reinforced by UNICEF which states that systematic rape is often used as a weapon of war in ethnic cleansing.  The cases of Bosnia-HG, Rwanda, Darfur, and Bangladesh leave little doubt about this notion.

What is largely agreed upon is that the absence of the rule of law, impunity, weakened state institutions, and above all gender inequalities and patriarchal stereotypes make sexual violence in the context of ethnic, religious, and ideological conflicts, more likely.

However, the longtime assumption that rape is an inevitable by‐product of warfare has been challenged by recent comparative empirical research, which has demonstrated variations in the prevalence of sexual violence across countries, conflicts and even across armed groups within the same conflict. While rape is commonplace in some conflicts, it is virtually absent in others.

The archetypal configuration of wars and armed conflicts is understood to provide conditions conducive to engaging in crimes and brutal acts yet, even in such settings, not everyone perpetrates sexual violence. So, if some groups do not engage in sexual violence, then rape is not inevitable in war as is sometimes easy to claim, and there are stronger grounds for holding responsible those who engage in it.



Wikipedia – War Time Sexual Violence

Types of violence against women and girls UN Women

Violence against women, UN Women

Sexual Violence as an element of Genocide

Sexual Violence: a Tool of War

Duty, Honor, Rape: Sexual Assault Against Women During War

Rape in War: Challenging the Tradition of Impunity

The Rapes in Bosnia-Herzegovina – Alexandra Stiglmayer

Rape During the Occupation of Germany, Wikipedia

Afghanistan: Harrowing accounts emerge of the Taliban’s reign of terror in Kunduz

War crimes in Afghanistan – Wikipedia

Nepal war-time rape victims suffer in fear, need justice: HRW

Lai Đại Hàn – Wikipedia

In 2020, sexual violence is still being used as a weapon of war – but there is a way to end it