I first learned about the horrific systematic rape of women during conflict in the 2008 documentary film “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo”, which details the devastating effect of rape on women in the Congo throughout the long conflict there. Having taken my fair share of history and conflict courses in college, I knew that rape occurred during war. Yet, these classes often portrayed the rape of women as an almost inevitable byproduct of the chaos caused by conflict. When I watched the film, I saw not only the horrific consequences of rape on the victims, but also the systematic and planned nature of the rapes themselves. Since this realization, I’ve tried to learn more about rape as a tool of war, both in an academic context in graduate school and personally in my free time. Though I have now discovered books and writers documenting rape in conflict, few seem to have made it to the mainstream. There is still a dearth of reporting on rape in war and a reluctance to acknowledge rape as systematic, planned, and strategic.
That’s why I was so elated to see the launch of Women Under Siege, a new multimedia platform from the Women’s Media Center. Women Under Siege documents “how rape and other forms of sexualized violence are used as tools in genocide and conflict throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.” The goals of the project are twofold: to educate the public on the prevalence of rape in conflict and to educate world leaders (in politics, law, international organizations, etc.) on how rape is used in conflict and how to prevent it.
In addition to general information on rape in war, the website has background information on how rape was used strategically in specific conflicts, including the Holocaust, Libya, and Rwanda. I was fascinated to see the Holocaust listed as one of the conflicts where rape was systemic. This horrifying aspect of the genocide is oft neglected in Holocaust studies and remembrance (and the background information on the Women Under Siege site discusses why). I think the inclusion of the Holocaust is important for many reasons, one of which being that we (Americans, Westerners) tend to think of rape in conflict as only happening over there - in Africa, in the Middle East, in poorer (=less civilized to many) parts of the world. Perhaps this is a mental coping mechanism? It might make us feel safe and comfortable to think that strategic rape could never occur near us or in parts of the world that share our culture and values. But it has and it can.
War has long been seen as the domain of men, forcing women rape victims out of the picture. We must stand up to say that women are victims of war - and not only victims of the chaos of war, but victims of strategic actions. Only when we understand how rape is used as a tool in conflict can we help prevent it.