My contribution in the Encyclopedia of Prisoners of War and Internment, 2nd edition, 2006, Grey House Pub, edited by Jonathan Vance.
Sex crimes during wartime occur in a wide variety of contexts. Often the perpetrators commit mass rape and leave the victims to suffer or die where the crime occurred. In other instances perpetrators arrest or recruit victims andkeep them in prisons, houses, or other areas where sexual crimes occur. Even though female and male POWs have been used as sexual slaves for their captors for centuries, the majority of victims of sexual violence throughout history are female. The long-standing disregard and silence by witnesses, lawmakers, military leaders and others surrounding sexual violence has served perpetrators well and hampered efforts to reduce the amount of sexual violence that occurs during armed conflicts today. Furthermore, societal and cultural mechanisms ensure the silence of a majority of victims despite the physical and psychological horror of sexual abuse to the survivors and their loved ones. Prostitution, a form of sexual abuse, thrives during armed conflict with little action by leaders to prevent the massive sexual exploitation of desperate women and children. Alcohol and other substances contribute greatly to the extent of sexual violence that occurs during armed conflicts. Discussions on inhibiting sexual drive and mood-altering substance consumption during service in armed conflicts need to take place. The motives for rape, gang rape, mass rape, forced prostitution and forced pregnancy, and other forms of sex crimes vary. For example, in some instances, mass rape is a formal military strategy, while in other cases mass rape can be the results of cultural attitudes, sexual drive, drunkenness, and an undisciplined military company.
According to historian Gerda Lerner, the first evidence of the enslavement and sexual abuse of captured women after military conquest dates from the third millennium B.C. With the establishment of slavery as an institution, slave owners rented out their slaves as prostitutes or worked them in commercial brothels. The Hebrew Scriptures and the Koran describe the rape of the women of conquered tribes as a routine act. Foreign women were often kidnaped as spoils of war, and forced to marry their captors/rapists. Apparently, in biblical times kings of conquered tribes were sometimes anally raped by the invading army. In the Annals of Fulda, there are references to women taken by warring tribes to be used for sexual purposes, as there are in studies of medieval Scandinavia. Genghis Khan notoriously used captured women as sexual slaves. However, not all peoples have employed sexual violence as a war measure. For example, in North America although the Europeans raped Amerindian women, the Amerindians typically did not rape European women.
By the twentieth century, enforced heterosexuality of armies was a norm of military life, in contrast to ancient and medieval customs of homosexuality in the military. During World War I, the Germans had military brothels, some surrounded by barbed wire to contain the women who served the German soldiers. There is also much evidence of wartime rape, for example, see the debate concerning German actions in Belgium, beginning with the Bryce Report, 1916.
By World War II state organized, regulated, and enforced sexual slavery of captured women became major institutions of Germany and Japan. The institution of Japanese military “comfort stations” began in 1931 and was in full force by 1937 after the Japanese raped and murdered tens of thousands of Chinese women in Nanjing. At least 200,000 rural and poor, Korean and other Asian women, including some European women, were recruited under false pretenses or were forcibly abducted, made to serve up to 90 soldiers a day, were beaten, gang raped and kept in seclusion. Some women served for as long as nine years. It is estimated that between 70 and 90 percent died in captivity. Until 1993, the Japanese government denied any coercion in the recruitment of women into the Yoja Chongsindae (Women’s Voluntary Labor Service Corps). Despite recent acknowledgment of the wrongs committed against them, the women have not received any form of compensation from the Japanese government.
Even less researched are the 500 or more National Socialist brothels set up by the German state for the use of the Wehrmacht, the SS, forced laborers, and concentration camp inmates. Tens of thousands of women and some men of all nationalities worked as prostitutes for the German state, including Jewish, Gypsy, and Slavic women despite National Socialist racial laws. As in the Japanese case, many women were forced, were brutally and repeatedly raped, many died, and the German government has never acknowledged these grave human rights abuses that were committed in its name.
Bosnian Serbs used rape as a military strategy of ethnic cleansing during the war in the former Yugoslavia, which began in the early 1990s. As Serbian soldiers invaded cities and towns they raped women and girls. Between 150,000 to 300,000 female and male inmates were held in rape concentration camps, where they were repeatedly raped, gang-raped, forced to sexually assault one another, starved, buried alive and murdered. Another form of sexual slavery were the rape/death prisons or brothels where Serbian soldiers held and daily gang raped captive women. The number of prisons is unknown, as is the number of women held there, most of whom were murdered and buried in mass graves. Only a handful of suspects charged with rape and sexual assault during the war have been arrested, and leaders in the Serbian army continue to deny the charges.
In addition to Bosnia-Herzegovina, the examples of sex crimes in twentieth- and twenty-first-century conflicts are endless: Japanese troops raped women in the Philippines following its invasion of that country, U.S. troops raped Vietnamese women, and armed men raped women and girls in the Bangladesh war of independence. Iraqi soldiers raped Kuwaiti women en masse during the invasion of Kuwait. In Africa, the widespread rape of free or displaced women and girls or those held captive has killed, maimed, and otherwise ruined an untold number of lives. For example, in the ethnic conflict in Rwanda Hutu leaders ordered their troops to rape Tutsi women. According to Amnesty International, in Sudan’s western Darfur region “Janjawid militiamen have raped and sexually abused thousands of women and girls as young as eight years old. They have carried out gang rapes, abducted women as sex slaves, and beaten or killed women who resisted. Abducted women have had their arms and legs broken to stop them escaping. In camps of displaced people around towns and villages in Darfur, the Janjawid have patrolled the periphery, raping women who venture out for food and water.” In Uganda and in the Congo widespread rape by armed militia has also been documented.
Ironically, even though the sexual abuse of men and boys usually is hardly mentioned, the world learned about sexual abuse of male Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops, but there has been relative silence about the abuse of female prisoners. Even though the U.S. Congress has seen photos of abuse against Iraqi women, these have not been released. According to Amnesty International there was a sharp rise in violence against Iraqi women after the U.S. led invasion and occupation, and the Australian SBS World News and Britain’s The Guardian reported in May 2004 that U.S. forces tortured and raped Iraqi women held at the Abu Ghraib prison. Others have reported that U.S. forces have committed horrific sexually violent abuses of women in prisons who American forces arrested only because of their relationship to an alleged terrorist. Lawyers working inside Iraq, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union have verified that the U.S. troops have committed more than a few isolated incidents of sexual violence against Iraqi females, but the offenses remain outside the mainstream press, and they remain unpunished.
One of the main problems for prosecutors, scholars, and others is the long-standing, deafening, and pervasive silence surrounding the topic of sexual violence which has served well the perpetrators and others inclined to disbelief. Because of the silence many survivors endure a second tragedy – the painful denial and lack of acknowledgment following the crimes they experienced. Survivors live with their memories alone, often believing that most people would not want to know about their suffering. As one scholar writes on the sexual violence in Serbia, “even though women in rape/death camps know that the same things are being done to other women, and sometimes are even forced to watch them, still the sense of isolation is total.” In some areas of the world it is tribal custom to murder a woman who has been raped, and women practicing prostitution are often beaten as a punishment. An Amnesty International report on the sex crimes committed in Darfur states that “The social and economic effects can be equally lethal. The destructive effect on family ties and community relations is frequently devastating. Women who have suffered sexual violence are also made to bear the community’s sense of shame. The survivors of rape and their children are sometimes shunned. Husbands may reject wives, and unmarried women may never be able to marry. Such women, forced to provide for themselves in a society that traditionally has no place for a woman to live independently of a man, face destitution and increasing vulnerability to further human rights abuses.” The shame and other forms of discrimination ensures the silence of survivors.
Yet victims of sex crimes need survivors, witnesses, peacekeepers, and leaders in the international community to be anything but silent. Being raped is a horrific experience. Even during times of peace, rape causes physical and psychological distress for years after the violation. Because of the force used, the skin in and around the vagina or anus is often ripped and abraded. In addition to internal injuries, such as a prolapsed uterus and bruising there can be a massive loss of blood. This, in combination with the intense pain, can cause a person to lose consciousness and die. Such violence can leave a woman or girl sterile, kill a fetus if she happens to be pregnant, and could leave the survivor with severe abdominal pain for years. In times of war, rape often turns into gang rape, making it even more traumatic and life- threatening. In addition to the pain to the woman, injured breasts often no longer can be used to nurse, which can deprive an infant of life-saving milk, especially in times of hardship. Similarly, to be forced into prostitution means experiencing multiple rapes each day for however many days one survives. Those who do survive experience physical, psychological, and emotional injury from the repetitive assaults to their bodies and psyches, to an extent that is rarely overcome. Women and girls often commit suicide after they have been raped. The emotional and psychological trauma from all sexual crimes, especially in more conservative cultures where women were viewed as having been tarnished, is enormous. Even in the less conservative west, one study showed that over two hundred women and girls committed suicide in Pankow alone and many more throughout Berlin in the final days of World War II.
Historically, military personnel, historians, witnesses, and international observers have ignored the plight of wartime victims slavery, or they have referred to such women as “camp followers,” “prostitutes,” “whores,” or “comfort women.” However, research and reveal that many women were forced to act as sexual slaves, either into the work by deception or physical force. Other women strategically “chose” this type of work over other forced labor in a concentration camp or were forced into prostitution by their own or their families’ starvation. The disregard of leading officials throughout the international community is baffling. For example, despite the alleged attempt by the U.S. military to educate servicemen about sexually transmitted diseases, the movie “Where the other of sexual testimony coerced Girls Are: VD in Southeast Asia” (released 1969) clearly shows the main character as a victim (called “the victim” in the script) who faces a multitude of sexually available Asian women.
More recently, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the commanding general of the 800th Military Police Brigade, stated in relation to the widespread sexual assaults against U.S. servicewomen that “The attitude of Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez [ground commander in Iraq] permeated the entire chain of command: The women asked to be here, so now let them take what comes with the territory.” Hundreds of sexual assault cases within the U.S. armed forces just during the Iraq war have gone unpunished, because military commanders decide whether a soldier should face criminal proceedings, not prosecutors. Furthermore, in the U.S. the military definition of rape does not conform with any civilian federal statute. Servicewomen who become pregnant as a result of rape are forced to pay for their own abortions because they are not covered under military health insurance. If military commanders have these attitudes about women who are serving on their side of a conflict, then it is not surprising that there is a lack of concern of the rights of women from the “other” side, whether the conflict is in 2005 or 1942. Similarly, although in 2005 the U.S. Congress did tackle the issue of unpunished sexual assault against American servicewomen by American servicemen, Congress has remained silent on the sexual abuse committed by Americans against Iraqi women and girls.
Continuing a trend among the lawsuits from China, Korea, and other Asian countries, in late 2004 Japan’s top court dismissed four Chinese women’s demand for reparations and an apology from the government of Japan for forcing them into sexual slavery during World War II. Despite the fact that sexual violence probably has been the most prevalent among human rights abuses during the civil war in Sierra Leone it has been reported by Human Rights Watch in 2001 that although the United Nations and the British Army have provided human rights education and training, there has been absolutely no focus or education provided on the rights of women. Furthermore, in 2005 the United Nations is investigating sexual offenses committed by peacekeeping troops stationed throughout the world where young children are raped or forced into prostitution with no other means to survive.
Another aspect of sexual slavery is the prostitution that victims are forced into because of wartime deprivation, starvation, unemployment and the willingness of occupying forces to take advantage of those forced into such choices (which are not really choices). Despite the long history of this subjugation, modern armies take few steps to prevent the abuse. Rather, it is common for military leaders to provide their male soldiers with condoms to prevent the spread of disease. This is seen in the present conflict in Iraq where condoms are flown in during stock time, and during World War II the Germans provided condoms during the entire conflict despite experiencing a massive shortage of rubber.
Sexually transmitted diseases have concerned military leaders for centuries because of the inevitable spread through the military forces. Before the introduction of penicillin after World War II, treatment of venereal diseases required considerable time. During the Second World War, the average length of gonorrhea treatment was three weeks. A soldier infected with syphilis was away from the front for up to half a year. At any given time, the average number of those away from duty being treated was the same as fourteen battalions of Wehrmacht soldiers. Approximately seven thousand soldiers were constantly in treatment. Yet the focus of military leaders has not been to curb sexual activity or the sexual abuse and exploitation of local women and girls. Rather, the focus has been to provide safe sexual outlets for servicemen, regardless of the effects on women and girls.
Related to sex crimes is the widespread use and abuse of alcohol and the societal acceptance of this behavior. Concerning the abuse of alcohol on the eastern front during World War II, one study, based on an array of archival sources, including memoirs, testimonies, German police reports, and several rape cases, clearly shows that the consumption of alcohol was widespread and contributed to the ubiquity of sexual violence. Researcher Wendy Gertjejanssen argues that with alcohol people were more willing to break regulations, such as the German racial laws, and they could have experienced heightened sexual desire. Furthermore, in various armed conflicts, biological factors are similar, such as alcohol, men, extended periods of sexual abstinence, life-threatening situations, high stress levels, and unarmed females who became victims of sexual torture. Military culture, peer pressure, and large groups of armed, exhausted, relieved, terrified, or intoxicated men together pose grave dangers to unarmed and often starving civilians. Furthermore, numerous studies in the medical and biological fields document the strong correlation between alcohol consumption, sexual violence, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
Finally, Gertjejanssen argues in her study of sexual violence during World War II that in analyzing the diverse eastern front, sexual violence seems to have been more often a case of armed men targeting women and girls because they were unarmed women and girls and therefore exploitable. Armed men on the eastern front did not seem to target women and girls merely because they belonged to a certain “enemy” group, or because the men viewed women of the enemy side as an “other,” and therefore, a “whore,” and therefore rapeable. That is, the sexual violence in the east during World War II undermines the traditional feminist argument that rape has nothing to do with sexual desire and occurs only because of a desire to feel powerful. The fact that rape and sexual harassment are abuses of power aside, the evidence from the eastern front does not indicate that a desire for more power or more feelings of power were the only motives in rape.
Furthermore, neither the Soviet nor the German military leaders used rape as a military tactic. There does not seem to have been a specific order from either the German or the Soviet side that rape be used as a terror tactic or a weapon to destroy a population. Nevertheless, in 1941 with what became known as the Commissar Order, Hitler gave specific instructions to treat the population in the east with complete ruthlessness, and Stalin, for the most part, laughed about the “fun” his men were having. Although rape was not a formal military tactic by either army, rape was deployed as a means of terror by both the Germans and the Soviets, and there was a tacit understanding that the armed men had a right or even permission to rape women and girls. Indeed, although rape was not a formal military tactic, German men received what we could call a blessing to rape. A regulation from the Main SS Court Office (Hauptamt SS-Gericht) declared that the lack of sexual intercourse and the large amounts of alcohol consumed should be considered “extenuating circumstances” and should not be punished severely, especially if it were the first offense. The sexual arrogance or belief in one’s right to sexual activity with another, often as a “reward” for having risked one’s life, along with the widespread abuse of alcohol among the military are main threads connecting rape for both the German and the Soviet military, and is the case in other conflicts as well. These beliefs and motives contrast with the reasons behind sexual violence in other armed conflicts, such as in Bosnia- Herzegovina and Rwanda where sexual violence was part of a formal military strategy.
Organizations such as Women, Law & Development International, People for Peace (Kenya), Restore Hope (Burundi), Isis of Uganda, Women’s Feature Service, and the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan, along with other activists, scholars, and survivors are working toward obtaining international and national legislation to ensure the prevention of gender violence during war. In the last century, when rape was defined as a crime in international humanitarian law, it was not viewed as a brutal attack, but as a provocation to honor. In addition to entirely minimizing the immensely brutal assault to the body and psyche, when rape is defined merely as a violation of a woman’s honor, not her person, victims are discouraged from coming forward and prosecutors less likely to litigate. Researcher Astrid Aafjes explains, “The 1907 Hague Convention Regulations Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its accompanying Regulations do not mention rape or other forms of sexual assault at all. Instead, Article 46 of the Convention’s Regulations states obliquely that ‘family honour and rights, the lives of persons, and private property, as well as religious convictions and practice, must be respected….’” As in the Hague Regulation of 1907, this is also seen in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, the 1977 Geneva protocols protecting civilians in war, as well as the 1958 Red Cross Commentary on the Fourth Geneva Convention. For example, the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 states that “Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault.” Article 147 of the same convention, however, states that “torture or inhuman treatment” and “willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health” are war crimes. Although the latter describes a rape, rape was not intended to be included.
Professor of Law Rhonda Copelon explains that the problem in legal texts is that there exists ambiguity whether rape is defined as a “grave breach” which is the most serious crime under international law. Article 2 of the Geneva convention defined grave breaches as “(a) wilful killing; (b) torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments; (c) wilfully causing great suffering or serious bodily injury to body or health.” According to Aafjes, the International Committee of the Red Cross “declared that the grave breach of Article 147 [of the Fourth Geneva Convention] covers rape” and cites ICRC, Aide-Memoire, 3 December 1992. Furthermore, according to Aafjes, “the U.S. Department of State also declared that rape is a war crime or a grave breach under customary international law and the Geneva Conventions and can be prosecuted as such.”
For the first time, in various international documents in the 1990s the connection between rape and honor has been eradicated, and rape has been defined as a brutal crime against humanity without any reference to honor. For example, the statute of the International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia since 1991, the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and other international documents have no mention of honor in connection to the war crime rape. Additionally, it was reported in the June 2000 International Federation of Human Rights Newsletter, La Lettre, that “The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence to Women pronounced by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1993 (article 2) defined ‘forced prostitution’ as a form of violence…Since [the 1995 International Women’s Conference in] Beijing, the notion of ‘forced prostitution’ … seems to encompass the spirit of the Human Rights High Commission which compares ‘forced prostitution’ to a contemporary form of slavery. Finally, the statutes of the International Court of Justice recognises ‘forced prostitution’ and ‘sexual slavery’ as war crimes.”
Despite this progress, massive sex crimes are committed in present-day conflicts, and countries, including the United States, are unabashedly ignoring international human rights regulations for armed conflicts. War crimes trials fail to indict war criminals on charges of mass rape and sexual slavery, and peace agreements rarely address the issue of the sexual violence committed during a conflict. Moreover, in post-conflict periods, women are rarely involved in negotiations concerning conflict management or conflict prevention. On the national level, both legally and culturally, the connection between rape and honor still needs to be abolished. Astrid Aafjes, a member of the organization Women, Law & Development International, writes that “The ultimate goal is the elimination of violence and not merely its prosecution. Combating sexual violence during time of war will require breaking the link between sexual assault and victim morality at the national level. It will require changing many countries’ domestic law, and changing the way that members of many communities think about victims of sexual assault” [italics in original].
Greater funding for international tribunals to prosecute violators of human rights, as well as human rights training for judges, prosecutors, military and law enforcement personnel, and soldiers are needed. Discussions need to take place concerning the undeniable sexual desire that those in the armed services experience. The desire to escape the stresses of armed conflict is inevitable, but the shameful, widespread, and contemporary use of sexual violence as a means of escape demands innovative action. For example, temporary pharmaceutical solutions could be provided to reduce sexual desire while serving in the armed forces. Furthermore, serious consideration needs to be taken to curb the use and abuse of alcohol and other mood-altering substances that contribute to widespread sexual violence and torture of both civilians and POWs.
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