Bodies as battlegrounds | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 28, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:32 PM, September 28, 2017

Bodies as battlegrounds

The systematic rape of Rohingya women in Myanmar

Bodies are battlegrounds. Bodies are physical spaces where ideologies are imprinted; one takes precedence over the other. The other loses. And when war breaks out in physical territories outside of our bodies, our bodies become territories that must also be fought over, surrendered, conquered. 

In Bangladesh, between 200,000 and 400,000 Bangladeshi women and girls were raped during nine months of war and genocide in 1971. In Rwanda, between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped during the three months of genocide in 1994. More than 60,000 women were raped during the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002). Over 40,000 in Liberia (1989-2003). Up to 60,000 in the former Yugoslavia (1992-1995). And at least 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1998.

Rape and sexual violence have been committed against women and girls since the beginning of time. History bears testament to this as do religion and biblical accounts. Even in literature, the notion that women are prizes—objects—to be claimed as reward for conquests has subsisted, and still exists today. So it is accepted, that when territories are being claimed, so must bodies be. By force, by violent measures, by inflicting pain and trauma that will outlive the period of conflict. 

So, men often rape in violent conflict. But, not all violent conflict is war and not all war is genocide. There is a difference between sexual violence during war and sexual violence during genocide. Although civilians may be killed in war because of who they are, what makes a war a genocide is when the intent is to destroy a particular racial, ethnic or religious group.

Sexual violence is particularly fitting to genocide. 

Aung San Suu Kyi, prior to becoming Myanmar's State Counsellor, said in a video message during a conference on sexual violence in conflict in 2011, “It is used as a weapon by armed forces to intimidate the ethnic nationalities and to divide our country, this is how I see it.”

I am glad she sees it that way. Recent reports say medics working with the Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar, are reporting disturbing signs of sexual violence. According to The Daily Star report published on September 25, doctors at a clinic run by the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM) at the Leda makeshift refugee say they treated hundreds of women with injuries they said were from violent sexual assaults during the army operation in October and November. 

The Huffington Post interviewed Ilona Alexander, Human Rights Officer at the UN, who reported, the “area clearance operations” conducted by the militia in the northern Rakhine State followed the following pattern: Large numbers of armed men (often from both the Myanmar armed forces and the police, sometimes accompanied by Rakhine villagers) would arrive in the village. They would destroy houses, mosques, schools and shops. They would separate the women from the men. Women would be rounded up, and either told to stay inside a school or a building or outside in the burning sun. Then, they would be raped or subjected to other forms of sexual violence, often during strip searches, either during roundups or in homes.

The accounts are strikingly similar to those of rape survivors of the Bosnian war; and the survivors of the Liberation War of Bangladesh.

In her book Are Women Human? Catherine MacKinnon identifies four characteristics that make genocidal rape distinct. Firstly, in order to be genocide the aggressors must have the aim of physically destroying the group. This does not mean that all members of the group must be killed. The aggressors can inflict on the victim group bodily or mental harm or conditions of life calculated to bring about the group's destruction. 

Secondly, genocide is relentlessly one-sided. While, in war, combatants (whether military or non-military) advance and retreat, seeking to gain control (generally over territory or political power), genocide targets civil society—a people, not combatants. Also, even if atrocities are committed on both sides of a conflict, we witness a radical disproportion of sexual violence by one group (usually state actors and militia) against the civilians of the other group. 

Thirdly, in war, some women who are raped do not even know which side their rapists are on. In genocide, the identity of the perpetrator is essential. The woman (and by extension, her group) must know not simply that the atrocity occurred, but who was responsible.

And lastly, in war, rape has mostly an out-of-control quality. It is what an armed group of men can do if there is nothing to stop them. However, in genocide, rape is under control. It is a calculated act, a tool. In genocide, men rape in groups because they are ordered to or because they are systematically permitted to do so. The men rape not as individual men, but as members of their race, ethnicity, religion or nationality. They sexually assault women (and sometimes other men) of a particular group.

Banar News, a Radio Free Asia-affiliated online news service, interviewed 54 Rohingya women who had arrived in Cox's Bazar in October 2016, one in three of whom had been raped. Seventeen of them said they had been raped before fleeing to Bangladesh. All identified their rapists as military personnel.

Genocidal rape is the term used to describe the actions of a group who have carried out acts of mass rape during wartime against their perceived enemy as part of a genocidal campaign. In genocidal rape, the woman is a stand-in for her entire group, as is the rapist. The goal in genocidal rape is not simply to hurt people or to have sex. The goal is Group Destruction. Sexual violence is not simply an auxiliary tool employed to advance this goal, but given the nature of rape and sexual torture, it is the ultimate weapon. In war, the vicious effects of rape are largely beside the point. In genocide, the destruction is the point. During the Bangladesh Liberation War, the Yugoslav Wars, and the Rwandan genocide, where mass rapes had been an integral part of the conflicts, the destruction was the point.

The Daily Star report previously mentioned stated that there have been fewer rapes reported among the influx of refugees since August. I wondered why that was until I read an account from a friend conducting a survey before providing relief at the Balukhali camp: “Most girls in the villages that were attacked were publicly raped, and only a few survived. The ones who died didn't die of rape related wounds. They were burned alive, in front of family members.”

But, the Rohingya “aren't a national ethnic group”. “This is not genocide.” “Ethnic cleansing is too strong a word.” “And much needs to be investigated before we can reach a conclusion about what ‘this’ is.” Let's wait to decide. 

And while we wait to decide exactly what “this” is, bodies will continue to be battlegrounds and humanity will continue to be defeated. 


Shagufe Hossain is the founder of Leaping Boundaries and a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.  


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