Written By Alice Webster
TW: This article contains in depth discussion of sexual violence.
Women have always fallen victim to sexual violence and repression. For millennia we have been routinely stripped of our autonomy by means of culturally endorsed harassment in situations so common that we’ve almost started to expect them.
During wartime, however, sexual violence towards women appears to increase tenfold. And it’s not just the prevalence of attacks that changes within conflict, but the intent behind such attacks. Sexual exploitation, intimidation and assaults become not just a tragic ‘inevitability’ but a legitimate right of the military. A weapon used to humiliate and assert dominance.
We’ve seen such examples of weaponised sexual violence occur time and time again throughout history and yet, astonishingly, there is minimal discourse surrounding it within the mainstream media. It is estimated that during World War II, 1.4-1.9 million German women alone were raped. Hundreds of thousands of women, globally, were attacked or forced into sex slavery at the behest of soldiers from every nation involved in the conflict. Described as the ‘secret’ of the world wars, the violence faced by millions of women across tens of nations is a heartbreakingly forgotten story, neglected by the established press and overridden by stories of heroism and valour.
This familiar pattern has repeated itself multiple times since the world wars. In post-war France, women, labelled ‘Les Femmes Tondues’ or ‘The Shaven Women’, became subject to public humiliation, banishment, and in some cases execution for ‘fraternising’ with German troops. Later on in the century the world became witness to the particularly brutal ‘strategic’ mass rape of predominantly Bosnian Muslims in Yugoslavia, carried out with the intention of ‘ethnically cleansing’ the population. Similar instances occured during the Civil War in Sierra Leone; with forced marriages and sexual assault rife throughout. These are just a handful of examples, scattered throughout a relatively small portion of human history. And yet we see such substantial, yet unspoken for, consequences thrust upon women. This all sounds very primitive and barbaric, I know. Tragic anecdotes which should belong to the forgotten past of uncivilised warfare – a far cry from the rigorously legislated and supposedly enlightened world that we live in today. But many of these incidents have happened within our own lifetimes. The women affected are still living with the overwhelming consequences, right now. And everything I’ve begun to outline so far, is being enthusiastically replicated at this very moment globally.
As has recently become evident, Ukrainian women who are trapped in, or fleeing their country are being subjected to sexual violence, with an increasing number of reports emerging as the war progesses. It is still too early to determine the extent to which sexual violence is being used to terrorise the Ukrainian population. But it’s slowly becoming clear that it is far from uncommon. So, why do we see this recurrence of violence against women during war time? A UN report from 1998 highlights that historically sexual oppression of women has always been deemed to be a ‘legitimate’ spoil as well as a tactical stratagem of war. During peacetime there is the enforcement of legislation and existence of cultural norms that ensure that sexual violence happens to a lesser extent – or at least denotes a degree of shame towards the perpetrator. This does not happen during wartime.
Amongst the chaos of heavy conflict, soldiers are able to act with impunity over conquered territory, which they consider to be their own. They can therefore ‘legitimately’ claim what is theirs. Unfortunately, this seems to particularly manifest itself in the degradation of women. Sexual domination, consenual or not, is counted well-earned plunder. However, we cannot isolate this behaviour to the chaos of warzones. It is no secret that a woman’s value, as perceived by the male gaze, is often denoted to their appearance, desirability and practical use. Put simply, women are commodified.
This perception of women, when put into a wartime context, encourages and allows men to assert violent dominance over women. Conflict merely exposes and magnifies the belief that women are commodities. And so history repeats itself over and over according to such lore.
If change is to be made - which is a desperate necessity in this situation - the problem needs to be tackled at the root. Legislation does little to help in times of orderless conflict. Instead, societal attitudes towards women in both peacetime and wartime need to be understood and challenged.
I think it is important to note that I did not write this article in order to wallow in the depressing realities that women face, but rather because I was shocked to discover that weaponised sexual violence during wartime was such a frequent occurrence. The savagery that’s being displayed right now in Ukraine is symptomatic of wider gender relational issues, and is simply not discussed enough. The history of wartime sexual violence that women have faced, and the reasons behind it, should be common knowledge, and widely reported on. Without this, women will continue to suffer, both on and off the battlefield.