The Body Becoming a Terrain of War

Rape as a weapon of war

2008. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are finally declared to be, not only a war crime, but also a crime against humanity by the UN Security Council.

2022. Ukraine, Irpin. A 9-year-old girl was raped by 11 Russian soldiers who subsequently carved a "Z" on her chest and killed.

Mikhail Palinchak's photo 20 kilometers from Kyiv portraying the partially burned bodies of three completely naked women, and that of a man under a blanket is nothing more than another stark testimony of absolute vulnerability.

This intolerable crime that is sexual violence in order to frighten, humiliate, terrorize, is also used as a tool in trying to assert the supremacy of one nation over another. In some cases, the rape of girls and women is not only an effect of war but represents a real military strategy to pursue specific objectives. In fact, there are numerous cases in which the commanders of the troops themselves allow rape as a form of reward. Often during war, sexual violence is exercised in public and is often characterized by gang rapes and attacks with objects and weapons that are inserted into the vagina or anus of the victims.

More generally, throughout the world, sexual violence is regularly directed against women during situations of armed conflict. This violence can take gender-specific forms, such as sexual torture and mutilation, forced pregnancy, rape, or sexual slavery. In addition to the inherent danger to life posed by war, being female is an additional risk factor; women and girls are often sexually abused on the basis of their gender, regardless of age, ethnicity, or political affiliation.

What is happening now in Ukraine is in fact certainly the most recent example of these episodes, but it is not the only one. Just think of the conflict in Syria, or the genocide in Rwanda, when in 1994 women were subjected to sexual violence on a large scale by Hutu militia groups also known as Interahamwe, by other civilians, by the Presidential Guard and by soldiers of the Rwandan armed forces - Forces Armées Rwandaises, FAR. The same political and military leaders - at both the national and local levels - have encouraged both killing and sexual violence to further the political goal of destroying the Tutsi as a group. Rape in ethnic conflict is in fact often conceived as a tool for aggressors to perpetuate their social control by redrawing ethnic barriers.

Survivor testimonies confirm that rape was extremely prevalent and that thousands of women were raped individually, group-raped, raped with objects such as sharpened sticks or gun barrels, held in sexual slavery - collectively or through forced "marriage" or sexually mutilated. These crimes were often part of a pattern in which Tutsi women were raped after witnessing the torture and killing of their relatives and the destruction and looting of their homes. According to witnesses, many women were killed immediately after being raped. Sometimes the rapes were followed by sexual mutilations, including mutilation of the vagina and pelvic area with machetes, knives, sticks, boiling water and, in one case, acid. Mutilations include: cutting off lips and ears, blinding victims so they cannot identify their aggressors, amputating limbs, and genital mutilation. Victims often ask for death by rape; accounts of brutal killings and mutilations tell stories of excruciating suffering before the victim is killed. Horrific acts are often committed in front of family members, such as the torture and mutilation one surviving mother witnessed.

Since 2008, rape as a weapon of war and conflict-related sexual violence more generally has been defined as a war crime and a crime against humanity. Moreover, when it is aimed at the destruction of a population by developing into systematic and structural sexual violence, as in Rwanda in 1994, then it is equivalent to genocide.

The violence and brutality of using rape as a weapon of war is not limited to the rape itself. Survivors face emotional torment, psychological damage, physical injury, disease, social ostracism, and many other consequences that can devastate their lives. To this is also added one of the most complex outcomes, which is that of rape war pregnancies. The fetus that lives inside the woman, or the child itself, is the living memory of the horror she has suffered, like a wound that continues to grow inside her.

In Ukraine, as it is particularly difficult to understand the magnitude of this phenomenon, investigations are still ongoing. Numerous girls and women are testifying before police, media and human rights organizations about the atrocities they suffered at the hands of Russian soldiers. Group rapes, rapes committed in front of children or even child rapes committed in front of their mothers. This is what happens when during a conflict even the body, especially the female body, whether of women or children, becomes a terrain of war with long-term destructive consequences both at the level of the individual person and society itself.

Translated by Moira Rimini

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  • L'Autore

    Caterina Rossi

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