Last night, I heard this report on the BBC World Service about the rape of women and girls in the conflict in Darfur, based on this study by Human Rights Watch. The BBC says that although rape has been a tool of warfare throughout this conflict, the patterns have changed–it’s not just the Janjaweed, anymore. “Women and girls (photo, right) are now as likely to be assaulted in periods of calm as during attacks on their villages and towns. Government soldiers, militiamen, and rebel fighters [are] also targeting women on the fringes of camps for displaced people spread around the region.” We saw this in the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s–although prominent feminist legal theorist Catherine Mackinnon was important in drawing attention to the use of rape and forced pregnancy by Serb soldiers in the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, this 1996 book by Beverly Allen looks like the comprehensive study of that human rights disaster. So, as in Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan, one of the most important lessons we can learn about modern warfare is that women’s rights and safety are dramatically degraded in war zones, and that women’s rights are never the priorities of the new governments that rise in the wake of these wars.
While rape appears to have been common in European warfare transhistorically, it wasn’t univeral in the Americas. For example, there is no evidence that Native or European American women in captivity among the Northeastern woodlands Indians were raped in the borderlands warfare of the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries. Captivity was a means of simultaneously weakening your enemy’s numbers and strengthening your own, so captives targeted for adoption were treated lovingly as family members, and thereby induced to stay. (However, scholars have noted the use of rape as tool of war by other Native Americans.) As Sharon Block’s 2006 book, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America conclusively demonstrates, rape was mostly the tool and prerogative of European and Euro-American men in colonial America because of their dominance over other people’s bodies, principally enslaved women and women indentured servants. Successful rape prosecutions were rare because sexual coercion by men was considered heteronormative, and consent wasn’t a serious issue: women were supposed to resist, and men were supposed to press their advantage–so where’s the harm? (At least, that’s what most communities said, especially if the victim was a low-status woman.) The one constituency that was regularly convicted of rape was African American men, and Block demonstrates that rape prosecutions against black men in the eighteenth century were a means of policing and punishing their sexual access to white women.
For those of you interested in rape and rape as a tool of war, Diary of an Anxious Black Woman has a trailer on her website for The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, which she notes will be shown on HBO tomorrow night, April 8. The rape, torture, and mutilation of women has happened throughout the bloody civil war that’s raged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for nearly a decade, by both foreign militias and the Congolese Army. If you don’t have HBO, or can’t stay in to watch tomorrow, you can catch it at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women this June, courtesy of Women Make Movies. (Historiann is in charge of the movie schedule, which isn’t final yet. The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo will be shown sometime Friday, June 13 or Saturday, June 14 between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. in the West Bank Program Auditorium in Willey Hall at the University of Minnesota.) The final film schedule will be posted later this month at the 2008 Conference website.
Do you think there are some universal–or near universal–laws about rape in warfare, or about rape in general? Do you know of any exceptions to my (informed guess) that in modern warfare, “women’s rights and safety are dramatically degraded in war zones, and that women’s rights are never the priorities of the new governments that rise in the wake of these wars.”
UPDATE: WOC Ph.D. has a post up about The Greatest Silence too. She writes, “it is important for us to develop a complex theory of sexual violence that includes war and war that includes sexual violence as a tool of war. Once we do, we will be better able to address the specific cases of sexual violence in war zones and better protect women outside of war.”
UPDATE II: Apparently, the U.S. Senate just last week held its first hearings on the use of rape as a weapon in warfare, with a special emphasis on rape in the Congo, including a screening of selections from The Greatest Silence, and testimony from the movie’s director, Lisa F. Jackson. Thank you, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL).