Rape as a Weapon of War

December 2012/First Year of College

I am a woman come to speak for you.

I am a woman speaking for us all

From the tongue of dust and fire

From this bowl of bitter smoke.

This is a song for strength and power.

Meridel LeSueur, “Hush, My Little Grandmother,” Rites of Ancient Ripening, 1975 (Griffin 101).

I open with this poem, by Meridel LeSueur. This paper is meant to be a song of sort; a call to arms for women—humanity everywhere—to hear. I will be examining rape and its ability to be labeled as not only a war crime but as a direct weapon of war. Rape is “the least condemned war crime,” according to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (Franco 23). One of the most significant shifts in current thinking on war and gender is the recognition that rape in wartime is not a simple by-product of war, but often a planned and targeted policy” (Buss 146). In 2008, the United Nations formally declared rape as a “weapon of war,” provoking many to think of the DRC, the deemed “rape capital of the world.” Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former United Nations force commander, spoke of the spread of rape as a war tactic and said something haunting: “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict” (Kristof and WuDunn 84). With all of this evidence in hand, I seek to present in a clear and concise way the causes, implications, results, and evidence for rape as a weapon of war.


In traditional cultures, wives and unmarried women are often considered as wealth in need of protection. Etymologically speaking, rape is derived from the Latin “rapere” which means, “to steal, seize or carry away.” The rapist steals wealth that belongs to another man. In keeping with this argument, war rape aims to devalue the women and thus the wealth of the men. A precious object is turned into an abject (“Becoming Abject” 116-7). (Note: ‘Abject’ used to define an object of disgust; a distinction between purity and impurity.) This notion of women as wealth can also be heard echoed in Sharon Frederick’s Rape: A Weapon of Terror. From earliest times, soldiers have seen the rape of enemy women as the final humiliation of their adversaries—and their adversaries have agreed. Defense of a woman has long been a hallmark of masculine pride, as possession of women has been a hallmark of masculine success. Rape by a conquering soldier destroys all remaining illusions of power (Frederick 12). Better said, these “spoils of war” have been treated as the soldier’s right to the women and their sexuality—until the modern-day definition of rape expanded to include a more brutal, systematic weapon of war. Let’s take a look at a few (of many) historical examples where rape was used deliberately as a weapon of war.


First, the Bosnia and Herzegovina war (1992–95) holds some estimates that 20,000 women were raped, most of them Muslims. Both the Sarajevo State Commission for Investigation of War Crimes and the United Nations, however, claim that between 20,000 and 50,000 females were victims of this weapon (Carter 356-7).

Second, as stated by Re ́ne Degni-Segui, special rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights, during the 1994 Rwandan genocide — a 100-day period — between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped (Carter 356-7). (An estimated 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi were killed in the 100-day period of the genocide) (Buss 147).

Third, in the DRC between 1998 and 2004, more than 40,000 women were raped; in 2009, the number rose to hundreds of thousands and counting (Carter 356-7).

The scale of this problem is daunting. A recent report documented conflict-related sexual violence in 51 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East in the last two decades (United States Congress 3). Out of these 51 countries, amongst others, the UN has formally condemned the rape of girls and women during the conflicts in Afghanistan, Burundi, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Maedl 1).


Susan Brownmiller, in her landmark 1975 study, observed that ‘‘Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries’’ (Buss 148). Rape also has been called a “form of terrorism” by U.N. leader Lisa F Jackson (United States Congress 6).

Giving his insight as to why rape is not only a weapon of war, but also a unique one, K.R. Carter argues that the nature of the weapon itself allows for rape to escapes any traditional type of weapons control or embargo. Consequently, the practice and effect of rape are not contained within state borders. In addition to this, unlike other weapons of war systematic rape leaves a complicated “aftermath” of purposely disrupted genealogies, creating a generation of children bearing identities foreign and displaced in their already disintegrating communal context (Carter 349-62). Whereas traditional weapons aim to destroy and kill, the practice of enforced pregnancy creates a new group of children whose purpose is “to carry the expression of the perpetrator’s dominance into future generations” (Card 10).

This suggestion is supported in Kristof’s Half the Sky. His research and personal experience in the DRC found that because engaging in firefights can lead to fatalities and reprieves, the militias discovered that the most cost-effective way to terrorize civilian populations is to conduct rapes of “stunning brutality.” Frequently the Congolese militias rape women with sticks or knives or bayonets, or else they fire their guns into the women’s vaginas (Kristof and WuDunn 84). The findings then go on to reveal a three-year old who had a gun fired into her, leaving her insides irreparable when brought before surgeons.


I am reminded of a passage written by K.R. Carter where he resurrects Aristotle’s findings on the brutality of rape endured by both bodies and souls — rape’s capacity to destroy even the polis was, centuries ago, forewarned (Carter 367). Kivlahan points that rape, as with all terror warfare, is not exclusively an attack on the body—it is an attack on the “body politic.” Its goal is not to maim or kill one person but to control an entire sociopolitical process by crippling it. It is an attack directed equally against personal identity and cultural integrity (Kivlahan and Ewigman 1).

In the modern world, rape is used as a strategy for terrorizing an entire civilian population, either to subjugate them to the will of the attackers as in WWII; or to physically displace or annihilate them as a people, as in Bosnia and Rwanda. It has become a way of destroying a nation both physically (many brutally raped women can no longer bear children) and culturally since women play a central role in family and community structures. Breaking down the women is a very effective method for breaking down the community (Frederick 5).

Body & Society reports that strategic rape aims to dissolve the social structure of the attacked group, tainting its “ethnic stock.” Rape destroys communities by transforming women into abjects. To the extent that virginity and chastity before marriage is cherished, rape makes the victim unsuitable for marriage or motherhood (“Becoming Abject” 117).

Kristof again finds the same evidence through his research and experience. He found that mass rape is as effective as genocide, without leaving proof (or corpses) that lead to human rights prosecutions. Rape also undermines the victim groups’ tribal structures, because “leaders lose authority when they can’t protect the women.” In short, rape becomes a tool of war in conservative societies precisely because female sexuality is so sacred (Kristof and WuDunn 83).

All of this evidence is presented again and again by different advocates for human rights. Amnesty International reports that “[rape] appears to be a form of collective punishment of a population whose members have taken up arms against the central government” (“Report on Sudan” 1-2). In the United States Congress meeting entitled Rape as a Weapon of War: Accountability for Sexual Violence in Conflict, guest speaker Karin Wachter reports that “rape destroys the fabric of a community in a way that few weapons can. It produces unwanted children, it spreads disease, and it leaves an imprint on the individual and collective pysche that is difficult to erase” (United States Congress 8).


Claudia Card argues the following about rape as ethnic cleansing: forcible impregnation in martial rape can also be a tool of genetic imperialism…. If survivors become pregnant or are known to be rape survivors [then] cultural, political, and national unity may be thrown into chaos”(Card 10).

But how is rape used as a tool for ethic cleansing? In WWII, rape for the Germans was a tool to achieve their ultimate objective: “the total humiliation and destruction of ‘inferior peoples’ and the establishment of their own master race” (Frederick 16).

In many cultures, it is believed that the father’s ethnicity determines the child’s, regardless of the mother. In this way, many rapes take place because rape is synonymous with the destruction of societies…these rapes are part of a “calculated plan to humiliate women and their communities, including forced impregnation, the ultimate goal of which is to achieve ethnic cleansing in the region” (Carter 362).

Examples of this can be seen all over the world. In the DRC, one woman describes how, before raping her, Janjaweed militiamen viciously told her, “I will give you a light-skinned baby to take this land from you” (Carter 362).

During the conflict between the Serbs and Muslims, one woman was told that she would give birth to “a Chetnik boy who would kill Muslims when he grew up” (Frederick 35).

This occurred also in Rwanda, where rape was used as a tool for ethnic cleansing to a horrendous degree. No one knows just how many women were raped since most of the women were murdered afterwards, but estimates range as high as 200,000 to 500,000 based on the number of pregnancies that resulted from rapes. The Rwanda national population office estimates between 2000 and 5000 pregnancies resulted from the rape of women in 1994. It is generally accepted that unprotected intercourse will result in pregnancy 1% to 4% of the time, thus the estimates of several hundred thousand rapes (Frederick 41).


In addition to pregnancy to promote ethnic cleansing, the effects of rape and sexual abuse on survivors are economically, physically, psychologically, and culturally devastating. Survivors can be left with economic deprivation, AIDS, and sexually transmitted diseases. Victims also experience serious acute and chronic medical problems, forced pregnancy, higher maternal mortality, miscarriage, infertility, and chronic sexual dysfunction. Because victims are often raped with a variety of objects—from body parts to guns, knives, bottles, and sticks—they are at risk of fistula formation, cervical cancer, and recurrent infections (Kivlahan and Ewigman 1).

An example of these horrors can be found in the DRC, where sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhea and HIV/AIDS are also on the rise. Amnesty International reports that up to 30% of patients tested in the eastern part of the country are HIV positive — one of the highest infection rates in the world. In fact, the health threat is so pervasive that DRC’s National Aids Program estimates that by 2014, HIV/AIDS will infect more than half the Congolese population (Carter 363). In the words of a United States Congressman at the committee meeting regarding rape as a weapon of war: “…our collective failure [has been] to stop the use of women’s bodies as a battleground” (United States Congress 3).


I begin with a quote taken from the United States Congress meeting entitled Rape as a Weapon of War: Accountability for Sexual Violence in Conflict:

I am sorry to say that if a foreign warlord who engaged in mass rape came to the United States of America today, he would probably be beyond the reach of our laws. It is not a crime under U.S. law for a non-U.S. national to perpetrate sexual violence in conflict against non-U.S. nationals…there is also no U.S. law prohibiting crimes against humanity, one of the most serious human rights violations, which includes mass rape and other forms of sexual violence.

As far as protection in the women’s own countries goes, Carter reports that many judges require the rape to have been witnessed by four “competent” men. Or, in other cases, some judges accept the testimony of a man who swears on the Koran that he did not commit the rape for which he is being prosecuted, but at the same time will not accept the contrary testimony from a woman that she was, in fact, raped. If a woman is unable to prove that she did not consent to intercourse she risks being charged with a crime for which unmarried women receive one hundred lashes upon conviction and married women are sentenced to death by stoning (Carter 358).

The victims are also rejected by their families and communities. Because the women are now “abject,” survivors face a lifetime of stigma and marginalization from their own families and communities” (Lacey 1). When Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with rape victims, many reported they are afraid that their husbands would reject or kill them if they told them about the abuse. Rape humiliates the husband and may cause a desperate ‘acting out’ through which the victim is punished a second time (“Becoming Abject” 117).

For these reasons, the likelihood that women will be raped, shamed, and isolated is increased in cultures with strong religious traditions. In addition, the risk that women will be falsely accused of adultery and raped as humiliation and punishment also increases. These factors make it unlikely that most victims will ever report their crimes (Kivlahan and Ewigman 1).


With such a bleak outlook for women’s rights, women can only hope that their voices will be heard. By declaring rape as a weapon of war, the U.N. established that the world would no longer tolerate such criminal actions and brutality against women and children. Even so, the haunting words of Susan Griffin in Rape: The Politics of Consciousness continue to resonate for those who were victimized:

The act of rape for a woman is of its very nature never predictable, never chosen, never a fight one has wagered on, always a surprise attack, and for no reason. In the moment of rape a woman becomes anonymous. Like all victims of terrorism, there is something awesomely accidental about her fate…Absorbed by his violence, her soul and the history of her soul are lost, are irrelevant.

Let us hope and dream of a world where faces are not anonymous; organizations that seemingly advocate for the innocent are not harboring to “amnesty”; let us hope that one day eight pages of documentation can be devoted to the lives and happiness of women that deserve nothing less.

Works Cited

  1. “Becoming Abject: Rape as a Weapon of War.” Body & Society. Mar. 2005. 11:111-128. SAGE Publications. The Pennsylvania State University Library Catalog. 10 Dec. 2012.
  1. Buss, Doris E. “Rethinking ‘Rape as a Weapon of War.” Feminist Legal Studies. 17.2 (2009): 145-163. The Pennsylvania State University Library Catalog. 10 Dec. 2012.
  1. Card, Claudia. “Rape as a Weapon of War. 11.4:5-18. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 1996. The Pennsylvania State University Library Catalog. 10 Dec. 2012.
  1. Carter, K.R. “Should International Relations Consider Rape a Weapon of War?” Politics & Gender. 6.3.343.2010. The Pennsylvania State University Library Catalog. 10 Dec. 2012.
  1. Franco, Jean. “Rape: A WEAPON OF WAR.” Social Text. 25.2 (2007):23-37. Academic Search Complete. The Pennsylvania State University Library Catalog. 10 Dec. 2012.
  1. Frederick, Sharon, and The Aware Committee on Rape. Rape: Weapon of Terror. New Jersey. Global Publishing Co, Inc. 2001. Print.
  1. Griffin, Susan. Rape: The Politics of Consciousness. New York. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. 1986. Print.
  1. Kivlahan, Coleen and Nate Ewigman. “Rape as a Weapon of War in Modern Conflict.” BMJ (Clinical Research edu.).0624:1. 3270. The Pennsylvania State University Library Catalog. 10 Dec. 2012.
  1. Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn. Half The Sky. New York. Vintage Books. 2009. Print.

10. Lacey, Marc. “Report on Sudan Calls Rape ‘Weapon of War.’” International Herald Tribune. 20 July 2004: 7. Global Issues in Context. The Pennsylvania State University Library Catalog. 10 Dec. 2012.

11. Maedl, Anna. “Rape as a Weapon of War in the Eastern DRC?: The Victims’ Perspective.” Human Rights Quarterly. 33.1.2011:128-147. Project MUSE. The Pennsylvania State University Library Catalog. 12 Dec. 2012.

12. “Report on Sudan Calls Rape ‘Weapon of War.’” The International Herald Tribune. 20 July 2004. LexisNexis Academic. The Pennsylvania State University Library Catalog. 14 Dec. 2012.

13. United States Congress. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law. Rape as a Weapon of War: Accountability for Sexual Violence in Conflict.S. G.P.O. 2008. The Pennsylvania State University Library Catalog. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.


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