Rape as War Crime

January 17, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

Occasionally some die-hard critic renews the charge that feminism is a privileged pursuit, that it primarily benefits the Hillary Clintons of the world who are bright, ambitious and educated, while doing little to improve the lives of the vast majority of women.

Anyone who believes that ought to pause for a few extra moments over the stories about "rape camps" in Bosnia. The European Community reported recently that as many as 20,000 Bosnian women and girls, most of them Muslim, have been systematically raped by Serbian forces as a deliberate strategy to force people from their homes. Many of them are now pregnant. Terrorizing and demoralizing non-Serbs is one way of speeding along the odious practice of "ethnic cleansing."

Rape as a tactic of war is not new, and Serbs aren't the first or only fighters to sink to the level of barbarity against women and children described in recent news reports. Neither are the Bosnians the first to recognize in such crimes a good tool for gaining international sympathy.

But -- thanks to the women's movement -- this is the first time systematic rape is being openly discussed as a war crime. Women's groups in the former Yugoslavia, along with international human rights organizations, are undertaking an effort to see that rape is specifically mentioned in international conventions as one of the "grave breaches" of humanitarian law that can trigger war crimes trials.

That addition to international law is technically not necessary; the crimes in Bosnia already fit the definitions of torture and inhumane treatment that define "grave breaches" of the code. But by specifically mentioning rape as a war crime, the international community would be sending an important message to combatants in conflicts around the world.

It didn't come quickly, but there is a new sensitivity to women informing the way in which international human rights organizations look on systematic abuses of human rights. To cite one example, Human Rights Watch has a long and honorable TTC history of monitoring human rights abuses around the world. But it was not until 1990, with the initiation of its Women's Rights Project, that the organization established a division specifically designed to monitor abuses against women. That project is now actively involved in spotlighting tactics in armed conflicts that systematically target women -- and the attitudes that allow such behavior to go unpunished.

The outrage goes beyond Serbs in Bosnia. Earlier this month, the Women's Rights Project released a report detailing abuses against women in Peru's armed conflict between the government and the Shining Path guerrilla movement.

In 62 grim pages, the report documents dozens of rapes committed by government forces against women non-combatants -- rapes which are implicitly condoned by the government. In one case, typical in many respects, a 39-year-old woman reported that in July, 1991, she and six other women were forced into an communal building by government soldiers. She told human rights investigators that more than 20 men raped her, beginning with a captain and ending with the enlisted men.

These crimes are rarely reported to authorities -- after all, it was representatives of the government who committed them. Even when crimes are reported, they go unpunished.

Human Rights Watch uncovered few cases of rape by Shining Path guerrillas. Dorothy Thomas, director of the Women's Rights Project, notes that two reasons help account for this -- an ideology that discourages rape and the fact that that the movement has a high proportion of women members.

But don't give the guerrillas extra points for morality. Instead of raping women, they simply target them for murder if they undertake any kind of community role -- like working for human rights or helping the poor -- that might in any way provide competition for the hearts and minds of the people.

The women interviewed in Peru are reluctant to use their names. In Peru, as in Bosnia and many other countries, the shame and stigma associated with rape can easily mean that a woman who is raped is shunned by her family.

One news story from Bosnia quoted a physician who had examined a young Muslim girl who became pregnant after being raped. Her options, the doctor said, were grim -- probably limited to madness or prostitution. Other survivors of rape say they wish the soldiers had killed them.

Rape not only brutalizes the victim's body; it can also devastate her soul. And think what it must do to the combatants who commit these crimes. Barbarians aren't just born, they are created by hatred and inhumanity.

K? Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun.

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