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  Women and war  

  Venus Envy
  Vol V : issue 1

  Cover page
  Kaushik Basu
  Radhika Coomaraswamy
  Taslima Nasreen
  N. S. Madhavan
  Zehra Nigah
  Only in Print


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Radhika Coomaraswamy

 
 
Photo art by DIWAN MANNA

She was a young Tutsi woman of middle class origins living in the heart of Kigali, Rwanda. Let's call her 'C'. During the genocide, a gang from the Interhamwe came to her house. They killed all her family members, gang-raped her and left her to die. Her hand was badly injured when she tried to ward of the machete that they wielded. When she regained consciousness, a Hutu neighbour took her to a nearby hospital and entered her under a false name. But one of the nurses recognised her as Tutsi and she was asked to leave the hospital. She fled to the jungle on the outskirts of Kigali, where she survived on berries and grass. Using crude implements found in the jungle, she had to tear off her gangrened arm so that the infection would not spread. Finally, an RUF patrol of rebels found her and took her with them into Kigali. When I met her five years after the genocide, she was the head of a group of women survivors. She had emerged as an articulate voice in a leadership position, outlining the needs of survivors and the problems they faced. Her group not only trained women in certain skills but provided psychological counselling and legal aid to its members. She was not only a victim but an agent of change and reconciliation.

Women are affected by war in five different ways. They are often victims of direct violence, being raped, killed or maimed during the conflict. They also constitute a majority of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who often live in welfare centres. They emerge as war widows with specialised needs and concerns once the war is over. Armed camps of military men are also sites for prostitution and trafficking, especially in conventional wars. And finally, women are increasingly becoming combatants, fighting for militaries and armed groups in frontline positions. In South Asia, we have each of these concerns in the different wars that have been fought in the subcontinent but very little has been done to understand the phenomenon or to provide specialised programmes of reconstruction and rehabilitation.

Women are direct victims of war and are the subjects of rape in times of conflict. In some wars, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, rape and forced pregnancy were part of the strategy of war to intimidate and punish the other side. Rape is used to instil terror and demoralise the population. It is also used to degrade women and humiliate men. Rape has symbolic meaning in the conduct of war. The defiling of female honour becomes an act of communication among men - the inability to protect women becomes a sign of humiliated masculinity. On the other hand, rape statistics are used by groups to inflame the passions of its members and score points at the international level. Rape then becomes a weapon of the symbolic war that accompanies armed conflict. Finally, the lawlessness that surrounds the conduct of war results in an environment of impunity where individual soldiers and civilians rape and humiliate women knowing there will not be any consequences. This is common in all wars and is a major cause of women's hardship.

In the past, the international framework of laws made violence against women in wartime an invisible issue. Even though rape in wartime is prohibited under the Geneva Convention (Article 27), when it comes to what constitutes "grave breaches" of the Convention, i.e. those acts that result in universal jurisdiction and individual criminal responsibility, there is no mention of sexual violence or rape. This has led many governments to state that rape in times of war is not a war crime and its prohibition is not an aspect of international customary law. Recently, these arguments were set to rest when the Statute of the International Criminal Court recognised sexual violence in wartime as both a war crime and a crime against humanity. In addition, some important cases have come before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The judgments in these cases have seen sexual violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity, and also as constituting other war crimes and crimes against humanity such as torture, enslavement and outrages upon personal dignity. In this way, criminal sentences for perpetrator have been enhanced to ensure that there is effective punishment. These landmark decisions have developed a rich international jurisprudence on sexual violence in wartime.

Women are also affected by war since women and children constitute 80 per cent of the world's refugees and internally displaced people. Women are often at risk of violence when they are in flight, with many cases of rape and murder of women making their ways to refugee camps being reported. Within camps, if they are with their husbands, there are reports of high rates of domestic violence as the frustration of displacement disrupts family life. There are also constant allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment within camps by camp officials and guardians. A recent report with regard to sexual abuse of children by aid workers in Africa sent shock waves through the international community. There is often no recourse for these women and children and no place for them to go, putting them in an extremely vulnerable situation, at the mercy of officials who determine their survival.

However, not all the studies of refugee women see the situation in negative terms. Research by Sri Lankan scholars such as Dharini Rajasingha Senanayake on IDPs point to the fact that while men seem overwhelmed by their status, some women actually empower themselves. Placed in a context where traditional patriarchal norms do not apply, the women seem suddenly empowered and actually go out and try to work or find employment. They also begin to make the decisions for the family and seem to take control of their lives. Though some women lose hope and sometimes become silent - silence is a form of resistance - others fight for the rights of their families with officials and protect the interests of their children. Though they must eke out a living in what is often considered sub-standard material conditions, they frequently emerge as articulate and strong women who are ready to face the challenges ahead.

Similar conditions attach to war widows, who have little support from the State or armed groups. These women are often the most vulnerable group during war and in the postwar period. Very little is done to assist them and with the breadwinner departed, they find it difficult to make ends meet. Studies conducted among these women point to conditions of dire poverty with little assistance from State or international agencies. In South Asia and other conservative societies, the widow is also seen as an inauspicious presence and a target for harassment and abuse. These women face an uphill struggle. Speaking to Dr Gameela Samarasinghe, a Sri Lankan psychologist working among such women, they stated that they often thought of suicide but continued to struggle to survive only for the sake of housing, clothing and educating their children. Like the women IDPs, these women discover inner strength and agency despite their terrible reality and become the prime source of nurture and care within their families.

p. 1p. 2

 
 
Radhika Coomaraswamy, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence, is Director, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo