Interview: Sexual Violence in War

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Ljupka Tajanovska is an experienced gender rights advocate and researcher specialising in gender-based violence, focusing on Southeastern Europe. We spoke with her about gender-based violence and specifically sexual violence committed by combatants during armed conflict.  

Ljupka is a Chevening scholar pursuing her Master’s degree in Gender, Violence and Conflict at the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex-Brighton. In 2014, she graduated from the Institute for Security, Defense and Peace at the University “St. Cyril and Methodious”-Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia.  

TACTICS. In 2008, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1820, which noted that "rape and other forms of sexual violence constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide." Why do you think the UN postponed this resolution for decades?

LT. Rape is a weapon of war since time immemorial. In war and conflict, rape, predominantly of women and children, is a practice associated with the intention of humiliating men. By raping women, combatants attack the “other’s masculinity, as the prime protectors of “their” women and children, of own ethnicity/nation. Rape is an assertion of manhood and an assault on manhood.

Rape in wartime is mostly used as an ethnic cleansing method, to destroy or belittle a targeted nation. Even though wartime rape is not limited to certain parts of the world, reports of rape in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s triggered Resolutions 1325 and 1820. After World War II, this was the first consequential war in European territory. As much as UN should be scoping its politics with a global perspective, Europe and US are still considered World leaders. While wartime rape was happening in non-white countries, it was considered a part of their culture, tradition, savageness; when it happened in white European countries, the UN decided it is time to react.

The first reports of sexual violence in UN peacekeeping missions are linked to the 1992-1993 missions in Cambodia, Somalia and Guinea. There were further incidents in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Eritrea, Kosovo and Bosnia. These allegations were detrimental to UN agencies public image and affected the operational efficiency of peacekeeping operations. It was time to stop being the “global bystanders” and there was no way to whitewash the reputation of the organisation. Hence, resolution 1820 pointed the finger only at Yugoslav soldiers but was informed by the practices of UN troops as well.

This is a global phenomenon.   

TACTICS. Systematic rape was used as part of the strategy of ethnic cleansing during the 80s and the 90s. It happened again few years ago in Syria. How would you comment the social/psychological aspect of the phenomenon?

LT. Many societies stigmatise, reject and sometimes even punish the women that are being raped. Once a woman is raped, she experiences a “social death”. And this was the case for the women of Syria, trapped between the regime on one side and tradition on the other.

What happened in Syria is perceived as a form of secondary female victimisation. The rape of women is in fact framed as a form of psychological torture for men. In patriarchal societies women are seen a “male property” and, when they are being raped, the target is in fact the men to whom they “belong.” Even though rape is a direct harm on the women’s body and life, the act is a symbolic challenge against their male “owners.” Rape is intended to disempower husbands, fathers, brothers or sons whose manhood is “deficient” as they fail to act as “custodians of their women.” Woman in this sense embody a man’s dignity and honour and rape is first and foremost perceives as humiliating for men. As long as we live in patriarchal societies, where toxic masculinity is glorified, rape will be globally weaponised. That is the root cause of the challenge.

TACTICS. Do you think there is a sociological connection between sexual violence experienced in wartime with that experienced in peacetime?

LT. There is a continuum of violence. Violence never starts with war; it exists in everyday live and every single country. What differs is its expression and method of articulation. Sexual violence is common to every society, starting with sexual harassment at the home, the streets, schools, and the workplace in peacetime, culminating to mass rapes during war.

We still live in societies were consent is not being taught since the youngest age and sex is being perceived as something that women owe to men. Sexuality education is still being perceived as subject that will make kids more sexually active and not as a crucial orientation course into adulthood, which entails elements of sexual and reproductive health and rights, teaching them responsible sexual behavior. If you are not taught as a kid to respect your body and with it to afford the dignity and respect the other deserves, you cannot expect anyone to become a responsible adult or indeed soldier, during wartime.

In peacetime most of the rapists are not reported. The cases that are reported go through a long prosecutions process that usually ends with short prison sentences. The law does not favour rape victims and there is a lack of support services for survivors of rape. Prevention programs are mostly non-existent.  The victims of rape are still stigmatised and afraid to speak up because of the judgmental stigma inherent in every patriarchal society during peacetime and, more so in time of conflict. Violence is normalised in our societies. So yes, there are many social connections between violence in peacetime and wartime.

TACTICS. The Islamic State killed thousands of Yazidis and sold hundreds of women as sex slaves. As a result, many of them gave birth to children, whose father would be an Islamic State fighter. Today the communities are accepting back the women but not the children. According to the Yazidi’s religion, a child cannot be counted as a member of the community unless he or she has two Yazidi parents. “To make a special case in this case would be to whitewash the result of the Yazidi genocide,” said Karim Sulaiman, a spokesman for the Yazidi Supreme Spiritual Council. Can you share with us your reflections on this case?

LT. There are many harmful traditions harmful to women, globally. Women are the biggest direct and indirect victims of every war. They are left without their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, and homes. Their body is in-itself a symbolic battlefield in which their male relatives can be targeted. Statistics show that they suffer much higher rates of violence through peacetime, pre-wartime, wartime, peacebuilding time or post-wartime than men. 

Yazidi women were sold as sex slaves, raped, and gave birth to unwanted children. They are already experiencing social death when they and their children are ostricised from their community, adding to the physical and psychological violence they have already experienced. Many women in communities like these are struggling to balance the fear of being branded national or ethnic “traitors” and the need to mothers to their children. Without doubt, these children need protection and the UN has a duty to ensure they don’t end up being child-soldiers.

However, there is a need for more empathy than judgement when it comes to a woman’s choice to give birth (or not), raise (or not) the children they conceive following rape.  They should also be able to make decisions and their own community should be supportive.

TACTICS. Pursuant to UNSCR 1325, NATO introduced training for women in military operations. Is this a substantial step in the right direction?

LT. For many, the inclusion of women in the police, the military, peacekeeping operations is seen as process of the gender equalisation. In my opinion without changing the power-structure of these institutions and their methods of bringing/building peace, the participation of women in these structures does not make a difference, even if it is important.

Instead of working towards peaceful societies and acting against the culture of violence, including rape, military training aims to improve male behaviour in war. Soldiers participating in NATO and UN missions have been accused of sexually exploiting their position, but not much has been done to prosecute soldiers. These soldiers have been trained in their own homelands. Therefore, it is essential that we mainstream Resolution 1325 and this kind of training is essential. But we cannot expect from women in the military forces to address the systemic challenges or the shortcomings of their male colleagues. It is important that this is treated as an institutional challenge.

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