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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Sexual violence against women in conflicts: A disturbing reality

Sexual violence in war is simply the ultimate culmination of patriarchy

Update : 27 Aug 2023, 03:31 PM

It is perhaps more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict.

-- Major General Patrick Cammaert, former UN Division Commander for Eastern DRC

On July 20, a video went viral on social media showing two women being stripped naked and paraded by a mob of men. One of them endured the unspeakable horror of an alleged gang rape, her anguished cries and tearful pleas for help echoing in the air, forever etched in the depths of her pain-stricken soul. Although this video went viral only last month, the incident had taken place before that -- on May 3 an ethnic conflict emerged between two major ethnic groups of Manipur, the Meities and the Kukis. And on May 4, 2023, the shameful and heinous incident happened. A zero FIR was filed on May 18, but no step was taken before the video got the attention of mass people and the start of the protest. 

According to another complaint filed at Saikul Police station on June 21, 50 days after the incident, three women from B Phainom village were physically forced to remove their clothes and were stripped naked in front of the mob. A 21-year-old girl was gang raped. When her father and brother tried to protest, they were murdered brutally.

These are just the incidents that have been filed or went viral, how many other instances of violence against women during this conflict have not been filmed or reported is unknown. These conflicts arose between those two groups for the possession and power over land and influence. But the question is, among this conflict, why were women particularly assaulted and violated sexually?

In the past, when war and conflict was more of a part of life than they are now, women were often “claimed” as property, as spoils of war. Women were treated as nothing more than a commodity. The rules of warfare have changed drastically over time, but the violence that women experience during any war or conflict remains the same. In civil wars, even when two conflicting parties share the same nationhood or identity, they treat the women of other groups as enemies and commodities

No honour

It is a common belief in the patriarchal social system that women “hold the honour” of any given society or community, although it does not make any sense because holding honour should be a common thing for both women and men. In the recent incident in Manipur, assaulting and raping those women was an attack on honour -- the Meities raped the women to destroy the very idea of honour for the opposing Kukis. 

The Indian government remained silent on this case as if nothing happened. The Chief Minister of Manipur, N Biren Singh, said: "We will catch all those involved and will try to give them an exemplary punishment." When exactly does this "trying" begin? Indian PM Narendra Modi has said: "Action will be taken according to the law. What happened to the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven. As I stand next to this temple of democracy, my heart is filled with pain and anger."

The PM’s statement sounds particularly hilarious. Perhaps Modi-ji tried to sweeten his tone by addressing the victims of Manipur as “daughters,” but why does a woman have to be someone's daughter, even rhetorically, to get justice? Sexual violence is a violation of human rights. As sexual violence infringes a person's bodily privacy and physiological integrity, it is a severe offense and, thus, a violation of human rights. It is sad that even after standing next to the temple of democracy, hearts filled with pain and anger, it took too long for the Indian PM (or, the “father” of those wronged “daughters”) to break his silence.

LONG FORM3

Women's bodies become the battlefield whenever any conflict or war breaks out. Both men and women experience war differently. When war ends, men get all the medals and recognition for their “heroic” deeds, whereas women who are being raped and assaulted have to live a life of trauma. We have seen the same thing again and again. Different wars, same pattern, same form of violation and torture. In Bangladesh, we have seen the sexual violence which took place during the Liberation War, we have seen the violence at the time of Partition, the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, during Vietnam War, and now during the Manipur ethnic conflict, and of course during Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

The list goes on and on.

These violations won't stop if there is no social change. Women are considered weak and vulnerable and become the first and easy target. In almost every country, women are more associated with and focused on caregiving and very clearly defined gender roles. Until this scenario changes, sexual violence or any form of gender-based violence will never cease. The most frustrating point is that sexual violence is considered the by-product of any war, or collateral damage. In the UN’s Women, Peace, and Security report, it is stated that the specific experience of women and girls in armed conflicts is linked to their status in societies. Therefore, the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna, recognized violence against women during armed conflict as a violation of human rights.

Weak and powerless?

There are, of course, other reasons why such violence occurs. First, women in society are considered weak and less important than men; as a result, violating or assaulting them during warfare is considered “justified.” Second, women are treated unequally in society, and men subordinate them. So, rape and sexual assault have been made justified when war breaks out. Women are exploited physically and mentally, even in their households, so when war breaks out, they become the easy target of the offensive group.

Society holds women as "carriers of the honour of family and society" rather than as a counterpart of the male group; as a result, violating and exploiting them gives the exploiter a sense of victory. Even in peacetime, when the state fails to protect its women from being raped or assaulted, it would be too much even to think that the women will be protected in wartime. The patterns of social dominance in the time of peace give men the authority to dominate and exploit women during war.

The number of cases reported for sexual violence is abysmal in most states because of the societal shame a victim has to go through. So, even when sexual violence happens during war, not even the state itself cares for the casualties women have to pay just because of being a woman.

War or conflict is nothing to admire or appreciate as it takes more toll than what it gives. But, for the sake of national security and the illusion that “men should join the army to prove their patriotism,” war might not be prevented. But, as the state can anticipate a war or conflict, it can ensure the protection of its women by training its combatants not just to protect them in wartime but to protect themselves from any violence at any time.

Societal dominance, subordination, and treating women as weak should be changed. These steps might not stop sexual violence in wartime one hundred percent, but they can lessen the casualty. In a world full of terror and violence and patriarchal dominance, we women should act now, always and forever, to protect ourselves, and as American playwright Eve Ensler said: "Unless men are active allies, we'll never end violence against women and girls."

Shrabony Akter is Assistant Researcher at Centre for Government Studies.

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