Rape as a War Crime


Beyond gender, beyond humanity.


What’s more human?

She carries the shame of a mauled vagina.

He, blood between his legs, the loss of masculinity in his head.

Invasion. Torture. Rape.

Has no gender.


Often, the most important stories are the ones we never hear. Under the masquerade of bravery and honour, wars are troves of anecdotes that the human race is ashamed of. You won’t find them in words, but in the silence of millions of people, across the boundaries, trampled by the fires of morality and purity, which unfortunately aren’t carved to accept and empower the mauled.

Rape in War is as old as War itself.

1945: World War 2- Red Army’s Invasion of Germany

“If I knew what was to follow in Berlin then, I’d probably have killed myself. I was sheltering in an air raid shelter when they came for me. They held me for fourteen days and nights and raped me constantly, one after another.”

-Margot Woelk, now 98, her eyes misty with tears while she recounts the experience.

1993: Bosnia Genocide

“They took Amela Greljo and her sister Jasmina and Amna Kovac and Suada Prguda. They were very beautiful. There was no doubt why they took them. All we heard afterwards was that they had been taken to a brothel in Foca. Amna was 16, Suada 20. Amela was also 17, her sister only 16. Almasa’s mother, who was also raped, received a scribbled note from her daughter three weeks later. It said: ‘Dear Mother, I’m OK. Don’t worry about me. Send me my dresses.’ Later, Almasa sent another note saying she was now called by a Serbian name.”

-Emria from a gymnasium where women were mass raped

2014: South Sudan

“I couldn’t even see my little girl anymore. I could only see blood”

-Mary. They took turns to rape her after raping her ten-year-old child, who succumbed to her injuries.

This is the real, haunting face of war, that history textbooks shy away from recording. While the world becomes the battleground, humanity is raped and mauled; silenced in victory speeches and forgotten.

For aeons, rape has been systematically used as a weapon in wars to terrorize and weaken civilians on the opposing side. Rape is not merely a consequence of war. It is in fact, an important strategy employed to exert dominance and power. It is systematically employed to desecrate the social and cultural fabric of the ‘enemy’ nation. It is an attempt to leave an indelible blotch of shame and destruction even after the war is over because often the women who are impregnated as a result of these rapes are ostracized by the society, the children born out of rape often have to lead lives devoid of dignity and identity while some women commit suicide to escape the harrowing consequences of living in a society which won’t even lend a voice to their pain. The stigma, around rape and the association of a woman’s virginity with the family’s honour, often results in victims being either forced to hide the fact that they were raped or attracting contempt instead of support from their own society. During the invasion of Berlin by the Red Army in 1945, Ingeborg was raped by two Russian soldiers at gunpoint. Now aged 90, she recalls how she was compelled to remain silent about the horrors she went through that night- “My mother liked to boast that her daughter hadn’t been touched”. The perpetrators of rape could go back home, often as heroes who won the battle while the women they raped carried the shame for the rest of their lives. Rendered impure, the future of these women was at stake. Viewed with contempt and rendered unfit for marriage, they led each day of their lives with the memories of the horror they experienced.

Until 1994, “rape and sexual violence were just seen as a spoil of war”, to quote the words of Pierre-Richard Prosper, who along with Sara Darehshori, led the persecution in the inaugural case of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. This landmark case resulted in rape being classified as a war crime for the first time in history.

Let’s delve deeper into how this path-breaking judgement came into existence.

Rwanda had been the epicentre of ethnic tensions between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsi ethnicities since times immemorial. Although the Hutus and Tutsis are very close, they share the same language and traditions. When the Belgians arrived in Rwanda as the colonial rulers of the country, they produced identity cards, distinguishing people based on their ethnicity. They imposed the idea that Tutsis were superior to the Hutus and bestowed upon them several privileges while the majority Hutus lived a life of impoverishment. After the Belgians relinquished power in Rwanda, the Hutus took control of the country. Years of resentment and rage found an outlet on 6th April 1996, when the then Hutu Rwandan President was killed by a rocket that attacked his plane. This incident lead to the unleashing of terror on the country’s Tutsis. More than 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were slaughtered in about 100 days. This magnitude of violence took the world by shock. Hence, the United Nations intervened by setting up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to prosecute the perpetrators of the genocide.

The prosecution was spearheaded by two young American lawyers Pierre-Richard Prosper and Sara Darehshori. A 1996 report by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, reported that “Rape was the rule and its absence the exception”. The report also states that about 250,000 to 500,000 women and girls were raped during the genocide. The magnitude of sexual violence, especially rape, was what led Prosper and Darehshori to argue that rape should be classified as a war crime. They won the case in 1998. Their victory was important:“Failure literally was not an option — too much depended on it. If we lost, what would that mean to the victims and the survivors? Their deaths were not being recognized or valued.

However, there is another dark secret that the war holds, another harrowing reality, which deserves equal attention- the rape of Men.

2009: Congo

“Many, many, many bleeding. I could feel it like water.”

-Jean Paul. He along with the six other male prisoners were raped eleven times each night by the army until he escaped. He still bleeds when he walks. He can’t talk to anybody about what happened to him. He fears his brother may say- ‘Now, my brother is not a man’

“Men aren’t simply raped, they are forced to penetrate holes in banana trees that run with acidic sap, to sit with their genitals over a fire, to drag rocks tied to their penis, to give oral sex to queues of soldiers, to be penetrated with screwdrivers and sticks.”

-Salome Atim. Gender Officer of Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project

“It happened to me. I am in pain. I have to use this.”

-A husband whose wife complained that he can’t have sex, as he laid a puss covered sanitary pad. He was raped three times a day for three years by the captors.

Lara Stemple’s study, “Male Rape and Human Rights” cites the astonishing results of a study of 6000 concentration camp inmates in Sarajevo Canton- 80% of males reported that they had been raped in detention.

In spite of the gravity of rapes of men in war, the world is silent about it. What gives the perpetrators the power to rape men?

Our very ideas about masculinity.

The idea that men cannot be vulnerable, that men are supposed to be powerful, that masculinity lies in being the cause rather than the source of tears, is etched into the fabric of our society. The consequences aren’t delightful for anyone- they rape and impose power; they get raped and silently suffer. Their pain reminds them of their perpetrators each day, but do they have a place to go to? Will the society allow them their right to humane emotions of pain and distress?

The lack of acknowledgement that men too are raped during war, is very evident from the following review highlighted in Lara Stemple’s study. 4076 non-governmental organizations around the world address rape during wartime and other forms of political sexual violence. Of these, only 3% mention the experience of males in their informational materials, typically as a passing reference. How will justice ever be delivered to these men, if the patriarchy of the society bars it from acknowledging the very fact that men are raped?

War has detrimental consequences. Aren’t we perpetrators too, if we look down upon that sixteen-year-old who was raped by the military? Aren’t we perpetrators too, if we mock that man, whose painful screeches broke the silence of the night while he was being sexually abused?

We couldn’t help them while they were being raped. Could we be humane enough to support them and empower them? Could we for once, regard them as fellow beings before we entangle them in our barbed concepts about femininity and masculinity?


Feature Image Credit: Krystle Mikaere on Unsplash


Sara Sethia is a Research Associate (Gender Justice) at One Future Collective.

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