War in Ukraine: why is rape considered a weapon of war?

Here, in Boutcha, where mass murders of civilians have been committed.
Here, in Boutcha, where mass murders of civilians have been committed. (©OLEG PETRASYUK/EPA/MaxPPP)

Boutcha, Kherson, Hostomel, Irpin…. These cities resonate today as the scene of atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians. By massacres first, if Butcha or so Hundreds of bodies foundbut also rapes.

While it is difficult to document and quantify these crimes, it is clear that: the testimonies of rape victims are multiplying

In a report on April 3, the NGO Human Rights Watch reported the story of a 31-year-old woman who said she had been raped several times by a Russian soldier at a school in the Charhiv region.

The soldier took her to a classroom, where he pointed a gun at her and ordered her to undress. She said: “He held the gun to my temple or pointed it at my face. Twice he shot at the ceiling and said it was to give me more “motivation”. He raped her and then told her to sit on a chair… He raped her again, put a knife to her throat and cut the skin on her neck. Photos she shared with Human Rights Watch, dated March 19 and 20, show cuts and bruises to her neck and face.

Human Rights Watch

This chilling story does not stand alone.

“They raped girls and women”

The proof with this other testimony: that of a Ukrainian psychologist who collected rape victims. “The soldiers checked who lived in the houses. Then they would come back in the evening, kill all the men in the household, loot the money and valuables. They ate and drank what they found, and when they got drunk, they raped girls and women. Even in the presence of childrenshe tells the Figaro

AFP has, for its part, collected the testimony of a Ukrainian woman who has been the victim of rape.

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In March, before the world discovered the horror of Boutcha, a conversation was caught on Telegram between a Russian soldier and his mother. This one which states:

In a nearby village, boys raped an adult woman and a 16-year-old girl.

A Russian soldier

As terrible as they are, these stories of rapes in Ukraine remind us that these crimes have always been committed during conflict. All of them were used as a weapon, the purpose of which would be not only destruction, but also: humiliation, ethnic cleansing and propaganda.

humiliate the other

“Rape in times of war is almost systematic. We have seen it everywhere and on all continents. Just like sexual exploitation”, observes with d’ Françoise Duroch, head of a reflection unit at Doctors Without Borders in Switzerland. “As if the Woman” [victime majoritaire des viols, Ndlr] used to be spoils of war. †

Rape has long been considered a component of war, soldiers seize land and then women.

Francoise DurochDoctors Without Borders

This “taking power” by rape can also hide the desire to humiliate the enemy, to smear him. In the past, when rape took place in wartime, people talked about tarnishing the honor of a family or a nation long before the victim was thought of.

Example with the Nanjing massacre, in 1937 during the Sino-Japanese War where children were raped, sometimes in front of their families, young girls were forced into prostitution and fathers were forced to rape their daughters. Goal : defile an entire nation

“Ethnic Cleansing”

During conflicts, rape can also be used in a “logic of ethnic cleansing”, the expert notes, “this was the case during the war in the former Yugoslavia where rape was organized on a large scale”.

At that time – that is, in the 1990s – Serbs attacked Muslim villages and rapes of Muslim women were the order of the day.

Worse still, “they were committed by order of the higher authorities and under their supervision, so that they had been used as a weapon of war to force the inhabitants to leave their homes, clearly as part of an expansionist strategy”, stated in 1994 a UNESCO working group

By rape camps were even set up in Foča (in southeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina) where Serb soldiers could come and go and take away women and young girls “whom they raped, tortured and then humiliated in the most brutal way that is,” reports an article of the Haags Rechts Tijdschrift.

And this always in this perspective of ‘ethnic cleansing’ led by the Serbian armed forces. In other words, lead to a certain homogenization of the population.

It should be noted that all rapes in the former Yugoslavia were not committed in this logic of ethnic cleansing, as “many men were victims of sexual abuse”.

A propaganda tool

In other respects, the rape can be used for propaganda purposes† As if they want to indicate to the population what they risk going through.

The staging that sometimes surrounds rapes can give an indication of the military goal: to humiliate a community in public attacks or to destroy social and family ties.

Francoise Duroch

It is also a way of scaring people away to conquer their territory.

The open wounds of the victims

Let it follow a military order whether it is an individual act motivated by a political or religious beliefwartime rape takes on the characteristics of a weapon of mass destruction the physical and psychological devastation is so great.

“Rape does not stop when hostilities end. There are lingering wounds,” explains Françoise Duroch. Especially if a child is born as a result of forced sex: these new mothers can be banned from society.

In some cases they prostitute themselves. An endless circle.

A war crime?

The International Criminal Court characterizes sexual crimes, including rape, committed in times of war as: “war crimes, crimes against humanity and even genocide” when committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.

The alleged rapes in Ukraine are currently the subject of: several ongoing investigations by the International Criminal Court and also by the Attorney General of Ukraine. Because it will be appropriate whether or not these rapes qualify as war crimes.

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