The Media Is Failing Women: Why We Aren’t Talking About Rape As A Weapon Of War In Syria
1:30 pm, January 16th | by Alison Vingiano
During wartime, women’s bodies are used as tools for humiliating the enemy. The most notorious example is perhaps the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, where sexual violence played a critical and strategic role in battle. Between 50,000 – 60,000 systematic rapes were reported over the nine year conflict, triggering the United Nations to declare rape “a tactic of war and a threat to international security.”
Now, over a decade later, sexual violence plagues the Syrian civil war: thousands of systemic rapes have been reported, and thousands more surely occur in silence. Women Under Siege has fought hard to keep sexual violence in Syria at the forefront of the media, and according to the Syria Tracker, nine percent of reported casualties of war have been women. Women and girls are inextricably linked to this war, yet we hear very little about why. Most narratives we do hear portray sexual assault as a product of conflict, rather than as an active and conscious mode of attack. If rape is a threat to international security, shouldn’t we report on it as a deliberate war crime, rather than the natural result of chaos? How can we make an effort to conceptualize why rape is used during battle, and how to effectually report on rape as a tactic of war, and not exclusively as a women’s issue?
What does it mean that rape is a “weapon of war?”
Rape plays a unique role in wars over national and political identity. Historically the female body is a symbol of the nation. The language we use (“the motherland,” “Lady Liberty,” and so on) inherently feminizes the land. More broadly, “Mother Earth” generates all life, just as women progenerate their families and their nations.
Yet nations do not historically belong to women, but rather to the men who build and defend them. Men are taught to protect their land during wartime, just as they would defend their own wives or mothers — nationalism becomes about protecting the female nation and the women who live in it. In wartime, whether or not soldiers are cognizant of their intent, sexual violence incites a particular reaction: it is a robbery of a father or a husband, used to humiliate and inspire fear. Sexual violence has additional power in conflict: if women do not die during the assault or kill themselves afterward, they are frequently exiled from their families or left by their husbands. These women will not go on to reproduce and rebuild the nation’s next generation. We saw this in the Yugoslavian civil wars, continue to see it in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over 1.8 million women and girls have been raped in extremely violent and horrific ways, and we see it in Syria today.
Women’s roles within their nations ensure that they play direct and relevant roles in conflict. If we understand the power of rape to be to shame and humiliate women, their families, and their nations, why is the discourse on rape framed as a personal trauma or a women’s issue, rather than a deliberate act of war?
How should we talk about women’s experiences?
When we don’t talk about the way in which women are deliberate targets in Syria, we are dismissing rape as a byproduct of human existence. It’s hard to report the exact number of casualties in Syria, since the United Nations stopped counting deaths over a month ago. The accepted number seems to be “over 40,000.” Syria Tracker does a phenomenal job of reporting rapes as they occur. But, as with any war crime, it’s almost impossible to hold perpetrators accountable: How are we to punish rape during wartime? Should we make all soldiers culpable for those who take part in sexual assault? After all, in the former Yugoslavia, according to the U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, only twelve rapes were prosecuted out of over 50,000.
Of course, victims of sexual violence are silenced around the world, whether they are assaulted in Steubenville, Ohio or in a war zone. If we treat rape as an inevitable part of the war in Syria — or in the DRC or in Yugoslavia — we continue to ask women to play a dangerous role.
Rape is so intertwined with warfare that almost all coverage of violent international conflict includes reports of sexual assault. The Washington Post reported this week that rape has become widespread in Syria, highlighting the lack of support for victims, and NPR also reported that the threat of rape is leading many Syrian women to flee their homes. But these harrowing accounts seldom get to the crux of explaining why sexual assault occurs during wartime. It is critical for major media organizations to report on rape in Syria, and it must be also acknowledged as a deliberate offensive tactic in the larger context of the civil war.
I want to hear media narratives that acknowledge that women are deliberately targeted the the war in Syria through rape. I want to hear reports that recognize the active use of rape as a tool to inhibit the recovery of a nation, one woman at a time. I want to hear more about the way these rapes are deliberately tearing apart families and communities. We need to give Syrian women support, to empower them to seek refuge and to help them understand their experiences as an active part of war — it should be universally understood that these women have fought in battle.