Understanding rape as a tool of war

Illustration : Naorem Ashish

“The greatest pleasure in life is to defeat your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses, and to ravage their wives and daughters.”

-Genghis Khan, in an address to his courtiers.

Wars have been fought since civilization began. These have been for resources, expansion among other reasons. Women have begun to play an active role in wars more recently as they have been recruited in the various militaries of the world. But even before, they had important roles. Women served as nurses, cooks and laundresses. During the Second World War, the Soviet military employed women in many combative positions where they served as aviators and combat soldiers, as well as non-combative ones.

War is a masculine action, one that involves defending women and children and our country- which is almost always considered female. War is about taking charge, feeling strong and powerful, hurting and killing. War demands strength and power, it requires soldiers to go beyond the realm of being mere mortals to perform feats that earn them immortality. Though women have played active roles in many conflicts through the ages, they continue to be perceived as the weaker sex, to be protected by the men in the community. Hollywood’s depiction of the US military, based on actual practices, often shows a loud mouthed officer shouting abuses at fresh recruits. The abuses, while innovative, follow a common pattern. If a soldier performs well at tasks, he or she is considered strong and powerful, like a man. Those unable to perform as well are generally likened to women and homosexuals. These associations are then carried forward to the mind-set of soldiers in active duty. Women are often treated as second class, no matter how worthy they have proved themselves.

According to Amnesty International, in modern warfare, 90% of casualties are civilian; of these 75% are women and children. Women, while regarded as inferior to men in many cultures, are thought to hold the honour of a community. Raping a woman is a method used to destroy the progeny of the family and annihilate a community. It is now included as a tool of genocide and regarded as a war crime.

Rape during Indian wars and conflicts

“Rape, as with all terror-warfare, is not exclusively an attack on the body- it is an attack on the ‘body-politic’. Its goal is not to maim or kill one person but to control an entire socio-political process by crippling it. It is an attack directed equally against personal identity and cultural integrity.”

Though being held accountable for rape or, for that matter, considering rape as a tool of war is recent, instances where rape was used as a weapon of war have been highlighted in other wars and struggles in the recent past. It is reported that 100,000 women were abducted during the India-Pakistan partition and only 10% returned to their homes. These women were raped and tortured as a way of humiliating the enemy and ruining their honour. Muslim men abducted Sikh and Hindu women to later rape them while Sikh and Hindu men abducted and raped Muslim women. The anti-Sikh riot in 1984 showed the same type of brutality. Men were killed and the women were raped. Official figures state that 2,146 people were killed in Delhi and 586 people in other parts of the country.

The Gujarat riots in 2002 saw a similar mob fury. According to an Amnesty International report, close to 300 women were killed by the violent mob. Most of these girls were first stripped naked and forced to parade in front of their families after which they were raped or gang raped.

Areas of conflict within our country like Kashmir, the North East and the Maoist regions, particularly Chhattisgarh have also had several reports of women being raped by the Indian armed forces. A study by an international organisation, ‘Doctors without Borders’, found that the number of victims of rape was close to 10,000. These numbers exceed that of Sierra Leone and Chechnya. Yet these crimes are often unreported as according to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) the armed force personnel are provided immunity. Under this Act, the army can “Enter and search any premise in order to make such arrests, or to recover any person wrongfully restrained or any arms, ammunition or explosive substances and seize it.”

These powers have been used by several men in the army to rape women that are suspected of harbouring militants or helping them in some other way. Many accounts of the victims have been published by reputed international organisations but the rapists themselves are rarely punished. The militant groups have also been responsible for their share of rapes in Kashmir. Women have been abducted and raped as they are held hostage by rival militant groups, making Kashmiri women doubly vulnerable.

In 2004, the women of Manipur held a protest after the brutal murder of Thangjam Manorama who was taken into custody from her home by the Assam Rifles under suspicion of having links with rebels. Her bullet ridden body was found a few kilometres away from her home, bearing signs of torture. Twelve Manipuri women came out naked, holding a banner saying ‘Indian Army Rape Us’ to protest against the paramilitary forces of the Assam Rifles demanding justice and taking a stand against the many rapes of other girls. Despite the curfew imposed, the protests by the women continued as they wanted the men responsible to be punished.

Chhattisgarh, one of the newer states in India, is home to a violent Naxalite problem. People of the villages face threats from both the police and the Naxals in the region. Women have been detained, raped and tortured when they are suspected of having links with Naxalites.

Soni Sori, from Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, was arrested and raped on allegation of being a messenger between the Essar Group and the Maoists. A hospital in Kolkata found stones in her private parts- which was part of the alleged torture used by the Chhattisgarh police. Other members of the police have been accused of molestation and rape as well.

The report submitted by the Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law headed by Justice Verma has suggested that AFSPA be reviewed and that any gender based violence by the armed forces be punishable under the law. The report was aimed to examine the changes required to the criminal law when it came to sexual violence and had a portion on sexual violence in conflict zones. This report was completed in a month and was monumental since the committee was formed in the wake of the gang rape of a 23 year-old girl inNew Delhi in December 2012.

Reasons for rape during conflicts

“…They stripped a girl naked…she looked scared and lost…three of them held her down. The soldiers told me I should rape her and the others too…“ The recollections of a soldier in Bosnia-Herzegovina who was forced to prove he was a man by his commanding officer, by raping 12 women.

In the wars of the past, the permission to rape women of the conquered community was considered a normal part of war. The lower ranks of the soldiers had some form of enjoying ‘the spoils of war’. It brings with it another feeling of conquest, this time over a woman’s body. Violence of this nature is not just for the sake of sex, it has more deep rooted reasons. These crimes are not committed to claim a woman’s body, but to claim a community.

In groups, men find it necessary to prove their masculinity. In the case of groups, this generally means that men have to prove they are strong, dominant and powerful, especially when it comes to sex. This is a phenomenon that is seen in the civilian population very often, but during a conflict these feelings are elated. They are stretched to dominating the struggle and teaching the opposing side a lesson. This lesson often comes in the form of raping and mutilating women, thereby taking control of the means of reproduction. Raping women and girls is a way for a soldier to prove that he is devoted to the cause and is willing to do whatever it takes to destroy a community.

Rape is used as a violent means to subdue, humiliate and control a population. There are fears among the community because any one of them might be next. Children born of rape are often shunned as well as they are not a part of the community where they live and were conceived from a ‘shameful’ deed. It has often been used as a tool of ethnic cleansing; in this case women are raped in an attempt to eradicate a community, national, ethnic or religious, from an area. Women that have been raped are often scared to go to the authorities. In many cases when they go to file a report they are raped again by the police. Governmental agencies, while aware of these crimes, are hesitant to gather proper data as the survivors are unwilling to report their experiences, and when they are, there are few eye witness reports.

In order to stop the use of rape as a tool of war it is necessary for the world to understand how commonplace it is in conflict zones. There is also a need to hold all perpetrators of this crime to be held accountable and punished. There are many international peacekeeping agencies that have deployed a large number of troops to protect civilians and reduce the fighting in conflict zones, but the sexual violence continues, there should be troops deployed that focus on preventing gender based violence as well. The authorities that are responsible for handling these charges must also be sensitised to the plight of the victims so they are not forced to relive the trauma. The state should also be held responsible to ensure that the victims of these human rights violations receive financial and medical support. Care centres should be set up to counsel these victims along with their families. There should also be more ground level awareness to help the community become more sensitised.

The use of rape as a weapon of war results in long term consequences that are usually ignored. As a part of the community, women play an important part in the reconstruction of a post conflict zone, a task that becomes difficult when they suffer from trauma and/or are ostracised by their families and their community.

Peace becomes difficult to achieve when a large section of society is still stuck in the traumas of the conflict. The long after effects of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the violence they face within their families because they were raped makes them unable to take part in the post conflict reconstruction. As their scars serve as a daily reminder of the conflict, it is often difficult for the community to move past these atrocities as well. While there are still people who seem to be ignorant about the prevalence of this tool or about its effects, the international community as a whole has taken this up as a humanitarian crisis that must be resolved. With the increasing number of conflicts in the world there is little room left for the victimisation of females.


  1. Well balanced Article on War and the Violence Against Women. You have give apt examples to illustrate the Issue.

    Thank you for Sharing it! Hope to See Many More from Your keyboard!

  2. In the current Indian context, your article raises some important questions: Who are we at war against? Each other, recent events would suggest.
    Would we rape those we have empathy for? I guess not.
    Are we short of empathy for each other? Seems like it.
    Were we always like this? ….
    I guess we are now living in a society were co-existence is the only the net of the competition and conflicts against each other.

    • We should not see war as war for borders alone by armies… along with these wars there are caste/class and many other continuous wars in society that manifests the acts of Rape…

  3. Very insightful! Having lived a big part of my life in the North East I have heard horrific accounts of violation of women by our armed forces. Yes you protect us, but raping a woman is not your reward!

  4. Subuhi,

    This is a clear portrait of horror. One talks about women reaching higher scales of success and independence and then there are millions of cases that prove that reality is ugly. Women still being used as a commodity in today’s times, and there hardly seems to be a stop on it. This is a sickening piece of truth, but truth it is.

    You have provided a deep insight into the war and warring men psyche. There was much I did not know before. I would like to read more and more and then still more from someone like you, who dares to state the impartial picture.

    I am sure that Rana Aapa must be so proud of you.

    – SKB

  5. a perfect article and one of its own kind so far I read about rape. Must appreciate the thoroughness provided in the articles. It shows it has been researched well before penning down. cheers for Shubhi

  6. Subuhi,

    Thanks for sharing a well researched article.

    Its chilling when one thinks about what any sexual molestation victim goes through. When you put the different pieces in context of the larger scale in present, past and what in no way is going to change in future,, it really shames one of being human. This is one pain no-one should have to go through and no punishment is right enough people bringing it on a fellow human.

    A very sensible writing on your part.

    Most of the present day writers passing off as “journalists” or pseudo second grade celebrities basking in made up glory of their writing prowess on social networks can learn the true meaning of writing from you.

    Thanks again for such a meaningful write up.

  7. HOW TO STOP CRIMES AGAINST WOMEN??Let every one analyse,understand,think and take correctice action on “What prompts a man/boy to do sexual crimes gain womrn/girl”Is it parnetal upbringing, loss of moral values.Media effect,weaternization,suppresses cultures,zero fear to law & order,political games,insensitivity,insecures,women/Girls’s advancements …etc Pl remeber that India can not afford to keep vigil on 800 crores poulation.Most of cases, most of rapists are psychologically sick, morally gegraded,provoked by politicks or seductive women/girls.Every one has to take care of thier sisters/duaghters/moms…etc with clear guidelines on dress code,thoughts,behaviour,culture at thier family level.Every Mard (??) has to realize that He can remain MARD only by being protective to Women/girl but not by raping/assaulting them to prove thier masculinity.If still some MARDS wants to release thier sperms there are many ways…Go to Randi/prostitutes/masturbution/screw your own Mom..but not other helpless and innocent Women/girls in society.If any any MARD (??) finds other men (??) indulging in acts of Rape or Sexual assault , he must guts to fight and stop such crimes against women/girl.It is collective thinking and unity among all of our men group can only Save India from such heinous crimes.But at same time for want of money/fame, some women/girl do promote false propogana against honest and innocent Men ( as we read in New Papers ), we < MARD team must identify and eliminate such senseless Women/Girls to save 99.5% of innocent girls/Women from sexual assaults.We wish MARD team to unite together and work for protection of genuine Women/girls across the World.MARD team Zindabad! Vijayakumar,Chennai


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