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The Analysis of Rape in Wartime

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In my life, I rarely had occasion to hear about war rapes, until, almost casually, while I was a trainee at the Italian Red Cross, I had the opportunity to attend an introductory seminar on the topic of the role of women in conflicts. The interest that arose towards this topic was immediate, but at that moment the idea of deepening my knowledge about it had to be put aside.

During my academic year at Birkbeck University, I had the opportunity to come in touch, though not in much detail, with this topic again. Since then I started to elaborate on the idea of carrying out my thesis on such a topic that, in my personal opinion, is still discussed insufficiently.

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In addition to the attempt to denounce, even in my small way, the use of the woman’s body in wartime, the choice to base my Master’s thesis on this topic also derives from the desire to reduce my misinformation, and therefore, indirectly, also the general disinformation around the topic. Of great help were (insert sources), movies etc.

At first, this work will aim to better educate the reader about the history of sexual abuse against women in war contexts, by focusing on different realities and countries, from Asia to Africa, and then going into more detail of the Bosnian case. The historical introduction will lay the foundations for a purely sociological study. Finally, the present work will end with an excursus of the various legislations in the international sphere that have been created to combat such brutality, and it will try to offer an analysis of the effectiveness of these laws and comment on their outcomes and results after years of being stipulated.


The analysis of rape in wartime starts from the hypothesis that this phenomenon has always existed, how this crime is considered a “collateral damage” and how this has contributed to the birth of a systematic practice.

In the first place I talked about war rapes, which have always existed, focusing in particular on the case of the Chino-Japanese conflict, where in 1937 the Japanese army, in the grip of Nanjing, practiced it excessively.

In the second part of the first chapter I focused on the definition of ethnic rape: women are raped not only because they are women, but also because they are linked to an ethnic group, a political ideology or a religion.

I have reported the cases of Algerian women who started to suffer sexual violence by Islamic fundamentalism since the mid-nineties, or the use of rape in Rwanda in 1994 during the ethnic conflict between Tutsi and Hutu, where the latter raped Tutsi women to fight the ethnic enemy; the institutionalization of rape in Guatemala in 36 years of conflict, especially since the 1970s when rape was introduced into a murderous strategy by the state against the Maya peoples. I focused briefly on the silences of women who have been raped, the shame that almost always led them not to report the injustice suffered.

In the second chapter I explain in more detail the Bosnian case. In the Serbian-Bosnian conflict between 1992 and 1995, the use of rape was systematic, returning to a well-defined strategy. Between 20,000 and 50,000 women, old women, teenagers and young girls, most of whom had Muslim origins, were raped by the Serbian militia. Underlining, in this case, the peculiarity of the Serbian intent to impose a forced pregnancy on the violated women, as their purpose was to “create” a nation of Serbs, and through forced pregnancies these women would give birth to Serbian babies, since, in their mentality, it was the man who passed down the ethnicity to the newborn. In the third and last chapter, I wanted to analyze the jurisprudence regarding war rapes, starting from the Nuremberg trial where no defendant was convicted of rape, until 2001 when, for the first time in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the sexual assault was investigated for the persecution of torture and enslavement as crimes against humanity. I thought it interesting to include an African perspective, in order to have a broader and more detailed view of the legislation of that continent so as to be able to apply the historical social notions concerning some of the African countries that will be mentioned in the previous chapters.

The link between socio-political instability and gender-based violence

Marcele Lagarde is a Mexican feminist and political anthropologist, she was very interested in the work of Diana Russell “Femicide: The politics of women killing,” which she has studied extensively: the anthropologist offers a more extensive interpretation of the term “femicide”. In fact, she explains that while Russell makes the “hate crimes against women” re-enter the category of femicide, it also includes the misogynist factor, so one can only talk of femmicide when there is misogyny. The Mexican anthropologist, on the other hand, tries to present her thesis in more detail, asking herself “how does misogyny occur?”. In answering this question, the author contextualizes first the considerations of Radford and Russell “providing a systematic structural explanation to gender violence”. Russell and her co-authors only point out how mechanisms of violence and discrimination against women are often reproduced by some social actors otherwise charged with their protection, and this leads to the need to treat femmicide as a political and social problem. Marcela Lagarde states that gender-based violence is an institutional violence because the state does not intervene to protect all those women who are raped, tortured, massacred and killed. Indeed, sometimes it is the instigator.

One of Marcela Lagarde’s most important initiatives was to propose the adoption of laws that could criminalize femicide. She qualifies femicide as an “institutional violence”, both in times of peace as well as in wartime, and adds that these violences, abuses, abductions, disappearances of young girls and women occur especially when there is no state of law, when the government is not stable, when there is an institutional collapse. When the country is in conflict.

The sociologist Julia Monarrez Fragoso explains the concept of femicide as a “mixed” definition, which on the one hand accepts the Russell concept — that is, the murder of women because they are women —, on the other hand she adopts the Lagarde definition, indicating that these women are killed for socio-structural reasons, also explaining that femicide occurs in those contexts where the state is absent. In fact, she speaks of “systemic sexual femicide”, understood as the murder of women and girls due to the fact of being women, whose body was tortured, violated, killed and thrown away by men who acted with misogyny and sexism, in a climate of indifference and impunity. When killing, leaving precise marks on the woman’s body, it is done to “highlight the political nature of those acts, through the ritualization that accompanies them, the codified scenario, in which they are made to find other bodies, the times, waiting for justice that does not arrive, they all represent the plot of a staging of a systemic crime “.

Abuses against women at war

Violence against women in times of war has always existed. Throughout history, the woman’s body takes on too many times the form of a battlefield on which the fighting is conducted. According to the very well-known legend, the foundation of Rome is based on mass rape. “The Rape of the Sabines”, practiced for the purpose of domination and repopulation by the soldiers of Romulus. The war allowed the raid of women as a prey to conquest, while the same thing was not allowed in peacetime. It was a pact of honor established exclusively between men with respect to which women were only an object of contention.

Many are the ‘historical’ examples of what today we will call “sexual slavery” connected to the state of war. Let’s think about how the Iliad opens, with Achilles angry against Agamemnon for the removal of his favorite “slave”. Women were “naturally” part of the war loot.

The idea that every war involves rape has spread to such an extent that in the early twentieth century the Japanese practiced it in 1937 in the conquest of Nanchino in China. When on December 13, 1937, in the context of the Sino-Japanese conflict, the Japanese army occupied the then Chinese capital, Nanjing, after having already massacred defenseless civilians during the march towards the city from Shanghai, the massacres and rape were daily practices.

While the Chinese military escaped, the civilian population fell into the mercy of an army full with presumption and superiority towards the Chinese, judged to be a lower race. With the exception of an “international protection zone”, run by Europeans and Americans, no place in the city was immune to massacres.2The number of victims reached almost 500.000. The cruelties perpetrated were unheard of. Rapes were between 20,000 and 80,000 and they were a central element of violence. Every night there were more than a thousand while during the day they took place in public, very often in front of the same husbands and family members who were forced to watch. They were also girls and older women. Many of them were kidnapped also from the area of international protection, and raped.

Japanese soldiers were looking for women by penetrating each house and taking their victims out to rape them in groups. Later they proceeded to cut the breasts or other mutilations, and then pierce them with bamboo canes or bayonets. Many women were sent to the Japanese military brothels. Rape has always been linked to war as a consequence of it, something considered necessary; sexual violence has been the subject of that tolerance reserved for fatality, facts are ignored and this crime is considered a banality, a non-event.

In the history of conflicts it emerges a real ambiguity in the interpretation of rape, seen as a necessary evil: “the right to kill is considered a stimulant for besieging soldiers” 5, “looting and rape can serve as a stimulant to encourage soldiers “6.Rape and war have become indissociable, to such an extent that the former is inseparable from the latter. Political and military leaders recognize rape and condemn these barbarities, but their close connection with the practices of war and its “benefit on the troops” leads them to consider it a “necessary evil” and these sexual crimes have come to be considered of “collateral damage”.

The crime of rape is admitted by all warring parties, it is the outcome of a process of acceptance and all this has contributed to the birth of a systematic practice. In times of war, women are victims of the enemy community, the armed and the security forces. This is due to the collapse of social protections, but also and above all by the decision by the fighters to intimidate, humiliate and destroy the enemy by making the woman a battlefield where everything is allowed.

An example of what has just been said are the rapes that occurred during the First World War on the eastern front of which little is known, but it was on these fronts that they turned into mass practices: during the deportation of the Armenians, the expulsion of the Jews from the western regions of Russia, the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian occupation of Serbia, the rapes, authorized and encouraged by the military hierarchies, reveal themselves to be instruments of genocide and of nationalization. It was the women’s bodies, the biological and cultural continuity of the nation, to be the object of the most ferocious fury: the women mostly lost their lives in the flames, were mutilated, raped, forced to precede the troops in case of combat. To disguise the endemic character of rape during the war they were institutionalized by the soldiers of the brothels of war; during the Second World War, rape and sexual slavery spread throughout Europe and Asia.


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