Why Rape Is Effective for Genocide

Posted: December 19, 2010 in Uncategorized
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It is no accident that sexual atrocity has found a central place in genocide. Rape not only destroys individuals, but it can be used as a powerful and efficient means to destroy groups as well. The destructive effects of rape on women may be harnessed for the destruction of the women’s racial, ethnic or religious group.

Why use rape in genocide? Why not just kill? What does sexual assault accomplish that makes it effective for genocide?

And effective it apparently is, considering the prevalence of rape in the genocides of recent decades. But, what makes sexual assault a potent genocidal tool?

To answer that question we need to first ask two things.What does rape (in peace time or otherwise) do to a woman? What is the goal of genocide? Basically, we can understand better the role of sexual violence in genocide when we understand how it facilitates genocide’s basic goal: to destroy a racial, ethnic or religious group as such in whole or in part.

Effects of Rape

In some ways, rape in genocide is merely an extension of the effects of peace time rape on a woman to an entire racial, ethnic or religious group. Effects of rape may include:

  • Physical death,
  • Creating a submissive and terrorized person,
  • Shame at being who they are (the kind of person this kind of act could happen to),
  • The desire to leave the place where it happened and never come back,
  • Self hate and hate of those like herself.

The question of how rape functions in genocide, then, is a matter of asking how each of these effects of rape can work to further the program of genocide.

Rape Often Kills

There are numerous accounts from survivors of women being raped to death. But, one has to ask, if the goal of the genocide is merely killing, why not just shoot a woman rather than rape her to death? What’s the point? Certainly there are quicker ways of ending someone’s life.

Rape kills in more ways that simply causing the death of an individual woman or man.

The victim of sexual violence never escapes the episode. They carry it with them and it causes massive damage both personally and socially far into the future. Many accounts from survivors indicate that women who have been intimately violated feel that living on after the violence is worse than death. It is a sort of living death.

Also, when rape is carried out publicly, as a spectacle, the purpose is to communicate, to send a message. The message of the aggressors is clear, “We do this not only to this woman. This woman is your entire group. You are violated. You are powerless. You are ours. And, we can do this to you again and again at any time.” Even if every member of the victim group is not killed outright, all members of the group now carry in them the living death of surviving rape.

Rape Communicates

Rape is a way that men communicate to each other. It is a way of violently staking a claim over what belongs to another.

Forced sex means that the raped woman belongs to the rapist instead of to herself or to the group with whom she identifies. Personal identity is closely tied up with sexuality. When a woman is violated sexually, she is served a violent message that she is no longer in control over her sexuality, and therefore is no longer in control of her identity. When a woman is raped not only because she is a woman but because she is Tutsi, Jewish or Bosnian Muslim the process works the same way. Neither she, nor anyone else in her group, are in control of their sexuality or identity.

What peace time rape does to a woman, genocide rape does to both men and women of the victim group. If a raped woman in peace time is told that she is no longer in control of her sexuality or identity, then rape in genocide is a way for the aggressor group to plant a flag and take claim of the identity of the victim group. In a sense, genocide rape “feminizes” the entire victim group.

Because of the message that rape communicates, it may not be enough simply to kill. Raping along with killing makes a statement to the victim group even beyond the killing itself. This fact was not missed by Hutu leader Laurent Semanza who admonished his men to be sure and rape Tutsi women before killing them. According to a credible witness, Semanza told his men, “You should do that [rape a Tutsi woman before murdering her] and even if they have some illness, you should do it with sticks.” Why? Because if the woman is simply killed, then all that is left is a corpse. But, if the woman is sexually tortured then killed, you have a corpse that carries a powerful message. For maximum impact, it should be clear what happened, and events in Rwanda make it clear that the aggressors understood well that rape communicates powerfully. Why else leave a woman who had been raped to death with sharp sticks lying on a Rwandan road for three days (a stick still impaling her vagina)? Why else mount the victim’s genitals on a pole outside the victim’s house?

Rape Creates Terror by Being Both Systematic and Random

Part of the terror that derives from rape in genocide is that it is both systematic and random.

It is systematic in that it targets members particular group, and thereby targets the entire group. Members of the victim group know that they are in the cross-hairs while members of other groups are not. The only way to escape being a target is to become something that you are not.

However, just when and where this or that particular woman will be raped is random. The threat is always present and cannot be accurately predicted. So, the terror of rape is always present. What is clear, though, is that when one woman of the group is sexually assaulted because she is a member of the group, then it is the entire group that is assaulted.

Rape Creates a Captive Population

Rape in genocide does what rape in peace time does. It creates a cowed, fear filled, submissive group of people who know that this atrocity could happen to them at any time. They feel shame at being who they are and despise others who are identified with them. They obey the aggressors because the possibility is always open that they could be next. In some cases they may even come to identify with the aggressors because they fear them.

These feelings of shame, fear and humiliation can be extremely powerful and may actually work to enlist the victims into the goal of the aggressors. For instance, if soldiers come into a village and kill every member, then they must do the same in the next town as well. But, if in addition to killing many, the soldiers also make a public spectacle of rape—as happened in the cases of Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur—then the members of the victim group can spread the terror (through spreading accounts of the terror). At the next village (assuming that anyone is still living there) the soldiers are more likely to find a compliant population.

Rape Destroys Group Solidarity

This point is key. And, it works in at least three ways.

It is a commonplace that rape carries a damning stigma. Interviews with genocide survivors are rife with accounts of being rejected by their community because they have been sexually assaulted. The assumption is often that if you survived the attack, then you must have complied with the rapist. Even if complicity isn’t assumed, the individual has been “claimed” by the enemy: used, defiled, ruined and lowered. Where merely killing group members can boost group solidarity against the aggressor, rape may cause members of the group to turn on each other—causing members of the group to victimize each other.

Second, rape can work at an individual level as well. A visceral response to intimate violation is to flee. If you are attacked in a particular place, then it is only gut instinct to want to leave that place and never return. But, this same principle can work for your identity as well. The vicious degradation and humiliation of rape can make you want to abandon who you are forever. If you are attacked because you are a Bosnian then it is your identity as a Bosnian that is the threat. Rape and sexual assault can cause members of a group to disassociate themselves with the group. Since the goal of genocide is to destroy the group as a group, then sexual assault can help do this even without having to murder all group members.

Third, pregnancies that result from rape can destroy group solidarity into the next generation. Quite apart from the trauma that the mother must endure—raising and caring for a constant reminder of her violation—the children are stigmatized and shunned. They are no longer part of the group. This is especially the case in cultures where the race of the child depends on the race of the father. Systematic rape to impregnate women in the victim group can me a method of socially re-engineering the next generation.

Bottom Line

Sex is relational. Because of this, sexual atrocity destroys relationships.

Rape is not something that just happens in genocide. Rape is a powerful way to communicate dominance and possession. Rape is an effective means of terrorizing a group. Rape destroys relationships. In each of these functions rape destroys a group’s identity without the trouble of having to kill every member of a group. Rape can be used as an efficient tool for genocide.

Rape in peace time takes a terrible toll on a woman. But, because rape is an attack on a woman because she is a woman, it is also an attack on all women. And here is the dark logic of sexual atrocity: it extends the effects of the crime beyond a single individual to the entire group. When sexual violence is used in genocide it takes advantage of this logic. The time and effort it takes to destroy a group by killing every member can be much higher than using systematic sexual assault to achieve a group’s destruction.


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