You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 14: Rape during Wartime

Rape during Wartime

As long as there have been people, there has been conflict and war among them. And too often, this conflict has been accompanied by sexual violence. Through the centuries, there has been a move to re-classify war rape as a war crime rather than as spoils of war. But there has also been a recognition that sometimes sexual violence is not just a traumatic outcome of conflict; sometimes rape is part of the strategy.

In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Wanda Wigfall-Williams joins us to discuss sexual violence as a strategy of war and to share her experiences as a scholar-practitioner who has seen the traumas of conflict first-hand. She breaks down why groups use rape as a war strategy (2:18) and tells us about her interactions with survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (4:38).

Where does this type of sexual violence take place? Professor Wigfall-Williams explains the global scope of rape as a war strategy (16:01). She also illustrates the dangers she came across while working with an NGO aiming to help survivors (17:14) and discusses the impact of the increased awareness and discussion around sexual violence (21:10).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Wigfall-Williams lists her recommendations for how governments and NGOs can help survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (12:31).

0:00      Kay Summers: This episode of Big World contains discussion of sexual violence in war and conflict zones that some listeners may find disturbing. From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters.

0:23      KS: As long as there have been people, there has been conflict and war among them. Too often, this conflict has been accompanied by the victors using sexual violence against those on the losing side. The ancient Greeks considered women property under the lawful ownership of a man, and when the man's property was conquered, so too were the women he possessed. As human conflict has progressed through the centuries, there has, at least, been a move to classify war rape as a war crime rather than its odious designation as spoils of war. But there has also been a recognition that sometimes sexual violence is not just a traumatic outcome of conflict, sometimes rape is part of the strategy.

1:04      KS: Today we're talking about sexual violence as a strategy of war. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Wanda Wigfall-Williams. Wanda is a professor here at the School of International Service. As a scholar-practitioner, she has negotiated with paramilitary leaders and militants and worked to develop anti-human trafficking campaigns in Eastern Europe, West Africa, and Asia. Wanda was the first American and the first woman to be awarded the Tip O'Neill Peace Fellowship. Wanda, thanks for joining Big World.

1:33      Wanda Wigfall-Williams: Thank you for having me.

1:37      KS: Wanda, the United Nations defines conflict-related sexual violence as incidents or patterns of sexual violence that is rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, and forced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity against women, men, girls or boys. And during conflicts throughout history, as we said earlier, sexual violence has been committed by combatants as spoils of war, but sexual violence has also been committed as part of a conflict strategy as the means to an end. So tell us, how do you differentiate between conflict-related sexual violence as a war strategy or as spoils of war?

2:18      WWW: I look at rape as a strategy of war in terms of genocide. So if we go back, way back, in history, when nations conquered other nations, they would rape and pillage the towns. It was part of what they did. Why did they do that? Because they want to establish dominance, dominance and control. There's several things—let me give you some of the primary goals or reasons. One is to humiliate their opponents and to destroy and take power away from women and men. If you think of women's bodies, war is actually being played out on the body, especially if you do anything sexually related to that body. It's a way of getting at the heart of the men; it's also a way of committing primary genocide because often women do not survive.

3:18      WWW: And it's a way of committing the secondary and tertiary genocide. By that I mean, it is not men—the soldiers are not using their bodies to rape women, they are using guns. They are using knives. They're using broken bottles, sticks, whatever. The intent is that "if I can't kill you, I'm going to make sure you can't breed." I heard those words from rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who felt it was their God-given rights since they were fighting that they had needs, sexual needs, and they wanted those met by women. Any woman, anywhere, of any age.

4:08      KS: So Wanda, before you were a professor at SIS, you worked in conflict zones around the world and interacted with women who were survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and also some of the men who were perpetrating it. This is a position that most of us can't imagine. Just kind of help us understand what that was like and what parts of your experiences, getting to know their experiences, would be instructive for listeners to know and to understand.

4:38      WWW: I was clearly aware of rape, but I wasn't aware of how mechanized it was, how well it was thought out and planned—as if you are looking at a terrorist strategy to bomb a village or bomb a city. This is planned similarly. So I can talk to you about working in Darfur and then later moving those—those camps being moved to Chad, more inland. What would happen every day is the men would stay in the camps and women would go out to get the firewood. It would be all the women, women in their 90s, infants, everybody. And what the Janjaweed would do, they were a power military arm of the government, they would cut down the trees closest to the camp, which made the women have to go farther. And as they went farther, it would be harder to get back to the camp and to safety.

5:39      WWW: And out from nowhere—I went out with them one day because—well, I didn't expect what I experienced. But I went out with them one day and it was like they dropped from the sky. They came in on horses and camels with weapons, and it was pretty awful. Grandmothers in their 90s were raped. And if the women fought, then they would resort to destroying the woman's body. Women were gang raped, infants were raped, toddlers were raped. No one was safe. And if you ran and you didn't run fast enough to get back to camp, everyone out there would be raped. I really hadn't seen it in that raw a state. Of course, I was traumatized, but the reason I was working in the camps had nothing to do with looking at rape as a strategy of war, but it had to do with understanding human trafficking and what role this particular camp played in it.

6:50      WWW: When we returned to camp, it was remarkable. The women cleaned themselves up, gathered their wood, cleaned themselves up. There's one memory that comes to mind. This woman had been raped, her daughter had been raped, and the daughter was maybe two. She cleaned her baby first and twisted her hair and put a cowrie shell in it. She was smiling as she did that, after having—you take that image and juxtapose it with this horror that just befell in the entire camp of women. You begin to say, "Wait a minute, this can't continue." But every day it did and there was no support because, at that point in time, the African Union was supposed to provide safety for them. But they were very small at this point. So there was a need, a strong need for more bodies to be there, to protect them, to keep the peace.

7:50      KS: So these women, they go out for, for wood and then this happens to them and they're attacked in this way and they come back to the village. What about, what about the men who live there? Is there any kind of ministering to their needs? That is done in recognition of the trauma? Because it was all the women. It was the older women. It was the young women. It was the tiny girls. Do they just have to take care of each other? Is this spoken of?

8:25      WWW: It's not spoken of for most men in the camps. It is a silent community, so women minister to other women and other children. Once you get your baby cleaned and dressed and attended to, then they hold—someone else will hold your child so you can get clean, and they will go into a tent together, sometimes, and talk—about I don't know. But it's sort of that, that fellowship, that community that brings women closer together. It's difficult for the men because they're angry, but at the same time they're impotent to do anything because if they go out, they too will be raped and most likely they will be killed.

9:17      KS: So this is another reason why it's effective as a strategy because it demoralizes the men and also renders them powerless because they will be killed. The women may or may not die from their injuries, but are unlikely to just be killed outright. So in sheer terms of numbers and survival, the women go out again.

9:38      WWW: The women go out again because they are the people who cook the food, bathe everyone in the family, and there isn't anyone else to do those tasks. And so if not, if they don't do it, what's going to happen?

9:57      KS: For you being there as kind of a western observer were, were you terrified? How did you manage to stay safe in that situation?

10:06      WWW: I didn't go out again, that's for certain. I was conflicted about that, but it wasn't my first brush with trauma. I had experienced it working in El Salvador with Romero, Bishop Romero. I worked with him through Catholic Relief Services way, way back when I was young. He was a lovely man, and unfortunately, I left three months before he was assassinated. But I got to see some pretty horrid things that were done to the priests, to groups of nuns, to a young girl, teenager who was working in the rectory, helping him with his paper and doing laundry and what have you. So it wasn't my first time seeing horrific things.

11:02      WWW: In fact, it's probably little known to anyone who is outside my immediate family, but my grandmother who raised me—my grandparents raised me. She instilled in me and my brother that we should always give back, that we were fortunate enough to be born into our family and that we had good minds and we shouldn't forget that other people need help. I probably took that a little too personally and decided that I was going to work on really difficult issues. Better me because I really thrive in that type of environment in helping others. Rather me than someone who's kind of halfway into it and is thinking more of him or herself than the people you're serving. And that truly is one of the things that brought me to the School of International Service because I've had a career of service.

12:10      KS: Wanda Wigfall-Williams, it's time to take five. This is when you, our guest, get to reorder the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. Specifically, what are your five recommendations for how organizations should help survivors of conflict-related sexual violence?

12:31      WWW: Well, in these conflict situations, there's often the absence of the rule of law and so that creates a situation where there's insecurity and thus impunity fails. It's in this context that rape becomes a mass crime issue and, therefore, necessary to work all—we need to work on preventive measures. Mitigation is fine. Providing help for survivors is fine. But if we could prevent even a percentage of the conflict rapes, war rapes, that would be a really good thing. Second, with little or no access to justice and care, the stigma and the trauma that rape generates cannot be treated immediately as it should. The US government has a rapid response team for disaster areas and we need to have something like that, in addition to what we already have, to come help these rape survivors.

13:44      WWW: Third-party interveners, NGOs, and others must be available to assist victims physically, psychologically, and socially. And if you can't help them in that manner, then they'll wither. Finally, accountability. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in—I want to say Kinshasa. There was one police woman responsible for the whole country as it related to rape. She worked her job, did it well, and she arrested someone who had been using rape as a strategy of war. The fine was $2 US. So yes, justice in terms of having this person arrested was done, but it's not the kind of justice that's needed. That's why I say accountability is really required.

14:44      KS: Right. Thank you.

14:46      WWW: You're welcome.

14:53      KS: Wanda, help us understand, currently, where does conflict-related sexual violence occur the most in the world?

15:00      WWW: This has been going on forever, unfortunately. It's been more recent. I think significant policy change occurred in December of 1992, but where's it happening? If we look at the World War II with the Korean comfort women, air quotes, they were kidnapped from Korea and taken out of the country and put in what I guess would be a brothel. We're talking 12-year-olds, 12 to 17, 12 to 16. They were forced to service Japanese soldiers who hated their guts at the site, about 80 of them a night. These were not happy people who came, and they didn't care about the girls. It happened there.

16:01      WWW: It happened in El Salvador, as I referred, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, former Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Nicaragua. Guatemala has been sort of a hotbed of off-and-on wars, so it happens there too, to men and women. Where these rapes happened, for the most part, are in really isolated and secluded places. There are no lights. There's no anything. And if you scream, nobody's going to hear you. And if they hear you, they're not going to come to your aid, less whatever's happening you is going to happen to them. Wherever there are women and wherever there is conflict, there will be rape as a strategy of war.

16:55      KS: So how do organizations currently help survivors of conflict-related sexual violence? And I guess kind of as a primary—first part to that question, what are the organizations that are currently helping women? Who's helping, and how do they accomplish their work because these women are isolated? How do people get to them? How do they help them?

17:14      WWW: There are a number of NGOs who are able to help these women. During the Balkan War, I was invited to Croatia by a group called Women in Black. I accepted their invitation, and everything was on the up and up. It was kosher. Our messages were encrypted. We began our work. They already had a strategy, and they knew about my work, and I went. I got to work with them in mitigating some of the kidnapping that was going on. If you don't know, during the Balkan Wars, Bosnian women, Croatian women, were kidnapped, gang raped daily until they became pregnant. They were forcibly held against their will until the eighth month when it was too late to terminate the pregnancy. That's a typical strategy to ethnic cleanse a group. So [they'd say] "every time you look at your child, you're going to see me and know that I'm part of him" and what is that going to do to the woman?

18:30      WWW: We had some pretty good strategies, which I didn't come up with. I just helped carried out, carry out. But because of who I am and how I look, I did not blend in. Somehow our encryption was broken and accessed and I was issued a death threat that I had to leave in 24 hours. And if I didn't, I'd be leaving in another way. That was very frightening to me. It was frightening to me, not just for my own life and safety, but for the women who were going to—I was leaving behind, who needed to do this work and who were going to do this work.

19:12      KS: Were you able to get out within the time?

19:16      WWW: Yes, I got out in time through unusual means, but I got out, but some of those women did die. So doing this work is not for the faint of heart.

19:32      KS: Because you carry that too. You carry-

19:34      WWW: Yes.

19:34      KS: Yeah.

19:35      WWW: Sometimes, when I'm lecturing, I'll say to my students, "There are things I wish I could unsee." You can't unsee them. They are part and parcel of you. What I do, which I think is the next best thing, is to process them with people who do the same sort of work that I do. I can't come to terms with what's happened, but I understand it's part of the world that I'm trying to make better. It's a component that has to end. Or, if I can't make it end, I have to do what I can do in power, to the best of my power, to mitigate it. So I have very modest goals now.

20:25      KS: Wanda, we recorded an episode with our dean, Christine Chin, about a year ago. We were talking about Me Too and its possible impact on women on the margins, women who don't have power in different societies. Do you see any positive outcomes for women in conflict zones from the increased attention that sexual violence has received globally? I mean, we know that this is a topic that has certainly received more conversation than it had before in lots of different places around the world, but the women that you're talking about are in conflict zones, and I don't know if a social movement is something that's ever going to be able to help women that find themselves in this situation. Do you see any positive outcomes from this increased level of discussion around sexual assault?

21:10      WWW: Yes. I have to say yes. While it's not going to lead to an immediate mitigation of the problem, the fact that the awareness has been made makes all the difference and more and more NGO workers are going to be turning their attention to this. There are a couple of organizations, the one that comes to mind is the Center for Victims of Torture. They're based out in Minneapolis or St. Paul, but what they do is they go around the world to conflict zones and train psychologists and social workers who are of the culture about trauma healing and that has been working.

21:55      WWW: It's just very difficult to process that kind of trauma because every day things are used to terrorize a group of people. When you do that–or a smell, and let's say you're walking around five years later and you happen to smell that smell, and if you haven't had any intervention, psychological intervention, that means it's a trigger, and you could go spiraling down and experiencing like you experienced the very first time. That is damaging.

22:32      KS: And in the same way that you need, for military who have post-traumatic stress disorders, you need therapists who are trained to understand the situations they've been in. In this case, you need people who understand the violence that's been visited upon these women, but you also need people who understand their culture to help them recover in a way that's consistent with the way that they live their lives.

22:53      WWW: Exactly.

22:54      KS: Right?

22:54      WWW: You're spot on. If you don't do that, then you're doing more harm.

22:59      KS: Right.

23:01      WWW: And we should never do any—we should think carefully and clearly, coherently, in partnership with people who are of the culture so that we help and not harm.

23:16      KS: Wanda Wigfall-Williams, thank you for joining Big World. It's been a pleasure to speak with you.

23:21      WWW: Thank you for having me.

23:23      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our theme music is, "It Was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Wanda Wigfall-Williams,
assistant professor, SIS

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