The Weinstein Effect is rippling out across the globe. It’s no longer just women in the United States who are speaking up about sexual harassment — their counterparts in many other countries are, too. And we’re once again seeing confirmation of a truth that is often overlooked in discussions of sexual misconduct or assault: These stories are often more about power than they are about sex. Specifically, for men in positions of power, it’s often about demonstrating the extent of their control over the vulnerable.
The same principle applies — albeit in more extreme form — when sexual violence is used as a weapon of war. The aggressor aims to impose the most extreme humiliation on his victims, to destroy their dignity, to devastate their souls. This isn’t about pleasure. It’s about the calculated and vicious exercise of power over a helpless target. This is the absolute negation of love — the exact opposite of what sex should be about.
You will be reminded of this if you can bring yourself to delve into the latest report on Burma from Human Rights Watch. It makes for a harrowing read. One of the group’s researchers has carefully documented the use of rape as an instrument of terror during the Burmese military’s recent ethnic cleansing campaign, which since August has driven more than 600,000 members of the Muslim Rohingya minority into neighboring Bangladesh.
“In every case described to us, the perpetrators were uniformed members of the security forces, almost all military personnel,” the report carefully notes. Most of the documented attacks involved gangs of soldiers attacking individual women. Nura Begum, 35, tried to prevent her four children from seeing what was happening to her. “I kept screaming and saying not to rape me in front of the children. But they did what they wanted to my body.” Akash Abdul described how she and her younger sister tried to flee after watching security forces kill the other members of their family. “As we got to the edge of the village two soldiers grabbed me,” she said. “They threw me to the ground and then raped me.” She was 14 years old.
You might think that such crimes are outliers. You would be wrong. The use of rape as a weapon of war is widespread. Thousands of women have fallen victim to it in South Sudan’s civil war. The reign of ISIS in Syria and Iraq has resulted in the wholesale sexual abuse of young women from the ancient religious community of the Yezidis. Women were also raped during the recent ethnic unrest in Burundi.
Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009, but members of its Tamil minority say that they still often face torture, including rape, when targeted by security forces. Rwanda, Bosnia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have all experienced sexual violence in recent memory; all these countries have their communities of survivors.
Men in conflict zones also fall victim to sexual violence. According to a recent story in the Guardian, post-revolutionary Libya has seen a spate of such attacks, usually involving militias from groups persecuted by the old regime taking revenge on their enemies.
Women are never exempt, though. the Guardian story also quoted one female survivor of sexual violence in Libya: “The worst thing they did to me,” she whispered, “is to rape me in front of my eldest son. Since then, he won’t speak to me.”
In the sick logic of war, rape is a highly effective weapon. Its crippling effects can last for years. By creating shame and humiliation it destroys ties within families and communities. It silences and paralyzes.
We know it’s a crime. It’s been defined as one in international law. But it’s still happening. And it will continue to happen until we can make the perpetrators truly accountable.
The case of Burma would be a good place to start. Pramila Patten, the U.N. special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, has directly accused the Burmese military of responsibility for the campaign of rape. Last week the Burmese military issued a report denying all related allegations — in terms similar to those of a Burmese officer, Col. Phone Tint, who in early September was already dismissing reports of sexual violence: “Where is the proof?” he asked. “Look at those women who are making these claims — would anyone want to rape them?”
The international community should act while these crimes are still fresh. We must demand that the Burmese government cease its ethnic cleansing campaign. Western governments should stop supplying the Burmese military with arms and aid. We must target the responsible generals with personal sanctions and move to ensure that they face justice. (The International Criminal Court is only one option.)
But let’s not forget the other victims of similar atrocities around the world. And above all, let’s make a concerted global effort to marshal money and resources for the medical and psychological care the survivors so urgently need. We should not compound past crimes by the sin of neglect.