As George Santayana famously quoted in his book Reason and Common Sense, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” These words foreshadow a sad and sickening future for women and girls of all walks of life in every corner of the globe. Mass rape in warfare has been an ongoing problem since the beginning of human history. Evidence suggests that there were mass rapes during the Trojan War and the First Crusade as well as from the American Revolution through World War II and in subsequent political actions since, including, Vietnam, Bosnia, Rwanda, and even the War on Terror of today. Approximately 130,000 women and girls were victims of repeated rapes committed by Soviet soldiers in Berlin following the liberation in WWII. In 1993, the number of victims of war rape in the Bosnian conflict was estimated to be between 20,000 and 50,000. The following year in Rwanda saw between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls suffer brutal and systematic rapes during the ethnic war between the Tutsi and Hutu. These numbers are staggering, and yet I did not learn about any of these statistics until I began graduate school – why is that? Why is an issue that directly affects half the world population (women) and indirectly affects the other half (everyone has a mother!) not deemed important enough to grace the pages of our history books, or to be taught to our children a long side Abraham Lincoln and the Battle of the Alamo?
There seems to be a solid consensus regarding the magnitude of this problem among the Women’s Studies and Feminist academic communities, which leads me to question the reasoning behind history’s continued deletion of these atrocities from its pages. Why do these awful things keep happening to women, and on such a large scale? And why does no one seem to care? Why is it not worthy of our attention? Why aren’t women important? If we cannot even begin to acknowledge the magnitude at which these atrocities occur, then what hope do we have as a species to ever assuage the problem? Unfortunately, these traumatic experiences of women in armed conflicts throughout the ages are practically the same, which necessitates a consideration the underlying causes of the continued sexual torture of women in wartime. Two theoretical explanations predominate: that of the socialization of traditional masculine values and rape as a military tactic. If causal factors such as these are indeed to blame, then what can possibly be done to stop it? And furthermore, why are these widespread atrocities continually deleted from the pages of history?
The socialization of hyper-masculine traits in men is suggested to be a direct causal factor in both rape and war, and cultures which are more frequently engaged in armed conflict also have higher instances of sexual violence against women, including during peacetime. Widespread sexual violence in warfare is seen by many to be a strategic military tactic. Women are often viewed as the stitching that holds their community together, be it through the passing down of traditions and cultures or simply through the act of reproduction. With violent prone men engaged in armed conflict against an “enemy” population, it is not difficult to see how mass rape could be utilized in such a nefarious way…but why the omission from history? I believe that as a patriarchal society (and others, as well) that we do not hold women in the esteem that validates their experiences (or their importance as a woman) as being worthy of our attention, especially when there is a “bigger” issue at play – namely the war itself.
I call to action every government of every country, every media entity, every teacher and every person everywhere to stand up and say: “Yes, this has happened, and this has continued to happen, but we will not stand for it to happen anymore.” Until we take personal responsibility for ensuring an end to the atrocities that these women have and continue to suffer, we are condemned to condone and repeat them. The subject of mass and systematic war-rape is worthy of public discourse and discussion in every history classroom (not just academics that focus on women’s issues), but any and every history class. These outrages are a part of our history, and should not continue to be ignored. To do so will only condemn generations of women to this same fate, as well as to continue to disavow and discount the experiences of those in the past.
Lenna Jones is a first year graduate student at East Carolina University in the departments of Sociology and Women’s Studies. She received her BS degree in Criminal Justice from ECU in 2010. Lenna’s research interests are in rape myth acceptance and the criminal justice system, and is currently working on her thesis which is looking at the relationship between police officer education and the attrition of sexual assault cases at the investigative stages.