Sexual Violence: A Forceful Weapon Against Civilians

Kate Eager

Sexual assault and violence are a conflict of bodies. It is the collision of two, or more, bodies that are filled with opposing emotions, directions and intentions. We do not typically consider this as an issue of peace and conflict at an international level, in comparison to conflicts involving guns, bombs, chemicals and other technical weapons. However sexual violence is a weapon, and it is one of the most common occurrences of violent injustice around the world that crosses all boundaries of culture, sex, gender, religion and race. It occurs everywhere around the world, and seems to have existed throughout all conflicts in human history. Yet, it is rarely discussed or addressed. Western media has recently increased its report of domestic sexual assaults, but is simply reporting it enough? Although there are statistics that show evidence of sexual offences, this article will not focus on numbers as these crimes remain significantly under-reported because of fear and stigma. Rape, sexual assault, and sexual misconduct are all extremely powerful moves made by people from all areas of life, every day. So, it is time we speak about, and actively act against, sexual force against civilians, whether it occurs in areas of war, post-war or peace. And without the need for evidence from the millions of victims whose lives and societies are irreversibly affected.

Scholars have discussed the issue of sex in conflict for decades. Megan MacKenzie is one such scholar who argues that, like other tools of war, rape is used to create disorder. This is because of wartime rape’s capacity to violate societal norms, which allows sexual violence to disrupt and devastate communities to the extent where rape is used as a potent and purposeful tool of war to threaten the security of the whole society. To explain this, MacKenzie draws focus to ‘conjugal order,’ which is the way in which the institution of marriage and social norms that surround sex can effectively grant men the access to control women’s bodies. Discussing conjugal order allows us to understand the way in which sexual violence can undermine the fabric of families and entire societies all around the world.

As families are depicted as the ‘natural’ order of society, sex and marriage are assumed to be private matters, not of concern to public security based on an assumption that sex is sacred and consensual. Marriage and family further privileges heterosexual sex, and links sex to national identity and ethnicity because the next generation of children born out of sex will become the population representing that society. All of these assumptions of sex, marriage and family allow rape to have strategic meaning in war and conflict, in both the short and long term. Rape gives power to the enemy because it violates established norms around female bodies being another man’s territory and property, which threatens the masculine identity as its power is rooted in the control of women. Rape can also produce ‘children of the enemy’ and result in genocide and ethnic cleansing when people are not welcome in a society. Rape hits home in many more ways, as it can result in physical health problems, like HIV/AIDS and fistulas, and has socio-economic impacts. But most importantly, rape, and any sexual assault for that matter, is psychologically scarring and impacts its victims and their society as they carry the weight of the anxiety, stigma, PTSD, depression and suicide for an entire lifetime. For these reasons, I would argue that one act of power in a fleeting moment of sexual conflict can be far more devastating, far-reaching and destructive than a bullet.

When the bullets and bombs stop, the rape doesn’t. Because there are still high rates of sexually based violence after a war, it is highly problematic to use the term ‘post-conflict’ in regards to this issue. Sexual conflict never ceases, not even in places that are considered peacefully stable. Western society’s colonialist mentality means it regards itself as superior to nations where our wars occur, and where sex is used regularly as a weapon in violent conflicts. However this judgement is hypercritical given the relevance and frequency of sexual violence and assault that occurs within countries like the U.S.A., Australia and Britain. Recently, there seems to be a new well-known figure in the spotlight every week who is found at the centre of media reports in areas of the world that are considered to be peaceful and free of conflict. With the most recent examples being Harvey Weinstein in the U.S.A. and Don Burke in Australia.

This raises many questions about the societies we live in: what it is that makes this such a common crime with seemingly no consequences? And why is it that the media seems to be increasing its interest in reporting the sexual offences of these high-profile personalities? Why do our societal systems seem to accept sexual violence on both domestic and international levels? It accepts sexual violence when those who commit the crime are not adequately persecuted. Society validates sexual weapons every time a person who is accused of rape, sexual misconduct, abuse and harassment is trialled but let free with no consequences, or given a warning with no tangible cost to their life or livelihood. Every time that person at work who makes inappropriate jokes is politely laughed at or simply ignored but not actually told they are out of line. Every time you question why the victim was walking down that street, at that time, wearing those clothes, drinking that much, talking to the assaulter, laughing at their jokes, accepting their drinks – “asking for it” … We perpetuate sexual conflict when we accept it and when we do not take action against it at any level. If a country gets bombed, we bomb back. But there is no mutually assured destruction for sexual violence, so there is no viable deterrence to stop people from committing the crime.

But, why is that? Patriarchal systems are the first to come to mind. This is most applicable to an unhealthy relationship where one person uses domestic violence for control within a home. Yet, when I think beyond violence in a relationship, when I think about the common occurrence of it within society, and as a weapon of war, and a powerful tool against vulnerable citizens, it does not make sense for the patriarchy to have no interest in the issue. By remaining complacent, the system becomes a proxy victim who is also failing to uphold the standards expected of their masculinity to support and protect their society, and all the women, children and men within it. I am not blaming the patriarchy for not being hyper masculine enough, or condoning this stereotype, I am merely confused as to why there is little concern for this issue within our whole society when it affects all those within it. If it affects the patriarchy, if it affects the economy and healthcare system, if it affects people on individual as well as large scale levels why does no large scale action take place? No matter what angle you look at this issue there seems to be a reason for everyone to care about eradicating the problem.

We need to consider these questions and issues every time we see a news story about a war overseas, every time another celebrity is accused of sexual harassment, every time your colleague makes another colleague uncomfortable. We need to think of sexual violence as the weapon that it is, because if someone shot another person, or held them at gunpoint, their trial would be a very different story to someone admitting they raped or assaulted someone. By simply questioning norms and why society accepts sexual violence, or demanding justice for sexual offences, we can all be part of the movement toward more peaceful societies around the world.