Rape as a Tool of War

Marsha Fangmeyer
Vice President, Nebraskans for Peace

I read Susan Brownmiller’s book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, when it was first published in 1975. My eyes were opened. I certainly did not read this kind of history in high school, or in college for that matter. 

Although the use of rape as a tool of war dates back to time immemorial, Brownmiller’s study focused on the 20th century, on the period from World War I through the Vietnam War. In the 35 years since Vietnam, however, there’s been enough new horrendous material accumulated for Brownmiller to pen a sequel. The new book would include a chapter on gang rapes by Halliburton/KBR co-workers in Iraq and sexual assaults among active duty U.S. troops. She might even update a chapter she wrote on rape in the Congo—only this time focusing on the fact that Congolese women (once again caught in conflict) are being raped at the rate of 400 per day. One out of three women in that country has been victimized by rape (a statistic, incidentally, that parallels the worldwide average of one of every three women being physically or sexually abused during her lifetime).

Thirty-five years after reading Brownmiller’s book, I found myself reading Donna Brazile’s “Backtalk” article in the Winter 2010 issue of Ms. Magazine. In her article entitled, “The Global Pandemic of Rape: Time to end violence against women and impunity for their assailants,” she relates her horror about the story of the 15-year-old girl in suburban San Francisco who, last fall, was publicly gang-raped while waiting for her dad to pick her up from her high school homecoming dance. No one intervened. No one even called the police. 

Brazile goes on to note the incidents involving private contractors in Iraq/Afghanistan; the high rate of rape in the military and the low incidents of disciplinary actions in such cases. Women in the military who report rape are likely to be discharged and are unlikely to see any disciplinary action against their rapist. Private contractors, such as KBR, even had the foresight to put a clause in their contracts that calls on prospective hires to sign away their right to court trials on sexual assault, discrimination and harassment charges. So the victims have to slog their way through arbitration before ever getting into a courtroom. Furthermore, they are unlikely to see any action from the Department of Justice who could bring criminal charges. Thirty-five years later, I find myself shaking my head and feeling like nothing has changed.

I have worked with domestic violence programs for over 30 years. I know we have made some progress. Law enforcement officers no longer laugh and make jokes or question ‘what she did to provoke him’ when I talk with them about domestic violence. Congress passed the “Violence Against Women Act” (though it is set to expire in 2011). 

But really, we have not come far at all. Violence against women is still considered a secondary issue. We are constantly told that we have to wait. Other things, such as national security, health care, taxes, the recession, financial reform and the spread of democracy throughout the world, come before violence against one-half of the world’s population. Programs are funded, but they still operate with limited budgets and resources, and shelters are still full (at least where the shelters exist). As Brazile says, even a decade into the 21st century, the global culture of violence against women continues unabated. 

Violence against women in all its forms is a human rights issue. It is a health issue. It is a security issue. It is a financial issue. It is absurd to try to promote democracy around the world without addressing this issue. Take your pick of the form of violence: rape as a weapon of war; the treatment of women in the military; the lack of attention paid to and the lack of reporting of rape on college campuses; trafficking of women and girls for sex trade; domestic violence and date rape; prison rapes (men and women); the lack of medical care of financial resources and education for women and girls around the world; honor killings; acid burnings; dowry death; genital mutilation; violence based on actual and perceived sexual identity; and the list goes on. So what do we do?

Nebraskans for Peace has committed to work on the passage of the “International Violence Against Women Act.” I – VAWA was first introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate in 2007. It was reintroduced in 2010. I –VAWA is a comprehensive international strategy to address violence against women and girls. It recognizes that violence against women and girls is a human rights violation, a public health epidemic and a barrier to solving global challenges—including armed conflict. It devastates the lives of girls and women. It devastates entire families. 

We can write to our senators and representatives and not only encourage them to vote for I-VAWA, but to sign on as a co-sponsor. We can encourage them not only to support I-VAWA, but to fund all efforts to address violence against women in all of its forms. We can encourage our representatives to renew the U.S. “Violence against Women Act.” We can join the work of Amnesty International and other organizations to work on the passage of I-VAWA. 

I have thought about this issue for years, but was content not to make it a front and center issue for NFP. 

Until now. 

Perhaps I felt discouraged. Perhaps I felt other organizations were addressing the issue sufficiently. But I think Donna Brazile’s article and some encouraging words from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have prompted me to finally get off my butt and make this a part of our priorities. 
Secretary Clinton talks about violence against women. She actually talks about it in public. 

It is time we do also. 

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