Crime not shame: challenging the ideology of rape

Decades of feminist activism against rape has produced a world that now, formally, officially, and legally, at least talks the talk on sexual violence in conflict. Feminists have not yet been able to transform what Susan Brownmiller called the ‘ideology of rape’, but they’re working on it. 

Jenny Morgan
27 November 2012

When American feminist Susan Brownmiller published ‘Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape’ in 1975, thousands of women all around the world who’d been victims of war-time rape were suffering pretty much in silence.   Korean, Chinese and other women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army in World War II; Bangladeshi women raped by the army of Pakistan during 1971; Vietnamese women raped by the US and South Vietnamese armies – the list could go on -- these crimes had scarcely been acknowledged and the women’s stories rarely if ever heard.  

Brownmiller inveighed against the view of sexual violence as ‘an unfortunate but inevitable by-product of the necessary game called war’.   War, she said, ‘provides men with the perfect psychological backdrop to give vent to their contempt for women’.   But, she said, ‘in making rape a speakable crime, not a matter of shame, the women’s movement has already fired the first retaliatory shots in a war as ancient as civilization’.

Without question, the explosion of women’s outrage in the 1970s – of which Brownmiller, with her incendiary definition of rape as the ‘conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear’, was a powerful expression -- and the feminist activism it detonated, have produced a world that now, formally, officially, and legally, at least (and this is not negligible), talks the talk on sexual violence in conflict. The Statute of Rome, for instance, on which the International Criminal Court is based, defines rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual violence during conflict as war crimes and crimes against humanity. The UN Security Council has passed resolutions calling on states to act to prevent sexual violence in conflict and punish perpetrators.  

But just last month, the UN’s first Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Swedish politician Margot Wallström, took the Security Council to task because its resolutions authorising military action to protect Libyan civilians ‘make no mention of the risk of sexual violence –a risk that is all too real in contexts of escalating unrest and mass displacement’. Four months earlier, in December 2010, the Security Council had adopted resolution 1960 which, said Wallström, ‘marks a political commitment to bringing all of the Council’s tools to bear in preventing the atrocity of war-time rape’. This commitment to prevention had not been carried through in relation to Libyan women. ‘From the way sexual violence spans the history of war’, Wallström said, ‘it should be automatically and systematically included in protection measures.’

Wallström’s is one of many voices now challenging denial around rape in war. But the violence itself has not stopped. On the contrary. Wallström told the Security Council in April that she was receiving reports ‘almost daily’ of ‘sexual violence against vulnerable communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo’. (And this is with the largest UN force in the world stationed in the DRC.)

In the past two decades Wallström might have found herself speaking about sexual violence in Darfur, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda (where anywhere between a quarter and half a million women were raped during the 1994 genocide).  Or Bosnia, or Kosovo, or Sri Lanka, or Iraq.

However, in the DRC, there is a new development that is hopeful.   Whether it’s because the UN is embarrassed that around 300 people, mostly women and girls, but some men and boys, were gang-raped in Walikale, around 30km from one of its bases, in July and August last year, and that in January and February this year around 200 people, including men and children, were gang-raped in Fizi region, and has put pressure on the government of DRC; or the government itself finally feels ashamed to be called ‘the rape capital of the world’ by Wallström – or even perhaps because the military courts in question are funded by Soros’ Open Society Justice Initiative – nonetheless, during the past few months 37 military officers in the DRC, some of them very senior, have been arrested and charged under the Statute of Rome with crimes of sexual violence.  

Lt-Colonel Kibibi Mutware has already been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for January’s mass rape in Fizi. In March, a Colonel Balumisa and a Major Elia were jailed for life for the rape of 24 women in South Kivu in 2009. General Jerome Kakwavu is awaiting trial on two charges of rape, one involving a 13-year old girl.

As the Open Society Justice Initiative says, ‘People long viewed as untouchable are actually being arrested, tried, and imprisoned’.

Will these military personnel serve their sentences, or might they be allowed to escape?  And will the state honour its further responsibilities to the victims?  Avocats sans Frontières says the Military Court that sentenced Kibibi found the DRC ‘vicariously liable for the victims’ injuries’; the women whose testimony of rape the Military Court accepted ought therefore to be able to claim compensation from the state.

Meanwhile, what about the bravery of the 47 women who gave evidence in court against Kibibi?  An Open Society blogger spoke to two of them, who said that since the rape, their husbands had rejected them, members of their community shunned them, and they feared retaliation from Kibibi’s battalion, which was still stationed in their area. They were extremely poor and extremely traumatised. But they came to court and gave evidence. They knew, they said, that other women all over the Congo were supporting them in the trial, and that gave them strength.

Feminists and their allies have not yet been able to transform what Brownmiller called the ‘ideology of rape’. But they’re working on it. From May 23rd-25th, the Nobel Women’s Initiative is convening a conference of women from around the world – ‘activists, academics, security experts, corporate leaders, and Nobel Peace Laureates’ -- with the modest goal of ‘forging a new security for women’ and creating a future ‘free of sexual violence in conflict’. I’ll be reporting from there.  

To read openDemocracy's full coverage of the conference click here

This article was first publihsed on may 18th 2011. It is republished here as part of 50.50's series on 16 Days Activism Against Gender Violence 2012


Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData