Hidden in plain sight: children born of wartime sexual violence

Abortions and infanticide are widely reported in post-conflict settings. In Peru, women narrated familial and communal consequences of the internal-armed conflict, becoming bearers of collective history. From States of Impunity.

Kimberly Theidon
30 September 2015
Theidon 2.jpg

 A Quecha woman and child in the Sacred Valley in Peru. Quinet/Wikimedia. Some rights reserved.

On August 28, 2003 the Commissioners of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) submitted their final report to President Alejandro Toledo and the nation. After two years and some 17,000 testimonies, the commissioners had completed their task of examining the causes and consequences of the internal armed conflict that convulsed the country during the 1980s and 1990s. The TRC determined that almost 70,000 people had been killed or disappeared, and that three out of four casualties were rural peasants who spoke some language other than Spanish as their native tongue. The distribution of deaths and disappearances reflected long-standing class and ethnic divides in Peru.

The Peruvian TRC: commissioning gender

Although the TRC was given a gender-neutral mandate, feminists were successful in insisting the commission think about the importance of gender in their work. They argued for proactive efforts to include women’s voices in the truth-seeking process. This reflected the desire to write a more “inclusive truth,” as well as developments in international jurisprudence with regard to sexual violence. Given that “(p)erhaps the most commonly underreported abuses are those suffered by women, especially sexual abuse and rape”, “gender-sensitive” strategies were employed with the goal of soliciting women’s testimonies about rape and other forms of sexual violence. The results? Of the 16,885 people who gave testimonies to the PTRC, 54% were women and 46% men (TRC 2003, vol. VIII: 64). Thus women spoke a great deal, but not necessarily about sexual violence–at least not in the first person. The total number of reported cases of rape was 538, of which 527 were committed against women and 11 were crimes against men (VIII: 89). The commission’s effort to provide a “fuller truth” about the use of sexual violence by various armed groups was met with a resounding silence.

But recall that women provided over half of the testimonies compiled by the TRC. What did they talk about?  Women offered insights into the gendered dimensions of war, and the ways in which the violence permeated all spheres of life. They spoke about the challenges of keeping children fed, homes intact, livestock safe, the search for missing loved ones, the lacerating sting of ethnic insults in the cities in which they sought refuge: women spoke about familial and communal suffering, and about the quotidian aspects of armed conflict. When people go to war, caregiving can become a dangerous occupation. The international focus on conflict related rape and sexual violence has been a hard-won achievement, but it comes at a cost. Even a broad definition of sexual violence results in a narrow understanding of the gendered dimensions of war, and the full range of harms that women (and men) experience and prioritize.

Although women overwhelmingly refused to narrate first-person accounts of rape, they spoke a great deal about the collective legacies of sexual violence. While working on this article, I turned to volume six of the final report and to the chapter entitled “Sexual Violence against Women”. I found 37 references to girls and women impregnated as a result of wartime rape or exploitative sexual relationships. Mostly these are third-party reports, and the women speaking refer to the phenomenon of unwanted pregnancies in the plural. “They ended up pregnant,” “they came out pregnant”–the army, the police, and guerrillas of the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement are all named in the women’s testimonies about rape-related pregnancies. The TRC acknowledges that these children may suffer as a result:

There are numerous cases of women who, being pregnant, were subjected to sexual violence and saw their pregnancies interrupted as a result of that violence. On the other hand, there are abundant cases of women who became pregnant as a result of the sexual violence they suffered at the hands of agents of the conflict; they found themselves obligated to assume a forced pregnancy and their children still continue to suffer the consequences of the violence (Vol. 6: 372, author’s translation).  

The reader is left with no further information about those consequences. The women indicate that the guerrillas frequently forced the girls and women to have abortions, and when pregnancies were somehow carried to term, the babies were “forcefully taken away” (Vol 6: 310). There are fleeting references to babies who died shortly after birth. The singular focus on compiling first person accounts of rape and sexual violence in order to “break the silence” about these crimes somehow reduced children to a mere coda. What happened to all of those babies?  Who else was talking about them?

What’s in a name

Abortions and infanticide are phenomena widely reported in post-conflict settings in which the use of rape was widespread. In Peru, some women tried to abort with herbs, attempting to rid their bodies of fetuses they could not bear. Others sought out curanderos (healers) who used various abortifacients to perform limpiezas (cleansings). In this instance, the word limpieza is a form of veiled speech that allowed women to maintain a useful ambiguity. Limpiezas of various sorts are common for a range of illnesses; indeed it was only with time that my colleagues and I realized the women had visited curanderos to cleanse themselves literally–they complained of feeling “filthy” as a result of being raped–as well as to cleanse their uteri of unwanted pregnancies. Across a variety of post-conflict settings, the recurrent theme of children born with disabilities is striking. For example, Charli Carpenter noted a number of children born to rape survivors in Bosnia who were disabled. I believe some of these disabilities are due to botched abortion attempts. The lack of safe, accessible and affordable abortions does a grave disservice to these women, their fetuses and babies.

Still other Peruvian women resorted to infanticide. There is a long-standing practice of “letting die” those babies who are unwanted, perhaps because they are born with congenital defects or are the product of rape. The idea is that criaturas (little babies) do not suffer when they die; one can leave them sleeping “mouth down,” gently drifting off to death. Additionally, given women’s concerns about the transmission of llakis (toxic memories) and susto (soul loss due to fright) from mother to baby, either in utero or via their mother’s “milk of pain and sorrow,” concerns about damage to their infants were omnipresent. How could a baby born of such suffering and fear be normal? Many women were certain they could not. Letting these babies die reflected a desire to spare them the violence of memory–and to spare their mothers these memories of violence.

However, amidst the trope of “unspeakable atrocities” endured in the war, a great deal was being said. In addition to women’s testimonies about rape-related pregnancies, audible speech acts of another sort were playing out all around those of us working in the highlands. I am referring to the names given to children born of conflict-related sexual violence. In any community–this is in no way limited to Peru–there is the audible impact of names, both individual and collective, that are frequently of an injurious nature. Some examples of these are:

Rwanda: collectively labeled “unwanted children,” “children of bad memories,” “children of hate,” “genocidal children,” and the individual names include “little killer,” “child of hate,” “I’m at a loss,” and “the intruder”

Kosovo: “children of shame”

East Timor: “children of the enemy”

Viet Nam: “dust of life” and “American infected babies”

Nicaragua” “monster babies”

Guatemala: “soldadito

Uganda: “Only God knows why this happened to me,” “I am unfortunate,” “Things have gone bad”

Colombia: “paraquitos

In Peru, among other names, children are referred to as  “los regalos de los soldados,” (the soldier’s gifts), “hijo de nadie” (nobody’s child), “fulano” (what’s his name), and “chatarra” (stray cat). Linguistic or cultural variation alone does not explain this widespread phenomenon in post-conflict settings. Time and again, across regions, names reveal the conjuncture of painful kinship and “poisonous knowledge”. These naming practices seem strikingly at odds with the secrecy and silence assumed to surround rape and other forms of sexual violence. Concealment is a leitmotif in the findings of researches conducted on the topic, and is generally understood as a way to avoid stigma for both the mother and her child.

And yet, names mark certain children and reveal their violent origins. Naming is verbal, audible, and interpersonal; naming practices are one way of expressing, perhaps projecting, the private into public space and laying claims upon others. These “entanglements” are worth contemplating. Every woman who spoke with me or with my research assistants about rape insisted, “I’ve never told anyone before.”  However, those of us who work amidst secrets and silences know that “I never told anyone” is not synonymous with “Nobody knows.” Indeed, in his study of public secrecy, Taussig asks, “[What] if the truth is not so much a secret as a public secret, as is the case with the most important social knowledge, knowing what not to know?”. Public secrets may be privately known but collectively denied, such that the drama of revelation amounts to “the transgressive uncovering of a secretly familiar”. But for the moment, let us assume that some women did successfully conceal their pregnancies­–did conceal this violence and its legacies. Even so, at some point women give birth to the secret. In that process of emergence, who and what is being made public? Who and what is being named?

Living memories

Over the years, I have known several children who were the result of rape. Here I mention just one boy whose mother had been passed around by the soldiers in the base that had overlooked their community for almost 15 years. I first noticed him because he was standoffish, never joining the growing group of children who made my room a lively place. I tried to speak with him a few times, but he had no interest in conversation. After months of living in the community, I finally asked someone about him. It was late afternoon and I saw him heading down the steep hill toward home, his three goats and one llama kept together with an occasional slap of a slender stick. The woman sitting at my side knew him by name: Chiki. My face must have expressed my surprise because she whispered that his mother was “one of those women”.

Chiki is a painful name for a young boy, who in turn was a painful child for his mother. Chiki means danger in Quechua and in daily usage refers to a warning that something bad is about to happen and should be averted. People recall the ways they learned to look for a sign that the enemy might attack. One such chiki was a strong wind that blew through the village, rattling the roofs and letting people know something evil was about to occur. This boy could not be a warning; it was too late to avert this particular danger. Rather, he was the product of an evil event his mother had been unable to escape. His mere being extends his mother’s memory both to the past and into the future. Her son is a living memory of the danger she survived, and a reminder that nothing good could possibly come from this Chiki she had failed to avoid.

In a fascinating piece on children born to young women who had been abducted and made “wives” by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, Eunice Apio briefly discusses naming practices. In a sample of 69 children, she found that 49 of them had injurious names. These children were named by their mothers, while the other 20 had been named either by the father, or by medical staff who delivered the babies following their mother’s reintegration. “These names compile all the bad experiences of a mother into a name and give it a life in the nature of her baby,” Apio wrote. “In this way the baby is turned into a living reminder of her suffering”. Social workers made efforts to give these children new names such as “I am fortunate” or “Things have turned good,” but as Apio found in her interviews with World Vision staff, the women were reluctant: “They prefer the old names” (emphasis added). We are not told why.

This example, however, is at odds with the idea that women inevitably seek to conceal the violent conception of these children. When it is the mother who does the naming, and in doing so names the violence she survived, poisonous knowledge is moved outward into the public domain. This appears to be less about shame than it is about pressing some sort of claim upon others–from poisonous knowledge to a demand for acknowledgment? Why are the mothers breaking this particular silence?

The concept of stigma is frequently applied to these children, yet is that really all we can say about these names?  Stigma seems a thin explanation for a thick phenomenon, and forecloses a broader repertoire of potential meanings and motivations. While the evidence does not allow one to make totalizing claims, these names surely have something to do with memory and memorialization, and with theories regarding what is passed from parent to child. Hence my insistence on who and what is being named and made public, and why.

A demand for justice

In the literature on rape, women frequently appear as metonyms for the nation, the community–for some collective that is allegedly attacked via the rape of its female members. The “rape as a weapon of war” approach turns on this idea, and on the deployment of rape as a strategic means of achieving an end. Baaz and Stern rightly challenge this framework, noting that the uses and meanings of rape are far more variable than the “weapon of war” approach allows. If rape is, however, at times used to undermine the morale of the enemy and to destroy communities, then marking these children may be a way of bearing witness to the harm done to the collective. Naming is both a “saying” and a “doing,” and speaking these names implicates others in an act of memorialization. Might this be, at times, a woman’s refusal to accept shame and stigma, albeit at a cost to the wellbeing of her child?

As we saw above, in their testimonies to the Peruvian TRC, women narrated the familial and communal consequences of the internal armed conflict: women were bearers of collective history. Women were also disruptive of communal histories that had frequently been elaborated by community leaders, virtually all men. Women were “counter-memory specialists” whose versions of events often diverged from the seamless accounts of the war offered up to those who came around asking about the past. These children’s names can be a form of narrating the past, of attesting to the legacies of violence in the present, and of denouncing the harm done, for which no redress has yet been found.

I return to public secrets and their revelation in language. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin has noted that many acts of sexual violence during war are not private acts: “Unlike the experience of gendered violence during peacetime, which is predominantly located in the domain of the private, the home, sexual violence during war is strikingly public. In Peru, women were raped in front of their families and communities; at times they were hauled off to nearby military bases and returned with their hair shorn as a mark of the gang rapes that they had endured. These violations frequently occurred with the complicity of local authorities–all male–and the neighbors who turned a deaf ear to the screaming next door.

I have found that officials in the military bases demanded a “communal counterpart” in exchange for the “security” they provided to rural communities during the internal armed conflict. That counterpart consisted of food, wood and warmis (women). At times this demand was veiled by the term aynicha, a diminutive of ayni. Ayni refers to reciprocal labor exchanges by which people work on one another’s agricultural plots. It implies reciprocity, but with an element of hierarchy and obligation. Communal authorities would indicate to the military officials which houses were occupied by single mothers and widows; these homes would be the first targeted when the soldiers descended from the bases at night for “la carnada”–literally “bait,” but in this context it refers to gorging on meat (carne), that is, the women they would rape. Again, who and what is being named and made public?

If names can implicate others in acts of memorialization, they may also implicate others in acts of betrayal and treachery. Communal contracts involved sexual contracts, and the burden of providing the communal counterpart fell heavily upon certain women and girls who were obliged to “service” the troops. These names disrupt the rules of the game–in this instance, that of knowing what not to know and what not to say. Rather than the “labor of the negative” that is vital to public secrets, with their reproductive labor women gave birth to, and insisted upon naming, a body of evidence. Taussig has argued that, “truth is not a matter of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation that does justice to it”. The names–this revelation –may not do justice but constitute a demand for it.

Legacies of wartime sexual violence

There are always policies–implicit or explicit–put in place to address the issue of children born of wartime sexual violence, the women who may abort or give birth to them, and the biological fathers. From state militaries to irregular forces, from combat troops to international peacekeeping missions, the question of what will be done with the children who (inevitably?) result from these encounters is a topic of discussion and policy-making. These issues are global in scope, the questions seemingly endless, and yet what we know remains woefully limited. Do the injurious names follow the children throughout their lives, or are there ways of escaping the labels and changing one’s fate? How do inheritance practices work in their families? Are they considered full members of the family, or treated as second-class children and siblings? In those cases in which stigma is a factor, do children born of rape pass the mark across generations?

Long-term anthropological research–which relies less on asking questions than it does on listening to both speech and silences–is the only way I can imagine of finding answers to the questions raised in this article, and of doing so in a way that respects how much is at stake in peoples’ lives when public secrets are involved. Exploring the ways in which children born of wartime sexual violence are named, represented, marked and, perhaps, loved could generate new insights into the intersection of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, violence, and identity. Perhaps these insights could help to achieve a greater measure of justice for these women and their children. 


This text is an excerpt from a longer article forthcoming in the special issue, “The Death of the Secret: The Public and Private in Anthropology,” Current Anthropology, Volume 56 Supplement 12, December 2015. 

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