Why it’s much better to describe the plight of women in war zones without seeking to whitewash their crimes

Rakiya Omaar and Rachel Sevenzo

Nowadays in Africa, it is easier to attract overseas aid for projects that address ‘the concerns of women’ than it is to fund almost any other kind of initiative. Most donors want to know in detail how any allocation will benefit women specifically. What Women Do in Wartime includes contributions from several women’s groups which have sprung up on the continent as a result of this turn of events. Most, like the Women’s Commission of the Human Rights League of Chad, are advocates on behalf of women in war-torn nations, or nations which have only recently emerged from conflict. The argument that is held to justify the existence of these groups is that women have been so completely marginalised, and their problems are so specific, that they require special measures. The trouble with this ‘gendered’ approach is that it discourages any analysis of the ways in which the experiences of men, women and children overlap and intersect – a fact which helps to explain why this book is less concerned with ‘what women do’ and more with a grim accounting of what is done to them.

The conflicts that are discussed have claimed the lives of several million people and displaced many more. Some are seemingly intractable, like the war in Sudan and the fighting in Chad. What Women Do in Wartime presents a convincing analysis of the broad conditions which underpin much of this civil strife. It points to the fiscal regime imposed on much of Africa by the IMF and the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programmes – these on top of the burden of existing debt repayment. At the same time, there is the militarisation of the continent, which began during the Cold War; and more recently the proliferation of small arms, which has enabled opportunistic leaders to challenge governments and to gain support from impoverished and disaffected groups. With the decline of international funding for heavy weaponry in the post-Cold War period, many governments no longer have the capability to crush rebellions. So the fighting is prolonged, and with it the suffering of non-combatants.

The contributors agree that large numbers of women are targeted in these kinds of war and that the intimate nature of the attacks on them can ensure that their distress remains hidden. They are the primary victims of sexual abuse, rape, coercion; they are considered ‘war booty’ and enslaved in Sudan or made into ‘reproductive vessels’ in Rwanda. Sexual abuse is the most blatant form of ‘gendered’ violence and a large part of the book is devoted to it. Indeed, the documentation and analysis of rape provide most of the volume’s substance. In Liberia, reports of assaults by rebel soldiers show young boys participating in attacks on women as old as 65, often at gunpoint. Considered as the embodiment of culture and family ‘honour’, women are a natural target for military and political control. Rape is frequently a political act, a soldier’s declaration of victory – husbands are sometimes forced to watch. Southern Sudanese women are routinely abducted and gang-raped or forced into concubinage. In the Nuba Mountains, they have been deliberately impregnated, to change the ethnic balance of the area. Even female combatants in rebel forces are not exempt; it is often deemed to be their duty as women to provide the sexual ‘supplies that would keep the men strong and in fighting mood’. The victims of rape are usually reluctant to speak out and may be accused of betrayal and rejected by their peers and their families. Those who bear the children of the enemy are stigmatised, even ostracised. Some contract Aids or other sexually transmitted diseases; all experience physical and psychological trauma.

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