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.

Clearly these women need support; the book discusses some promising initiatives for providing it. Kulaya is a Mozambican psychological rehabilitation centre set up in 1995 to assist women and children damaged by violence. Thanks to the work the centre does, the long-term impact of the sexual abuse of women and girls during the war in Mozambique has become apparent. In South Africa, pressure from women encouraged the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to introduce all-women hearings, which allowed victims to speak more openly. But by and large the picture remains depressing. Victims in societies where the rule of law has collapsed stand little chance either of receiving help or of gaining redress.

The absence or death of husbands and fathers has meant that women in countries at war have had to take on the traditional male role of providing for their families. They have done so in order to survive. This, the book suggests, has won them status and respect in society. The idea that it has ‘transformed gender relations’, however, seems glib given the innumerable examples of continuing powerlessness. The collapse of social norms which has extended their role is the very reason they remain vulnerable. Asma Abdel Halim notes that ‘many Sudanese, especially men, are not optimistic about a future with women who have real power. Women are predicting that violence could result if women insist on their newly acquired status.’ The post-independence experience of female combatants in Zimbabwe is no comfort.

As a strategy of war, rape is intended to destroy the fabric of a society, and often succeeds in doing so, but sexual assaults are usually only one of a multitude of punishments inflicted on women, sometimes with the explicit aim of dividing and destroying families. In Somalia, the wives of fighters in the Somali National Movement (SNM), which opposed the Government of President Mohamed Siyad Barre, were subject to intimidation, detention and close surveillance. Those whose husbands had evaded capture by crossing the border into Ethiopia were put under intense pressure to have their marriages dissolved; those whose husbands had been killed were forbidden to mourn them. Somalia is a conservative Islamic country where women do not take the initiative in seeking a divorce: the Government’s ruse was to broadcast the names of the fighters whose wives had deserted them in order to demoralise the SNM, to sow divisions within and between families and to undermine popular support for the insurgency.

Women, like men, are vulnerable to torture, famine and displacement, but much more often than men they are left to provide for children and the elderly in circumstances where food, medicines and education are either scarce or unavailable. In war-torn areas and among displaced communities, the frequent lack of access to safe water has ensured that disease is rife and the rates of mortality in pregnancy and childbirth are high. In Mozambique, Renamo targeted hospital facilities, while in southern Sudan, the provision of healthcare has been severely curtailed by the Government in areas of high insecurity. In countries like Angola, where around 80 per cent of the land is covered with anti-personnel mines, daily tasks like fetching water and food can place women in mortal danger – many have been killed, others disfigured or disabled. Women may also suffer at the hands of men whose livelihoods and purpose have been removed by conflict – among refugee communities rates of divorce and of domestic violence are unnaturally high. The fact that more men than women have been killed in conflict in Africa is used in the book primarily to support a discussion of the plight of widows, but it also illustrates the fact that men are invariably the first victims of conflict. It is worth remembering that what women are most likely to suffer is the loss of their husbands and children. For each man who dies, there are women who grieve, who suffer loneliness and who feel – as mothers, wives, sisters and daughters – the loss of their economic lifeline. For every woman damaged by conflict, there is a family which feels the immediate consequences.

The narrow approach taken in What Women Do in Wartime is part of a trend among those concerned with women’s issues. After the revelations about the mass rape of Bosnian women, many of whom were forced to bear the children of their attackers, rape has become something of a rallying cry. Many women’s groups and human-rights organisations campaigned to ensure that sexual crimes against women were put on the agenda of the International Criminal Tribunals for Bosnia and Rwanda. In fact, women’s coalitions lobbied on this one issue so fervently and consistently that the Tribunal’s former prosecutor, Judge Richard Goldstone, was moved to remind the authors of a letter about sexual violence in Rwanda that other women, as well as men and children, had acmally been killed. It is an important point, given the strength of the feeling for the victims of rape. Rape is a terrible crime, and in view of the danger of Aids, it may be a life sentence. But a far greater number of women – along with men and children – have been killed by guns and grenades, hacked to death with machetes and axes and burnt alive.

There are some examples in What Women Do in Wartime of women taking active roles in conflict. A Namibian ex-combatant tells of the eight years she spent fighting for the liberation of her country; the contribution made by women in South Africa and Liberia to the resolution of conflict is discussed. However, the book has less to say about the way women ‘take sides, spy and fight among themselves’. The chapter on South Africa is an exception: the tortures devised by female prison warders – ‘pumping water into women’s fallopian tubes and administering electric shocks to women’s nipples’ – are exposed and there is mention of women’s roles as spies and informers. But such activities are perceived to be largely inexplicable: ‘we do not understand why women sometimes collude in their own oppression and are even complicit in the oppression of other women, beyond the fact that many are politically or economically unable to resist.’ One would think that female solidarity was a biological attribute.

It is impossible to avoid talking about racial difference in South Africa, but elsewhere there is little attempt to discover how conflict affects women from different social groups. The tendency is rather to conflate differences, or brush over them, perhaps in the interests of cultivating solidarity. Asma Abdel Halim catalogues the brutality endured by southern Sudanese women in Africa’s longest war. Forced to migrate to the capital, Khartoum, out of economic desperation, they experience the full force of popular prejudice against black southerners and are treated as second-class citizens. What is not made clear is that women in Khartoum are just as guilty of enacting these social and political prejudices as men. Ms Halim finds it convenient to put much of the blame for the marginalisation of refugees from the south on the ‘international community’. The oversimplifications are even more glaring in the chapter on Rwanda, where Clotilde Twagiramariya argues that all Rwandan women – whether they are Hutus or Tutsis – have suffered equally; that Tutsi survivors of the genocide and Hutu refugees are enduring ‘another kind of Calvary, beyond their ethnic labels, just because they are women’. This kind of wishing-for-sisterhood cannot undo the fact that the targets of the 1994 genocide were Tutsis, and that since then Rwanda has simply not experienced violence on a comparable scale.

What is missing throughout this book are concrete illustrations of the myriad ways in which women respond to war as individuals, and as members of extended families and specific communities. It presents little evidence of their active engagement or collusion in cruelty, torture and murder or their covert participation in conflict. The role of Liberian female peacemakers is pointed up, but nothing is said of the Liberian mothers who encouraged their sons to take up arms, or the Liberian women fighters whose brutality was reported to have surpassed that of the men. Women act on many fronts in wartime. Frequently, they provide practical support, without which many insurgencies would have failed. They may feed and care for male combatants and victims, or work as couriers or spies. There is scope for a study of female spirit mediums in Zimbabwe and Uganda and of their competence as leaders in wartime. In Somalia, too, women have insidiously sponsored conflict by raising funds for the various protagonists. More commonly, women encourage or incite men to acts of violence in the knowledge that they may be the beneficiaries: not only when violence may be a means to political or social reform, but because it can bring economic rewards. Women share in the spoils of war.

What Women Do in Wartime also fails to grasp the way women foment ethnic divisions, preferring to stress the misfortunes of women who have married into another ethnic group, without drawing attention to the influence of the women members of these host communities in ensuring that the ‘outsider’ remains an outsider. It is rare for women to participate directly in violence in wartime, but recent history suggests they are more likely to take sides when the nature of the conflict is ethnic or religious, and that they take a greater part in genocide. Women all over Germany internalised the Nazi imperative, and some acted it out in the camps, clubbing other women, starving them and selecting those who were to be killed; female Kapos were guilty of all sorts of abuse. In the Khmer Rouge, which sought to eliminate gender distinctions, women had no more misgivings than men about decapitating the ‘enemies of the people’. Several of the leading figures around Pol Pot, responsible for devising and implementing the policy of mass murder, were women, including his wife and sister-in-law.

The events of 1994 in Rwanda leave no doubt about women’s capacity for brutality. Thousands of women, along with their husbands, brothers and sons, committed atrocities, and for much the same reasons. Like men, some were forced to do so; others, including many well-educated women in influential positions – ministers, civil servants, local government officials, doctors, nurses, teachers and journalists – were not. Some women killed with their own hands. A greater number sought to whip up genocidal frenzy, ululating as the militia embarked on massacres and then stripping the dead. Some women have been accused by their own children of betraying their husbands to the killers, others their grandchildren, nieces and nephews. And little seems to have changed. In the present insurgency in the north-west, women are again in the forefront, taking part in murderous attacks on civilians, sheltering and feeding the insurgents and acting as informants and spirit mediums. On the basis of a limited number of individual allegations of rape and sexual abuse gleaned from secondary sources, not all of them reliable, Clotilde Twagiramariya depicts a society in which women are subject to intense sexual pressure. By choosing to locate political violence in the war which was started in 1990 by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), Twagiramariya deliberately avoids the issue of the atrocities committed four years later. The result is a whitewash of women’s crimes.