Wartime Rape: Women as Victims, Survivors, and Avengers

Warning: This (rather long) entry addresses a sensitive subject. Wartime rape is difficult and painful to read (or write) about; it is a particularly vicious weapon of war. Proceed with care.

“Belgium and Russia during World War I; Russia, Japan, Italy, Korea, China, the Philippines, and Germany during World War II; and in one or more conflicts, Afghanistan, Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Burma, Bosnia, Cambodia, Congo, Croatia, Cyprus, East Timor, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Kuwait, Kosovo, Liberia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Peru, Pakistan, Rwanda, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Turkey, Uganda, Vietnam, Zaire, and Zimbabwe.”

That’s Jonathan Gottschall’s “partial list” of sites of wartime rape in the twentieth century.

That’s forty-one countries. In one century. On a partial list.

To update this list today, we’d need to add Syria, Libya, Central African Republic, Liberia, Egypt, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Chad, Chechnya, Mali, Burundi, Colombia, Guinea, and Kenya, to name just a few.

Wartime rape targets civilians, men, women, and children, old and young (though women of all ages are the majority of victims). Male and female soldiers and militants carry out attacks (though most attackers are male). Attacks can happen in the home during invasions, in the countryside when women or children are gathering firewood, at school, at military checkpoints, in refugee camps, at police stations when survivors report previous attacks, in front of family members. Attacks include gang rape by armed militants, sexual mutilation, forced rape or sexual violence against family members, abduction and long-term sexual slavery to soldiers, enforced prostitution, and forced pregnancy. Wartime rape has long-term effects, especially for women, including medical complications, psychological trauma, and ostracization (because the survivor is viewed as guilty, dishonored, unclean). Numbers and statistics are quite difficult because many victims never report attacks out of fear of reprisals or social stigmatization (and because many victims die from the attack), but here are a few numbers from the United Nations: 60,000 women raped in the former Yugoslavia from 1992-1995; 100,000-250,000 women raped in Rwanda over the three- month-long genocide in 1994; 60,000 women raped in Sierra Leone from 1991-2002; 40,000 women raped in Liberia from 1989-2003; 200,000 raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1998-2013.

Historically, rape during war has been interpreted as a side effect of the violence demanded of soldiers. As recently as 1975, Susan Brownmiller could write that men see rape during war as “unconscionable, but nevertheless inevitable,” citing General George Patton’s comment that American soldiers in World War II would “unquestionably” commit rape. While Patton said he did his best to prevent rape, and planned to execute rapists, it is clear that he saw rape during war as predictable, inescapable, ordinary—an assessment that would work equally well for war in the biblical and classical worlds.

“Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered, and their wives raped” (Isaiah 13:16 [modified NRSV]).

“They all rob, plunder, beat, wound, slay. They defile matrons, maidens, and freeborn boys, dragged from the embrace of parents” (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 29.17.15 [Loeb Classical Library]).

“Indiscriminate slaughter ensued, accompanied by the violation and the abduction of virgins, and all the horrors that usually take place when cities are captured” (Appian, War Against Hannibal 7.9.58 [Loeb Classical Library]).

Rape, pillage, and plunder: these are the ‘usual’ accompaniments of war, rarely receiving special attention. Soldiers rape; it’s just what soldiers do.

This analysis, persisting from earliest history until the 1990s, may sometimes be true. According to Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern, military culture trains soldiers into a particularly violent, aggressive masculinity (whether the soldiers are men or women); this ‘military masculinity’ comes out as sexual aggression in war. Women become little more than booty, a prize for the victorious warrior.

The prevailing interpretation of rape as an inevitable side effect of war was challenged in the 1990s, when reports of mass rapes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda began to circulate. In these countries, rape was clearly neither incidental nor a side-effect of violence; wartime rape was a weapon of war and of genocide. Wartime rape is now recognized internationally as a war crime against humanity.

There are a few indications that rape could function as a weapon of war in antiquity, as well. In the Iliad, Nestor encourages the Achaeans to punish the rape of Helen by raping the Trojans’ wives (Homer, Iliad 2.354-356); the rape of women and children was also one of the curses placed on allies who broke treaties with the Assyrians (Succession Treaty of Esarhaddon 42, 56; cf. Deuteronomy 28:30). The expectation of the rape of wives and children rallied men to war—in fact, a centurion named Verginius claimed the purpose of war was to protect women and children from assault (Livy 3.47.2). As in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, attacks on women and children in antiquity defeated the ‘enemy’ from within, humiliating the women—and emasculating the men who failed to protect them. Wartime rape is a horrifying demonstration of domination over the enemy, embodied (for the most part) in the bodies of women and children. Raped women and children represent total defeat.

In antiquity and today, then, men might use rape as a weapon against men through the bodies of women and children. Claudia Card argues that since any woman could be raped in war, all women become helpless victims in need of male protection—a double victimization of sorts. Certainly the men of antiquity would agree; some women (in men’s histories and stories) also agree, begging their men to fight for them or asking enemy commanders for protection, or killing themselves or their children to protect their (men’s) honor.

Some women, though, refuse to accept their role as passive, helpless victims. Some women become survivors, as in Herodotus’s story of the women of Ionia. When a group of Athenians invaded the island, they killed the local men and married their wives and daughters. These women, in other words, suffered wartime rape disguised as enforced marriage. “For this slaughter, these women made a custom and bound themselves by oath… that none would eat a meal with her husband nor call him by his name, because the men had married them after slaying their fathers and husbands and sons” (1.146 [Loeb Classical Library]).

A number of survivors of rape from modern conflicts are unable to speak about their experiences:

“Those words could not leave my mouth… I never described what happened to me in detail to anyone. If I wanted to say what happened, I said the worst had happened… I kept silent” (a witness for the prosecution in the Foča case in the International Tribunal on Yugoslavia, quoted by Nicola Henry).

Such silence could be heard as further victimization, but as Henry argues, it can also be a damning witness of trauma—only silence represents the reality of suffering. The women of Ionia use silence as a weapon to punish their attackers; these silent women and their daughters bear witness through the generations to what was taken from them.

In other stories, women actively avenge attacks. When her tent was invaded by an armed military commander, Jael would have expected sexual assault (note Judges 5:30!); she prevented the predictable attack by pounding a tent peg through Sisera’s skull (Judges 4-5). After being taken captive as a sexual slave by a Roman centurion, Chiomara of Galatia arranged for his murder; she gave the centurion’s head to her husband (Polybius 21.38). Timocleia, raped by one of Alexander’s men, told her rapist that her family’s wealth was hidden in a well; when he went to retrieve it, she pushed him in and tossed stones on top of him to make sure he stayed down (he died; Plutarch, Alexander 12). A nameless woman attacked during the capture of Lauro in Spain clawed out the eyes of her would-be rapist with her own hands (Appian, Civil War 1.13.109). In Sudan in 2011, Safiya Ishaq made public her own story of gang rape and torture as a protest against the government’s use of rape as a weapon of oppression. Women around the world continue to tell their stories and seek legal redress despite military reprisals. Women protest and march on behalf of all survivors of rape, and they establish and staff organizations to aid survivors of wartime rape. These women refuse to be helpless, passive victims.

These few stories, though, are overwhelmed by the long history of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war. What will it take to change this story?

“Sexual violence has been used through the ages precisely because it is such a cheap and devastating weapon, but more deadly than any bomb. We can and must reverse this reality, making it a massive liability to commit, command or condone sexual violence in conflict” (Zainab Hawa Bangura, Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict to the Secretary-General of the United Nations).


Baaz, Maria Eriksson, and Maria Stern. 2009. “Why Do Soldiers Rape? Masculinity, Violence, and Sexuality in the Armed Forces in the Congo (DRC).” International Studies Quarterly 53.2:495-518 (pp. 498-99, 514).

Bangura, Zainab Hawa, quoted in “Security Council, in day-long debate, urged to strengthen measures to end rape in war zones.” UN News Centre. 17 April 2013 (accessed 13 January 2014).

Brownmiller, Susan. 1975. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. London: Secker & Warburg (p. 31).

Card, Claudia. 1996. “Rape as a Weapon of War.” Hypatia 11.4:5-18 (p. 7).

Gottschall, Jonathan. 2004. “Explaining Wartime Rape.” Journal of Sex Research 41.2:129-136 (p. 130).

Henry, Nicola. 2010. “The Impossibility of Bearing Witness: Wartime Rape and the Promise of Justice.” Violence Against Women 16.10:1098-1119 (p. 1100).

2 comments on “Wartime Rape: Women as Victims, Survivors, and Avengers

  1. revmarkw says:

    My heart just weeps at those statistics. Why, oh why, does God allow this to go on? May God move those who ask the question to step up and speak up against the culture of violence we live in and change one life.

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