Monday, October 12, 2009

Rape as a weapon of war: the atrocities in Guinea

Nearly two weeks ago in Conakry, the capital city of Guinea, government troops responded to civil protests with violence, killing at least 157 people and wounding more than 1,200. The West African country has been ruled by a military junta led by Capt. Moussa Dadis Camara since a bloodless coup last December. The recent protests were in response to plans by Capt. Camara to run in the presidential election this January despite earlier promises that he would not. Sadly, violence in Guinea is not uncommon, but the atrocities in Conakry are especially shocking because of the mass rapes perpetrated against women during the attack.

Looking very superficially at the situation, the rapes might appear to be instances of opportunism on the part of the soldiers involved; they just decided on their own initiative to take advantage of the chaos and confusion by committing these sex crimes. Capt. Camera has said essentially that, attributing the atrocities to “uncontrollable elements in the military.” In reality however, rape is used systematically as a weapon of war. Because women around the world are often seen as the transmitters of culture and symbols of the community, their denigration is a very powerful tool of warfare. Rape can be used to terrify an opponent, instilling a fear that strikes at the very soul of the targeted community and eliminates the will to resist. The use of sexual violence to crush the spirit of its victims is now so prevalent in armed conflict that the U.N. has passed several resolutions specifically aimed at eliminating it.

My intuition is that many Americans would look at the situation in Guinea and feel relief that something like that could never happen here. In a narrow sense, they are correct- the U.S. military is very unlikely to commit mass rapes against American women. But, the atrocities in Guinea demonstrate that rape is a tool for turning women into objects that can be manipulated and destroyed in order to maintain control. Haven’t rape and other forms of domestic violence been used in much of this country, particularly in rural areas (p. 368-369), to do exactly that? Even though men in America do not rape as a form of literal warfare, war is an apt metaphor for what rapists do to the female spirit. The sexual violence in Guinea was used to keep the protestors in their proper place. In America, rape is used to keep women in their place, as sexual object or domestic caretaker. In both cases, the message sent by the rapist is that he is in control.

Someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every two minutes, only six percent of rapists will ever spend a day in jail, and the damage done to rape survivors is severe. The severity of the problem is clear, but the true extent of the damage is hard to appreciate if we do not learn a lesson from the violence in Conakry. Rape does more than terrorize and injure- it sends the message that the victim is less than a person. It tries to prevent women from pursuing their own goals, hopes, and dreams. Rape asserts that women are too vulnerable to exist outside the sphere of the home and the control of a man. War is being waged on the liberty of women. As comforting as it may be, we would be wise to not think of ourselves as too different from the Gunieans, both for their sake and our own. The victims in Guinea deserve our aid and support. So do the victims of sexual violence right here at home.

1 comment:

Eve said...

The violence in Guinea was exceptionally horrific, and I agree that many people in the United States who have not experienced sexual violence may feel secure that this would not happen in the United States. However, this incident was just as shocking and unanticipated to Guineans as it was to Americans. Many of the Guinean women who have been interviewed have said that nothing like this has happened before. According to an interview on NPR, “The people's refrain is ‘C'est du jamais vu’ — never before have we witnessed such acts.”

One comment you made is that, “the U.S. military is very unlikely to commit mass rapes against American women.” Perhaps you are right that it is unlikely that the U.S. military would have committed a public massacre of this scale, but there have been numerous cover-ups, including the alleged “Halliburton rape” and the accounts of members of the U.S. military raping and sexual assaulting women in Iraq. The U.S. military may not have gone as far as the Guinean military, but they have been complicit in many horrendous crimes. Hopefully U.S. military policy will change before we witness such acts.