Rape as a Weapon: Its Effects on Comfort Women, The Massacre of Nanking, and the Rwandan Genocide

By Sharon Lee

There has been a perpetual theme of violence against women and their bodies in history (Cohen). The institutionalization of comfort women, the brutality of the Nanking Massacre, and the sexual violence against the Tutsis in the Rwandan illustrate that gendered rape serves as a weapon of war, creates cohesion and empowerment for male soldiers in the military, and stigmatizes and isolates victims from their communities.

Rape has been practiced as a method of celebration of territorial acquisition. When Japan first established an Asia-Pacific empire by colonizing Korea, Taiwan, and China, the number of widespread atrocities increased as Japanese forces closed in on the mainland (Argibay). Amnesty International has declared that war rape is a means of decimating a population by destroying their links of affiliation, spreading AIDS, and eliminating cultural and religious traditions (Smith-Spark). When the winning side advances in territory, rape is used as a spoils of war and serves as a socialization tactic during armed conflict. While some may argue that war rape is not a tool of war, it acts as a primary tool to create a cohesive military group.  Behind the military are elements of exclusive brute power of weaponry the spiritual bonding of men at arms, the manly discipline of orders given and orders obeyed, and the simple logic of a hierarchical command. For these soldiers, “men who rape are ordinary Joes, made unordinary by entry into the most exclusive male-only club in the world” (Crichton). Militia group members often: prompt feelings of power and achievement, establish status and a reputation for aggressiveness, create an enhanced feeling of masculinity through bonding and bragging, and demonstrate dedication to the group and a willingness to take risks.

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Comfort women at an Indonesian station

The institutionalization of comfort women not only destroyed the identities of these victims, but the normalization of rape created a system of forced obedience and depersonalization that heavily influenced military strategies during World War II.In an article by the South China Morning Post published in January 2017, a comfort woman named Park Rae-sun related her experience: “They dragged us to beds violently and raped us…The compound was filled by chaotic sounds: crying, cursing, struggling, tearing clothes, and lecherous laughing. Girls who resisted rape were beaten up; their entire bodies were covered with bruises. That was March 16, 1941, a day of humiliation I would never forget.” The International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimated that in addition to the children and the elderly, 20,000 women were raped in the Rape of Nanking: a large portion of the rapes were systematized in a process in which soldiers went from door to door capturing women and gang raping them. Women were often killed immediately after being raped, often through explicit mutilation, and young children were not exempt from these atrocities.  

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A Rwandan Mother and Infant

One of the most important aspects of military rape to note is the psychological, physical, and societal effects rape victims’ experience. During the Rwandan genocide, propaganda such as the Kangura was used to incite war rape with statements such as: “You Tutsi women think that you are too good for us” or “Let us see what a Tutsi woman tastes like” (de Brouwer). Many women were raped by men who knew they were HIV positive; a deliberate attempt to transmit the virus to Tutsi women and their families. The long-term effects of war rape in Rwanda included social isolation, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies and babies. Some women resorted to self-induced abortions. In addition to the physical and psychological damages resulting from rape, wartime sexual violence disrupted the link between rape victims and their communities. The children of forced impregnation referred to as les enfants mauvais souvenir (children of bad memories) or enfants indésirés (unwanted children/children of hate.) Survivors of the Rwandan Genocide were often stigmatized and denied their rights to property, inheritance, and opportunities for employment. Phenomenon of war rape can structurally affect entire societies; hence its strategic use in armed conflicts.

It is important to continually revisit these horrific events and apply them to wars waged today. It is vital to confront and resolve issues of rape and gendered violence currently dominating the global world. Lawlessness during wars and civil conflicts can create a culture of impunity towards human rights abuses of civilians. By reviewing these tragedies, we attempt to understand the complexities behind these tragic events and take action against the normalization and the culture of warfare in rape.



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