This is a much bleaker topic than I normal write about but I make no apologies. I began as I read more about Bangladesh’s short but bloody history and then I widened my reading. I am lucky to never have lived through a war and I’m glad to have never experienced battle so this is something that is generally not at the front of mind. Well, it wasn’t at the front of my mind.
Some of the atrocities being investigated by the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal involve the widespread incidence of rape during the War of Liberation.
It is estimated that as many as 300,000 women were raped during the war, primarily by Pakistan’s military but there has also been suggestions that some rapes were carried out by Freedom Fighters [Mukti Bahini]. Pakistan’s government has estimated that the number of rapes is “in the hundreds”. The army created military brothels which it filled with Bengali women it had kidnapped and then raped and abused. Once the women were advanced in pregnancy they were released.
After the war was finished the victims then had to deal with sexual infection as well as dealing with the intense shame of what they had endured. It was common for the women to be shunned by their families and communities and many committed suicide.
There were teams of doctors who carried out abortions, many late-term, and there were campaigns to ensure that the women were accepted back into their communities. One doctor has reported 170,000 abortions of pregnancies caused by rape.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called the victims heroines of the Liberation War, but it has been argued that this only served to highlight that the women were dishonoured. Some Bangladeshi men demanded greater dowry payments to marry a woman who had been raped.
There is some concern that the tribunal and the government attitude is one in which the women’s ordeals are not truly acknowledged and that they are still forced to live alone with what they have endured. The war is often seen as an important and heroic battle that is crucial to national identity as well as being something that the political parties use to their own ends. It’s true, lived experience is something that is not always brought to the surface.
But this bleak and important topic brought me onto thinking about this in wider terms. Rape and sexual violence during war seems to have been around since war itself but it is something that appears to have been particularly prevalent in the conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries. Rape is now a tool of war. The Japanese army is estimated to have committed twenty thousand rapes in Nanking, the Russians maybe raped as many as two million German women towards the end of the Second World War, twenty thousand women were perhaps raped in Bosnia in the early 1990s, more than fifty thousand in the civil war in Sierra Leone which ended in 2002 and maybe half a million during the Rwandan Genocide. The list goes on.
As well as a sign that young men brutalised by war are venting their anger and taking the “spoils of war”, rape appears to be a grim and brutal mechanism for forcing people from their lands, for terrorising a population and performing a system of ethnic cleansing. The victims are predominantly women but can include men too.
The victims must deal with the aftermath, the shame, physical injuries, the mental damage and the social stigmatisation and there is little recourse through the courts. Rape was only made a war crime after the Bosnian War and very few cases of sexual violence during war actually make it to a hearing and eventual prosecution.
When the victims have a supportive environment and a sympathetic, empathetic community where their needs and experiences are openly and properly dealt with rather than their societies living in denial, then maybe they and we can truly face this reality and maybe only then can we begin to tackle it actually happening.