Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rape: A Tool of War and Terror

I must take a break from our nation’s bullshit budget battle and comment on the horrific epidemic of gang-rape as a war and terror tactic around the world – ever increasing in viciousness and frequency.

The issue was brought to the fore of U.S. consciousness, sort of, when CBS correspondent Lara Logan was attacked on February 11th in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian uprising. Media reports repeatedly described her experience as “a brutal and sustained sexual assault,” a term so sanitized that it doesn’t begin to conjure the image of a group of frenzied men repeatedly raping a woman for reasons only they can justify. And in this case as in thousands of others, it isn’t “just” a matter of rape, but of beating, torture and the deliberate inflicting of often irreparable physical, as well as emotional, harm. Logan was hospitalized for a while and is now recuperating in her Washington DC home. It will be interesting to see what she has to say next, especially since news of her attack was met by some folks back home with derision and a distinct lack of sympathy.

A number of journalists have noted that Lara Logan’s going public about her attack is breaking through a long-established wall of silence on such matters on the part of women journalists, particularly those working in conflict arenas. The women have been afraid that they will stop getting such assignments if they make an issue of their experiences – which is ironic, because one of the things they’re trying to inject in news reports is the high incidence of violence against women in these war-torn, terror-prone areas.

Since time immemorial, rape has been a constant part of war, whether to terrorize, intimidate and humiliate the enemy, or just for fun. Now, in the 21st century, it is also being used to remind women of their proper place, to get them to conform to social norms, to punish them for their appearance, behavior (and very existence). War Rape is inflicted on women of all ages, all health conditions, all strata of society – in a social context that blames the women for their own attacks (the old “she asked for it” routine), then results in their being shunned by family, former friends, and society as a whole. Girls as young as two are subject to the same violent treatment and social response. In those instances where women are not killed by their attackers, they are horrifically wounded, traumatized, and often left with one or more sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.

In Congo, rape has been an especially horrific epidemic as a part of tribal and civil warfare. In South Africa, gang-rape of lesbians is on the rise in order to “turn them into normal African women,” the twisted logic goes. In Haiti, where rape has always been a huge problem, it has become even more massive in the 1,300 “tent cities” scattered throughout Port-au-Prince and the surrounding countryside. The police and government claim to be helpless in doing anything about it, which can’t be proven since they don’t even try.

Lara Logan, who was working on a report for 60 Minutes, planned to talk about the gang-rape of women by corrupt police and other pro-government thugs as a way of diluting the spirit of the Egyptian revolutionaries; very little has been said about this in the media. And if you don’t recall the use of rape as a tactic of war in Bangladesh, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Darfur, among other 20th-21st century locales, it may be because it was only minimally reported – even though “rape and sexual slavery are now recognized under the Geneva Convention as crimes against humanity and war crimes,” explains Wikipedia.

Violence against women – particularly sexual violence – occurs in different cultures for somewhat different reasons. Women in America are not immune; every two minutes, somewhere in America a woman is raped [U.S. Department of Justice], although it’s not always gang-rape and here we’re not talking about rape as a tactic of war. But given the uptick in sexual/domestic violence in recent years, particularly against teenage girls in relationships with teenage boys, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t part of a backlash against feminism, a reaction that’s been brewing over the past 30 years.

The subject of rape is a hot button for most women, me included. Last night, after reading a lengthy article about rape in post-earthquake Haiti, I was terribly unnerved. Not even ice cream and Britcoms on PBS could calm me down, and I felt both guilty about my own general comfort and safety, and furious at my feelings of helplessness about this issue. I went to sleep early; I couldn’t bear being awake.

There are non-profits and NGOs around the world trying to deal with War Rape and rape in general, but they’re not getting very far. Rape is an historically under-reported crime and even when it is reported, a victim’s nightmare is often dismissed, ignored, or turned on her as the cause. I feel like a voice yelling into the dark – and as a horror movie trailer once admonished, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” I don’t know what any of us can do, even collectively, about this terrible problem – but at least being mindful of it is surely a beginning.

(Note: the photo above is of a Haitian tent city at night – the witching hour for roving rape gangs.)

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