TOPICS : Rape is still a weapon of war

Natasha Walter

A single story of horror from the second world war is now being heard after a gap of more than 50 years. A Woman in Berlin, the diary of a German woman from spring 1945, is an unforgettable testament that pulls you into the menace and fear of the times it describes. “All I can do is brace myself for what’s to come, and try to keep my inner flame alive,’’ says the narrator. First published in 1954, the book then disappeared from view because of the poor reaction that it received. Because it deals frankly with the systematic rapes carried out against German women, it was called a “shameless immorality’’ rather than a brave and moral document. Only now does the time seem right for this woman’s voice to be heard. Rape in war has, throughout history, been downgraded as a regrettable side-effect of the important and interesting conflicts that take place between men on battlefields.

After the second world war, when the victors tried to bring justice to the perpetrators of war crimes, rape hardly figured - unsurprisingly, given that the victors were culpable along with the losers. It was only well after 1945 that a transformation of the way we look at rape in war began, spearheaded by feminists who dared to insist that women’s rights were human rights. More than 10 years ago the feminist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon asked the world to take the “historic opportunity’’ to look at what was happening in the former Yugoslavia and to make “this the time and the place, and these the women, when the world recognises that violence against women violates human rights’’. And that has at last begun to happen. The first cases in which the perpetrators of systematic rape have successfully been prosecuted as perpetrators of crimes against humanity have since taken place, at the international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. We can look at these trials, and we can say that we do live in a world that has moved on.

Even so, the progress has not been nearly as far-reaching as we might have hoped. Western powers have been reluctant to look at their own culpability. It is extraordinary to realise that, down the years, American soldiers in Vietnam who committed rapes, by and large, walked away from justice. Although the law has moved on, that does not mean that the experiences of women caught in the wars of the world are any different from what they would have been in 1945, or 1967, or 1994. When it comes to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where mass rape has been used by every side in the long-running civil war, there is no sense of urgency in the international community to punish the perpetrators or treat the victims. Even UN peacekeepers have now been implicated in the sexual abuse of Congolese women. Systematic

sexual violence is still being carried out on thousands of women and children, and each is still being forced to suffer by herself. They have to live with their violated bodies as a personal shame, rather than being able to speak publicly about them. —The Guardian