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Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War and Genocide

Scholars John K. Roth and Dr. Carol Rittner, RSM, describe how and when sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war and genocide.

Transcript (Text)


This is a video about how sexual violence is used as a weapon of war and genocide. Since there have been wars, there has been sexual violence perpetrated intentionally. Victims have been women, girls, boys, and men. Scholars, politicians, humanitarians, activists, and those who have suffered through war agree that an important way to try to curb or stop sexual violence in wartime is to talk about it.


Signed in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifies that all human beings are entitled to life, liberty, and the security of person. It made no mention of sexual assaults perpetrated upon women during armed conflicts, even as it was widely accepted that rape had been used as a weapon of war for centuries. Finally, after 60 years of international lobbying for its inclusion, on June 19, 2008, the United Nations passed Resolution 1820, which declared that sexual violence against women and girls was a war crime.

Rape has been a factor in war time for millennia. And genocide is not something that just happened yesterday, it's been going on in human history for a long time too. By genocide what we mean is the intentional destruction of a group of people. So rape becomes an instrument or a weapon in genocide because it is one way of advancing the destruction of a group of people.

It's rape used deliberately, it's rape used as a strategy to destroy a community. It is a weapon that destroys as much as a bullet can destroy.


The thing that was different in the former Yugoslavia was that rape was being used as a policy to inflict harm and damage, to use sexual violence as a weapon. It compromises the integrity of a group. It savages, it saps the vitality of a group.

Part of the puzzle as well as part of the answer when we say why do these things happen is that people, some people, particular people in particular circumstances, decided that they should happen and got other people to agree with that, and they enacted.

At its height, the violence perpetrated by the Japanese Imperial Army in the Chinese capital city of Nanjing spanned approximately from December 1937 to February 1938. During that time, Japanese soldiers slaughtered thousands of civilians and prisoners of war. They raped thousands of women and girls in and around Nanjing, as well as increasing so-called comfort stations, which were institutions of military sexual slavery.

And the point was that there was something that was institutionalized about this. There was something that had government power behind it, had military power behind it, intention behind it.

And so you say, well, why does this become a policy of some government? I'm not sure I can answer that. I can only speculate about it. But I would say this one thing, rape is cheap. It doesn't cost money. It's not like bullets, it's not like guns. Rape as a policy is effective. It's cheap, it terrorizes, and people flee.

Wherever we're dealing with mass atrocities, human rights abuses, crimes against humanity, genocide, rape, there always is a question about what motivates the perpetrators-- why do they do it, how do they feel about it after they've done it? Ultimately, we come back to decisions that people make.

If I could use as an analogy, something that Abraham Joshua Heschel once said. He said, "The Holocaust did not begin with Auschwitz." The use of rape as a weapon of war and genocide does not begin with the act of forcible rape on a woman or a girl. It begins long before that actual physical act. It begins with how boys are acculturated, how society treats women, the rights that women have in society, whether they are equals.

These issues are not just questions and issues out there, it's something to do with us in here. So obviously, the way we begin to get into the whole issue, the questions surrounding sexual violence in a time of war and genocide, they don't just start with the act itself. It starts further back with other questions.

If as we trace back our research on our study about why it is that these atrocities take place, we do come back to our very understanding of what it is to be human, what it means to have respect for one another, what it means to say that there are rights that people have and therefore that there are responsibilities that we have to one another as equals, as peers, as human beings.

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