Systematic Mass Rape, An Element of the Bosnian Genocide, Rwanda Genocide and Sudan Genocide

DEFINITION: Genocidal rape is the systematic and repeated sexual violence for the purposes of destroying a targeted group by utter humiliation and impregnation of the group’s women with the progeny of the persecuting army.

TIP: To learn about the rapes of Srebrenica women and abuses of elderly Bosniaks during the Srebrenica massacre, click here. Then continue reading below ↓

NOTE: The following text was reprinted from Encyclopedia of Motherhood, Volume 1, by Andrea O’Reilly, p.138, 243, 295, 444-445.

The breakup of former Yugoslavia led to fighting throughout Bosnia during the 1990s. This conflict sparked numerous atrocities, including mass rape used methodically by some groups against others. Studies estimate that as many as one in seven Bosniak women were raped by Serb forces, and many were abused for months and prevented from obtaining an abortion. Women suffering from these experiences report high rates of depression, suicidal ideation, social phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and sexual dysfunction.

Since the end of the war in 1995, the new government has sought to improve the infrastructure of the country, again with funds provided by the European Union and elsewhere. The country’s fertility rate has fallen from 2.4 in 1975 (one of the highest in Europe) to 1.2 by 1999.

While rape of any kind can cause pregnancy, countless recent conflicts reveal the use of rape and forced impregnation as tactics in ethnic cleansing. Genocidal rape is the systematic and repeated sexual violence for the purposes of destroying a targeted group by utter humiliation and impregnation of the group’s women with the progeny of the persecuting army. Some recent conflicts where genocidal rape was common include Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-95), Rwanda (1995-96), and the ongoing genocide in Sudan.

In the Bosnian war, forced impregnation was part of the Serbian army’s systematic program in rape facilities, where women were held and raped until they became pregnant. In Rwanda, there were an estimated 2,000 to 10,000 children born from the 1994-95 rape campaigns. In Sudan, rape is a daily occurrence for women and girls gathering wood outside of refugee camps, and they are often forced to live away from their communities if they keep their babies. The physical and psychological impacts of forced maternity include dramatic increases in infanticide, suicide, the widespread abandonment of children, ostracization of mothers from their communities, and the emotional abuse and developmental hindrance of children.

Systematic mass rape is frequently an element of genocide campaigns. Genocidaires systematically raped and tortured Armenian women and girls during the Armenian genocide, Indigenous Maya women and girls during the Guatemalan genocide (1981-83), Tutsi women and girls during the Rwandan genocide, and non-Arab Darfurian women during the genocidal counterinsurgency in Darfur (2003-05). During the Bosnian genocide, Serb forces raped tens of thousands of Bosniak women and girls, holding some victims in “rape camps” where they were repeatedly assaulted. For many women, being a genocide survivor also meant being a rape survivor, and, in the aftermath of rape, some of these women were blamed and ostracized form their communities.

In some cases of mass rape, like the Serbian rapes of Bosniaks, impregnating the victims with the perpetrators’ semen functioned as both ideological and physical erasure of the victims’ national or ethnic identities, a forced motherhood in which a generation of “Serbian” babies were born to Bosniak women. Similarly, during the Rwandan genocide, many Tutsi women who survived the rapes and massacres found themselves HIV positive and/or pregnant by Hutu perpetrators. Since abortion was illegal in Rwanda, some women sought abortions in the Congo, pursued illegal abortions in Rwanda, or gave up their newborns to orphanages. Still others kept their babies, but experienced ambivalence about motherhood and vexed feelings about their children. In total, approximately 20,000 children — referred to as les enfants mauvais souvenirs or “the children of bad memories” — were born as a result of rapes during the Rwandan genocide.

Children themselves can become mothers prematurely, as in the case of Uganda, where “girl mothers” are abducted and must follow the Lord’s Resistance Army as sexual slaves, child minders, and the bearers of child soldiers. To make matters worse, in modern conflict zones such as Rwanda and Sudan, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) crisis hits this population at staggering levels (70 percent for Rwanda). The violence of rape spreads and increases the incidence of HIV infections and lasting physical wounds such as fistula, for which victims are rarely treated.

While mothering of intentional children is certainly a hardship in conflict zones, the mothering of children born of war rape provides additional and long-lasting challenges. Many children born of war do survive and are sometimes nurtured and protected by their mothers, but mothering well — given the emotional and physical circumstances — is the exception rather than the rule. Advocates of women and children in both civilian society and international organizations such as UNICEF have begun to discuss policies and services that may address this population of children and their mothers. Human rights groups have sought to grant them address and rights within the legal framework of the International Rights of the Child, and organizations such as the International Network for Interdisciplinary Research on Children Born of War (INIRC) seek to fill the gap in research for these vulnerable children.

Women are victimized for their sexual anatomy during war, and as targets of international sympathy, are defined by their maternity with the common term ‘women and children’ used to describe civilians in war. Mothering is a social construction and process that connotes protecting and preserving life, fostering growth, and ensuring a child’s acceptability in society. Yet during a state of perpetual war and disruption of society, preserving and nurturing life is exceptionally difficult. When mothers are victimized by their own maternity, the act of mothering is a daunting task. International scholars, activists, and intergovernmental organizations are working to provide a framework of justice and assistance so that mothers in conflict zones can mother effectively, and their children can grow as healthy and integrated members of society no matter the cause of their conception.

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