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02 February 2018

Sexualised violence in wartime: “Nobody was interested in speaking about it.”

Sexualised violence can be used strategically as a weapon of war. Why does this form of violence disrupt whole societies so effectively for generations? Is it unavoidable? What does it have to do with our way of living, gender roles and power? Why is there often no recognition for the victims of sexualised violence and their suffering? At the Colloquium on this topic one thing became very clear: sexualised wartime violence can only be combatted effectively if we take a look at its wider societal contexts. Renowned guests from science, research, development aid, politics and medicine had been invited to the discussion in Berlin by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and medica mondiale. A livestream ensured that many more people could listen in.

“We are a very long way from being satisfied with public awareness of sexualised wartime violence”, said Barbara Unmüßig, President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in her introductory speech. Welcoming the participants, Monika Hauser made it clear that it is not sufficient to look at the topic of sexualised wartime violence in distant areas of current conflict: “In order to have some impact outwards, we first need to take a look inwards. Here, in Germany, we also need healing. And for healing we need remembering.” She was referring to the almost unprocessed trauma caused by sexualised violence during and after World War II. Until now, sexualised wartime violence and its life-long consequences have generally been trivialised or hushed up.

Historical processing and naming the violence as first step of dealing with trauma

In her book “When The Soldiers Came“, the historian Miriam Gebhardt has already revealed the enormous distortions and one-sidedness of the presentation of sexualised wartime violence in history books – focussing on the Second World War. In her contribution to the colloquium discussion, she made clear how silence “sucked in ” the survivors of sexualised violence and post-war society in general. The victims had feelings of shame and guilt. Their social surroundings wanted to use the cover of silence to, supposedly, quickly restore the family structures and the “good morals” that the war had destroyed.

During and after the war, sexualised violence was degraded to the status of something collateral that could safely be neglected. Generally, victims were seen as carrying some of the blame. There was no naming or recognition of the human rights violations committed against them. For decades the crimes were vaguely identified as having been committed by ‘the enemy’: Allied or German perpetrators would not have fitted the picture being maintained. So the perpetrators remained unnamed and unpunished. Miriam Gebhardt: “It is clear that it was the biggest mass rape the world had seen until then. It is my ambition to see this included in school and university textbooks.” In her lecture, Ms Gebhardt clearly described how the silence has conserved suffering over decades, which has, in turn, affected the following generations.

Trash culture as a reflection of unprocessed trauma: pornographic distortion in film and comic portrayals

The Director of the Ravensbrück Memorial, Insa Eschebach, used her speech to illustrate the grotesque direction that the international film and comic culture sometimes took as it tried to deal with the sexualised violence and forced prostitution that had taken place in the labour camps. Italian sexploitation films of the 60s and 70s, such as “The Night Porter”, feasted on exaggerated depictions of sadomasochist tendencies which it imputed to be part of the violence against women and girls in concentration and labour camps. Israeli stalag comics from the 60s focus on trash culture portrayals of busty female Nazi soldiers who torture the camp inmates in pornographic ways.

Eschebach: “The survivors of sexualised violence felt exploited by the media. Nobody was interested in speaking about what had really happened when it came to sexualised violence.” The unspoken truth was that thousands of women and girls had been forced into prostitution in the camps. According to Eschebach, they served as “incentives and rewards for hard-working soldiers and prisoners”.

Violence against women and children during war: a burdensome inheritance for successive generations

For the psychotherapist Luise Reddemann, the post-war society’s way of dealing with the survivors of sexualised wartime violence was characterised by contempt and suppression, and was itself a violation of human dignity: “For sixty years or more, these women and girls have been unable to find inner peace. Experiencing this ongoing suffering is almost comparable to torture.” Reddemann used several case studies from her therapy work to illustrate the suffering which these unprocessed traumatic experiences lead to – for the next generations, too. Sons and daughters generally do not know about the rapes their mothers experienced, although this is often the background to a childhood with less intimacy and bonding and more pain and sadness that would otherwise have been. The consequences of this can be secondary traumatisation, with similar symptoms as those of the survivors.

Among the long-term consequences of sexualised wartime violence are low self-esteem, sleep disturbances, self-destructive tendencies, alcoholism and depression. In this regard, Ms Reddemann stated there is a clear inverse connection between the level of stress felt and the social support a survivor experiences. So even in the second or third post-war generation, peace can only be found if the suffering is acknowledged and coping strategies are taught and made available. Monika Hauser commented on this: “Affected women and girls (also men and boys) are to a great extent being ignored or neglected by government and society. The consequences of sexualised wartime violence and of the trauma this causes are seen as something to be dealt with by the individual rather than society. Survivors are left to deal with the burden on their own.”

Analysing gender relations is the way to prevent sexualised violence

The sociologist Ruth Seifert presented a brief review of past research on sexualised wartime violence, revealing how perspectives and opinions have changed. In the initial years of this research the focus was on the connections between sexualised wartime violence and peacetime discrimination (the ‘continuum of violence’), whereas later attention shifted towards the exaggerated image of masculinity in institutions such as the military or the group-building effect of violence carried out together. In the years after 2000 there was a general pattern of explaining sexualised wartime violence as a strategically deployed weapon of war, which then found its expression at an international level in the form of UN Resolution 1820.

Dr Seifert made it clear that it is not sufficient to look at the verifiability of military strategy or stop at the orders and instructions which can be proven. Rather, she considers it more meaningful to consider the impacts of this form of violence and its wartime strategic consequences: “The effects are the physiological and psychological destruction of the victims. Then there are the collective impacts, which have a communication function.” For example, the violence communicates humiliation, defeat and the perpetrators’ dominance. Sexualised wartime violence demoralises the opposing side and destroys social cohesion in the society where the victims live. Further, there are long-term impacts such as collective traumatisation.

Since then there has also been a tendency among social scientists to consider sexualised wartime violence from a gender-neutral perspective (de-genderisation), but Dr Seifert’s opinion is that this cannot be justified: “Why is it this form of violence in particular (sexualised violence) that has such a powerful impact? What does it mean for a collective when one member is subjected to sexualised torture? These questions can only be answered by analysing gender relations in general.” In response, Monika Hauser replied: “Sexualised wartime violence has this devastating impact because it hits the innermost social core of a society!”

Politics and society assuming responsibility for a non-violent future

Sybille Fezer, Managing Director for Programme Work at medica mondiale, stood in for the historian Gabriela Mischkowski as a speaker, who had to cancel at the last minute due to illness. Ms Fezer referred to an article written jointly by Mischkowski and Hauser as she explained why it is essential to see sexualised wartime violence as more than just a strategically deployed weapon of war: “Rape fulfils the function of a weapon in war and can serve to achieve specific military objectives. However, a purely functional analysis allows us to focus on events and perpetrators as if they do not have anything to do with us and our (peacetime) world. We can distance ourselves from it, consider ourselves morally superior and escape any responsibility for it.”

For Monika Hauser, this assumption of responsibility is particularly important. However, as she stated in her talk on the political duty of protection, processing and prevention: “Nothing is done to prevent sexualised and gender-based violence being carried out, to end the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators and commanders, or to provide sufficient support to the survivors. Government and society cannot be allowed to continue to evade their responsibility!” She emphasised how this is not an issue of charity but rather of enforcing human rights for half of humanity: “Sustainable peace cannot be achieved without this!”

Further Colloquium topics:

  • The planned lecture by Rolf Pohl “Militarised masculinity and sexual violence - the struggle for male hegemony in the post-war period in West Germany” had to be cancelled at the last minute due to illness.
  • Franziska Brantner, German Member of Parliament for Alliance 90/The Greens, described day-to-day political work in her talk “Implementation of UN Resolution 1325”.
  • The lawyer Silke Studzinsky gave a presentation on the topic “End to impunity – victim-focussed prosecution”.

Related topics

The first part of the colloquium "Sexualised wartime violence" is on YouTube.

The study “We are still alive. We have been harmed, but we are brave and strong.” and a video on the long-term consequences of sexualised wartime violence can be found in our Media Centre.