Lucinda Marshall: Militarism and Violence Against Women Print E-mail

April 2004 Volume 17 Number 4


Militarism and Violence Against Women

By Lucinda Marshall

With no end in sight to the war on terrorism, it is increasingly urgent to recognize the effects of war on women. The pandemic of violence against women continues, exacerbated by militarism.  

The theory of “power over” an “other” provides the common thread between military campaigns and assaults against women. In order for “power over” to work, an other must be defined by creating distinctions (no matter how false) between people, cultures, and so on. The other can be a person, country, ethnic group, etc. Militarism depends on creating an other by declaring distinctions between two groups. The other is asserted to be “less than.” The other must then be controlled or destroyed.  

Commonly, whether implicitly or explicitly, women are the “other.” Consequently, it becomes necessary in the eyes of those who seek power to control and belittle women. In many cultures, women are viewed as the possessions of their men. Therefore, when a woman is raped, it is effectively an attack on the “manhood of her man.” Using this reasoning, wo- men become the targets of war in order to attack the honor of the men of a particular culture, ethnic group, or country. For these reasons, rape and other forms of sexual assault against women are always a part of war and conflict. When women are assumed to be possessions that can be attacked, stolen, and dishonored, they become a means of “feminizing” and degrading the enemy.  

Since the beginning of patriarchy, women have been considered the spoils of war, made invisible today under the euphemistic phrase, “collateral damage.” In Rwanda, at least 250,000 women were raped in the 1994 genocide. During the 1990s, more than 20,000 Muslim women were raped as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign in Bosnia. In 2003, the UN reported thousands of women and girls had been raped during fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gang rape was so widespread and brutal that doctors began classifying vaginal destruction as a combat-related crime.  

Military training frequently encourages the hatred and belittling of women. The use of gender slurs motivate men to act aggressively, both toward women within their own culture and women of the “other” culture. Pornography and prostitution have always been unofficially sanctioned forms of entertainment for soldiers. Until 1999, pornography could easily be purchased by servicepeople at U.S. military base commissaries, which were one of the largest purchasers of hard core pornography. 

There has always been an unspoken U.S. military policy of keeping men happy. An active sex industry for military R&R has been consistently allowed and encouraged to flourish, in direct violation of U.S. and international law. Women are forced into prostitution as de facto sex slaves for the military in a variety of ways, such as false employment promises, being sold by their families, abduction, etc. It is no surprise that trafficking routes tend to spring up near military bases. More than 5,000 women, mainly from the Philippines and the former Soviet Union, were trafficked into South Korea in the mid-1990s, primarily to work as “entertainers” at bars near U.S. military bases.  

Women in the military are also considered fair targets. In a recent study, 30 percent of female veterans reported experiencing rape or attempted rape by U.S. servicemen. According to a Department of Defense survey, one in five female cadets at the Air Force Academy said they had been sexually assaulted during their time there. Many of these assaults were not reported when they occurred because the victims feared retaliation, such as damage to their careers or being accused of being disloyal or unpatriotic.  

Sexual harassment has long plagued women in the military. The Tailhook scandal illustrates the depth of the problem. In that case, over 50 officers were implicated in making women run a gauntlet where they were man-handled in a variety of sexual ways. Six other officers were accused of blocking the investigation into the scandal. Despite Congressional hearings and massive news coverage, none of those implicated were ever court martialed or prosecuted in civilian courts.  

There is also a long history of domestic violence within military culture. There have been 218 domestic murders in the U.S. military since 1995. While there are services available for military families who experience domestic violence, the system makes it hard for military wives to report the problem.  

In general there are very few safeguards for the victim. Batterers are rarely prosecuted or barred from getting near their victims. The attitude of commanders when told of domestic violence incidents has tended to be, “I’ll take care of it, he’s my soldier,” rather than one of protecting the victim. It is not uncommon for commanders to ignore orders for anger management counseling and the like when it conflicts with military assignments. In fact, the military has handled most cases of domestic violence by administrative actions rather than by court martial. In sharp contrast, in 1990, 80 percent of civilian cases were referred for prosecution.  

The effects of militarism during post-conflict periods are also quite grave. Men returning from war frequently transfer their entitlement to commit violence from the battlefield to their own communities. For example, after the supposed end to the war in Afghanistan, the condition for women in that country has worsened considerably. Rape, forced prostitution and marriages, acid burnings, the bombing of girls’ schools, and the sale of women are daily atrocities. In the U.S., three soldiers returning from duty in Afghanistan killed their wives at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  

Misogynist violence is a major component of the global pandemic of violence against women. But we must go beyond that and recognize that men’s violence against women is so prevalent that even in peacetime, there is no peace for women. According to a recent UNIFEM report, one in three women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. According to the U.S. Justice Department, every 90 seconds, a person over the age of 12 is sexually assaulted; 89 percent of the victims are female, 99 percent of the perpetrators are male. It is critical that those who are working to raise awareness about misogynist violence and those who are working to end militarism recognize the intersection of their agendas and find ways to work together.  

Towards this end, there are many tools that can and should be used. These include the implementation of UNSC 1325 and CEDAW as well as the utilization of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was established by treaty in 2002 and codifies accountability for gender-based crimes against women during military conflict by defining sexual and gender violence of all kinds as war crimes. It also includes means to facilitate better investigation of these crimes and protection of witnesses and victims as well as legal counsel for victims.  

UNSC Resolution 1325 mandates the protection of, and respect for, the human rights of women and girls and calls for the increased representation of women in decision-making for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict and peace processes. It also calls for increasing the number of women appointed as special representatives. Other provisions include support of local women’s peace initiatives and respect for international law applicable to the rights and protection of women and girls. It calls for adopting special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, and calls for ensuring that Security Council missions take gender considerations and rights of women into account, including through consultation with local and international women’s groups.  

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. It defines discrimination against women as “...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” CEDAW has frequently been referred to as a bill of human rights for women.  

It is important to know that the U.S. does not participate in the International Criminal Court and has not signed UNSC 1325 or ratified CEDAW. However, both Iraq and Afghanistan have agreed to all three measures and therefore a case can be made that they are applicable to the situations in those countries. In particular, it should be obvious that violence always violates the human rights of the victims and, therefore, UNSC 1325 and CEDAW are applicable to these conflicts. In addition, the documented pandemic of rapes in both of these countries should certainly be addressed by the ICC.  

Beyond demanding the utilization of these tools, it is also necessary to speak out against men’s sexism and violence. We need to name these for what they are and make the connection between this toxic sense of male entitlement and the militarism that is killing women.  

Finally, we need to find and travel different paths to empowerment. We need to utilize partnership thinking based on egalitarian and democratic values. In a partnership society, there is a low degree of violence because there is no need to preserve domination, as there is in patriarchy. Among other things, accomplishing this requires a shift in spending priorities. For instance, we know that quality childcare and good education greatly impact a child’s ability to grow into a capable adult. Yet the amount we spend on training educators and childcare providers is a minute fraction of what we spend on training and enabling soldiers to kill. Thus, militarism is enabled to play a disproportionate role in socializing people to accept violence and patriarchy as the norm. By shifting spending priorities, we could begin to change the process of socialization that allows power over gender domination to one of constructive partnership.

Lucinda Marshall is co-moderator of the Feminist Peace Network (www. feministpeacenetwork. org) and co-facilitator of a workshop about militarism and violence against women.