Rape is being used for ethnic cleansing in South Sudan. But it’s not the first place, or the last.

By — December 19, 2016

Wars fought because of ethnic hatred often seem to be more brutal than others. This is just a personal observation, having studied many. Just look at Rwanda, whose 1994 war saw between 250,000 and half a million women raped, often with objects and often publicly, in order to spread maximum humiliation and terror. Men and women were torn apart with machetes and bludgeoned to death with wooden clubs. The hatred of “the other” was that great.

Right now in South Sudan, the young country’s civil war is tipping into something observers are calling a potential genocide. The risk of mass atrocities, “which include recurring episodes of ethnic cleansing, escalating into possible genocide is all too real,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in Newsweek on December 16.

“This war has gone beyond any expectation,” a woman named Dagaban, 45, in an internally displaced persons camp in Malakal, in Upper Nile state, recently told The Guardian. “When we were fighting with the Arabs they would spare women and children, but now everyone is killed, even blind people and those who are mad. They kill everyone. It’s worse than before.”

Women at a UN camp for internally displaced people on the outskirts of Malakal in Upper Nile state in South Sudan. (UN Photo/JC McIlwaine)

Another way in which it is worse is that rape is now being used as a tool of ethnic cleansing, the UN declared at the beginning of December. Not only has sexualized violence in South Sudan “reached epic proportions,” a UN investigator told the media, but it is being used in a very specific way: to decimate and psychologically ruin the opposing side. A UN survey found that 70 percent of the women in Juba, the country’s capital, had been sexually assaulted in the three years since the war began. As far back as May 2014, the UN produced a report that broke down reported cases of sexualized violence by state and found that the violence committed during the conflict included “rape, sometimes with an object (guns or bullets), gang-rape, abduction and sexual slavery, and forced abortion.” The report was clear that “[a]ll parties to the conflict have committed acts of rape and other forms of sexual violence against women of different ethnic groups.”

The UN defines ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” Rape is one of those violent and terror-inspiring means that has long been used in war to destroy civilian populations, but its use has been creatively diverse in its intent to destroy.

When we created the WMC Women Under Siege website nearly five years ago, our founder, Gloria Steinem, defined how we would be using the term “ethnic cleansing” when it comes to sexualized violence in conflict: Ethnic cleansing, Steinem said, “not only makes women subject to outright murder, but also controls the threat of their bodies as the means of reproduction. For instance, women have been raped in order to occupy ‘inferior’ wombs with ‘superior’ sperm; in other conflicts, women are forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of ‘inferior’ groups) in order to end future reproduction. As in the case of Bosnia, women are also subject to the sex-specific political torture of forcing them to bear the child of their torturer in order to break their will.”

So not just sexualized violence to kill or scare. Rape to literally change the face of future generations—to imprint the conquerors’ face on the losers’ offspring. Or to inhibit reproduction among the opposing side. What we’re seeing in South Sudan right now is rampant, and is known to include forced abortions as a means of preventing an ethnicity from reproducing.

But to speak of “right now” in terms of what is being done to women in South Sudan is to deny that the world has known that rape has been used there for ethnic cleansing for years now. In a chilling reminder of what happened in the Rwanda genocide, hate propaganda was broadcast in South Sudan in 2014 inciting men to rape women. At the time, commanders aired “hate messages declaring that certain ethnic groups should not stay in Bentiu [in north South Sudan] and even calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community.”

The comparison of the day is to warn that the conflict in South Sudan may become genocide. But to pretend that women are victims of ethnic cleansing as of right now is a denial of history. We and others reported on the use of rape for ethnic cleansing two years ago. Nothing about what is occurring in South Sudan is new—and it should not be surprising. Ethnic cleansing through rape and other forms of sexualized violence is as old as documented wars. Our project was originated by Steinem in order to create a central repository of information on how sexualized violence is used as a weapon of war so we don’t continue to see it used over and over again, knowledge being the first step in stopping atrocities.

South Sudan may be the latest conflict in which women’s bodies are bearing the brunt of hatred, but it is hardly the first, and likely won’t be the last. Below is a list of what we’ve documented thus far on how sexualized violence has been used to ethnically cleanse groups in various conflicts. The following can be seen in our ever-expanding “conflict profiles” section of the site, which can be found here.

In addition to these conflicts, there have been documented reports of sexualized violence used for ethnic cleansing in the ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

The Holocaust: The Holocaust was an effort to completely annihilate the Jewish people. We are using the term “ethnic cleansing” here to denote that sexualized violence was used to prevent the propagation of Jews and other groups of people.

Forced sterilizations and abortions, as well as heinous “medical” experiments, prevented Jews and Sinti-Roma (known then as Gypsies) from later having children.

Liberia: Rape was used as a form of ethnic targeting throughout the Liberia war. A 1998 report of a survey in Monrovia found that women and girls accused of belonging to a particular ethnic group (of which there are maybe 16 in the country) or militia were at greater risk for physical and sexualized violence. But ethnicity as such did not seem to have been a major cause of the war. The “often-multi-ethnic military factions receive far more blame for the violent conflicts than the major tribes backing them,” according to Peacebuildingdata.org. Leaders drew on different ethnic groups to mobilize forces, and in this context, the ethnicity of women justified sexualized violence. However, targeting women for rape is different from genocidal rape. Rape does not appear to have functioned as a form of ethnic cleansing as has been seen in Rwanda and Bosnia.

Bosnia: There are testimonies from women in Bosnia who had soldiers tell them while raping them that they wanted to impregnate them or force them to have children who would look ethnically different from their mother, or that they were raping them to punish them for being Muslim (or Croatian).

There were also women who became pregnant and were forced to carry their babies to term.

Rwanda: Rape was used in Rwanda as a means of stripping Tutsi women of their dignity and identity. This was part of the tactic to treat Tutsis as subhuman, as “cockroaches,” which they were called in the hate propaganda. From the rape testimonies, it was as if the Hutu raped to say, “You are nothing to us. We will do to you what we want.” The mutilations of Tutsi women say that more than anything. Many Hutu women were raped as well, often because they were affiliated with Tutsi men. Mutilation was used as a way to forcibly sterilize Tutsi women to stop them from having children.

Also, in a patriarchy such as Rwanda, any forced pregnancies result in babies who take the father’s—the perpetrator’s—ethnicity. Another way in which sexualized violence was used to ethnically cleanse was through the transmission of HIV. Women in Rwanda “were taunted by their genocidal rapists, who promised to infect them with HIV,” according to a 2006 briefing paper from the United Nations Population Fund.

Darfur, Sudan: There were many reports of ethnic slurs being made during rape in Darfur as fighting erupted in 2003, as well as stated intentions to impregnate women and force “mixed” babies. This kind of sexualized violence is intrinsic to destroying communities, families, and social structures. Rape is meant to leave a permanent mark on women, tearing them from a sense of security, even within their own bodies. Following rape, women were sometimes made to build their own huts outside the “family compound,” according to a report from Médecins Sans Frontières.

Sri Lanka: Although state security forces in Sri Lanka used rape against other communities as well, their main target has been the Tamil population. Human Rights Watch reported in 2013: “there appears to be no category of Tamil who, once taken into custody, is immune from rape and other sexual violence.”

A Sri Lankan activist explained how sexualized violence fits into the larger context of “Sinhalization”—the Sinhalese government’s attempt to stamp out Tamil culture on several fronts. In the post-conflict period since 2009, the state has continued to employ militarized zones that aid in “land grabbing” Tamil areas, and has tried to eradicate the Tamil language by employing tactics that include using only the Sinhala language to advertise public bus routes.

Human rights workers, as the UK’s Telegraph reported in 2009, have also anonymously accused the government of ethnic cleansing. In this context, rape perpetrated primarily against the same group may constitute part of a larger pattern of ethnic cleansing.

North Korea: In addition to political cleansing, the North Korean regime reportedly commits sexualized violence against women carrying ethnically “impure” fetuses as well. North Koreans caught in China—or suspected of trying to defect—are arrested and detained. Women are by far the majority of defectors. Journalist Barbara Demick wrote in the New Yorker in 2010 that several factors, including the types of work women do in North Korea, the shortage of women in China, and the sex industry, contribute to the gender disparity. Other experts told WMC Women Under Siege the same. When they are captured, according to testimonies collected by the Washington-based advocacy group U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, those who are visibly pregnant are ridiculed, separated out, and administered painful forced abortions while detained.  

Because, it seems, officials assume that the fathers are Chinese, and thus view the soon-to-be-mothers as women who “brought this on themselves,” the women are tortured in sexualized ways and barred from entering the concentration camp system until any detected fetuses are destroyed. According to interviews conducted by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, methods to abort include targeted beatings, forced abortion, and induced labor followed by infanticide—anything to prevent part-Chinese offspring from becoming part of the population.

Burma: Refugees International reported in 2003 that some evidence indicates that Burmese “soldiers use rape to coerce women into marriage and to impregnate them so they will bear ‘Burman’ babies, known as a campaign of ‘Burmanization.’” EarthRights International, a Thailand-based nonprofit human rights organization, has reported that there is evidence of rape being used to “change the ethnic balance in Burma,” and that “by forcibly impregnating ethnic minority women, Burmese soldiers can increase the majority population though more Burman births.”

In an interview, a female villager stated: “The Burmese soldiers think Burman blood is the best. People talk about the rape a lot. People say that the Burmese soldiers want to make more Burman babies. I once had a letter in my papers that said Burmese soldiers would get certain rewards if they would marry certain kinds of ethnic women. They wrote in the letter that it is not limited to soldiers who are unmarried. The letter said, ‘Your blood must be left in the village.’”