Current Elephants in the Room at Global Summit End Sexual Violence in Conflict

There seems to be a consensus on the following words & concepts being no-nos:

1. Male violence
2. Capitalism and conflict
3. Arms trade
4. Consumerism
5. Human trafficking
6. UN troops as perpetrators
7. Patriarchy
8. Women

End Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones : The Necessity of Women

Two years ago The American Political Science Review published the findings of a study on violence against women that looked at work in 70 countries over four decades whose conclusions were not unexpected for women working within the field of violence against women and whose lack of press coverage was equally unsurprising. The study’s conclusion is that the best predictor for change is “the mobilization of feminists” rather than the wealth of nations, left-wing political parties, or the number of women politicians. Really no feminist needed a longitudinal, global study to demonstrate this. In the UK, feminists, especially radical feminists, have been essential to the founding for rape crisis centres, refuges, equal pay, the right to vote, women being allowed to get their own bank accounts, mortgages and retain custodial rights of their children.

Today is my second day at Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in conflict and I have yet to hear the word feminism. In fact, I’ve heard very little from women or grassroots organisations. I was at the summit all day on Tuesday for the fringe events focusing on youth. Yet, there were very little youth present. I was worried in advance of attending of the possibility of the exploitation of survivors of sexual violence, but actually their voices were conspicuous by their absence. On the one panel I attended, the sole young woman, Princess, who grew up in post-conflict zone was spoken over and for by a male member of a NGO (and by two white women on the panel).

There were numerous young people represented via art work, film and photography* but many were represented in person by staff of NGOs – who, at least on Tuesday, were uniformly white. I had the privilege of hearing the spoken word artists Mell Nyoko and JJ Bola whose poetry is so very powerful yet the media and other attendees were far more interested in chasing Angelina Jolie and Lynn Featherstone about the building than listening to the reality of lives of women, children and men living in conflict zones.

If feminism mobilisation has been proven to be the best indicator of the permanent change in the status of women, where are the women? Where are the grassroots women’s groups? Why aren’t Million Women Rise, a UK organisation who have been raising awareness of the mass rape of Congolese women here? Where are all the local groups who work in the UK with survivor of sexual violence in conflict zones?

Why is there only one fringe event on the issue of consumerism and capitalism when we know it is responsible for perpetuating the war in the Congo so that the West can have a new iPhone every 12 months? Why isn’t this conference addressing the issue of conflict itself. Or, the mass rapes perpetrated by so-called peacekeeping troops sent in by the UN as happened in the former Yugoslavia? Why is the word patriarchy being limited to those living in the Middle East and South East Asia as if patriarchy doesn’t exist in the UK?

The word culture is being bandied about to mean ‘other’. Sexual violence happens ‘ over there’ because of their culture. The elephant In the room being ignored is that 1 in 4 women between 16-59 are raped in the UK during their lifetime. This conference is ignoring the reality and complexities of sexual violence in conflicts. It is ignoring the UK government deporting women back to areas where mass rape is common or where they will be forced to undergo FGM -which is a form of sexual violence. Why aren’t talking about the migrant women raped at Yarls Wood? Or, the women raped in the UK as a punishment for a ‘crime’ committed by their family? Where are the women’s organisations, like Southhall Black Sisters, who are pointing out the UK governments failure to support women migrants. Why aren’t we talking about our governments destruction of women’s services within the UK -services which support women and children raped here every single day.

Why aren’t we talking about the hypocrisy of William Hague, who I’m listening to right now, standing on a stage asking the international community to help those in conflict zones build a victim-centred justice system to support rape victims when his own government has cut funding here to the justice system? How can we not challenge Hague’s anger at women in the Congo being forced to see their rapist in the street every day when we know this is a reality of the vast majority of rape victims in the UK? Sexual violence in the UK is increasing and victim blaming in the media is worsening. Numerous members of our ‘specialist’ police forces have been investigated for their abject failure in policing rape by no-criming reports and labelling victims liars. Rape crisis centres are closing because there are no funds and wait lists for accessing support are over a year long in some areas. Justice for rape victims does not exist in the UK. Yet, Hague stands on a stage demanding the international community do what his own political party has refused to do.

Sexual violence in conflict zones isn’t new. British, American, Australian, Canadian, German and every other country who fought in World War II had troops who committed mass rapes, yet we only talk about the rapes committed by Russian and Japanese troops. Punishing ‘rebellious’ populations and exerting authority by those in power has always been made on the bodies of women. It does a great disservice to women to pretend that sexual Violence in conflict zones is a recent phenomenon. Or, that conflict ends for women with the formal end of war. The war in the DRC supposedly ended more than 10 years ago yet women are still raped every day by combatants -as are women in Sierra Leone and Chechnya.

We cannot end sexual violence in war zones until we start talking properly about male violence and entitlement. We won’t end it until we start talking about the real causes of sexual violence: patriarchy and capitalism. We need to talk about the arms trade, human trafficking, and the genocidal exploitation of people in order to make iPhones cheaper. We need to recognise that FGM is sexual violence. We need to recognise that street harassment is sexual violence. We need to talk about the toxic masculinity which exists in every culture. We need to talk about the sexual violence experienced by and perpetrated by child soldiers. We need to talk about racism and homophobia. We need to talk about misogyny.

Ending sexual violence in conflict zones requires us to take responsibility for perpetuating it by permitting the arms trade to go unchecked. We need to take responsibility for unfettered capitalism.

Most importantly, we need to listen to the women and children who have survived sexual violence in conflict zones. We need to listen to grassroots women’s organisations.We need to hear what they need. We need to support the work which has been going on for years or generations instead of walking in to ‘fix’ problems that we refuse to acknowledge our responsibility for.

Ending sexual violence requires women’s voices – not men and NGOs speaking for or over them: but women’s voices at the centre of the discussions.

This is the press release for the study:

The study in the latest issue of American Political Science Review (APSR), published by Cambridge University Press for the American Political Science Association (APSA), found that in feminist movements that were autonomous from political parties and the state, women were able to articulate and organize around their top priorities as women, without having to answer to broader organizational concerns or mens’ needs. Mobilizing across countries, feminist movements urged governments to approve global and regional norms and agreements on violence.

Strong, autonomous feminist movements were the first to articulate the issue of violence against women and the key catalysts for government action, with other organizations sidelining issues perceived as being only important to women. Strong movements commanded public support and attention, and convinced the media the issues were important for public discussion. In countries that were slower to adopt policies on violence, feminist movements leveraged global and regional agreements to push for local policy change.

S. Laurel Weldon, co-author of the study, said: “Violence against women is a global problem. Research from North America, Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia has found astonishingly high rates of sexual assault, stalking, trafficking, violence in intimate relationships, and other violations of women’s bodies and psyches. In Europe it is a bigger danger to women than cancer, with 45 per cent of European women experiencing some form of physical or sexual violence. Rates are similar in North America, Australia and New Zealand and studies in Asia, Latin America and Africa show that violence towards women there is ubiquitous.”

The scope of data for the study is unprecedented. The study includes every region of the world, varying degrees of democracy, rich and poor countries, and a variety of world religions – it encompasses 85 per cent of the world’s population. Analyzing the data took five years, which is why the most recent year covered is 2005.

Mala Htun, co-author of the study, adds: “Social movements shape public and government agendas and create the political will to address issues. Government action, in turn, sends a signal about national priorities and the meaning of citizenship. The roots of change of progressive social policies lie in civil society.”

*Images will be uploaded at a later date.

What about the women? The existence of Brothels in Nazi Concentration Camps

[cross-posted on my professional blog]

This is a response to a post at Everyday Whorephobia called “When the State Traffics Women“. I posted a brief response on the blog itself [which is currently in moderation]* but I wanted to write a longer response. Women’s history is something I am very passionate about and this particular topic is something I am quite familiar with. Whilst I am glad more women are writing about this topic, I do have some reservations about some of the conclusions within this piece.

Sexual violence and rape were common during the Holocaust. The fact that these experiences are not common knowledge is because of sexist constructions of a specific Holocaust narrative which privileged testimonies of male survivors like Elie Wiesel over women, Gay men, people with disabilities, and children, to name a few. Partly, this was because of the historical context in which Holocaust narratives became well-known as very little academic research was done until the 1960s. Testimonies published in the immediate post-war era, of which there are many, had very small publishing runs as many people were simply not interested in analysing the full spectrum of violence perpetrated during World War Two. Holocaust history was written during, and is historically situated by, the Cold War. The political desires of the US and the USSR impact how Holocaust history was written and who it was being written for. Racism was a motivating factor of the crimes against humanity during the war as much as it was a motivating factor for how the history of the war was written.

As with all history, the Holocaust was complicated. Mass genocide does not simply occur because a few men in one nation order it. The Holocaust required the participation, active and passive, of much of Europe. That is a fact which very few are willing to acknowledge but it is something we need to remind ourselves of daily.

“When the State traffics women” does raise awareness of just how prolific sexual violence was during the Holocaust. This point cannot be emphasised enough; sexual violence was ignored by mainstream historians until well into the 1990s. Feminist historians were writing about in the early 1970s but this researched was dismissed, as women’s history frequently is. Since the 1990s, there have been numerous collections of essays on the experience of women published as well as numerous conferences which dealt specifically with the gendered experiences of women. There also been an explosion in the sheer number of women’s testimonies being (re)published. In 2010, an anthology specifically about sexual violence against Jewish women was published. As I write this, there are a multitude of PhDs, essays and books being written about sexual violence during the Holocaust. Women’s experiences are being written back into the history of the Holocaust and the extant of sexual violence against all peoples is finally being questioned.

My personal belief is that there cannot be enough research and writing on the Holocaust. The Soviet archives, which were only recently opened, have demonstrated just how much we did not know. 10 years ago, a group of scholars decided to establish the official number of slave labour and concentration camps. It was double what was previously believed and includes at least 500 brothels. So many records still need to be archived. What we thought we knew has turned out to be only a brief snapshot of what actually happened.

This piece had the potential to increase public awareness of the existence of brothels and the treatment of prostituted women. Unfortunately, there are several problems with the essay. First, it occasionally  conflates the experience of prostituted women within Nazi Germany with the experience of all women within the concentration, death and slave labour camps. This conflation is not helpful when researching sexual violence. The treatment of individuals within the camp system depended on their nationality, race, age, sex, sexuality, criminal activity, disability and skill. During the 1930s, the Nazis deliberately targeted prostituted women under the category of ‘asocial’** for incarceration, however we do not know how many women incarcerated as ‘asocials’ were prostituted women as the category included convicted criminals, women with disabilities, and those who are still othered in the UK now. The category of ‘asocial’ included anyone accused of moral degeneracy. It is also included women who were Lesbians. Lesbianism, unlike homosexuality, was not illegal under the Nazi regime. Lesbian women were still incarcerated but they were charged as ‘asocials’ rather than for the crime of homosexuality. This category was specifically about women living within Nazi Germany before the outbreak of war and at the beginning.

Secondly, the number of prostituted women who were incarcerated in concentration, slave-labour and death camps which had brothels is open to debate because of this issue of identification. We know, for the camps where records were not destroyed, how many women were incarcerated as ‘asocials’ but that does not give us an accurate record of women incarcerated for prostitution. This is a very important point when addressing the issue of brothels and which women were required to “work” in them because women incarcerated for the crime of prostitution were by no means the only women forced to “work” in the brothels.

The establishment of the brothels, as the piece correctly points out, were in direct response to two issues: Heinrich Himmler’s “incentivisation” program for male inmates working within the armaments factories in the slave-labour camps and homosexuality within the camps. Brothels were obviously the answer to both problems. I have some personal reservations about the brothels being developed to combat homosexuality within the camp system since the men who were incarcerated for the crime of homosexuality were subjected to sexual violence and medical experimentation. Being a known homosexual was much more likely to result in death than a pass to the brothel. The problem within the camps was sexual relationships between men who were not homosexuals and the rape of teenage boys by adult men. Both issues need far more research.

The women who were raped in the brothels included lesbian women as punishment for being lesbians and Jewish women; the laws of Rassenschade were generally ignored in the camps. “Working” in the brothel did involve better food rations. The women were also allowed to bathe and had access to better clothes. They also got to work inside which was an important consideration for many women. Women’s testimonies vary on how women were “chosen” to work in the brothels but most involve the women themselves “volunteering” to be raped in the brothel and women being forced to parade naked in front of SS guards and the most beautiful being chosen. Stories of women “volunteering” to work in the brothel include women who made the “choice” in order to access extra rations to smuggle to their sisters, which may or may not have included biological sisters as the benefits of sisterhood and the importance of women’s relationships are a common theme in women’s testimonies. There are also stories of women who were incarcerated for prostitution “volunteering” for the brothels in order to spare other women the degradation of being raped.

The women “working” in brothels generally represented in women’s testimonies in two ways: as debased women or as true sisters helping other women. Much more research needs to be done into the experience of women who worked in the brothels: who they were and, for those who “volunteered”, why did they make the “choice”.

The third, and in my opinion, the biggest problem with “When the State traffics women” is that it focuses on men and their feelings, effectively erasing the humanity of the women “working” within the brothels. Men were given tokens for ‘good behaviour’. The tokens were bartered around the camp for food and other extras. Women’s bodies were bartered as objects and then the women were raped but not just by male inmates, and certainly not Jewish men. SS guards also raped the women within the brothels, as they did with women in all the slave-labour, concentration and death camps. Jewish women were allowed to be raped by men but Jewish men were not allowed in the brothels.

As the piece states, the men were given tokens to the brothels were subject to “humiliating genital examination and a prophylactic injection before being taken to the room”. The piece fails to mention that the women within the brothels were also subject to humiliating genital examinations. SS guards certainly did watch in some camps but not in others. In some camps, SS guards were the only people allowed to rape the women in the brothels.  The women were also raped by dozens of men every day but no mention is made of the effect of this on the women’s bodies. The article also suggests that women who were infected with STIs were sent back to the main camps. It does not mention that this was frequently followed by a death sentence. It is also important to note that the campaign against STIs, as with the campaign against lice, was actually about the “safety” of the SS officers within the camps rather than concern about the male prisoners. The women, obviously, did not count. And, yes, the pregnancies which followed mass rapes were frequently aborted. Depending on the camp, this abortion could simply involve the murder of the women or the women dying from the abortion. It is certainly not quite as easy as the article implies.

This is the piece of text with which I have the most reservations:

What motivated the men who used the service? The need to relieve sexual frustration was one motivation but survivor testimonies also refer to many men wanting to talk or simply feel the physical closeness of a woman. In the pitiless world of the concentration camp they simply sought a few minutes of tenderness. They were as much victims as the women.

Whilst the men were as much victims of the women, it wasn’t for the reasons stated above. After all, the women weren’t exactly in a position to decide whether or not they wanted to talk or just feel the physical closeness of a male body. The women were being raped dozens of times a day by dozens of men. The men had a choice. The women did not and to ignore this point is to ignore the experience and trauma of the women. This failure to acknowledge the very gendered nature of the Holocaust has led to women’s lives being written out of history.The issue of brothels within the camps is complicated because it does “challenge prevailing orthodoxies about the nature of Nazi oppression”, but, and this is very important, race was a key factor in the privilege to access to the brothels. Polish resistance fighters, German criminals and western POWs were allowed access to the brothels. Jewish men were banned and Soviet POWs were considered suspect. For the women, race was generally irrelevant. Once women were incarcerated in the camp systems, they were victims of sexual violence from all men*** without the added factor of being incarcerated in the brothel. For women out with the camp system, race also impacted on their experience of sexual violence. German soldiers raped whomever they wanted and the rape and murder of Jewish women in the ghettos guarded by regular German troops. The mass rapes by the Soviet army as the moved west is well-known, less so is the mass rapes committed by Allied forces. The stories of rape of women in Western Europe have not been fully explored.I do agree that the story of sexual violence needs to be historically situated within the wider context of Nazism, however the article refers to a now questionable construction of womanhood in Nazi Germany that was based on Nazi propaganda rather than the reality of the lives of Aryan women [and the conflation of *all* women with Aryan women here is telling]. This, however, is another essay for another time.

Sexual violence was an integral experience of the Holocaust for many women and I will write further about the experience of Jewish women in the camps. What I will say is that current research into sexual violence in the Holocaust has shown just how integral sexual violence is to genocide and human rights violations. The fact that rape was not mentioned once during the Nuremberg trials is disgraceful. The fact that neither “forced prostitution” nor rape were considered war crimes until 2002 is a crime in and of itself. When writing women’s histories we need to be careful that we do not use their life-stories to reinforce a narrative based on our political leanings. The experience of women during the Holocaust has already been erased from history once to met a male political narrative. This cannot happen again.

*And, before anyone assumes anything. I only posted the comment yesterday. I’m sure they have a moderation policy which is run by volunteers. Moderating is a time consuming process and not one that anyone should have to do on a Saturday night.

** I have placed a number of terms in quotation marks because they are deeply problematic and outlining why they are problematic is an essay for another day.

***Clearly, not all men in the camps were involved in the rape of women and teenage boys but the threat was there for women.

There is more research on the experience of women available here:

The Holocaust at Women Under Siege
New Holocaust findings highlight larger gap in conflict and rape research at Women Under Siege
Remember the Women Institute