A man scorned: respect, vengeance and the use of rape in war

In the recent conflicts in Darfur, Uganda, Congo, and Bosnia, rape has been used systematically as a tool of war. The horrors perpetrated on civilian women and girls have been a key part of fighting forces’ strategy, a deliberate method for advancing the war effort.

Different theories have been put forward for the surge in such violence in the past few decades. Amnesty attributes it variously to ethnic cleansing (by raping a woman you infect her ethnicity with your group’s seed), the desire to sow terror in the enemy’s community, and the need to stop culture and values, of which women are often seen as the guardians, being passed down to the next generation. Others highlight the need for armies to humiliate their opponents (both the raped women and their husbands and sons) by emphasising their inability to protect themselves.

Sierra Leone’s 1990s civil war saw some of the worst atrocities against women of any war in history. Boys raped their mothers and sisters, pregnant women had their stomachs cut open, poles were shoved up vaginas. Gang rape became a sport. Yet here, ethnic considerations played little part, and in what turned into a Hobbesian frenzy of all against all there was no clear enemy to humiliate. Terrorising the civilian population and showcasing their power were no doubt important motivations for the rapists, but it seems there were other factors at work too.

I wonder whether a lethal cocktail of population pressure, poverty and pride was not a more important driver of the carnage. The population explosion forced young men off the land and into the cities to find work. Most ended up unemployed and dirt poor. They were therefore unable to afford the products of modernity – cars, houses, mobile phones, smart clothes – that the young women of the country, clinging to dreams of Westernisation, increasingly demanded. Spurned, the destitute young men could not find wives or start families. In Freetown earlier this year, one young Muslim hawker told me, ‘unless you have a car and a house, people don’t think you’re serious.’ Further along the West African coast in Senegal, a hotel boy complained that he could not find a wife because he was too poor. These days, he said, a girl’s highest priority is money: ‘I can’t afford a car or a house so women aren’t interested in me.’

Rebel fighters in Sierra Leone’s civil war singled out their elders for some of the most horrific violence. The latter, seeing that their sons and nephews could not fulfil the roles expected of them, had looked down on the younger generation. When war broke out, they paid a heavy price for this lack of respect. Could it be that the treatment of women was also linked to respect, a crazed act of vengeance by the proud, frustrated young men they had scorned? The traditional explanations for armies’ use of rape in war put most of the blame on instructions from the top, but perhaps in some cases the pressure comes from the bottom, from the fatefully wounded pride of the soldiers themselves.