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War victimization of women

samedi 30 novembre 2002, par Dominique Foufelle

Although violence occurs in everyday life during peacetime, violence inflicted in wartime influences people in drastic way, because the whole community takes part in war. Its result is not just individual death and injury, but also the widespread destruction of property, homes, families and economic stability. Women are affected whether they try to continue a normal life in the war territories, live in territories where there is not immediate war danger, or attempt to escape into exile. In all forms of warfare women are victims even if they are not wounded or in other way directly victimized.

Although men are also victims in war, here is an essential difference between men’s and women’s experience of violence in war. In an armed conflict there is a struggle for power, in which men and women take part in different ways, because the two genders have different modes of access to power, depending of the social role of each gender. War strengthens already existing dominant marginalization of women. As a result, women tend to define themselves more often as the passive victims of war, than as active strategists of survival in war and exile, although they are often more active than men in facing the new situation. War increases their feeling of helplessness more than it increases their power. By attacking their physical and mental health, war makes them dependent on others as it strenghtens the social views which tend to maintain or intensify their submissive role.
Most civilian victims in modern forms of warfare are women. They suffer different forms of violence most of which remain socially invisible. They are absent from written history, which record victories and defeats, enemy losses, heroic battles and heroes, usually men with only few women mentioned here and there. Raped women, weeping mothers, women in black, the hardships of life in exile - all that is quickly forgotten, considered minor sacrifice which women are expected to offer as a price for the protection they are given.
The study of war rape done by Brownmiller [1] was one of first exceptions from this practice. Also, during 1990’s, and especially in relation to the ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, academic interest in research on women’s war victimization increased. However, the fact that most of research was done by Western people, and mainly by them as journalists serving war propaganda during the conflicts, led to many misconceptions, simplistic explanations and revictimization of victims. [2]. Although this is less known in the West, researches were also done by the researchers from the former Yugoslavia during as well as after the conflicts. These later researches were mostly done by feminists who tended to combine collection of data with help and empowerment of victims. Feminist research tended to give priority to women’s common interests rather than to their ethnic origin, and therefore tried to include in victims of different ethnic groups as much as it was possible according to circumstances [3].
In this paper I will present the part of my own (mainly qualitative) research findings on women’s war and post-war victimization, which may be useful for creating a framework for the similar research in the future.
I will focus specifically on the ways in which women’s war victimization and victims themselves are seen by media, on one hand, and on forms and characteristics of women’s victimization as told by victims themselves, on the other.

Media images on war victimization of women

Public attention is mainly focused on rape, so much so that it is often considered a synonym for violence against women in general, especially in war. This happened once again during the ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.
The images of women’s war victimization created by media from different parts of the former Yugoslavia as well as from international media led to the creation of Rape Victim Identity [4].
The Rape Victim Identity is created by international media as valid exclusively for Muslim/Albanian women and sometimes for Croatian women. As a consequence, victimisation of non-Muslim/non-Albanian women is ignored as well as victimisation of women from ethnically mixed families. Thus, the rape victim identity completely excluded Serbian women as possible rape victims, which was manifested not only in the lack of explicit mentioning in debates on rape issues, but in defining victims of rape in Bosnia – they were only Muslim women raped by Serbs. In majority of Western feminist studies it is evident that when they said "Bosnian women", they meant Muslim women only. Ethnocentrism, although criticised by feminists as it ignores problems of women not belonging to white race and middle class, is certainly still a reality in feminist studies, only this time there are no so much critics on it. There are few feminist writers who, as Stiglmayer [5] did included in their works some of documentation on raped Serbian women. However, Stiglamayer apologises so much for addressing the rapes of Serbian women, as she was afraid that it could change the existing theoretical constructions and images.
Rapes and other forms of suffering of women from ethnically mixed families were completely ignored as well. It was obviously the result of the fact that representations of both raped women and rapists were based on a black-white pattern, which is inappropriate for the Bosnian ethnically mixed milieu. Thus, it was not so simple to include rapes of women from mixed families in existing theoretical constructions. The available data indicate that women married to men of different nationality were raped or threatened to have been raped by men of their own nationality, nationality of their husbands or nationality neither of them belong to. Cases of suffering of women from mixed marriages which I met during my research on violence against women in war, indicate the complexity of the situation of mixed marriages and exposal of women from such marriages to rapes, which have been totally neglected in all past analyses [6]. Rapes of women from mixed marriages undoubtedly confirm the Brownmiller’s thesis on rapes in war as a means of men’s mutual clashes : rape is directed against all women who belong to other men [7]. Thus we could introduce the third, decisive element into the rape issue : a woman who belongs to a man of "other" nationality. Actually women were raped in war because they were "women" and because they were "ethnically other". However, when married to men of other nationality, their ethnical difference was determined by belonging to men of other nationality, while their own nationality was of a secondary value.
Media of all countries of the former Yugoslavia involved in war created their own Rape Victim Identities as valid exclusively for women of their own ethnic origin. Presented in this way, women’s victimisation was easily misused, i.e. it was used as powerful weapon in war propaganda rather than as starting point for creation of prevention and aid strategies.
Victim’s identity is exclusively reserved for rapes committed within so-called ethnical cleansing, i.e. to rapes which were widely spread in certain areas and committed on the basis of military strategy which was established in advance and conducted systematically. In this way, victims of rapes which were not committed as part of ethnical cleansing strategy, are less valuable as victims, regardless of their real suffering. Women’s suffering was still overshadowed by men’s interests and even feminists considered that women’s sexual abuse, independent of warfare tactics, was not of their primary interest [8]. However, it is barely possible to see the importance which answering the question whether the rape was massive or not has for the raped women.
Rape Victim Identity is problematic since it presents women’s war victimisation in simplistic and biased way ignoring a wide scope of women’s sufferings in war and making all other victims look trivial. Trafficking in women and other forms of enforced prostitution, abuse of refugees, mental torturing, blackmailing, loss of the closest persons, etc - all complexity of women’s agony in war was overshadowed by only one, although horrible, form of women’s suffering – the rape. Moreover, the creation of Rape Victim Identity ignores activities of women themselves, such as offering and collecting of evidence materials, organising groups for self-help and international and national linking [9].

Reality : forms and characteristics of war victimization of women

Although in peace as well as in war, the rape is one of most serious crimes with long lasting consequences, it is necessary to consider the fact that women in war are also subject to other kinds of sexual violence and sexual harassment ; they are victims of torture, murder, malnutrition, psychological violence, fear, domestic violence by husband and/or son (who is of another nationality, or back from the front, refugee families). Women suffer because they have lost or been separated from a child, husband, or other family members, because of different forms of discrimination and violence they are faced in exile, sexual slavery through forced concubinage, forced prostitution, in brothels and as surviving strategy, etc.
Women are victimized directly or indirectly, when their children, husbands or someone else close to them has suffered or been killed. Both are forms of victimization, because a woman can suffer great psychological consequences even when she is not physically hurt. As a Palestinian woman Nuha Nafal says,"when a soldier is killed, he is dead. But who continues to suffer ? The Mother, Sister, the Wife." [10] Women experience stressful situations with greater difficulty. They take more intensive and greater care of the family, generally speaking. Considering all this, their whole physical and psychological health is endangered more than men’s.
War victimization of women is rather multiple than single, with different forms of victimization and their consequences been interlaced and occurring in the context of the interruption of normal everyday routine and running household and taking care of children and family in the absence of normal living conditions (gaz, electricity, food, water). There is interconnection and continuity between war and post-war victimization, which is especially pronounced in connection with economic hardships and disturbances in performance of traditional gender roles caused by war, as well as with consequences of men’s post-traumatic stress disorder. Thus, apart from psychological and economic consequences of war, women suffer from war connected domestic violence and sex trafficking as well.
War victimization is both primary and secondary. Definitions of war violence-victimization given by women themselves [11] suggest the personal aspect of violence, caused by changes imposed on the lives of women. And the changes that are brought about by war are always violent. This definition also shows the complexity and multiplicity of primary victimization of women in war and includes :
* rape and other forms of sexual abuses of women in war ;
* trafficking in women and other forms of enforced prostitution and sexual slavery (during and after the war) ;
* expulsion ;
* abuse (sexual, economical, emotional) of refugees ;
* fear ;
* mental and physical torturing ;
* blackmailing ;
* killing of or disappearance of children and other close persons ;
* forced separation ;
* forced pregnancies ;
* domestic violence in connection to the war (during and after the conflict) ;
* loss of home and other property ;
* living in siege etc.
Apart from different forms of primary victimization, women are also exposed to secondary victimization. Secondary victimization can also have different forms and includes especially :
* revictimization of raped women by media presentations as well as by journalists’, fact finders’ and asylum officers’ approach ;
* revictimisation of raped women as witnesses before international and national courts ;
* revictimization of women asylum seekers and refugees, i.e. women victims of various forms of victimization, by inadequate accommodation and social support, political manipulations, misuse of humanitarian aid, by media, individual journalists, fact-finders.
As Brownmiller wrote, during the war, emphasizing the rape as a specific act of oppression done by soldiers of one side only (or of one nation), is being used as a motivator and emotional incitement by the other side to carry on the war. Both sides rarely admit to rape. When the war is over, a wholly predictable reaction set in. The crime that is by reputation "the easiest to charge and the hardest to prove has traditionally been the easiest to disprove as well. The rational experts found it laughably easy to debunk accounts of rape, and laughably was the way they did it" [12]
As I already mentioned, women’s suffering was overshadowed by the state media campaign (of all sides involved in the conflict), aiming to blame only one side and to incite their own nation to revenge [13]. This contributed to the creation of new cycle of violence so that new rapes and other ways of suffering were consequences of that atmosphere. Unfortunately international community and the world’s media also used such propaganda.
To illustrate that I shall mention 2 examples, one of them referring to the foreign and one to the local media. Newsweek of January 11, 1993 brought a photo of a group of women, with the following text underneath : "Bitter solidarity : Muslim women in the refugee center in Tuzla, Bosnia, survive again the horrors of rapes, committed by the Serbian soldiers in June last year". While the photos of raped Muslim women went all over the world, confirming the thesis of Serbian crimes and discovering the violation of women’s rights, almost nobody wondered what was the damage of such impudent manipulation of women’s suffering [14].
Similar traumatic experiences refer to the national state media’s impatience to link the identity of a victim with their own nationality and the identity of a rapist with their enemies. How the identity of raped women who were telling their tragic experiences on the TV Belgrade was kept, is undoubtedly seen trough the story of one of women I talked to during my research on violence against women in war. Speaking of the raped women with whom she stayed together in a collective accommodation, she says : "We found out the real details of her case in the TV show, since somebody recognized her while she was talking, although she was filmed from the back. Some people invited her to watch the show and she suffered a nervous breakdown. I don’t know what’s happened to her afterwards." [15] Raped women of other nationalities who answered the invitation of their national TV stations and publicly revealed the horrors of rape experienced similar cases of repeated victimization.
Similar effects may have been produced by foreign journalists’ way of approaching women in refugee camps, usually followed by their favourite introductory question : "Anyone here raped that speaks English ?" [16].
One of the most drastic examples of journalists’ aggression against rape victims we find in the interview Stiglmayer conducted with 12 years old Muslim girl from Foca. Having being aware of the agony the girl was put through by her questions, Stiglmayer says : "I felt like a criminal while I pressed the little girl, who did not speak very much, with questions about her rape, and I was glad the interview was over." Stiglmayer’s persistence in conducting that interview is astounding, as she could have talked to the girl’s mother and obtained the relevant data from her [17].
As witnesses before International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia women victims of war rape are forgotten and left at the mercy of the authorities of receiving countries (if they are refugees) or to their rapists (if they stayed, decided or were forced to return to places where they were living before). Insecure refugee status and, consequently, unsolved existential problems, prevent victims from psychological and physical recovery and, as a rule, traumatize them further. The slow and traumatizing procedure for obtaining refugee status as well as the uncertainty of their residency in asylum countries, prolong their own feeling of uncertainty and decreases the readiness of women to testify. Because of oppressive asylum policies, most European countries, as stated by Schiestl [18], "are in effect culpable of suppressing evidence, especially evidence from women." It happens that women who have spoken out about their trauma during asylum proceedings and even repeated their statements in front of investigators of the Tribunal still fail to receive a response to their asylum applications or even are denied asylum. In spite of the fact that they are witnesses of the Tribunal, they may be deported to their countries, i.e to the site of the crime. In this way, as Schiestl sarcastically puts "they are officially delivered over to the perpetrators." [19] In this way, the most important forms of victim protection - secure immigrant status and defence against deportation in the hands of perpetrators - do not exist.
Apart from insecurity of status and existential problems, rape victims also face lack of enough appropriate counseling and therapeutic services. In that sense, what is especially difficult is the situation of victims of war rape who found refuge in countries of the former Yugoslavia who are faced with a difficult economic situation. Moreover, the special position of rape victims as well as other refugees who are settled on the territory of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is especially ignored [20]. Apart from total insecurity and the risk of forced return on the site of the crime, rape victims are, as refugees in FRY, have been faced for very long time also with inappropriate acceptance by the local people as well as with complete lack of organized and comprehensive support. Finally, in the worst position and with small chances to be empowered and deciding to testify before the Tribunal or speak elsewhere about their victimization are those victims of war rape who stayed or returned on the territory where they were originally victimized. They are faced, not only with general political and economic insecurity, but also with real fear that, if they decide to testify, they would expose themselves to threats and revenge by perpetrators and/or persons close to them. As it is well noticed by Schiestl, it will take a lot of time until the majority of victims are in a "physical, emotional and material position that would enable them to speak".
The very life in refuge is connected with numerous victimisations and lack of appropriate help and support, especially when refugees are staying in the countries of the former Yugoslavia and do not have much prospect to return to their homes [21]. However, as an aspect of women’s secondary victimization this is less explored than secondary victimization of raped women and as a such it needs to be taken in consideration in future war victimization research as well.

For more infos, read the book : Women, Violence and War, V. Nikolic-Ristanovic, ed., CEU Press, Budapest and New York, 2000.
It can be ordered through or on


Dr Vesna Nikolic-Ristanovic
Vesna Nikoli-Ristanovi is senior researcher in Institute for Criminological and Sociological Research in Belgrade (Serbia), president of Victimology Society of Serbia, professor of Women’s studies Center in Belgrade and visiting professor at Keele University (England). She has been published largely on criminal and war victimisation in the former Yugoslavia. She was the editor of the book Women, Violence and War (CEU Press, 2000). Her most recent book is Social change, Gender and Violence : Post-Communist and War Affected Societies (Kluwer, 2002).


[1] S. Brownmiller, Against our will, (New York, 1975).

[2] For example, A. Stiglemayer ’The rapes in Bosnia-Herzegovina’ in A.Stiglemayer, ed., Mass rape:the war against women in Bosnia-Herzegovina, (Lincoln, 1994) and C. MacKinnon, ’Comment:Theory is not a luxury’ in D.G.Dallmeyer, ed., Reconceiving reality : women and international law, (New York, 1993).

[3] For example, V. Nikolic-Ristanovic, N.Mrvic-Petrovic, S.Konstantinovic-Vilic, B.Knezic and I. Stevanovic Zene Krajine : Rat, egzodus i izbeglistvo (Women of Krajina : War, Exodus and Exile) ; (Belgrade,1996) ; V.Nikolic-Ristanovic.,ed., Women, Violence and War, (Budapest, 2000) ; S. Milivojevic ’Nasilje u porodici za vreme agresije NATO na SRJ’ (Domestic Violence during NATO aggression on FRY), 2 Temida, (1999) p.45-48 ; V.Nikolic-Ristanovic. Social change, Gender and Violence, forthcoming.

[4] See for exampleD. Andric-Ruzicic. ed. "Ne/ziveti sa nasiljem" ( Not/living with violence), 2 Drugi pogled, (1999) and V. Nikolic-Ristanovic. Social Change, Gender and Violence.

[5] D.Zarkov "War Rapes in Bosnia : on Masculinity, Femininity and Power of the Rape Victim Identity", 2 Temida, (1998), p. 3.

[6] A. Stiglemayer,’The Rapes in Bosnia-Herzegovina’ in A.Stiglemayer, op.cit. p. 37.

[7] V. Nikolic-Ristanovic, ed., Women, Violence and War.

[8] S. Brownmiller, ’Making Women’s Bodies Battlefields’ in A. Stiglemayer, op. cit., p.183.

[9] For an exception see C.M. Chinkin,’Peace and Force in International Law’ in D.G.Dallmeyer, op.cit.

[10] D. Zarkov, op.cit., p.5.

[11] S. Hayton-Keeva Valiant women in war and exile-thirty-eight true stories. (San Francisco, 1987), p.57.

[12] V. Nikolic-Ristanovic, Women, Violence and War, p. 21-35.

[13] S. Brownmiller, Against our will, p.47.

[14] The Amnesty International Report, Janyary 20,1993.

[15] V.Nikolic-Ristanovic, Women, Violence and War, p.42.

[16] ibidem.

[17] S.Zajovic, ’Zloupotreba zrtava’ (Abuse of the victims), in Zene za mir, (Belgrade, 1994), p.231.

[18] A.Stiglemayer, ’The rapes in Bosnia-Herzegovina’, p. 110.

[19] B. Schiestl, ’Why Don’t Women Speak Out ? On the Situation of Women in Asylum Countries’ in E. Richter-Lyonette, ed. In the Aftermath of Rape : Women’s Rights, War Crimes and Genocide, (Givrius, 1997).

[20] ibidem.

[21] I.Stevanovic, ’Women’s Rights and Refuge’ in V.Nikolic-Ristanovic, ed. Women’s Rights and Social Transition in FRY, (Belgrade, 1997).

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