The public testimony of the nun is proof that even today rape is used as a weapon of war, around the world.
On Friday, October 24, a nun from Orissa did something incredibly brave. In full view of television cameras, she went public. For months, no one knew her name or what she looked like. Yet, everyone knew that in the ghastly sectarian violence that has gripped Orissa, one of the foulest acts was the gang rape of this nun. We also knew that the local police failed to follow up the case, despite her having filed an FIR in her traumatised state. We now know that the police tried to dissuade her from filing the FIR. Also, despite the medical report having confirmed the rape, nothing was done.
Now there is some movement, but only as a consequence of concerted pressure from media and civil society. The nun has said she does not trust that there will be justice if the same police that includes men who did not hesitate to warmly greet the men who had attacked and raped her, are entrusted the task of investigating the crime.
We have to salute the courage of this woman. Few if any women are prepared to speak out after they are raped. Hundreds never report rape. Yet, Bilkis Bano from Gujarat did. And as a result, the men who raped her were convicted. But then Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan did. But the men who raped her got away. So going public comes with risk of never getting justice, and living forever with the shame.
Not a random incident
Yet, it is important to realise that this is not just the story of one woman, a nun, who was raped. It is a reminder that rape continues to be used as a weapon of war. This woman was raped because the men waging war against the Christians in Orissa wanted to teach them a lesson they would not forget. So apart from burning homes, beating up people, including a priest, and burning churches, they decided that the rape of a woman who had committed herself to serve the church was the most effective way to make their point. They believed that this would silence their “enemy” forever.
This weapon of war has been wielded for centuries. And women, regardless of race, class or creed, have been its principal victims. For the majority, there has been no justice, no closure to the wound on their bodies and their souls that can sometimes never heal.
Ten days before this press conference in Delhi, another public event took place thousands of miles away — in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Africa’s west coast. Here is a country that has been at war with itself for years. Government forces are fighting many different rebel groups. Every day you hear stories of thousands being displaced as they flee the fighting. Peace seems nowhere in sight despite 17,000 UN peacekeeping forces being stationed there.
The U.N. acknowledges that women in the Congo are experiencing more sexual violence than in any other country in the world. According to a recent survey, one out of every four adults in eastern Congo had witnessed sexual violence and one in six had actually experienced it. Twelve per cent of those surveyed said they had been sexually violated more than once.
Even in such a horrific theatre of war, women are finding the courage to go public, to speak about being raped in the hope that this will put pressure on the government to act against the rapists. Like the nun, these women have little faith that they will get justice. Yet they are willing to try, as there is no other option.
Here are the words of one of these women who spoke at the meeting (as reported in The New York Times, October 18, 2008): “There was no dinner. It was me for dinner because they kicked me roughly to the ground, and they ripped of all my clothes, and between the two of them, they held my feet. One took my left foot, one took my right, and the same with my arms, and between the two of them they proceeded to rape me. Then all five of them raped me.”
Worse than murder
You feel sick when you read this, just as many of us did when we read the full statement of the nun from Orissa. What kind of men are these? How do they get away with such crimes? Why is sexual violence of this kind less important than dozens of other crimes that our law-enforcers seem to have the energy and time to pursue?
The war in erstwhile Yugoslavia at the end of the 1990s was another that exemplified the use of rape as a weapon of war. Hundreds of Croatian women were brutalized by Serbian soldiers. Some of these women found the courage to speak out, once the war ended.
Dubravka Ugresic, an author from the region who has lived in exile in Amsterdam, writes in her 1998 book The Culture of Lies: “The war in Yugoslavia is a masculine war. In the war, women are post-boxes used to send messages to those other men, the enemy. And enemies who were their brothers until a short time, at that.”
And then she quotes one of her colleagues, a writer, telling her: “Rape in war is quite a normal thing, it’s part of the male psychology, it’s irrational. I hope you won’t get me wrong, but it’s a kind of a negative compliment to a woman, an ugly sexual blunder…”
“An ugly sexual blunder?” I don’t think the nun from Orissa, or the women from the Congo, would see the violent assault on their very being as “a blunder”. These acts are not random. They are not driven by the emotion of the moment. They are part of an entrenched mindset that considers the “enemy” as less than human, particularly women who belong to that “enemy”. Killing or raping them is not a “blunder”. It is considered an act of “valour” in what they believe is a righteous war.
6 months ago