Manipur Horror: Women’s Bodies Are NOT Your Battlefields In Times Of Conflict!

The recent Manipur horror is an example of gender based violence in conflict areas. Men, women's bodies are NOT your battlefield, leave them alone in your wars!

Trigger Warning: This deals with graphic gender based violence, violence against women, rape and war-time sexual violence on women, and may be triggering for survivors.

The recent video which shows two Kuki women being paraded naked by a mob in Manipur has provoked a cry of outrage both on and off social media. The video has forced people who tried to ignore the ongoing violence in Manipur to break their silence and speak up against the outrage. It draws attention to the sad reality that a woman’s body is the preferred battleground for those seeking vengeance or for those wanting to assert dominance over a family, a clan, or a state.

While women and girls are always vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation, they are most vulnerable during wartime and times of political conflict. Throughout history, sexual violence against women and girls has been used as a systematic strategy to humiliate, subjugate and terrorise groups of people.

The numbers are staggering

It is estimated that anywhere between 200,000 and 400,000 women were victims of sexual assault during the Bangladeshi Liberation Movement.

This document by the UN records that more than 60,000 women were sexually assaulted during the decade long civil war in Sierra Leone and about 40,000 during the civil war in Liberia. Nearly 60,000 Bosnian-Muslim women were raped during the unrest in the Balkan, anywhere between 100,000 and 250,000 during the Rwandan genocide, and over 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Closer home, it is estimated that anything between 75,000 to 100,000 women were abducted and raped in the months leading up to Partition and during its aftermath.

Historically, sexual violence in conflict zones has often been regarded as an unavoidable and inevitable consequence of war and conflict, and the perpetrators of violence have seldom been punished. However, the unprecedented scale of gender-based violence, particularly in Rwanda and the Balkans provoked international debate on re-conceptualising rape and other forms of sexual violence as ‘war crimes’. This, in part, led to the International Criminal Court declaring in 1998 that gender based violence was indeed a war crime. However, despite this declaration, the enforcement of laws pertaining to widespread sexual violence against women, particularly in conflict zones, remains weak and women in conflict zones remain vulnerable to gender-based violence.

‘Honour’ of the family tied to women’s bodies

Though the crimes were sexual in nature, revenge and ethnic cleansing were the reasons cited for the abduction and rape of the women.

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As Urvashi Bhutalia who has documented the post-Partition violence in the Punjab says, it is hard to estimate numbers because families choose to forget the woman who has been abducted, and the abducted women choose to forget their story from the time before their abduction.

This is largely because in those communities, the “honour” of the family is tied up to the purity of their women, and the way families retain their honour is by denying that their women were abducted. This is also the reason why even when women were rescued from their captors and returned to their home countries, the families refused to take them back and they ended up being forced into prostitution.

It is not only in wartime that women’s bodies become a battlefield

The video from Manipur also reminds us reminds one of the scene in Bandit Queen, where the actor who played Phoolan Devi was made to walk naked through a mob of jeering men. It is also reminiscent of many similar videos that have been made of women being paraded through the village they can be “taught a lesson”. In fact, in India, stories of sexual atrocities against Dalit women are so common that we have almost become immune to them.

In one such case, when a journalist asked the victim if she recognised any of her perpetrators, the woman famously said, “sab the”(everyone was there)– all the (dominant caste male) villagers were present while the violence was being inflicted on her. In each of these cases, the sexual violence perpetrated against the woman is less about sex and more about power and dominance. When the dominant caste men are displeased with a person/s from the oppressor caste, their preferred way of seeking vengeance is by asserting sexual dominance on the women.

This is directly linked to notions of patriarchy and the belief that a woman is the property of the man/ family/ clan. Sexual assault of women is therefore a way of humiliating men by violating both their honour and their exclusive right to the sexual possession of ‘their’ woman – “honour revenge. In this scenario, though the sexual violence is against the woman’s body, autonomy, integrity and self esteem, her subjectivity is denied and it gets recognised only as a crime against the men/ family/ community.

The need for an intention to change the situation

Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals which calls for Gender Equality specifically states that it should be the goal to “Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other forms of violence.” This can only be achieved when the international community demands accountability for sexual gender based violence especially in conflict zones.

While it is true that international organizations should respect the territorial integrity of a nation and should not interfere in internal matters, it is also imperative that sexual violence as a weapon of war should be condemned. Balancing the two is one of the biggest challenges that the world is facing today, and unless sexual violence against women in conflict zones is addressed, gender equality will remain a distant goal.

Editor’s note: This news, that there were 8, not 2 women who were paraded naked and raped as reported by eyewitnesses, has come in as this piece was being published.

Image source: pixabay, edited on Canva Pro

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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