Privileged As Hell

Scrolling my way through Instagram, I came across a photo which had generated quite a lot of aggressive activity in the comments thread - nothing new there. I don’t think it was even a particularly controversial photo, or at least not with respect to what the people in the comments thread were arguing about. But what caught my attention was one of the comments in particular.

It said: “Name one war where women fought in the same numbers as men. There isn’t. Men, more specifically young boys, are the most effected (sic) by war because they are the ones enslaved by the state and forced to kill other people. Women are privileged as hell to not have to do this.”

Granted, I have no doubt that across the world, both today and definitely in the past, less women fight on the front line. And obviously there are many reasons for this – not necessarily that they don’t want to or aren’t willing to, but also, in many cases, they are not allowed, or their culture dictates that they must remain and look after the family. That aside, the writer of the comment seems to have missed the entire, overwhelming point: Men are affected by war, women are affected by war and children are affected by war. War is, quite simply, devastating.

Image: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation

One thing the writer of the comment seems to have overlooked is the role women have forced upon them in current warfare situations going on across the world: that of the sex slave and/or pawn in the game. Yes, men and young boys are enslaved and forced to kill and are killed. Women, too, are enslaved by armies, by militias, and raped, and also killed. Women are kidnapped and forced to bear the children of their captors. Women, far from being “privileged as hell” are deeply and catastrophically affected by war and political upheaval.

When ISIS swept through northern Iraq in 2014, they captured more than 5,000 Yazidi women to use for sex. The ISIS fighters then traded the girls as “sabia” – slaves. Reports from survivors show that the captured women faced unspeakable levels of sexual violence from the men that bought and sold them like objects. They were even given contraceptives to avoid them getting pregnant - so that they could be abused for longer.

A special quota programme that the federal government of Baden-Wuttemberg has been operating since early 2015 has been granting some of the victims that have managed to escape slavery a two-year resident’s visa to Germany. Talking to the New Statesman, the programme’s chief psychologist, Dr Jan Ilhan Kizilhan said the sex war crimes that the women have experienced are distinct.

He said, “With Isis, there has been a systematic attempt at genocide, different from the rapes and sexual violence we have seen in Bosnia or Rwanda. The kind of sexual abuse and violence is systematic, to disrupt the culture – and strategic, as a recruitment tool and weapon of war.”

Nadia Murad, 21, was taken captive by Isis. Addressing Cairo University in January after her escape, she said, “We were not worth the value of animals. They raped girls in groups. They did what a mind could not imagine.”

After being rounded up in the village of Kocho, she was taken to Mosul and held for three days before she, and her young female peers, were distributed among fighters. Some women killed themselves. Speaking to Time magazine, Nadia said, “I did not want to kill myself – but I wanted them to kill me.”

Boko Haram militants have also raped female captives in Nigeria, many repeatedly. Officials and relief workers have described this as a very deliberate strategy to dominate rural residents. Contrary to Isis' dolling out of contraceptives, victims have said they believed the rapists often had the very specific goal of impregnating them, in order to create a new generation of Islamic militants. In April 2015, a UN report stated that groups like Boko Haram were specifically using rape as a weapon of war and a report released by Human Rights Watch in 2014, based on interviews with 30 women, painted a picture of terrifying psychological and physical abuse.

Image: Tim Green

The HRW report states: “They were subjected to forced labour; forced participation in military operations; forced marriage to the captors; and sexual abuse, including rape. In addition they were made to cook, clean and perform other household chores.”

A fifteen year old girl, who was held by Boko Haram for four weeks in 2013, was forced to marry a militant twice her age. She said, “He soon began to threaten me with a knife to have sex with him, and when I still refused he brought out his gun, warning that he would kill me if I shouted.”

These are just two examples of women being used as tools in war – and two of the most recently documented examples at that. More than 60,000 women were raped in Sierra Leone’s civil war. In the Rwandan genocide, between 100,000 and 250,000 women are estimated to have been victims of sexual violence as a weapon of war. In 1992, the UN Security Council denounced the systematic detention and rape of women in the former Yugoslavia, in particular Muslim women in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Women are wholly and relentlessly affect by war – used as weapons, held as captives, raped, forced into marriage and forced to have the offspring of their violators.

Women that escape such sexual abuse may suffer in other ways – they may be forced to flee their homes, may have their houses and their families bombed. As we have seen recently, female refugees, along with male refugees, have had to flee Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and take dangerous journeys across land and water to escape near certain death at home. In times of war, women, like men, lose everything. And women, like men, are used as weapons of war.

Women are not  “privileged as hell” – women suffer from war, just like everyone else who has had to face the horror of being caught up in a conflict.

Words by Imogen Robinson