Women And War

by Louisa Reynolds | 2014/15 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow

October 18, 2014

As I write this blog post, fifteen Mayan indigenous women are testifying against the soldiers who raped them in their own homes, in front of their sons and daughters and subjected them to domestic slavery in the Sepur Zarco military camp in Izabal, Guatemala, in August 1982.

This trial, which began on September 24th in Guatemala City, is of great historical significance because it is the first time that a case of sexual violence committed during Guatemala’s 36-year-long armed conflict has been heard in a national court.

The prosecution. Sepur Zarco trial, Guatemala City | Credit: Alianza Rompiendo el Silencio

The Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), which was established to reconcile the country in the aftermath of war, documented that rape and sexual slavery was widely used by the Guatemalan army as a weapon of war. It was a brutal practice that destroyed the fabric of indigenous communities and left the victims broken, shunned and isolated.

And the fact that Guatemala today has the highest number of femicides in Central America illustrates the fact that the country is still haunted by its wartime legacy of genocide and sexual violence.

During my time in Guatemala I have written a number of stories about this, which is why I find Professor Lerna Ekmekciouglu’s “Women and War” class at MIT so engaging. By auditing this course and learning more about war and its gendered aftermath in other countries such as Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Bosnia, I hope to gain a deeper and more theoretical understanding of these issues that will hopefully allow me to produce better work and improve my coverage of these topics.

Lerna Ekmekciouglu’s “Women and War” class at MIT

I have found this course fascinating because as well as looking at the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, we have analyzed how women in a number of conflicts, such as Bosnia and Rwanda, have also played an active role as perpetrators and have taken part in acts of sexual violence against other women. This is a little known fact that breaks down gender stereotypes.

Victims of sexual violence and rape. Sepur Zarco trial, Guatemala City | Credit: Alianza Rompiendo el Silencio

During last week’s class, we also read about the role played by female soldiers such as Lynndie England, in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal during the occupation of Iraq.

When female perpetrators of human rights violations have stood trial, their gender has been used against them, as the media has often branded them as “monsters”, or in their favor, as their defense teams have exploited socially constructed assumptions of what constitutes “normal” female behavior in order to secure lighter sentences. Women, like all other human beings, are capable of committing heinous and evil acts such as genocide, torture and even the rape of other women and they deserve to be tried fairly for their actions without gender stereotypes being used for or against them.

As part of this course, we have also looked at how “war widows” narratives have been used by the US government’s propaganda machine, in the aftermath of 9/11, to elicit certain emotional responses from the American public. Meanwhile, the voices of women who dared to question US foreign policy, such as Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed during the Iraq war, were silenced and marginalized.

So far, I have greatly enjoyed our class discussions, which have been fascinating, intense and very open. There’s nothing in Professor Ekmekciouglu’s class that is deemed to be taboo or off limits. “If Fox News heard us talking like this we would probably be in trouble”, she jokingly said during one of our debates.