Gone with the war: exploitation of women in conflict

Trafficking – an enormous business, often fueled by war. picture: Ira Gelb, Flickr

For most, it is a well-known fact that human trafficking is big business; after illegal drugs and arms trafficking, it is believed to be the third largest international criminal industry, generating approximately 32 billion USD in profit each year. The reasons for this industry are many: poverty, gender-based violence, inadequate justice systems and, of course, what seems to be a never-ending demand. But one reason behind human trafficking, and sex trafficking in particular, is not always given a lot of attention: war.

One of the better-known cases of sexual slavery and exploitation in connection to armed conflict are the comfort women of World War II. In order to meet the ‘needs’ of the personnel in the Japanese Imperial Army, military comfort stations where established in occupied areas, were between 80 000 and 200 000 women were forced to provide sexual services. Women were forced to work for months or even years, and some were no older than 12. Survivors have testified that the comfort stations were often their first sexual experiences, and that because of the mistreatment they suffered, many became infertile. The victims are yet to receive an official apology, and the Japanese government are still firmly denying responsibility.

Unfortunately, sexual slavery during wartimes did not end in 1945, and has been taking place in various armed conflicts since WWII. For example, The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia issued an indictment against eight Bosnian Serb soldiers for the enslavement and rape of Muslim women in the town of Foca during 1992 and 1993. One of the charges, of which all concerned sexual violence, was the enslavement, repeated torturing and rape of a fifteen-year-old girl over the course of eight months.

Today, the situation is not better; women are still the biggest losers during armed conflict. A recent example are the Yazidi women in Northern Iraq who are being kidnapped by Islamic State Fighters, and subjected to torture, rape and other sexual abuse at the hands of their kidnappers. Survivors tell of how they attempted to kill each other by strangulation, as a means of escaping their tormentors. Many women are being forced to marry Islamic State fighters, and convert to Islam.

According to a report from the Sector Project against Trafficking in Women, the same factors and conditions apply to the trafficking of women during and after armed conflicts that characterize trafficking in general. However, the real issue is that armed conflicts amplify these factors and conditions.

During armed conflicts, women and girls are often abducted by government or rebel forces, and are forced to provide sexual services. For example, in Burma the army has for the past 35 years systematically kidnapped women, who are then raped and abused, a practice which is believed to be related to the army’s struggle against certain minorities in the country. Rape and forced pregnancies are also used during armed conflicts, both as a way to scare and thereby control the population, but also as a means of ethnic cleansing. This method has been used in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Liberia and Uganda. Women and girls are also subjected to forced recruitment, both for combat, but also to be married off to male soldiers. It is common for male soldiers to have several abducted “wives”, often known as “bush wives”.

A girl waits outside a gender-based violence support session for Syrian refugee women in Lebanon. Picture: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development, wikimedia commons.

The consequences of sexual trafficking and kidnappings during armed conflicts are many. Due to the violence they suffer, as well as the difficult living conditions, many abducted women suffer from ill health, such as physical injuries, diseases and malnutrition. Many are infected with HIV/Aids, and suffer psychological trauma due to their mistreatment. When women are finally able to escape their enslavement, they face social and economic hardshipsocial stigma, rejection and a lack of proper help to address their experiences. In Sierra Leone, where countless women were kidnapped and sexually exploited during the armed conflict that lasted from 1991 to 2001, many are still living with their “husbands”. Of the women who have managed to escape their abductors, a majority today earn their living as sex workers.

War zones are furthermore often used as sources of women and girls, for example in Liberia and Afghanistan, which makes the issue not only a national one, but also an international one. It is remarkable how this practice has been repeated in conflict after conflict, on continent after continent, without meeting any substantial resistance. A review of history reveals how sex trafficking and exploitation is often an integral part of armed conflict. Women’s lives are disregarded and it is clear that anything goes when it come to their bodies. A solution to this problem seems, unfortunately, very distant. But a general change in attitude towards women, and rehabilitative care supplied by the international community specifically for the victims of sexual slavery in post-conflict zones, would perhaps be a start. One conclusion is however remarkably simple to draw; considerable action is needed to prevent the never-ending spiral of sexual exploitation, which has trapped and continues to trap so many women worldwide.

 Ebba Coghlan  

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