Often, when we think of casualties in warfare; we think of people fighting at the frontline; however, the violence can often be much closer to home. Deputy Current Affairs Editor Tiernán Ó Ruairc writes about the dangers people with vaginas can experience in warfare. 

Content warning: This article contains discussions of rape and sexual violence which readers may find distressing.

Violence against others is a cornerstone of society and the breakdown of it; civilisations rise and fall because of their participation or failure to participate in violence.  Beginning with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain in the Book of Genesis and continuing to this day in examples like the murders of Tyre Nichols, Bruna Fonseca, and Bishop David O’Connell it seems to be a feature of all cultures and societies regardless of their ‘advanced nature’ Violence against women has been particularly prevalent in contemporary history.

While these attacks happen in both Ireland and abroad, manifesting themselves in violent outbursts like the murder of Bruna Fonseca or the rape and assault of Tigrayan woman and children in northern Ethiopia as part of an ethnic attack,  it is evident that much of the time woman are becoming victims of these kinds of violence. Recent events have in particular brought to light the magnitude at which sexual violence occurs towards women during times of civil unrest. In 2023 alone,  the war in Tigray and the war in Ukraine have seen huge amounts of sexual violence as a weapon of war. 

Whilst the use of rape as a weapon of war is more an attack on the group you are fighting against, it is unequivocally an evil act against women. Women in general are not often in combative roles so what strategic benefit is it to commit violence against them? The purpose of the attack is to destroy a society’s core and women are of that core, other than being the givers of life in most societies women still do most of the domestic duties. If you can undermine the domestic sphere during a time of war, you undermine the fabric of a society. Rape and sexual violence are rarely about sex, they are about power, and that unfortunately is why it is so common in these wartime settings. As part of a soldier’s training, there is an attempt to undermine any personal compassion or empathy for your enemies or civilians for that matter. These soldiers can be both men and women as Abu Ghraib proved to the world. When investigating sexual violence in wartime settings I learned that NGOs name more than just the battlefield itself as places at risk of sexual violence. It is quite astonishing to look at some of the other scenarios where sexual violence is likely to occur against women and children. 

In the Ukrainian war for instance it has looked at been noted by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) that women and children are at risk of experiencing sexual violence as they are both internally displaced and travel further afield for safety.  This was evident when accusations of access to accommodation in return for sexual favours, a uniquely female experience as reported by The Scotsman. The OHCHR released a report in June 2022 reporting 108 allegations of sexual violence with 23 confirmed cases. These reports included but were not excluded to; forced stripping, forced nudity. and rape – all perpetrated by military and security forces on both sides of the war. Ukrainian media also report intercepted Russian Military phone calls during their route from Lyman in Donetsk region. 

“We raped, massacred, shot them dead there. In Lyman, in Torske, we were just going and gunning them down. All young men were taken away,”. This quote from Ukrinform.net gives a stark insight into the atrocities and the violence all the people in the region faced. In the same article it is claimed that there were as of the writing of the article (July 2022), over 21,000 reported cases of sexual violence in Ukraine as a result of the war. 

In the recent Tigrayan War in Ethiopia, there is a similar story, of course, the migration portion isn’t as well documented, only insofar as the new refugees are fleeing to South Sudan. However, in this region, there has been huge amounts of sexual violence perpetrated by both the federal forces and foreign militaries. 

While of course most of the violence has left many women and children distraught in Tigray’s particular case the war is an ethnic-based one and as previously stated the use of violence towards the women of Tigray was and is a clear attempt to destroy Tigrayan culture and identity. The crimes committed by the military forces in the region are atrocious of course, but more to the point are almost entirely attacks on women. Whilst accounts of fathers and brothers being forced to rape their sister and children is horrific for all the victims, there were much more targeted attacks because these women are more vulnerable targets in these situations. 

Amnesty International uses the quote “I don’t know if they realized I was a person”. Harrowing interview from a young victim. A video on dw.com discusses the rape of a young Tigrayan woman who was violated by the very forces from the TPLF who were meant to protect her. They branded and raped her for several hours. They left her traumatised and with STDs. Their justification? That federal had done the same to their families, attacking women as if an eye for an eye were the teachings of the New Testament. 

Despite arguments used in this piece that the attack on women in these situations is an attack on their society as a whole, it has to be acknowledged that the attacks are still first and foremost against women. “It’s clear that rape and sexual violence have been used as a weapon of war to inflict lasting physical and psychological damage on women and girls in Tigray. Hundreds have been subjected to brutal treatment aimed at degrading and dehumanizing them,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

These attacks and the use of violence in both Ukraine and Tigray are signs of the ingrained nature of violence in humans. Much like Cain many people turn to violence in anger and lash out at the Abels of our society.  The unfortunate truth is that most of the culprits will never be found and will never give penance for these crimes. As the UN has consistently tried yet seemingly failed to do is support the victims of these crimes, a huge undertaking given the vast number of victims. In the age of modern warfare, we discuss nuclear threats and drones, but little thought is given to the weapon of sexual violence.