... and ain't I a woman?: Not over for victims of rape

June 23, 1999

and ain't i a woman?

... and ain't I a woman?: Not over for victims of rape

NATO bombs have stopped falling on Serbia and Kosova, and the Kosovar refugees are returning, but the women of Kosova face more than the huge task of rebuilding their homes and livelihoods.

Watching TV images of the human chain slowly snaking back over borders and into blackened villages, some viewers may sigh in relief, thinking that the Kosovar population can begin to get on with their lives.

But the large numbers of women who were the victims of rape as they were forced from their homes will be burdened with the memory of the terror they experienced at the hands of the Serbian regime's forces, exacerbated by the bombing campaign.

A large number of pregnancies have resulted from this sexual violence against mainly young women, which, according to a UN report, escalated after the NATO bombing began.

The emergency reproductive health kits sent by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to UN agencies on the "front lines" of the refugee crisis contained condoms for use during any sexual activity during the refugee period and morning after pills for use within 72 hours of unprotected sexual activity or unwanted sexual violence. This is no comfort to the thousands of women whose more advanced pregnancies are a result of rape.

Some counselling, some abortion services (early term abortion is legal in Yugoslavia and in Albania) and some practical help are now being put into place. However, a report from the UNFPA has revealed the extent of the horror experienced by women as they were sexually abused, some imprisoned, separated from the support of their relatives, many of whom have been killed.

Many women, left alone after their ordeal, have had to face shame and the fear of exclusion from their remaining family and friends. The UNFPA report also documents the feelings of guilt that these women are experiencing, even though they are not responsible for the violence committed against them. The children born to women who are unable or unwilling to terminate also face an uncertain future.

Rape as a weapon of war, as in times of "peace", is not about gratifying the aggressor's sexual needs or desires. It is a tool of power used against women, whose status in society is still below that of men.

The rape of women in a war situation is often intended to act against the male enemy as well as the women. Because women are awarded less status and seen as the "property" of men, rape is used to humiliate men in a similar way to burning houses or other possessions.

In cases where war involves the mass movement of a particular ethnic or racial group ("ethnic cleansing"), women are also raped to force pregnancy — a pregnancy which will result in a child regarded as of the racial or ethnic origin of its father.

Especially in areas where abortion is not freely available, some of these children will be abandoned due to their perceived ethnicity or the circumstances of their conception. Whether this happens on a wide scale in the aftermath of the refugee experience in Kosova will depend on the support given to the women victims of war, whether in the form of providing judgment-free abortion services or support, both practical and emotional, to those who choose to continue with their pregnancies.

An enormous amount of support will be needed by Kosovar women long after the media focus their gaze elsewhere. Apart from the psychological trauma experienced, many women will also have to face rebuilding their lives without husbands, brothers and friends. This support must be given, but is unlikely to be adequate to compensate for a situation made far worse by the role NATO has played during this conflict.

By Margaret Allum

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