‘I Scribbled Whatever I Could So They Would Stop Beating Me’
Impunity has allowed sexual violence to go unpunished in Ukraine, Kashmir and Mexico
A recent United Nations report makes clear that sexual violence is a widespread phenomenon in contemporary wars. However, while the document largely focuses on non-state actors and small or pariah states in Africa and the Middle East, it ignores several larger countries where armed groups are frequently connected to sexual violence.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the dehumanizing use of rape and sexual assault in conflicts in Ukraine, India and Mexico.
Pro-Kiev Azov Regiment vehicles. Photo via Wikimedia
While the U.N. report on wartime sexual violence presented in May makes no mention of the war in Ukraine, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights had already released a separate report documenting 31 conflict-related sexual assaults perpetrated both by pro-Russian separatists and supporters of the government in Kiev.
As usual, these cases are likely a mere fraction of the actual total. Unfortunately, the propaganda war fought by both sides in Ukraine has led to many false or sensationalized claims of sexual violence as well, further inflaming the conflict.
The U.N. report details how around a dozen men and women detained by Ukrainian government forces—especially militia battalions and SBU intelligence units—reported being stripped naked, threatened with rape, and having their genitals molested or subject to electroshock torture. Women also reported being harassed and groped at government checkpoints.
Most of the incidents perpetrated by government forces in the U.N. report involve sexual torture. However, a former volunteer of the pro-Kiev Aider volunteer battalion suggests that rapes may have occurred as well in an interview.
One day, Vadim was the only guard assigned to a building where he had been told a female prisoner– suspected of being a separatist sniper because “she had been wearing a hood”– was being kept … One of the commanders entered the building.
Vadim stops telling the story to clear his throat.
“A few minutes later, I heard the woman scream, ‘No, no! Don’t do it!’” he remembers.
The sounds coming from the building left little doubt in his mind as to what was happening.
“I was sure she was being raped,” Vadim says.
He saw her the next day and noticed that she was “having difficulty walking.”
The U.N. report has several awful accounts of rape and sexual torture undertaken by separatists fighters in Eastern Ukraine in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics—sometimes with the objective of stealing the possessions of the victims. One example follows.
On 25 September 2014, in a village in Donetsk region, a woman and two of her colleagues (a man and a woman) were abducted at their workplace by armed men from the “Bezler group”, led by a local resident … They were taken to another room which was covered in blood. The man was violently beaten in front of the women until he fainted. Then both women were raped by at least seven men and beaten, while interrogated about the whereabouts of their money and valuables. One of the victims was subjected to electroshocks with wires attached to her breast, after which she lost consciousness.
She later found out that while she and her colleagues were being tortured, the armed groups had robbed their houses. For the following 10 days, she was taken for “interrogation” almost every night, and was raped by intoxicated armed group members. One day, the perpetrators brought an attorney and forced the victim to rescind ownership of her apartment and land property to the perpetrators. For the following months she was forced to cook meals for the armed group members.
Chillingly, given the above passage, the report notes that women detained by separatist groups receive more lenient treatment than men.
Several reports describe instances of apparent sex slavery organized by local rebel commanders, particularly in areas administered by Cossack mercenaries. There are allegations that LGBT individuals have been threatened with violence in the rebel republics, as well as reports of the murder and alleged rape of Roma minority women.
Sexual assault survivors in Ukraine often see little point in reporting the crimes inflicted upon them, believing their stories will be ignored and perpetrators will go unpunished, according to an article by Zero Impunity, a media group which investigates sexual violence in armed conflicts.
Prior to the war, the rape and murder of 18-year-old Oksana Makar in Mikolaev in 2012 led to a media frenzy focusing on the victim’s troubled personal life, while two of the three suspected perpetrators were initially released on bail due to their family’s political connections—though protests did eventually lead to their re-arrest.
The Ukrainian government has investigated only nine cases of conflict-related sexual violence.
The U.N. report concludes “there are no grounds to believe that sexual violence has been used for strategic or tactical ends by Government forces or the armed groups in the eastern regions of Ukraine.”
Indian soldiers in Kashmir. Photo via Flickr
Both India and Pakistan claim the mountainous region of Kashmir, which is split along a fortified de facto border. The contested frontier is the site of perpetual raids and cross-border artillery bombardments, as well as an on-and-off insurgency which recently flared up again in 2016. The majority Muslim region also has a Hindu minority known as the Kashmiri Pandits.
A 2008 study by Doctors Without Borders found that Kashmiris suffered from one of the highest rate of sexual assault in the world, with 11 percent of respondents to a survey claiming they had been sexually assaulted, and 13 percent claiming to have witnessed an assault. This rate exceeded that of other conflict zones notorious for sexual violence such as Sierra Leone and Chechnya.
The use of sexual violence escalated in the early 1990s. On Feb. 23, 1991, Indian soldiers of the 4th Rajputana Rifles on a search-and-interrogation mission gang raped dozens of locals in the villages of Kunan and Poshpora. Afterwards, the Press Council of India maintained the incident was a “hoax,” a finding rejected at the time by the U.S. State Department and international human rights groups.
Tragically, fellow villagers have prevented survivors of the attack from marrying or pursuing higher education. In recent years, a new investigation has been opened and a court has ordered the Indian state to pay compensation to the victims.
The Kunan-Poshpora incident was only unique for its scale. A report by Human Rights Watch shares the testimony of a woman describing an incident on Oct. 10, 1992 in which soldiers of the Indian Army’s 22nd Grenadiers allegedly raped nine women in the middle of the night.
When my father-in-law answered [the door], he was sent away. Three soldiers came into the room, and told me to put my daughter aside. When I refused, he picked her up and put in her in a corner. I told him not to touch me and he said, “We have orders, what can we do?” All three of them raped me.
Medical examinations of the women subsequently found evidence of sexual assault. The Indian Army confirmed the presence of troops in their community that evening, but dismissed claims that an assault took place, alleging that two of the victims were the wives of terrorist leaders.
Though reports of sexual violence peaked in the 1990s, incidents continue be reported in more recent times. Leaked memos from 2005 show the International Red Cross reporting to the U.S. State Department that out of 1,298 detainees surveyed in Kashmir, more than 300 reported sexual abuse.
In 2009, the bodies of a young Kashmiri woman and her teenage sister were found with signs of rape in Shopian district near a police force camp. After initially claiming the women had drowned, a state commission acknowledged the rape but implied the sisters’ family was responsible. The report’s author later claimed that the state government had inserted that conclusion over his objections.
In 2013, Kashmiris filed 70 allegations of sexual violence against the Indian military. For decades, Indian soldiers had been shielded from prosecution by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. However, in July 2016 the Indian Supreme Court finally struck away the immunity for armed forces personnel granted by the act. The consequences of this changed legal status are not yet clear, however.
Just prior to that, in April 2016, allegations that a soldier sexually assaulted a 16-year-old schoolgirl in a public bathroom in Handwara led to violent protests in which five Kashmiris were shot. Police immediately took the girl into custody, and that evening the Army posted a video in which she claimed she had simply been attacked by a local boy who had stolen her bag.
After being released from police detention 27 days later, she claimed she had been pressured by the police into making a false statement. This episode contributed to the sharp escalation of violent conflict that occurred in Kashmir in 2016.
Islamist militants in Kashmir have gang raped Kashmiri women perceived as collaborating with or serving as informants for the Indian administration. Most of the victims were murdered after the assault took places. Militants have also practiced forced “temporary marriages” with local girls prior to raping them, often targeting Kashmiri Pandits.
Mexican Marines. Photo via Wikimedia
Mexico is not technically “at war.” But the Mexican Drug War—triggered by a crackdown begun in December 2006 targeting powerful crime syndicates—sure resembles one. The cartels often outgun government security forces, leading to the involvement of soldiers and Marines in a law-enforcement capacity.
The escalating violence has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths over the last decade. Multiple factions in the conflict have perpetrated systematic sexual violence as a tactic, interrogation method and recruiting system.
Amnesty International reported in June 2016 the case of 100 women who had been abused in the custody of Mexican security forces. More than two-thirds reported being sexually abused—beaten while naked or subject to electro-shock torture to the breasts and genitals. One third reported being raped—particularly those under the custody of the Army or Navy.
Amnesty International published the following account given by Peruvian immigrant Tailyn Wang, who was pregnant at the time of her arrest.
Wang and her husband, who had gone to bed late after watching a horror movie, were awakened by police bursting into their residence around 3 a.m. The officers did not present an arrest warrant. Instead they pulled her out of bed, called her a “whore,” and demanded to know where her “lover” was. They took her husband to another room, where they were holding the three children.
One of the officers stripped off Wang’s nightgown and forced her onto the bed. With the other officers looking on, he raped her with his gun, mashed her breasts with his hands, and asked if she liked it.
The officers took Wang and her husband to a federal police installation. They refused to allow Wang to call the Peruvian consulate. They blindfolded her, beat her for hours, and forced her to sign a blank paper. “I scribbled whatever I could so they would stop beating me,” she told us.
Wang was then driven to the Attorney General’s Office, where she noticed she was bleeding, as if having her period, only far more heavily. The bleeding continued for days, even after she was transferred to a prison in Nayarit state. She later got confirmation that she had a miscarriage.
The Mexican Human Rights Commission has received more than 7,000 complaints of abuse and torture perpetrated by security forces. Only 15 Mexican security personnel have been convicted of sexual assault since 1991. No military personnel were convicted between 2010 and 2015.
However, a video released in 2016 showing Mexican soldiers suffocating a crying woman with a bag over her head finally caused a public outcry. The soldiers involved in the incident were arrested.
Drug cartels routinely rape women before murdering them as a terror tactic. They also are involved in kidnapping women into situations of sex slavery and forced human trafficking, making them work under constant threat of torture and execution. More than 7,000 women have “disappeared” since the beginning of the drug war.
The role of impunity
The use of sexual assault to interrogate, punish or terrorize suspected opponents of the state is sadly common and utterly delegitimizing of the institutions that perpetrate it or do their best to cover it up. Underlying sexual violence in all three cases is the concept of impunity—the notion that armed groups almost never face censure for the atrocious acts they may commit.
Survivors of sexual assault have reason to believe there is no point reporting the abuses as there is virtually no hope their abusers will be held accountable. And abusers in the security forces know that whether their motives are personal or strategic, they can do as they please with little reason to fear punishment.
That sense of impunity is frequently mirrored in the forces opposing the state, whether in the psychopathic violence and terror tactics of Mexican drug cartels, the brutal murder-rapes perpetrated by some separatists in Kashmir, or the large-scale forced marriage and sex slavery practiced by Islamic State in many countries. However, the despicable actions of these groups is no excuse for lowering the expectations placed on the conduct of security forces, which have a responsibility to protect the citizens under their jurisdiction.
It is vital that public institutions shed light on these incidents when they occur, change laws that impede justice for victims of sexual assault, and genuinely hold security forces accountable for their actions.