RAPE in war is not just about suffering at the time of war but its continuation after the war is over. Rape destroys victims as individuals and devastates their families as well. Some victims lose their minds and all suffer mental blight the rest of their lives, apart from the trauma including social of rape victims.
Rape is also a complex phenomenon and its violence is structural and not just incidental. It means rape affects every aspect of their life including the social
environment in which they live. Rape also occurred in different ways and in different circumstances. We can use anecdotal evidence to understand the multiple
scenario of sexual violence to help understand and identify vulnerabilities which caused rape and also the suffering of stigma afterwards.
All sexual acts which were not directly consensual – such as between two sexual partners- but between two persons whether physically coercive or not is rape. One held power and the victim was helpless. This understanding is important as the usual depiction and imagination of rape is that of a Pakistani soldier or a collaborator pouncing on a Bangladeshi woman and sexually violating her is rape. This violent scenario does not show the many types of rape including where a woman had no option but to have sex with a Pakistani army man although no physical force was being applied. There were many types of violations and all should be classified as rape. I am citing six examples to explain the types of rape I have come across.
Rape as punishment
THIS case involves a woman who used to feed freedom fighters regularly during the war. In fact such households served as a logistical link for the freedom fighters enabling the liberation war to occur. However, when some got caught the men were usually killed and in many cases the women involved were raped. In this case, the rape victim said, ‘the army came and encircled my home and then came in. They saw the plates and pots and kicked them away and said, ‘So you feed Muktis, do you? Let us teach you a listen.’ She lost her senses and collapsed and was raped, she said. Her husband had fled away and returned after the army left.
THE village she lived in was heavily devastated by the army and several other women were raped too including from the rural middle class. After the war, many curious people came to visit the village and the people feared exposure of the rape victims which had become a collective secret. So the villagers decided to set up this woman as the symbolic victim. This family which was landless was given some land, built a home and set up for life. She is/was open to discussing her rape with outsiders in lieu of the compensation which allows the villagers safety from scrutiny.
Rape as war entitlement
IN THIS case, the Pakistan army was camped in the area and after a while wanted women for sex. So they asked the local Razakars to supply them women. These Razakars then went to the local Peace Committee chairman who asked a small Hindu potter community to hand over two girls. The community had no clout and was very poor. So to save other girls from rape they handed over two such girls, both sisters. The girls were returned a few days later.
HOWEVER, the community refused to accept them back and they were regularly taunted till it became impossible for the sisters to go on. The two girls killed themselves by hanging.
Rape as part of torture
THIS case is about a young girl who was part of a politically active family which participated actively in the armed resistance. The area was overrun by the Pak army by end April. The girl was captured after she ran out of bullets firing at the army standing in knee deep water. While in jail she was tortured and raped as her punishment but not killed. She saw several women being shot inside the jail, she said.
HER family’s attempt to keep her rape a secret failed and she suffered high stigmatisation. She was forced to leave her village and move to a town after a ‘marriage of convenience’ to a cousin in lieu of property. She got a job as a peon in a government clinic but was suspended for failing to stand up when a doctor entered. She later left the job and retired into obscurity.
Her greatest regret was to have been introduced as a ‘rape victim’ in a public rally although she had fought a frontal war with the Pak army and insisted on that identity.
Random rape as a demonstration of force
THE Pakistan army raided an area in Southern Bengal and the villagers fled away. The woman was too sick to hide and was captured and then raped. She was kept in the army camp and had to do menial work including cooking and repeatedly raped. Once the army left the area she returned to the village but found it deserted. She lived in her hut till the villagers returned after the war but they refused to accept her as she was already pregnant. She disappeared from the village and appeared a month later having gone insane from pain and rejection.
SHE was allowed to stay in the village as she had gone insane and thus freed from stigma. She gave birth to a boy and died a year later. The boy grew up and continues to live as a landless peasant in the village ignored by everyone as a war baby.
Rape as transaction cost for saving a life
A YOUNG mother in Dhaka was informed by her husband’s Pak army friend that he had been caught helping the Muktis and was being kept a prisoner. Unless she agreed to have sex with the army officer, the husband would be killed. Fearing for her husband’s life she began a non- consensual sexual relationship with the army officer. This relationship continued till she was informed by another army officer that the rapist had been killed in war. In fact the rapist had actually killed her husband though he was innocent to have the relationship with her. By this time her own and husband’s family had cut off all connections with her and she was completely boycotted by all friends.
THE army officer who brought her the news of her rapist’s death offered marriage and move to Pakistan along with the daughter as life in Bangladesh would be impossible for her. She agreed but handed over her child to a family friend to be raised and disappeared from everyone’s life never to be heard of again.
Rape as random sexual access and safety of children
A YOUNG mother with two kids, separated from her husband lived alone in Chittagong and worked in a friend’s husband’s company. Her parents lived in Dhaka and she has been staying in that city with her husband before her divorce. After the crackdown she was approached by a colleague that an army officer liked her and wanted a sexual relationship. She was not given any threats but her choices were clear as far as safety of herself and her children were concerned. The relationship lasted several months and during this period, she and her children were safe. The officer left Chittagong in October, 1971.
SHE moved to Dhaka after the war and began an independent life. She lost custody of her children as her ex-husband accused her of collaboration with Pak army. Later, she got them back and began working for an NGO and managed to raise her children into adulthood.
AS THE six case studies show, the nature, process and consequences of rape vary. In all the cases, women were vulnerable due to a number of reasons and not just physical. In case 1 and 3, there was involvement with the war but in the other four, the women were random victims of war.
Society is also unable to cope with rape victims as all the cases show. In case 2, communities also experience extreme helplessness. Two sisters were handed over to save other girls of the community but treated terribly in a way after return that led to their suicide. Case 4 shows how random violence of war such as rape and the process of rape actually exclude the victim from the community family. It is one of the saddest cases recorded as she lost her mind after giving birth to a war child and later died.
Case 5 is very tragic as she was raped and forced to participate in her own violation hoping to save her already dead husband’s life. She lost her husband, her families, friends, her child and ultimately her homeland and was forced to move to the land from which her rapist came.
Case 6 is perhaps a little less tragic as the stigma was overcome by much support and luck. She did raise her children successfully despite her experience and being a single mother. But her mental suffering is no less. Similarly, in case 1, the victim survived as the entire village helped her with mutual advantage in mind. She survived and her life had a purpose which was protecting the painful secrets of other raped women of the village.
Case 3 is that of a female freedom fighter who fought valiantly, was captured from the battle field, raped and tortured, suffered enormously afterwards but never gained recognition as a fighter but only as a rape victim.
While the nature of the cases varies, the common element is extreme suffering both due to rape and life after rape.
Afsan Chowdhury is journalist and researcher.