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Volume 3 Issue 6| June 2010



Original Forum Editorial

Truth, Not Punishment
--Jalal Alamgir

Building a World-Class University-- --Syed Saad Andaleeb
Just Another Bomb Blast in Afghanistan-- --Syed A. Mahmood
Reaping the Whirlwind
--Ziauddin Choudhury
A Tale of Two Cities
-- S. Aminul Islam
Rethinking Primary Education
--Manzoor Ahmed
Photo Feature: Ghost Workers--Arman Adnan
Justice Denied
--Marianne Scholte
TV 2010
--Khalid Hasan
Reviving Professional
History in Bangladesh

--Iftekhar Iqbal
Of Corruption Most Chronic
--Mahfuzur Rahman
In Real Terms, Please
--Nader Rahman
Contemplations on Mortality
--Samier Mansur


Forum Home


Justice Denied

MARIANNE SCHOLTE questions whether the war crimes tribunal will bring justice to Bangladeshi women


NOW, with the attention of the Bangladeshi public riveted on the formation of a war crimes tribunal to prosecute those who allegedly committed crimes against humanity during the 1971 war, the fate of over 200,000 women who were raped during this conflict must not be pushed off to the side of the proceedings nor instrumentalised for political purposes.

Rape has long been used as an instrument of war. However, rape today is no longer viewed as inevitable collateral damage of war, but as a grave human rights violation. Thus, although the issue is complex and contentious, the question of justice for Bangladeshi women subjected to sexualised violence in 1971 cannot be avoided.

The brutalities of the 1971 war were no secret: the national and international press reported extensively on the unspeakable violence to which the Bangladeshi population was subjected, and on the rape of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi women, including many who had been held for months in rape camps.

Thousands of women become pregnant and then sought abortions. Many carried an unwanted child to term, gave it up for adoption, or abandoned it. Very, very few families were willing to accept the child and many families did not take the "disgraced" woman back, either. Many women committed suicide. Others fled to Pakistan with their Pakistani captors rather than face what awaited them in Bangladeshi society.

Nilima Ibrahim, Professor of Bangla at the University of Dhaka, worked with rape survivors in 1972 and later edited a book detailing their experiences. One of these women explained to Ibrahim why she and others left with the soldiers:

"We went with them voluntarily because when we were being pulled out from the bunkers by the Indian soldiers, some of us half-clad, others half-dead, the hatred and deceit I saw in the eyes of our countrymen standing by, I could not raise my eyes a second time. They were throwing various dirty words at us ... I did not imagine that we would be subjected to so much hatred from our countrymen. Rather, I imagined if the freedom fighters ever find us, they will accept us as their mothers and sisters. Because we did not come into this of our own choice."1

The Central Women's Rehabilitation Organization started by poet Sufia Kamal and the government's Bangladesh Women's Rehabilitation Board mobilised quickly in December 1971 and early 1972 to assist the women who had been raped and/or left homeless and without means of support.


The several thousand women who found their way to one of these centres were given a safe place to live, medical care, access to a safe abortion or adoption assistance, and if they could not return home, the organisations found them jobs, arranged for vocational training, or sent them to live in government group homes where they supported themselves through agriculture and fishery some rape survivors are still there today.

The numerous women who volunteered to work with rape survivors attempted to comfort them and to heal their wounds through music, handicrafts, and kindness. At the time, there were, of course, no trained trauma therapists in the country and little understanding of how to deal with such terrible pain. It was thought best not to mention the rapes and violence.

If the women were able to return to their husbands or fathers and mothers, the rape was also never spoken of -- in a perhaps understandable, but ultimately cruel and deeply counterproductive attempt to bury the past, remove the stigma, and move on.

Sheikh Mujib, the head of the first post-war government, wanted these women to be accepted in Bangladeshi society as heroines (Birangona), but unlike the much-celebrated (mostly male) freedom fighters, they were not recognised for the contribution they had made to the war effort and for the incredible strength that had allowed them to survive such horrific human rights abuses. The rape victims, not the perpetrators, were shamed.2

With the exception of those who sought treatment in one of the above-mentioned initiatives, most received highly inadequate medical care for their severe, often irreversible physical wounds from the sexually transmitted diseases they had contracted.

There was also no treatment for the wide range of psychological difficulties that were the result of their war experiences, including memory loss, depression, fear, insomnia, flashbacks, panic attacks, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and a devastating sense of shame.

Very few found the safe and supportive environment they needed to talk about what had happened and to somehow come to terms with it. Rather, they were expected to remain silent. However, family life was undermined when the women were unable to cope with the demands of normal life; they were subject to gossip and scorn and excluded from community life; domestic violence increased considerably. Many rape survivors remained deeply traumatised for years and decades.

Thus, paradoxically, attempting to hide the "dishonour" only cemented the trauma in the minds of the women themselves, their families, the following generations, and throughout Bangladeshi society as well -- in effect playing into the hands of the aggressors, who had aimed to utterly destroy Bangladeshi society and culture by raping its women.


Women are Raped in Every War
The Bangladesh case, though one of the worst in history, was in no way unique. Women are so routinely abducted and raped during wars and armed conflicts that, until recently, it was mentioned only in passing.3

The Greeks stole Trojan women, and the ancient Hebrews were instructed to take women, children, livestock, and everything else from the non-Palestinian cities they conquered.4

The Crusades, the Peasants' wars in Germany, the Spanish Conquistadors' invasion of America and the German invasion of Belgium and France during World War I were no different.

During World War II, millions of women and girls were brutally raped by the German Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS in military brothels in France, throughout Eastern Europe, and in the concentration camps.

The Japanese Imperial Army enslaved over 200,000 "comfort women" to service Japanese soldiers in China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, Burma, Papua New Guinea, and above all, Korea.

The Red Army raped an estimated two million German women in East Prussia, Pomerania, and Silesia and over 100,000 girls and women in Berlin alone between early summer and autumn 1945.5 The Western Allied Forces also raped German women, although to a lesser extent.

After the partition of India in 1947, an estimated 50,000 Muslim women and 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women were abducted und subjected to sexualised violence.6 In the early 1950s, the US army and the South Korean government set up military brothels in South Korea,7 and the French set up mobile field brothels in Vietnam, primarily filled with women from Algeria.8 In the 1970s and 1980s, rape was used to repress political resistance in Indonesia, Burma, Kashmir, Guatemala, Peru, Haiti, Chechnya, Cambodia, and in Turkey, to cite just a few examples.

In the 1990s, an estimated 20,000 women were raped in Bosnia-Herzegovina, primarily by Serbian soldiers, but also by Croatian and Muslim units. Women were subject to widespread sexualised violence in the conflicts in Somalia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda. Between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped and then often mutilated and tortured in Rwanda in 1994. Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) since 1998.

In the spring of 2001, the pogrom against the Muslim population in Gujarat also included mass rapes. And as if all of that were not enough, an estimated two million women and girls are trafficked across borders every year -- in large part to service international soldiers or members of aid organisations in former war zones.

Bosnian Women Speak Out and Change History
Rape during war is as old as war itself and continues unabated today. Only rarely have the perpetrators been prosecuted or sentenced. The statute of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg to prosecute high-ranking Nazi officials did not mention rape or other forms of sexualised violence.

The International Military Trial for the Far East in Tokyo did bring charges of rape and handed down sentences on the grounds of "inhumane treatment" and "failure to respect the rights and honour of the family" for the brutal rapes of 20,000 women and girls in Nanking in 1937.

But the indictment did not mention the sexual enslavement of over
200,0000 "comfort women" by the Japanese Imperial Army, although a Dutch military court in Batavia (Indonesia) in 1948 did prosecute and convict 12 Japanese army officers of sexually enslaving 35 Dutch women.9

After the Batavia trial, no court prosecuted rape as a war crime or crime against humanity under international law for almost 50 years -- although mass rape continued to characterise armed conflicts across the globe and was increasingly used as an instrument of terror, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. This changed, finally, in 2001, thanks to the activism of national and international women's groups and the immense courage of a group of Bosnian Muslim women.

During the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which began in March 1992, many Bosnian women bravely spoke to journalists and human rights advocates about the systematic rape to which they were being subjected. The extensive coverage by the international media and continued pressure by human rights groups led to establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) on May 25, 1993. Within a short time, more than 20 per cent of the charges filed at the ICTY involved allegations of sexual assault.

However, it was the so-called Foca Trial at the ICTY in 2001 that made legal history, as the first time that an international court focused exclusively on crimes of sexual assault.

Rape charges are, of course, extremely difficult to prosecute, as most survivors cannot face the ordeal of testifying. The risk of re-traumatisation is very high, and the witnesses are in danger of being ostracised from their families and communities if their names become public -- which they inevitably do, despite witness protection programs.

Furthermore, witnesses at the ICTY had to testify and face the lawyers of the defendants without any legal representation themselves. Despite the grueling conditions and the high risk, sixteen Bosnian Muslim women testified. The result was the landmark Foca decision. The ICTY ruled that rape, forced pregnancy, and sexual slavery constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity and thus set a path-breaking precedent for the future.10

The permanent International Criminal Court in the Hague, which took up proceedings in 2003, has even more extensive gender provisions than the Yugoslavia or Rwanda Tribunals did: rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced sterilisation, forced pregnancy, and other serious forms of sexualised violence are explicitly listed as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Trafficking in human beings, particularly women and girls, is also included as a crime against humanity. Furthermore, in contrast to the ICTY and ICTR, the witnesses and victims are provided legal representation and information throughout the proceedings.

Where Does All This Leave Bangladeshi Women?
On March 23, 2010, the Government of Bangladesh became the 111th country to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court; two days later, it announced the formation of a War Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh to prosecute those who allegedly committed crimes against humanity during the 1971 war.

It is not clear whether rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, and other forms of sexualised violence will be part of the indictments. And, if the Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal does attempt to prosecute these crimes, it is not at all clear that witnesses willing to testify will be found.

The fate of the three women who came to Dhaka to testify in the 1991 People's Tribunal demonstrated very clearly what witnesses are likely to face: after their photographs and names were printed in leading daily newspapers, the three women returned to their villages to face scorn and ostracism.11

If the Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal does prosecute individuals for sexualised violence against women during the 1971 War, this would send a clear signal that rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, and other forms of sexualised violence are understood in Bangladesh as grievous human rights violations.

However, a conviction cannot undo the past or compensate for decades of injustice to the women who lost their physical and psychological health, their homes, their families, their place in the community -- the women who were so unjustly shamed instead of their aggressors.

It is clear that there can be no justice for these women that would give them back even a small part of what they have lost. All that can be done -- and seems to me to be a moral imperative of the most urgent kind -- is now, very belatedly, to listen to the stories of these women, honour them, and give them the public recognition they deserve.

Bangladeshi women, like women across the world, have been silenced for decades. It was not until the 2001 Women's International War Crime Tribunal, a symbolic trial of the main figures responsible for the "comfort stations," including Emperor Hirohito, that "comfort women," many bent with age, were finally given the chance to speak.

In 2005, Medica Mondiale, a German organisation which aids rape survivors in war zones across the world, began a campaign in Germany entitled Zeit zu sprechen (time to talk) in order to create a public space for the voices of German survivors of sexualised violence in and following World War II.

Many women wrote to Medica Mondiale to express their deep pain at the fact that their fate was completely absent from the public record and that they had not been able to talk about what had happened to them for 60 years. Many found Medica Mondiale's campaign to be a kind of reparations.12

Now, 40 years after the War of Liberation, it is also time to create public space for the stories of Bangladeshi women and to honour their courage, their strength, and their contributions.

A start has already been made: Ain o Salish Kendro has collected women's oral histories of the 1971 War (Narir '71 O Juddha Parabarti Kathya Kahini). Shaheen Akhtar's novel Talaash, based on these histories, won the Prothom Alo Literary Prize in 2004.

The English translations of both are due out later this year and will make these stories accessible, for the first time, to the international community. (The oral histories collected by Nilima Ibrahim also deserve to be translated).

Another book due out later this year is They were Human, Too: Women from Bangladesh Remember the War of 1971, the result of a three-year oral history project by the University of North Carolina Professor Yasmin Saikia.

Furthermore, a number of important films about women and 1971 have also been made, for example, Yasmine Kabir's deeply moving 2004 film "A Certain Liberation."

These stories and others like them deserve to be widely and respectfully heard. The listening is likely to be painful, not only because of the violence portrayed, but even more so as it becomes clear that the perpetrators were not only Pakistani soldiers, but also Bangladeshis.

But this, too, must be heard and incorporated into the official history of the 1971 war. This is the very least that is due the survivors.

1. Nilima Ibrahim, Ami Birgangana Balchi, Part I, Dhaka: Jagriti Prashani,1994, p. 59. Translated and cited in Santi Rozario, "'Disasters' and Bangladeshi Women," in Gender and Catastrophe, edited by Ronit Lentin, London: Zed Books, 1998, p. 265.

2. For more information on the physical and psychological effects of rape, see Ingeborg Joachim, "Sexualized violence in war and its consequences," in Violence against women in war, medica mondiale, Frankfurt: Mabuse-Verlag GmbH, 2006, p. 63-110.

3. Unless otherwise noted, information on the history of sexualized violence against women is from Gabriela Mischkowski, "Sexualized violence in war - A chronicle," in Violence against women in war, medica mondiale, Frankfurt: Mabuse-Verlag GmbH, 2006, p. 15-62.

4. Deuteronomy 20.14.

5. Heike Sander and Barbara Johr (eds.), BeFreier und Befreite. Krieg. Vergewaltigung, Kinder, Frankfurt: Fischer TB, 1995, p. 54, cited in Mischkowski.

6. Ritu Menon and Kamala Bhasin, Borders and Boundaries, Women in India's Partition, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998, cited in Mischkowski, p. 35.

7. Katherine H.S. Moon, Sex Among Allies Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations, New York: Colombia University Press, 1997, cited in Mischkowski, p. 38.

8. Susan Brownmiller, Against our Will. Men, Women, and Rape, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975, cited in Mischkowski, p. 39.

9. For more information on this legal history, see Gabriela Misckowski, "Sexualized violence in war Criminal prosecution and establishing the truth," in Violence against women in war, medica mondiale, Frankfurt: Mabuse-Verlag GmbH, 2006, p. 111-136.

10. It was in November 1998, at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, that rape was first successfully prosecuted as a crime against humanity.

11. See Nayanika Mookherjee, "Remembering to forget: public secrecy and memory of sexual violence in Bangladesh," in Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute 12 (2), June 2006, p. 433-450.

12. "Das ewige Tabu" (the eternal taboo), Monika Hauser, Executive Director of medica mondiale, speech at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin, August 10. 2006.

Dr. Marianne Scholte is a freelance journalist who writes on issues of social and economic development.

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