Women’s Experiences of War

Against the Current, No. 103, March/April 2003

Dianne Feeley

GEORGE W BUSH’S “State of the Union” speech was the closest thing possible to an open declaration of war. For the past twelve years, crippling sanctions against Iraq have had especially devastating effects on the health of women and children — due to Iraq’s inability to restore water infrastructure and import medicines
in particular.

These sanctions resemble a medieval siege in slow motion, reducing the population to unbearable misery, and mirroring Saddam Hussein’s expropriation of the Iraqi people’s resources for his police-state apparatus.

The official outbreak of the war will drastically speed up this ruinous process. According to a secret UN memo, leaked to the press, a war could be “devastating” for the population.

The evolution of modern warfare has brought on a disproportionate share of suffering for women. From time immemorial women have been “prizes” of conquest; it is only in the last century that they have become a major bearer of direct casualties.

A hundred years ago war meant sending soldiers off to fight battles that would lead to death and/or victory. Today war means massive civilian dislocation, starvation, the trafficking of women and children, fields sown with land mines.

Whether civilians are killed by “smart” bombs dropped from on high or humiliated, raped and murdered by soldiers, war fuels acts of violence. This glorification of aggression is particularly harmful to women and children.

Women have the right to defend themselves against invasion and occupation, including through armed struggle. Today’s global reality, however, is a panoply of wars of aggression and domination in which the United States is playing a major role — although countries such as Russia and Israel are also involved.

Around the country small organizing committees of Women in Black are springing up. These local networks of women oppose the use of violence and terror as a means to political ends. They wear black in the spirit of Women in Black of Israel and Palestine, who call for the restoration of human rights of the Palestinian people, and of the Argentine mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who gathered to demand that the military regime be held accountable for the “disappearance” of their children.

Other women have claimed pink as their color — playing off the U.S. government’s terrorist alert, “Code Red,” with a “Code Pink.” A coalition of women’s organizations wear bright pink to symbolize their preemptive strike for peace, a determination to maintain cvil liberties as well as a celebration of life, not war. They have maintained a vigil in front of the White House since last November, and confronted various pro-war spokeswomen.

These various vigils and marches in opposition to state-sponsored violence are a visual expression of the solidarity that binds women globally.

Many Faces of War

War in the form of an occupation is being waged on the Chechens and Palestinians. Checkpoints, military raids and curfews are the daily reality, trapping people in their homes, preventing them from going to school or work and reducing their ability to find food. Look at the photos of Jenin, Nablus or Grozny and see how armies have reduced cities and towns to rubble.

War in the form of U.S./UN sanctions has been waged for over a decade in Iraq, destroying the country’s infrastructure and escalating infant mortality. There are hospitals and doctors, but no medicine. It is a country with enormous oil resources, but a stagnating and deteriorating infrastructure.

War as civil war and ethnic conflict is being waged in Colombia, the Sudan, in the Congo and has been unleashed in the Ivory Coast. Only too recently it burned hot in Kosova and Bosnia. As in the case of occupation, the “other” is to be captured, subjugated, humiliated, raped, tortured, forced to flee or exterminated.

War in the guise of “liberation from the Taliban” has been imposed in Afghanistan since September, 2001. A society that has been torn apart by foreign intervention (United States, USSR and Pakistan) and civil war is being propped up by the presence of U.S. and UN soldiers. How long is the population supposed to live in shells of bombed-out homes, without work?

These wars have been justified as necessary in the name of democracy or liberation — or even, in the case of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, in the name of women’s rights. Yet on closer inspection we hear a U.S. general’s infamous statement during the Vietnam war, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Let us count the ways war and militarism undercuts the ability of women to have the right to control their lives:

1. War — and its aftermath — kills the civilian population.

Despite the hype of “surgical” operations, war kills the civilian population, the majority of whom are women and children. The “smart” bombs of the 1991 Gulf War killed people in the Amerriyah air raid shelter in Baghdad and during the Afghanistan war U.S. planes bombed a Red Cross building, a wedding, a UN building.

During the 1991 war against Iraq an estimated 100,000-150,000 Iraqis — mostly civilians — and 184 U.S. soldiers were killed. The bombing destroyed Iraq’s water and sewage treatment plants, its electrical production plants and pharmaceutical supply facilities.

But the aftermath of the war, with the UN-imposed sanctions, resulted in at least one million Iraqi deaths, half of them children. UNICEF reports that every month over 5,000 Iraqi children under the age of five perish from causes related to the sanctions.

More Iraqi children die each month than the total number of people killed on 9/11! (Several thousand U.S. soldiers who fought in the Gulf War have also died from cancers and other medical complications related to the war.)

The war continues after the bombing through the laying of land mines and uranium poisoning caused by the use of “depleted uranium” ore in warheads (used to maximize the effectiveness and strength for precision bombing). High concentrations of uranium have been found in the civilian (and military) populations of Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq.

Kabul, a city of 3.5 million people, suffered the highest number of fixed targets during the 2001-02 “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Preliminary samples taken in the city of new-born infants reveal twenty-five percent are suffering from congenital and post-natal health problems.

These are most likely associated with uranium contamination. Such infants are lethargic, develop skin rashes, have large heads in comparison to body size and undeveloped muscles.

Clearly the world arms market — almost half of which is controlled by the United States — poison the land and sea, causing miscarriages, birth defects, cancers and other long-term health problems.

We will never know the exact body count of the Israeli attack on Jenin refugee camp, in the West Bank, last April. First-hand reports indicate hundreds dead, bodies lying in the street — some shot at close range; buildings reduced to rubble with people trapped inside.

Hundreds of men were rounded up and taken away to unknown interrogation and detention camps. While women were left trying to find out whether their husbands, fathers or sons were alive or dead, they also had to shoulder the task of finding food and shelter for their families. UN Special Representative Terje Roed-Larsen, after touring the camp, reported “colossal destruction . . . horrifying beyond belief.”

The Israeli army blocked entry by humanitarian aid convoys, journalists, and human rights investigators; subsequently the Sharon government with U.S. support successfully blocked a UN investigation.

2. War increases the aggressive violence against women.

In times of war, rape is a method of terrorizing the civilian population. Whether the rape occurs in an isolated setting or takes place in front of the woman’s family, its purpose is to demonstrate the complete domination of the warring party over the woman and her people. She is the symbol of her society.

Gang rape, sexual mutilation and the deliberate attempt to impregnate a woman and confine her so that she must bear the unwanted child are all practices militarism imposes on a subject people.

During the war in Bosnia a decade ago rape was used as a weapon of political terror. An estimated 20,000-30,0000 Muslim and Croatian women and children were raped, often cruelly and repeatedly. Many rape survivors — held by regular or irregular soldiers until their pregnancy was beyond the second month — were forced to bear unwanted children as a form of “ethnic cleansing.”

Rape and massacres also prepare the population for wars to come. Last March 2,000 Muslims were killed in Gujarat, India in what was a state-sponsored program by Hindu fascists. Muslim women were stripped, gang raped and then burnt alive. And that is the preview of things to come. With more than 150,000 Muslims forced to flee their homes and businesses, the right-wing Hindu movement claims the right to demolish mosques, rewrite schoolbooks and murder those who stand
in their way.

The rape of girls by U.S. servicemen on Okinawa and the murder of three women at Fort Bragg, NC shortly after their husbands – “special operations officers” — returned from duty in Afghanistan are the tip of the iceberg.

Soldiers are trained to be killers — to judge in an instant and automatically pull the trigger. Aggression is not something easily turned on and off; it is more likely to become part of a culture of domination that is reproduced again and again.

3. War restricts women’s freedom of movement in daily life.

Restrictions enforced by the military have a devastating effect on women, reducing their access to food, resources, work and the larger social interaction that comes from going to work or to the market. They see their children becoming malnourished, unable to live a normal life or even attend school. They do not have access to medical care.

The situation of Palestinian women has been well documented by human rights and UN agencies, revealing that in the last two years twenty-two women and sixteen children have died while stopped at Israeli checkpoints.

Although in labor, over fifty women were unable to get past the checkpoint. Forty-three babies were born there while an additional nine were stillbirths. These checkpoints are yet another source of dehumanizing the Palestinian population.

4. War forces the civilian population to flee from their homes.

During the twenty-five months of Israeli incursions in Palestinian territory, over 9,750 homes were demolished in the West Bank and another 2,349 in the densely populated Gaza strip. Although collective punishment is a violation of international law, Israel has destroyed more than a thousand Palestinian homes following military or municipal decision.

Palestinian villages near Israeli settlements have faced constantly escalating attacks from armed settlers. Settler harassment, military house-razing policies, confiscation of traditional Palestinian lands in the name of security, occupation and unemployment have convinced 150,000 Palestinians to leave.

Since 1999 — when Sudan became an exporter of oil — the ongoing civil war has taken on a new level of brutality. With oil revenues the government has been able to obtain more lethal weaponry, displacing the civilian population in areas where oil is extracted and where further oil exploration is being carried out.

In the western Upper Nile region more than a hundred thousand civilians have been expelled from their villages. Helicopter gunships first attack from the air and then troops swoop in to carry out a mop-up operation involving mass executions, rape and abductions.

The soldiers mine the cattle feed sites and herding paths to insure that the population is unable to return. Children are forcibly recruited into soldiering.

Since the start of the civil war twenty years ago, 5.5 million Sudanese have been forced to flee their homes, with one million currently living in exile. An additional two million died from the war or the famine that periodically follows.

In the current phase of Colombia’s civil war more than two million Colombians — particularly the Afro-Caribbean population — have been displaced, forced to move from their rural homes to cities and towns within the country, or abroad.

Most have been displaced by the paramilitaries. Yet under the banner of fighting terrorism and the narcotics trade, the Bush administration is pouring $470 million a year into “training” Colombian troops (who have close links to the paramilitaries) and police.

More than 160,000 Chechen civilians have been displaced by the civil war, with at least 20,000 living in tent camps in Ingushetia where conditions are primitive but safe. Although it was winter, last December the Russian authorities closed one of the six camps in Ingushetia — and cut off its gas and electricity.

Pressuring the displaced population to “voluntarily” return to Chechnya, the Federal Migration Service use both the carrot (promising non-existent, or already occupied or uninhabitable accommodations) and the stick (threats to close the other camps).

Meanwhile in Chechnya human rights organizations continue to document extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances and torture of noncombatants by Russian troops as well as assassinations by rebel troops (of Chechens working with the Russians).

The 1991 Gulf War created 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. How many will flee this time?

During bombing campaigns or invasions, civilians able to escape the war area do so, and usually with just the clothes on their backs. With men often off at war or forced into hiding, the task of resettling falls to a great extent on women.

The need to replace community networks that have been destroyed places an enormous burden on women, struggling to overcome acute trauma even while finding a way to house, feed and protect all of their children.

Whether the civilian population ends up in camps within the country, flees over a border to refugee camps or are ultimately able to migrate to Europe, Australia or North America depends on many factors: their level of education, whether other family members are already settled in other countries, their host country’s willingness to accept them.

In 2001 there were an estimated 14.9 million refugees and at least 22 million internally displaced persons. More than two-thirds were from Afghanistan, Angola, Burma, Burundi, Congo-Kinshasa, Eritrea, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Somalia and Sudan.

War reinforces global poverty and racism, disrupting and destroying the infrastructure of the Third World, including schools, scarce medical facilities, water supplies. Yet today even the countries built on mmigration — Australia, Canada and the United States — place severe limits on the number of refugees they are willing to accept.

The UN High Commission for Refugee statistics for 2001 reveal that of the top ten countries receiving refugees, not one is in the advanced capitalist world!

5. War continues for refugees who are not welcomed once they reach “safety.”

Women refugees have often fled their homes because of sexual violence only to find themselves once more in a potentially violent situation. Any time an army is sent to “keep the peace,” the trafficking of women — usually involving coercion — develops or is intensified.

Dependent on others for help, refugee women often find that male officials in the camps demand sexual favors in return for food and shelter. Last year incidents of sexual abuse by humanitarian aid workers surfaced in refugee camps in Zimbabwe and West Africa.

Women have also been molested, raped and even sold into prostitution by smugglers, including the police. It is estimated that the trafficking of humans is a $7 billion-a-year business. In Asia and the Pacific region alone more than 30 million children have been traded over the last three decades. The victims are usually teenager girls who end up working in brothels or sweatships. The sexual trafficking of women and children is directly related to the wars and civil wars taking place in their countries.

According to Amnesty International, women seeking asylum in the United States have been also detained without adequate food or medical care, forced to undergo strip searches and treated in demeaning and humiliating ways, including sexual assault.

In a world where there is free movement of capital, the movement of people is more and more constrained. Last year we saw the refusal of the Australian government to allow Afghan refugees — in desperate condition — the right to land on their territory.

The governments of the European Union are developing common and draconian border policies; the United States has expanded its border patrol, building a fence along the southern California border and demanding that Canada adopt strict policies.

Despite the fact that the legal right to asylum has been ratified by 140 countries, today refugees are subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, denial of social and economic rights, closed borders and forcible return to their country of origin.

Women refugees have often fled their country as victims of sexual assault, or have particular gender reasons for seeking asylum. Yet gender-based claims for asylum were rejected until the early 1990s. Gender-based assaults were treated as “private” not public matters.

Canada become the first country to recognize gender-specific forms of persecution. Since that time women refugees have successfully sought asylum for sexual violence in situations of conflict as well as for protection against “honor” crimes and female genital mutilation. Yet states have not accepted the right of women to asylum for situations of domestic violence, no matter how brutal.

In the United States, since eighty-five percent of immigrants are people of color — and like all new immigrants have a higher fertility rate — anti-immigrant propagandists paint a picture of immigrants looking for a “free ride” and who will overwhelm the country’s economy.

As a result, passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996 particularly targets immigrants. Almost half of the expected “welfare reform” savings came from cuts to immigrants’ benefits, including cutting non-citizens from the food stamp program.

6. War and the militaristic culture it imposes prioritizes weaponry over human services.

No society can afford to fund war and social programs. The United States military budget is not only the highest of any country in the world but surpasses the combined spending of the next eight countries — Russia, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, Saudi Arabia and Italy.

Last year President Bush proposed a 2003 budget that would raise “defense” spending by nearly thirteen percent. This is the greatest increase since the Cold War era and is justified in the administration’s National Security Strategy paper as maintaining forces “strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries” from the dream of ever “surpassing or equaling, the power of the United States.”

The military budget eats up one-third of the federal budget. Yet faced with persistent unemployment and a sluggish economy, the Bush administration blithely states “we” can afford the coming war and calls for yet another round of tax cuts for the rich.

As more troops and military hardware pour into the Middle East here at home almost every state budget is projecting draconian budget cuts that will affect libraries, schools, recreation programs, medical care — all the programs that effect the quality of our lives.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau 33 million people live below poverty (many of them the working poor). The poverty rate in 2001 stood at 11.6%, with the percentage of Black and Latino poverty double that rate.

This year we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the limited victory of U.S. women’s reproductive rights. Despite the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, most counties across the United States have never established abortion services.

Since the beginning of the Bush administration the cultural battle against women’s rights continues to chip away access to abortion. But the whole range of reproductive rights issues — ranging from addressing sterilization abuse, improving pregnancy programs, campaigning to lower infant mortality rates or aiding women after the birth of their children through the establishment of federally funded, quality day care — are not issues the administration prioritizes.

Through executive orders, legal briefs and delegations at various international conferences, the Bush administration has revealed its deeply anti-women positions. While scientifically accurate information about contraception and abortion has disappeared from federal government web sites, federally funded sex education programs preach abstinence as the only solution to pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

At last year’s United Nations Special Session on Children the Bush administration delegates opposed efforts to help young girls who are victims of rape under wartime conditions and request abortion. The administration has frozen millions of dollars of funding for programs run by the United Nations Population Fund and the World Health Organization to advance reproductive health and combat HIV and AIDS.

While the “State of the Union” address trumpeted funding for AIDS treatment in Africa, at a United Nations-sponsored conference in Bangkok last fall the Bush delegates attempted to block endorsement of condom use to prevent AIDS. President Bush has also withdrawn his support for Senate ratification of a treaty that requires nations to remove barriers of discrimination against women in areas like legal rights and health care.

At the approach of this year’s International Women’s Day, we think back to the women socialists who first called a coordinated campaign to win rights for working women — particularly the right to vote — in the early years of the 20th century.

We also recall the 1960s, when the second wave of feminism germinated and then blossomed out of the mass antiwar and civil rights movements. At the beginning of the 21st century a campaign against war, racism and poverty is central to the well-being of women, children and all human beings.

This is a campaign to oppose the various trade policies that privatize water, electricity, social security and even seeks to privatize education. It is a campaign that must reject the reactionary call to build fortresses of wealth which leave the majority in abject poverty.

It is a campaign that sees through the phoniness of “humanitarian intervention” and calls for solidarity in the face of war and globalized capital.

ATC 103, March-April 2003