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The “Other” Terrorism: Militarism and Violence Against Women

Since beginning the Feminist Peace Network in 2001

Since beginning the Feminist Peace Network in 2001, I have written and spoken about militarism and violence against women more times than I can count. In those years I have watched too many instances of the problem becoming more exacerbated and see little to indicate substantive progress towards addressing this horrendous problem. And so I keep writing and talking about it. The following is excerpted from a recent talk that I delivered at the University of Dayton. – Lucinda Marshall

“While bullets, bombs and blades make the headlines, women’s bodies remain invisible battlefields.”

–Margot Wallström, U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict

In order to fully understand militarism, it is necessary to view it from a gendered lens and tonight I will be addressing the question of what it is about militarism that places women at particular risk.

There are essentially 3 ways in which people seek to gain empowerment:

  • The first is Power Among (community)—a sense that we’re all in this together.
  • And then there is Power Within—in other words, your own inner strength and capabilities.
  • Finally, many believe that you can achieve empowerment by means of asserting Power Over.

Militarism, and the patriarchy it defends, are based on the notion of power over, and place women at particular risk for victimization, violation and harm.

In order to achieve empowerment by this method, you have to have someone or something to assert that power over and to do that, you need to see that target as an other.

Creating an other is a critical defining aspect of both militarism and violence against women – creating a false distinction between two different people (or 2 different groups of people). The other then gets defined as less than. Once defined as less than, the other needs to either be destroyed, or protected.

Civilian casualties now make up as much as 70% of the total casualties of any military action. Since women and children are the majority of these civilian populations, they make up the majority of civilian casualties.


What is it about military conflict that makes women particularly vulnerable?

  • To begin with, there is the breakdown in government and law enforcement.
  • Other factors include loss of homes/separation from family/especially men who may have provided protection/becoming refugees.
  • And finally, loss of jobs/income.

The following are the primary ways in which women are sexually victimized as a result of militarism:

  • Rape
  • Sexual Slavery/Trafficking
  • Forced Marriages and Pregnancies
  • Femicide

Several other points to consider:

  • Wars are not fought on battlefields anymore–they are fought in cities and towns and villages.
  • In warfare, women’s bodies frequently become part of the battle ground over which opposing forces struggle.
  • Women’s bodies are often considered the spoils of war, or invisibilized under the catchall euphemism ‘collateral damage’.
  • And violence against women does not end when the fighting ends. We’ve all heard reports of rapes committed by U.N. peacekeepers, of soldiers who come home and assault or murder their wives.

As you may have read recently, it was confirmed that 2 pregnant women and a teenage girl were killed in a botched raid on a family gathering to celebrate the birth of a baby in Afghanistan back in February. Not only were the women murdered in cold blood, but in the initial aftermath of the killings, NATO claimed that the women were already dead when they got there, the victims of honor killings.

It has since been proven otherwise, as one anguished relative asked, why would they be murdering pregnant women at a celebration of a birth, and there are reports by The Times of London that bullets were actually dug out of the women’s bodies and bullet holes in walls plastered over.


The numbers speak for themselves:

  • Rwanda Genocide–As many as 500,000 women raped.
  • 64,000 women raped during conflict in Sierra Leone.
  • 40,000 women raped in Bosnia/Herzogovina.
  • 4,500 rapes in just 6 months in one province of the DRC.
  • Hundreds of women raped every day in Darfur.

It is precisely because of these incredible, large numbers of victims that we know that violence against women is systemic to militarism.

The connection between militarism and violence against women is a global issue, however tonight I want to focus primarily on how it pertains to the U.S. There are several reasons for that.

1. The U.S. has the biggest military power in the world and therefore our actions, as it were, pack the biggest punch and

2. Most of us are U.S. citizens and I think it is appropriate to talk about that which we can be faulted for and that which we can take responsibility for changing before pointing our fingers at others.


Let’s talk about Afghanistan first. As I pointed out earlier, one of the justifications for our invasion was to liberate Afghan women. As Human Rights Watch pointed out last year however, that has been an abysmal failure.

“Afghan women are among the worst off in the world, violence against them is ‘endemic’ and Afghanistan’s government fails to protect them from crimes such as rape and murder.”

– Human Rights Watch, December, 2009


  • The majority of Afghan women are vulnerable to violence in the home.
  • The judiciary system provides scant recourse for survivors of that violence. If there are no witnesses to these crimes, the women can be convicted of adultery.
  • Victims are often jailed or murdered. Women who face domestic violence can be pushed to tragic extremes, including suicide, self-immolation is often the method of choice. The burn hospital in Herat recently reported 90 cases of self-immolation in an 11 month period.
  • Afghanistan is the only country in the world where the suicide rate for women is higher than for men.
  • 70 to 80 percent of women face forced marriages often before the age of 12. There are actually markets where women are bought and sold.
  • Going to school is risky for girls because of fire bombings and acid attacks.
  • The assassinations of several prominent women leaders have gone unpunished.


And then we moved on to Iraq and again used the justification of liberating women there although, while there were certainly serious problems such as the so-called rape rooms, women enjoyed one of the highest levels of freedom in the Arab world. In post-invasion Iraq however:

  • There are roughly three quarters of a million widows in Iraq due to the last war with little or no means of support.
  • Many women have become refugees in Jordan and Syria, often away from families who could provide protection and support.
  • The new Constitution, which the U.S. gave its blessing to gives precedence to Islamic law over civil law.
  • Honor killings have increased dramatically.
  • Sexual trafficking, where women are being forced to prostitute themselves to feed their families, or are being sold to sex traffickers has increased dramatically.


But it is not only civilian women who are at risk.

  • According to several studies, 30% of women in the U.S. military are raped while serving, 71% are sexually assaulted and 90% are sexually harassed. It is believed that 90% of sexual assaults in the military are never reported. As one Congresswoman noted recently, women serving in the military are more at risk of being harmed by their fellow soldiers than by any enemy.
  • The situation in combat theaters is so bad that women are afraid to go to the bathroom by themselves for fear of being raped.
  • It is important to note that there is a very poor rate of conviction of perpetrators, which effectively creates a culture of impunity when it comes to sexual assault and
  • A Department of Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military told a Congressional committee on February 3, 2010 that “DoD’s procedures for collecting and documenting data about military sexual assault incidents are lacking in accuracy, reliability, and validity.”
  • And the last point I want to make about this is that the problems described apropos of the military also apply to women working for private contractors such as KBR as the recent case of Jamie Leigh Jones has unfortunately illustrated.


We also need to talk about the direct sexual victimization of civilians by the U.S. military.

Prostitution thrives near military bases, both in the U.S. and abroad. Women and girls are brought in to entertain the troops as it were. The Pentagon drafted an anti-prostitution and trafficking policy in 2004 that would subject violators to court martials but the U.S. military is just beginning to put clubs and bars involved in prostitution off-limits and little has been done to enforce the policy.

Earlier this year, the Philippine government quit issuing work permits for women seeking to work in bars and clubs near U.S. military bases in South Korea because so many end up being coerced into prostitution.

Many of these women are solicited by recruiters to entertain the troops telling them they will sing and dance, but they end up serving expensive drinks in bars and those who fail to make their drink sale quotas incur ‘bar fines’ which they must pay off by selling sexual services.

In Japan, a year after the Defense Dept. banned the solicitation of prostitutes, Stars and Stripes reported that there was still a thriving “massagy” girl business selling happy endings for $30-$70 near U.S. bases in Japan.
It’s also important to note that the problem extends to private contractors like Dyncorp in Bosnia in the late 1990’s and earlier this year it came to light that Blackwater officials kept a Filipina prostitute on the payroll for, “Morale Welfare Recreation” in Afghanistan.


Every time there is a new study or a new report to Congress about sexual assault in the military, and there have been quite a few, I almost inevitably get a call from a reporter asking whether I think this will make a difference.

The short answer is no. The rape and plundering of women is a de-facto weapon of war and always has been and the objectifying of women is still alive and well in the military.

Despite a 10 year ban on pornography being sold on military bases, the military recently did a review and decided Playboy and Penthouse should not be classified as pornography–and I don’t want to get into a debate about porn, but the point is that the objectification of women is historically implicit in militarism and no amount of Congressional testimony is going to change that.

The number of sexual assaults in the military that are being reported has gone up, which may in part be a function of improved reporting mechanisms, but experts still feel these are just a small part of the real number.

What is crucial to understand is that what hasn’t gone up is the number of criminal prosecutions or convictions and until that happens, substantial improvement in the situation is unlikely.

While I have focused tonight primarily on U.S.-centric militarism, clearly militarism perpetrated by other military forces, be they national militias, rebel forces or whoever is committing militaristic violence, leads to violence against women wherever it occurs and that violence needs to be addressed, whether it is in Indonesia, the Darfur region of Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo or anywhere else.

“After raping her they killed her by shooting into her vagina. No action was taken.”

– The Karen Women’s Organization (KWO), “State of Terror: the ongoing rape, murder, torture and forced labor suffered by women living under the Burmese Military Regime in Karen State (February 2007)

In addition, there is a whole expanded conversation that is more than we can address here tonight regarding the U.S. role in these situations, for instance our support of the government in Indonesia and our lack of action to help the people of Darfur and so on–just because we are not directly perpetrating violence does not mean that we are not involved in the perpetration of the problem or that we should not be involved in ending this violence.


I’d like to talk now about what can be done, on both a national and international level, to change the paradigm that allows for the victimization of women as a result of militarism. There are a number of vehicles that address the issue. One of the most important is CEDAW which stands for The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and defines violence against women as a violation of women’s human rights and is often described as an international bill of rights for women. As of August, 2009, 185 countries had ratified CEDAW. The United States is one of the few that have not yet ratified it, along with countries such as Iran and Sudan.

There are also several UN Security Council resolutions that are important to know about. The first, Resolution 1325 addresses the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and recognizes the under-valued and under-utilized contributions women make to conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peace-building, and stresses the importance of their equal and full participation as active agents in peace and security.

The second, Resolution 1820, urges all parties to armed conflicts to immediately stop acts of sexual violence against civilians and calls for the protection of women and girls from all forms of sexual violence.
We also have the International Criminal Court which was created in 1998. Of critical importance, its statutes classify sexual violence as a war crime and provide a means by which perpetrators can be held accountable for their war crimes.

It also establishes measures to facilitate better investigation of gender-based violence as well as standards for care of victims including witness protection and legal counsel.

The U.S. however, opposes the ICC and does not participate.

And finally, here in the U.S., the bipartisan International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) was reintroduced in February in both the US House and Senate.

It would be the first of its kind to comprehensively incorporate US foreign assistance programs to help stop gender-based violence and poverty, promote economic opportunities for women, halt violence against girls in schools, and ultimately empower women.


Those are some of the tools available to us on an international and national level, but you and I—we’re not members of Congress or delegates to the United Nations. So the thought that I want to leave you with is what we—those of us here tonight—can do to change this paradigm?

In order to truly achieve a women-inclusive peace, we need to make the connection between the othering that enables militarism and the othering that enables sexual violence. Creating peace in the world must include creating peace in our homes. And finally, we need to take intimate violence as seriously as the other violences of war.We need to admit that sexual violence is a tool of war. When men go to war, women and children are overwhelmingly the innocent victims. We need to own up to this and make it a front and center issue.

And if you remember what I said when I began this evening, there are three ways in which to seek empowerment and we need to do some substantive work in moving away from Power Over to a framework that is based upon Power Within and Power Among.

We need to make a fundamental paradigm shift and move towards partnership thinking (a concept pioneered by Riane Eisler). Rather than seeing others as adversaries, let’s look at how can we partner to create solutions and make meaningful and just relationships. Then we will be truly empowered.

My goal tonight has been to try to give you a glimpse of what militarism looks like through a gendered lens. When we discuss the impact of militarism and how to end it, we are simply not looking at the full picture unless we include the ways it affects women and also listen, really listen, to women’s voices when we look towards resolution of conflict and the creation of peace.


My grateful thanks to Dr. Rebecca S. Whisnant, head of the Women and Gender Studies Program, for inviting me to speak, all those who provided support for this lecture and to the wonderful and inquisitive students at the University of Dayton. The slides that accompanied this lecture can be viewed in the right sidebar on the Feminist Peace Network website. You can also get more information on militarism and violence against women here.

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