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Women and the Worst of War

Content Warning: Graphic, War, Sexual Violence, Suicide

Writer: Rachel

Graphic Design: Serena

From nearly the beginning of recorded history, war has scarred humanity. With war comes extra trauma for women and girls, who can face the prospect of rape and sexual exploitation in addition to the risks of life and property faced by all in war zones. No matter the era, we have seen that in times of war, vulnerable populations, such as women and other minorities, are usually the most negatively affected. As war has existed nearly as long as we have, these conflicts have brought many atrocities against many different people during many different wars. This article will be focused specifically on instances of gender-based violence and sexual assault against women during times of war.

Such war crimes are committed not just to control or persecute a certain population, but also as a form of genocide against this group. During the Bangladesh Independence War in 1971, officials estimated that between 200,000 to 400,000 Bengali women were raped by the Pakistan Armed Forces (though some argue this figure is underestimated). These actions were supported by Pakistani leaders who declared Bengali women to be ‘public property’ or ‘war booty’ and thought they could eliminate Bengali nationalism by producing ‘pure’ Muslims who were fathered by Pakistani men and thus loyal to Pakistan. Yet even after the war ended and Bangladesh became independent, these women were ostracized from their own society and seen as dishonorable.

Another instance of genocidal rape can be witnessed in the 1991 genocide against Tutsis, which occured during the Rwandan Civil War. National and local leaders as well as Hutu militias directed or encouraged widespread killing and raping as a means to destroy the Tutsi ethnic group. Hutu propaganda depicted Tutsi women as ‘sexually seductive subversives’ and enemies of the Hutu people and encouraged not only rape, but sexual mutilation as well to destroy the reproductive capabilities of Tutsi women. Hutu extremists even released hundreds of AIDS patients from hospitals and recruited them into ‘rape squads’ with the intention of infecting and killing their future rape victims. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, established in 1994, was the first international court to recognize rape as a means of genocide.

Rape can also be used as a means to humiliate, terrorize, and dehumanize a certain group. In such instances, gender intersects with other aspects of a woman’s identity, such as religion, ethnicity, or social class. The pain and suffering inflicted by the rapist is intended to degrade not just the individual woman, but to dehumanize and shame the larger group(s) she is part of. The rape of an individual is thus considered an assault upon the community due to the importance placed on women’s sexuality and virginity in nearly every culture. As a result, the harm done to the woman is often overshadowed or exacerbated by the apparent harm to the community.

Between 1984 and 1995 during the insurgency in Punjab, India, women found themselves in an increasingly patriarchal and militarized society while being detained and assaulted by Indian forces. Many Sikh men were “disappeared,” taken and held at unknown locations or murdered, while their wives were punished for not adhering to traditional, gendered mourning expectations. Any effort for justice by victims, survivors, and their families was met with violence or enforced disappearance.

Sadly, it is rare for victims of these crimes to receive any form of justice, apology, or compensation for their suffering. In the aftermath of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila Massacre in Beirut, Lebanon, in which Israel Defense Forces (IDF), then occupying Beirut, allowed members of the right-wing Phalangist militia into the camp, resulting in the slaughter and rape of thousands of civilians. While the massacre lasted several days, the IDF, who kept the camp surrounded, heard reports of atrocities being committed inside but did nothing to intervene or stop the massacre. The Israeli commission to investigate the incident deemed that Israel was only ‘indirectly responsible’ for this massacre.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimated that 20,000 women, including some children and the elderly, were raped by Japanese forces during the massacre of Nanjing, China in 1937. A separate Yale University study pegged the number at 80,000. The atrocities from the Japanese were widespread. Between 1932 and 1945, the Japanese army forced an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 women across Asia into sexual slavery, in which they were referred to as ‘comfort women.’ To this day, the Japanese government has yet to apologize for their actions and decisions, as well as recognize the damage caused to both survivors and victims.

More recently, as the Islamic State invaded parts of Iraq, there have been widespread reports of rape and exploitation against women. The organization Human Rights Watch began documenting the brutal capture and imposition of sexual slavery on Yezidi women in 2015, with women and children being sold at slave markets and traded between captors. As ISIS has taken control of other regions, women and girls are losing personal freedoms, including the right to an education.

Internally displaced people, especially women, are more likely to face violence. As we witness a vicious war playing out in Ukraine, we can’t help but worry about the potential for new sexual, psychological, economic, and physical atrocities against women, children, and other vulnerable people who have been displaced but unable to shelter in safety.

If you or someone you know could use some support or would like to learn more about current humanitarian initiatives, utilize the following resources for further information and help:

Support resources:

  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: (800)-656-4673 (based in the U.S)

  • Crisis Services Canada: Call 1-(833)-456-4566, text 45645 or head to their website here to find resources that are catered to your province

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: call 1-(800)-799-7233 or text “START” to 88788

  • Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres: visit their website here to access information on Rape Crisis Centres, Transition houses, and Women’s Centres that are filtered based on your province

  • Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: click here for resources that are applicable for your province

  • Kids Help Phone: call 1-(800)-668-6868 or text “CONNECT” to 686868

  • VictimLinkBC: call or text 1-800-563-0808 to utilize this service that’s provided 24/7. You can also reach out by emailing

Humanitarian efforts:

  • UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (adopted on Oct 31st, 2000)

  • Women’s Health and Development Program

Ukrainian conflict resources and donation suggestions:

  • This article from The Independent summarizes some ideas of how we can help

  • UN Women: Donate to their Ukraine response here

  • Save Life: Save Life works directly with personnel and command military units, purchasing urgently needed equipment. Donate here.

  • Army SOS: Purchases necessary ammunition, shields and intercommunication and delivers all good directly. Donate here.

  • Hospitallers: Hospitallers works directly on the frontline. Donate here.

  • Phoenix Wings: Phoenix Wings helps to repair buildings used by the army, purchase equipment and uniforms helps with treatment of wounded soldiers. Donate here.

  • Ukrainian Women Veteran Movement: Prepares actions in case of emergencies. Donate here.

  • Vostok SOS: Raises funds for various army needs. Donate here.

  • Voices of Children: Providing psychological support for Ukrainian children with war trauma. Donate here.

  • Lifeline Ukraine: Suicide prevention service that helps Ukrainian war veterans. Donate here.

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