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Religious Tolerance logo

Rape of women during wartime

Ancient times until World War II

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Rape during wartime:

Whenever there is an unbalance of power, the potential for rape increases.

Rape during war appears to have gone through three main stages:

bulletIn ancient times: rape was a reward to the victors: The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) describe the rape of the women of conquered tribes as a routine act. For example, various translations of the Bible render Lamentations 5:11 with some variations:
bulletNew International Version: Women have been ravished in Zion,  and virgins in the towns of Judah.
bulletKing James Version: They ravished the women in Zion, and the maids in the cities of Judah.
bulletContemporary English Version: On Zion and everywhere in Judah our wives and daughters are being raped.
bulletNew Living Translation: Our enemies rape the women in Jerusalem and the young girls in all the towns of Judah.
bulletNew American Standard Bible: They ravished the women in Zion, The virgins in the cities of Judah.
bulletHolman Christian Study Bible: Women are raped in Zion, virgins in the cities of Judah.
bulletThe Message: Our wives were raped in the streets in Zion, and our virgins in the cities of Judah.
bulletAmplified Bible: They ravished the women in Zion, the virgins in the cities of Judah.
bulletForeign woman were often kidnapped as spoils of war, and either murdered or forced to marry their captors/rapists. This was probably typical behavior in the Middle East during Old Testament times. At the time, rape was considered to be a crime against the victim's father or spouse -- whoever owned her.
bulletNumbers 31:1-18 describes how the army of the ancient Israelites killed every adult Midianite male in battle. Moses then ordered the slaughter in cold blood of most of the captives, including all of the male children who numbered about 32,000. Only the lives of 32,000 women - all virgins -- were spared. Some of the latter were given to the priests as slaves. Most were taken by the Israeli soldiers as captives of war.
bulletDeuteronomy 21:11-14 describes how each captive woman would shave her head, pare her nails, be left alone to mourn the loss of her families, friends, and freedom. After a full month had passed, they would be required to submit to their owners sexually, as a wife. It is conceivable that in a few cases, a love bond might have formed between the soldier and his captive(s). However, in most cases we can assume that the woman had to submit sexually against her will; that is, she was raped.
bulletAccording to the book "Rape Warfare:" "The ancient Greeks and Romans would rape and enslave women after they had conquered a city." 1
bulletMore modern times: random cases of rape: Random rape by soldiers during wartime has been a common phenomenon, particularly when there has been a lack of army discipline. UNICEF writes:

"From [recent] conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Peru to Rwanda, girls and women have been singled out for rape, imprisonment, torture and execution. Rape, identified by psychologists as the most intrusive of traumatic events, has been documented in many armed conflicts including those in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cyprus, Haiti, Liberia, Somalia and Uganda." 2

bulletRecent changes: systematic, organized rape as a tactic of war: Rape is now increasingly being intentionally used as an intentional tactic of terror. Author Maria B. Olujic wrote:

"Rape was a weapon of terror as the German Hun marched through Belgium in World War I; gang rape was part of the orchestrated riots of Kristallnacht which marked the beginning of Nazi campaigns against the Jews. It was a weapon of revenge as the Russian Army marched to Berlin in World War II, it was used when the Japanese raped Chinese women in the city of Nanking, when the Pakistani Army battled Bangladesh, and when the American G.I.s made rape in Vietnam a 'standard operating procedure aimed at terrorizing the population into submission'." 3

Numerous recent cases have been alleged, mostly in religiously-motivated wars:
bullet1991-1994: Serbian paramilitary troops used rape systematically as a tactic to encourage Bosnian Muslim women to flee from their land.
bullet1994: In Rwanda, Hutu leaders ordered their troops to rape Tutsi women as an integral part of their genocidal campaign.
bullet1997: Secular women were targeted by Muslim revolutionaries in Algeria and reduced to sex slaves.
bullet1998: Indonesian security forces allegedly raped ethnic Chinese women during a spate of major rioting.
bulletLate 1990s: Serbian military and paramilitary units systematically raped ethnic Albanian Muslim women during the unrest in Kosovo.

The evolution of rape from a largely random event into a premeditated, organized act of terrorism during warfare has motivated international action to punish, and thus to hopefully prevent, such activity in the future.

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Rape during the World War II era:

There were many such incidences during the World War II era. The most serious were: 

bulletIn Nanjing, China, during 1937 & 1938, Japanese soldiers were responsible for massive levels of rape among the local Chinese population. One source estimates that over 80,000 women were raped. 4
bulletMillions of women victims raped by Russian soldiers during the last months of World War II. Anthony Beevor's book "Berlin -- The Downfall 1945" documents rape by Russian soldiers:

"Beevor's conclusions are that in response to the vast scale of casualties inflicted on them by the Germans the Soviets responded in kind, and that included rape on a vast scale. It started as soon as the Red Army entered East Prussia and Silesia in 1944, and in many towns and villages every female aged from 10 to 80 was raped."

The author was:

"... 'shaken to the core' to discover that even their own Russian and Polish women and girls liberated from German concentration camps were also violated."

He estimates that:

"A 'high proportion' of at least 15 million women who lived in the Soviet zone or were expelled from Germany's eastern provinces were raped."

Until recent years, East German women from the World War II era referred to the Red Army war memorial in Berlin as "the Tomb of the Unknown Rapist." 5,6

bulletHundreds of thousands of kidnapped "comfort women" who probably endured in excess of ten million incidences of rape by Japanese soldiers from the mid 1930s to the end of hostilities in 1945. The Japanese military's mass program involving kidnapped "comfort women" during World War II was probably "the largest, most methodical and most deadly mass rape of women in recorded history." The diminishing number of victims who are still alive are still awaiting a formal apology by the Japanese government. More details.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Heather A. Blackburn and Stacey M. Thomas, "Rape Warfare," 1998-FEB-25, at: http://jrscience.wcp.muohio.edu/
  2. "Sexual violence as a weapon of war," UNICEF, at: http://www.unicef.org/
  3. Maria B. Olujic, "Women, Rape, and War: The Continued Trauma of Refugees and Displaced Persons in Croatia," Anthropology of East Europe Review, Volume 13, No. 1 Spring, 1995; Special Issue: Refugee Women of the Balkans
  4. John Baird, "Rape of Nanking: Remembering the horrors of World War II," at: http://www.wpi.edu/
  5. Peter Almond, "Feature: Book on WW II rapes upsets Russia," at: http://www.cdi.org/
  6. Anthony Beevor, "Berlin -- The Downfall 1945," Viking, 2002.

Site navigation:

 Home page > Religious Information > Sexuality > Wartime rape > here

or Home page > Christianity > History... > Practices > Sexuality > Wartime rape > here

or Home page > Morality > Wartime rape > here

Copyright © 2002 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-OCT-30
Latest update: 2009-NOV-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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