02/11/2013 08:35 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Adam Hochschild: Fatal Convergence


Violence doesn't happen in a vacuum. To address and to end violence against women globally, we must consider the factors and circumstances that contribute to it, from the local to the planetary. That's why V-Day has collected a series of articles for One Billion Rising from some of the great thinkers, activists, voices around the world.

We asked them: How do poverty, economic policy, politics, race, class, the environment and other forces influence violence against women?

In our fourth installment, journalist Adam Hochschild discusses the fatal convergence of factors that leads to gender-based violence globally.

By Adam Hochschild

I have found myself thinking recently about violence against women in two different times and places, and wondering what these stories might tell us about why such brutality has been such a searing, tragic part of human experience for so long.

On a reporting trip to eastern Congo several years ago I was reminded that this is probably the worst place on earth to be a woman today. At a shelter for rape victims, even as I and two human rights worker friends were examining the appallingly long roster of cases it had dealt with, a woman came to the door asking for help: she had been gang-raped by Congolese army soldiers three days earlier--and had walked three days to get here. We will never know the statistics with even remote accuracy, because this crime is always so underreported everywhere, but rape has become a systematic, routine part of warfare in the decade and a half of fighting that this long-suffering part of the world has endured. The number of Congolese women raped--their lives scarred by physical injury, emotional trauma and abandonment by husbands or family--probably runs into the hundreds of thousands.

Why so many? Several causes have fatally converged. One is that this is a part of the world, like so many other places from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia to rural India, where women have long had abysmally low status and little or no political power. When that's the case, rape and beatings inevitably follow. Then the European colonization of Africa made things worse--particularly in Congo and several neighboring territories that were rich in wild rubber. In order to force male villagers into the rain forest to gather that rubber, colonial troops held the women of each village hostage, sometimes for weeks at a time. And what happened to them then? "All the soldiers want one," a Belgian officer named Georges Bricusse wrote in his diary on November 22, 1895. "The sentries who are supposed to watch them unchain the prettiest ones and rape them."

Later, the slave labor and hostage system was gradually replaced as the colonial regimes imposed taxes in order to force people seek paying jobs, thereby supplying the mines, plantations and factories with the workers they needed. But those heavy-labor jobs overwhelmingly went to men, further lowering women's status since they were now non-earners. And the last century or so in Africa has not been kind to men, either: like women, they were humiliated by racial discrimination in colonial days, then were frequently the subjects of brutal dictators, and in recent years have often been conscripted by ruthless warlords as child soldiers. When a man is humiliated or brutalized, he usually brutalizes someone else in turn, especially if he has a gun in his hand, and that someone is likely to be of still lower status--a child or a woman.

For armies to use mass rape as part of war, seeking revenge or deliberately sowing terror, is nothing new. Soviet troops were notorious for this as they moved into Germany and Austria at the end of World War II. So were Serbian forces during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. This has often happened elsewhere as well, but seldom makes it into the history books, which are usually more concerned with celebrating battle victories and successful generals. Recently, however, I've come across some surprisingly detailed accounts of violence against women in studying the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish version of fascism was very much a fundamentalist movement, and like many political and religious fundamentalisms it was implacably hostile to women. Not only did many commanders under General Francisco Franco order their troops to practice gang rape to deliberately spread terror, one general even boasted about it on the radio. John T. Whitaker of the New York Herald Tribune witnessed a fascist major ordering two young Spanish women (the crime of one was to carry a trade union card) handed over to forty soldiers to be raped. When the horrified Whitaker protested, the major smiled and said, "Oh, they'll not live more than four hours." Other correspondents witnessed similar episodes. Tens of thousands of women guilty only of supporting the democratically-elected government of the Spanish Republic also had their heads shaved and were forced to drink a powerful laxative, then marched through the streets and jeered as they soiled themselves. Many were branded on their breasts with the fascist symbol of yoke and arrows.

Again, why? Why? And again, several causes fatally converge. The society Franco imposed was a highly traditional, authoritarian one controlled by large landowners, the army and the Catholic Church. Democracy, the rights of women and even much education for women had no place in it: women's job was to serve men. But there was something else as well, that links this fascist ruthlessness against women to what has happened in Congo. Franco and many of his top generals were Africanistas: they had largely spent their military careers fighting a brutal series of colonial wars against rebels in the colony of Spanish Morocco. The dictator himself, as a young officer, had once returned from a raid with his soldiers proudly brandishing the severed heads of 12 Moroccans. When a soldier feels a Moroccan deserves a savage death because he or she wants the dignity of independence, it is but a small step to feel a Spanish woman deserves rape or worse because she wants the same thing.

Violence against women will never cease until a full share of rights and power--social, legal, political and economic--is enjoyed by all women everywhere. And even then, some men will still need educating.


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Photo courtesy of Spark Media.