Rape of Women in a War Zone
"A nation is not conquered until the women's hearts lay on the ground." -- Cheyenne Indian saying
During war, brutal crimes such as rape are often committed against civilian women. Rape occurs in areas under attack and in refugee camps. In war, rape is not just an assault on the woman. It is also an assault on her family and community. Many hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in wars just in the past few decades. Reports have come from all over the world -- from Korea, Bangladesh, Liberia, Southeast Asia, Uganda, and more places. Refugees from Bosnia have described how military forces publicly raped women. This was to force families to flee their villages, with the goal of "ethnic cleansing."
Conservative estimates of the number of women raped during the Bosnian war are between 20,000 and 50,000. Estimates of sexual assault rates range from 3% to 6% in Bosnian refugee women. Posttraumatic stress symptoms were found in up to 75% of Bosnian refugees. In Darfur rates of rape are difficult to establish. Some estimate, though, that 10,000 girls and women have been raped each year since 2003.
Assaults are often gang-related and sadistic. They may include other forms of physical torture. The assault survivors may also lose their home and community if they are forced to move. They may suffer injury and illness as a result of the assault. These women may also witness the murder, injury, or rape of loved ones. The effects of these types of trauma cannot be measured. They are long lasting and shattering to both inner and outer worlds.
In some cases, the way the culture views rape can make things even worse. In Muslim culture, for example, the honor of the woman reflects upon the entire family. Rape is thought to be shameful. A woman who is raped might fear being expelled from her husband's family or never finding a husband. Some rape victims might also believe that they are being punished for some sin that they have committed. Even if they do not blame themselves, they may feel such a strong duty to protect their family that they often stay silent about the trauma. Many of the Bosnian rape victims told no one about what happened to them. Stigma and injustice have surrounded the rape of women for as long as time. In fact, rape was not labeled a crime
against humanity or war crime until the 1990s.
Women, Trauma and PTSD
Trauma is common in women; five out of ten women experience a traumatic event. Women tend to experience different traumas than men. While both men and women report the same symptoms of PTSD (hyperarousal, reexperiencing, avoidance, and numbing), some symptoms are more common for women or men.
Most early information on trauma and PTSD came from studies of male veterans mostly Vietnam veterans. Researchers began to study the effects of sexual assault and found that women's reactions were similar to male combat veterans. Women's experiences of trauma can also cause PTSD. This finding led to more research on women's exposure to trauma and PTSD.
Risk of experiencing trauma
Findings from a large national mental health study show that a little more than half of all women will experience at least one traumatic event in their life. Women are slightly less likely to experience trauma than men. The most common trauma for women is sexual assault or child sexual abuse. About 1 in 3 women will experience a sexual assault in their lifetime. Rates of sexual assault are higher for women than men. Women are also more likely to be neglected or abused in childhood, to experience domestic violence, or to have a loved one suddenly die.
What happens after trauma
After a trauma, some women may feel depressed, start drinking or using drugs, or develop PTSD. Women are more than twice as likely to develop PTSD than men (10% for women and 4% for men). There are a few reasons women might get PTSD more than men:
- Women are more likely to experience sexual assault
- Sexual assault is more likely to cause PTSD than many other events
- Women may be more likely to blame themselves for trauma experiences than men
Why are some women at higher risk for PTSD?
Not all women who experience a traumatic event develop PTSD. Women are more likely to develop PTSD if they:
- Have a past mental health problem (e.g., depression or anxiety)
- Experienced a very severe or life-threatening trauma
- Were sexually assaulted
- Were injured during the event
- Had a severe reaction at the time of the event
- Experienced other stressful events afterwards
- Do not have good social support
What PTSD is like for women
Some PTSD symptoms are more common in women than men. Women are more likely to be jumpy, to have more trouble feeling emotions, and to avoid things that remind them of the trauma than men. Men are more likely to feel angry and to have trouble controlling their anger then women. Women may take longer to recover from PTSD and are four times more likely than men to have long-lasting PTSD. Women with PTSD also are more likely to feel depressed and anxious, while men with PTSD are more likely to have problems with alcohol or drugs. Both women and men who experience PTSD may develop physical health problems.
Treatment for PTSD
There are good treatments for PTSD. However, not everyone who experiences a trauma seeks treatment. Women may be more likely than men to seek help after a traumatic event. At least one study found that women respond to treatment as well as or better than men. This may be because women are generally more comfortable sharing feelings and talking about personal things with others than men.
Women in the military
Women in the military are at high risk for exposure to traumatic events, especially during times of war. Currently, about 15% of all military personnel in Iraq are women. Although men are more likely to experience combat, a growing number of women are now being exposed to combat. Women in the military are at higher risk for exposure to sexual harassment or sexual assault than men. Future studies are needed to better understand the effects of women's exposure to both combat and sexual assault.