Rape as a Weapon of War

On October 11, PBS will kick off its new five-part series Women, War, and Peace, executive-produced by Abigail Disney, Gini Reticker and Pamela Hogan. I interviewed Peggy Kuo, a war-crimes prosecutor featured in I Came To Testify, the first segment to air, which focuses on the first-ever international criminal tribunal that addressed rape as a weapon of war. Addressing the case of Muslim women and girls enslaved and raped repeatedly by Serb forces in the city of Foca, Bosnia, in 1992, the landmark tribunal led to international laws defining rape as a crime against humanity. I talked with Kuo, a prosecutor in the case, about how the ruling advanced the conversation about rape as a weapon of war and the work still to be done.

Ms. Blog: How did you get involved in the Foca rape case?

Peggy Kuo: I was working as a prosecutor at the Justice Department in the civil rights division. I had always been interested in international law, but the opportunity had never presented itself to get involved. After the war crimes trials in Nuremburg and Tokyo, there was never another international criminal tribunal. When I heard the Yugoslavia Tribunal was being set up, I knew I had to go. The Foca case happened to be gearing up when I got there, and that is the case I was assigned to.

Why do you think it took so many years for such a tribunal to come about?

A lot of organizations had been working on the idea of having international justice for a long time. The Yugoslavia conflict in the early ’90s became a flashpoint. A lot of things came together, including the women’s movement and the media. The reports of atrocities resonated with a lot of people, especially because many of the images that came out harkened back to the Nazi concentration camps. That galvanized people who were already working on this.

The PBS series describes the law that emerged out of the case as one that “broke history’s great silence” about rape as a weapon of war. What would you say has happened in the last decade thanks to the new laws?

I think it has really advanced the conversation about rape during wartime. People have a touchstone where they know that prosecutions for rape can be successful, that women will report what has happened to them, and testify about it. Women know that they are not alone, and that while being fearful is natural, coming forward can have a real impact.

Despite new laws, rape as a weapon of war sometimes seems to not be on the public radar. What will it take to begin to prosecute and change what is going on with rape as a weapon of war?

I think it’s on the radar, but people aren’t necessarily doing anything about it. Raising awareness is not the real problem. It’s about getting the prosecutions going. I would add that it’s an issue that shouldn’t be left just to the international tribunals. A lot of these cases can be prosecuted by domestic governments. The problem is that the domestic courts are not well-equipped. If you go to a war-torn country, the courts often aren’t functioning or the laws are not good. In some places, when a woman alleges rape and she can’t get witnesses to corroborate it, she will be accused of adultery. So there are all sorts of domestic laws that need to change for the issue really to be addressed through legal means. There is still a long way to go in terms of legal remedies for sexual violence.

What would you say about the gender component at play here? How is sexism contributing to our inability to stop rape as a weapon of war?

Not everyone in the world believes that rape is serious. And I also think that there are people who think that crimes against women are less important. That layer makes it more difficult to address the problem.

In regards to rape within militaries as well as rape of civilians, is there a way to combine these different kinds of rapes and link them under the umbrella of militarism?

I would not use the term militarism, as there are members of the military who are women, and there are also very honorable military members who are not engaged in that type of behavior. I would say it’s more a devaluation of women generally, which is not just a military problem, it’s a societal problem. The challenge is to get people to see all women as human beings. Strangely, in the 21st century, this view is still not universally held. And it takes a really concerted effort. It takes changing attitudes as well as laws, so women can not only testify as witnesses but also be considered equal. This is why it’s so difficult and takes so long. It truly is an uphill battle.

What are your hopes for the series and for I Came to Testify?

The series Women, War & Peace portrays women not only as victims of war but as powerful agents of change capable of determining our futures. By framing the issue of women in armed conflict in different parts of the world within a larger context, the series shows that women are an important part of war and an important part of peace-building. It puts a missing piece of the puzzle back in to create a clearer picture of the whole. I hope people watch and are inspired. Before I got involved in this project, I saw Pray the Devil Back to Hell [another film in the series, which will screen on October 18] and it was so inspiring. At the end of the film, you think, I want to do something. It would be wonderful if everyone who watches the series channels that energy into doing something–big or small–to advance the cause of justice.

Kuo closed with an important reminder about the importance of women’s involvement in the wider conversations about war and peace-building:

When women leave the table, the issues don’t always remain there. Sometimes the issues sink to the bottom if no one is keeping them afloat. You may feel like you’re being a pain in the neck, but you just have to keep at it.

In honor of all the wonderful woman activists, prosecutors and filmmakers whose “pain in the neck” determinism has brought this PBS series and the issues it documents to our screens, please take a seat at the table and watch. Hopefully, like Kuo, you will be inspired and energized to stand up against the continuing injustices that global conflicts engender and to insist that women’s war stories, and their groundbreaking peace-building stories, must be heard.


Catch Kuo on the first segment of the Women War and Peace series, I Came To Testify, on your local PBS station this Tuesday, October 11!



Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.