How War and Genocide Impact Women

“This moment, we seem to have wars everywhere, there’s violence taking place everywhere.”


These words, uttered by Dr. Pius Kamau set the stage for his podcast interview with Millete Birhanemaskel, journalist, activist, and Tigrayan Human Rights Advocate. In the interview, the pair discuss the atrocities of torture and rape as weapons against women during war.


Birhanemaskel has a specific focus on the Tigrayan genocide, which has been taking place in the country for the past three years. As of January 2023, it is estimated that approximately 600,000 civilian lives have been lost as a result of this ongoing war. This staggering estimate speaks merely to the death toll of the war and does not begin to cover the impact on its survivors—the survivors who’ve suffered through unfathomable torture including rape.


“The issue of rape is something we don’t often want to talk about in civilized society even though it’s taking place,” says Dr. Kamau. This statement reflects an inherent problem in our so-called “civilized society,” that we sit back and do nothing, while every day, women around the world are experiencing rape as a weapon of war. In this podcast however, Birhanemaskel and Kamau do just the opposite of what would be approved by civilized society; they speak candidly and openly about rape, torture, and war, with the aim to drive awareness and educate anyone who’s willing to listen on the atrocities occurring all around us.


“As an African woman…I’m very sensitive to how rape has been a weapon of war on African women,” says Birhanemaskel, “But even as a Black woman in America, just the way we’re fetishized, seen as exotic beings sometimes, reduced to our sexuality as opposed to who we are, and just the history in this country, too, of how our bodies have been a battlefield.”


She speaks to the fact that while sexual assault and rape have been addressed in America via the Me Too Movement, “it’s been a movement for white women.” In referencing Black women, she states, “We were there, we were at the protests, we were in some of the conversations, but I don’t think we were centered in any of that, and so Me Too just swept on by and here we are, still in that same vulnerable place.” This lack of inclusion goes hand in hand with the fact that as a society, we’re simply ignoring what’s happening in Tigray, ignoring the fact that while these crimes against humanity seem archaic and unlikely to be taking place in the modern world, they are. But why? Why is this still happening? And why do men do this to women?


In response to the latter question posed in the discussion by Dr. Kamau, Birhanemaskel states, “We all know it’s about power, that’s for sure. In any circumstance it’s about power and control, and women having just a weaker position or a weaker voice, less power in addressing the issue. When I think about it in the context of war and weaponization of rape I think about, if you want to attack the essence of a culture, the essence of society, where do you go? You go to the women.”


She goes on to note that in Tigray, Tigrayan soldiers were given a directive by their superiors to rape women. It’s not just something that happened, it’s something that was ordered to happen. “You had all these people who were raping Tigrayan women saying things like, ‘We’re cleansing your bloodline,’” Birhanemaskel notes. “When you want to destroy a people, destroy a society, you start with the women. That was the goal. And that is why we had unprecedented numbers of women who were raped, and we still don’t really know the true number. I keep hearing 120,000 women, but that’s probably a gross underestimate because people are afraid, especially African women. We’re stigmatized when it comes to this topic.”


The discussion segues into the topic of women being considered as property, of having lesser value than men. This viewpoint leaves many women in a position of having to fight their own battles against rape, not just at war, but within their own marriages.


Dr. Kamau describes how in many tribes and cultures, if a man states that his wife is his property, he views it as his right to have sex with her at any time and “she cannot refuse,” for if she does, she will be forced and may lose her life by saying no. “That is still rape I believe,” says Dr. Kamau. In response to this concept of spousal rape, Birhanemaskel describes how in African culture, women are taught to serve their husbands. “I remember the first time I heard of spousal rape in this country and I didn’t understand,” she recalls. “I don’t think there’s anywhere in Africa where a woman would make that case.”


This discussion around women as property evinces just how far behind some cultures are in their ways of thinking, in viewing women as equals rather than things to be mistreated and used for any given purpose at the behest of men.


With rape “you’re taking a woman’s womanhood away,” says Dr. Kamau. “She becomes a thing as opposed to a being.”


This comment sparks Birhanemaskel to talk about about the work Amnesty International did around rape in Tigray, noting there’s a quote she’ll never forget from a woman who was raped by soldiers in succession: “I didn’t know if they knew I was human.”


Words like these are so jarring, so incredibly sad, that it’s difficult to fully grasp the severity of trauma suffered by so many women both past and present.


“What are we doing to get help to these people?” asks Birhanemaskel. “We can’t do it alone, we are all essentially in trauma, myself included, after what has happened over the past three years [in Tigray].”


While it’s a question directed at Dr. Kamau for the purposes of the interview, it’s a question directed at all of us, the rest of the world who day after day, choose ignorance over action.


“We need to continue peace,” offers Dr. Kamau.


“In addition to peace, we need courage,” responds Birhanemaskel.


And courage comes in many forms: in listening to this podcast interview, in reading this blog post, and in spreading the word about present day crimes against humanity. It starts with awareness, and at the Coalition Against Global Genocide, it is our mission to educate, motivate and empower individuals and communities to oppose Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity.


Visit our website to learn how to can help prevent and stop genocide.