Women and the Genocidal Rape of Women: The Gender Dynamics of Gendered War Crimes


Sjoberg, Laura. 2011. "Women and the Genocidal Rape of Women: The Gender Dynamics of Gendered War Crimes." In Confronting Global Gender Justice: Women's Lives, Human Rights, edited by Debra Bergoffen, Paula Ruth Gilbert, Tamara Harvey, and Connie L. McNeely, 21-34. New York: Routledge.

Author: Laura Sjoberg


Expanding on work from my 2007 book, Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics (with Caron Gentry), this chapter looks at the dynamics of women’s participation in the war crime of genocidal rape against other women. It asks both about why women participated and about how their participation was portrayed in media and scholarly accounts. The chapter looks at these questions by exploring five cases of women’s (alleged) commission of the war crime of genocidal rape. It concludes with a reformulated approach to the laws and norms against genocidal rape in the international community, taking account of women’s roles in the crime not only as (often) victims but also as (sometimes) perpetrators.



“This work, more often than not, defines genocidal rape as a crime where men are the perpetrators and women are the victims." (Sjoberg, 21)

“In previous work, Caron Gentry and I (2007) have identified these as the mother, monster, and whore narratives. The mother narratives feature women’s motherhood as a key motivator for their participation in violence. The mother narrative has two general strands – one that portrays women perpetrators of genocide as nurturing mothers, whose role in the conflict is to take care of and provide for their men – the fact that those men happen to be participating in genocide (and therefore nurturing them is too) does not change the women’s role in society or perception of their familial duty. The other strand of the mother narrative portrays women who commit genocide as vengeful mothers – avenging the deaths of their husbands, brothers, or fathers at the hand of those on the other side of the conflict.” (Sjoberg, 22-23)

“The second narrative we’ve identified is the monster narrative. This story of women’s motivation for involvement in genocide frames women perpetrators as severely psychologically disturbed. These stories tell women perpetrators as crazier and more monstrous than the men that they act with or alongside. Women’s monstrosity, in these stories, comes from the sort of irrational anger only women could have, or feelings of personal inadequacy coming from the inability to marry or have children.” (Sjoberg, 23) 

“The final narrative we’ve identified is the whore narrative. In the whore narrative, women’s participation in genocide is either defined by erotomania or erotic dysfunction. The erotomania story tells of women sexually obsessed with and therefore controlled by men – of women’s sexuality gone wrong and out of control. These women are portrayed as having committed genocide because their sex drive had gone out of control, and female sexuality at its worst is violent and brutal. The story of erotic dysfunction tells as story of a woman who has turned to violence because she is either unwilling to or unable to please men. These women are portrayed as having turned to violence because they were unable to function/serve as real women, which requires getting married and having children.” (Sjoberg, 23)  

“All of these stories about why women commit genocide share several things. First, they assume that the problem of why women commit genocide is a problem separate from the question of why men commit genocide (or even the question of why people generally commit genocide). Second, they preserve a distinction between women who are capable of violence and real or normal women who remain, as we have always assumed, more peaceful than men. Third, though real or normal women are seen as more peaceful than men, these stories depict women’s violence as the result of the excesses of femininity. Finally, these narratives imply that women cannot both be victims of genocide (as a class) and perpetrators of genocide (as individuals or as a group) – it has to be one or the other. Often, both in the public eye and in the academic literature, the identification of women as perpetrators has traded off with the recognition of women as victims.” (Sjoberg, 23)  

“Several accounts have also read women’s perpetration of genocide, genocidal rape, and other sexual crimes as a reversal of gender subordination – where women have become the perpetrators, and are therefore no longer the victims." (Sjoberg, 24)

“As such, the question of why women commit violence generally and genocide specifically is treated as a different question than the question of why men commit such violence. Women’s violence is often almost exclusively explained by gender-specific theories or gender-specified versions of traditional theories of individual violence. Women’s violence is explained as women’s violence rather than as women committing violence.”  (Sjoberg, 27)

“Their stories contradict the dominant narrative about what a woman is generally and about women’s capacity for violence specifically. Because their stories do not resonate with these inherited images of femininity, violent women are marginalized in political discourse. Their choices are rarely seen as choices, and, when they are, they are characterized as apolitical.” (Sjoberg, 27) 

“Those with a political interest in the gender order cannot hear or tell those stories of women’s participation in genocidal rape; instead, stories are produced and reproduced where women’s agency in their violence is denied and violent women are characterized as singular and abnormal aberrations.” (Sjoberg, 27) 

“If violent women are seen as different from what women as women should be, then their existence can be explained away without interrogating the fundamental problems with the stereotypical understanding of what women are – peaceful, virtuous, non-violent, etc.” (Sjoberg, 27)  

“In other words, in these accounts, women’s violence is worse (and to be feared more) than men’s violence, because women are naturally emotional and unpredictable as opposed to men’s presumed rationality and consistency, even in the commission of crimes.” (Sjoberg, 28) 

“Therefore, though they are a blight on the purity of femininity, women who commit genocidal rape or other sex-based crimes in genocide are described as being motivated by things that could only come from their status as women – what is abnormal to women is not their femininity, it is its uncontrolled status and extreme expression.” (Sjoberg, 28) 

“Finally, these stories of women’s participation in genocidal rape share that they either argue or imply that women’s perpetration of genocidal rape against women disrupts narratives of female victimhood….In other words, there are those who argue that women’s participation in violence signals the end of women’s victimization in war and genocide. Still, many of the women that were discussed in the five snapshots above sexually victimized women on the basis of gender. In other words, they perpetrated gender subordination.” (Sjoberg, 28)  

“Along with the implied naturalness of women’s subordination and the assumption of women’s incapability, we can see in the stereotyped reactions to women’s commission of sexual violence not only that women are expected not to violate other women – but also that there’s some normalness to men’s sexual violation of women.” (Sjoberg, 30) 

“The third step, then, is to reformulate international legal approaches to genocidal rape to accommodate the possibility of women perpetrators while still preserving the understanding that women are, as a class, victimized by genocidal rape based on gender.” (Sjoberg, 31)

Topics: Gender, Women, Gender-Based Violence, Genocide, Justice, War Crimes, Peace Processes, Sexual Violence, Female Perpetrators, Rape, SV against Women Regions: Africa, Central Africa, Europe, Balkans, Central Europe Countries: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Germany, Rwanda

Year: 2011

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