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Our Bodies, Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women (Review)

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In case anyone fancies analysing the meaning of my lock-down reading*, here’s the list so far: a few PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh classics, The Salt Path, Ali Smith’s Winter (finally), House of Glass, Animals (don’t bother), Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other (do bother), Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (mainly to understand the corona puns), Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love, The Mirror and the Light (a lengthy pursuit, worth it for the final chapters), Putin’s People, Between Two Fires, Beyond the Green Zone, The Natural Health Service (all power to Isabel Hardman and cold water swimming), The Last Man in Russia, Queenie and David Nicholl’s Sweet Sorrow (which, read alongside the adaptation, felt like a one-sided-knock-off normal people). Also, some interesting anthropological introspectives for our times – Alain de Botton, Daniel Kahneman, David Graeber, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and the economic QUEENS that are Stephanie Kelton and Mariana Mazzucato.

Which looks like boasting, but I’m unemployed.

Anyway, the point I make is this. None – not even close – have inspired me to put words to paper quite like Christina Lamb’s Our Bodies, Their Battlefield. It is an outstanding work of war reporting on the horrendous, hard-to-read and infuriatingly frequently overlooked issue of sexual violence in modern conflict. From the Peninsular War to the Siege of Ladysmith, it’s all too easy to assume that these archaic practices are confined to the past (or even 1945 Berlin). They’re not, and this book serves as a sick reminder of the sheer, gut-wrenching scale.

In fact, what struck me most was the contemporary content of Lamb’s book; the kidnap, rape and slaughter of the Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram in 2014 and the rape and burning-alive of Yazidi girls in 2015, 2016. Women, still, seeking justice for abhorrent crimes (including the smashing of their children’s skulls) in the Rwandan genocide and Balkan wars of the *1990s*, and that the horror was unleashed under the glare of television cameras. British history teaches us about the invasion of the Falklands; at the same time, Argentinian “left-wing, subversive” women were being raped and tortured to death in Buenos Aires during General Galtieri’s “Dirty War’. Just months ago in December 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi stood, with flowers in her hair, to defend Burmese Generals in the Hague for truly abhorrent crimes against Rohingya women. The examples go on, the time-periods eb and flow, and I often shut the book for several days.

The lack of consequence for these crimes – historical and present – makes the subject even harder to bear. It’s not just the missing scholarship (although, as Lamb concludes, it is difficult to pass war memorials without wondering where women’s names are). Staggeringly, although rape was classified as an international war crime in 1919, the International Criminal Court is yet to prosecute a single person. The first conviction, in 1998, was brought by several Rwandan victims and overturned on appeal. It is, Lamb shows, the world’s most neglected war crime; during the genocide, around half a million women and children were raped and sexually mutilated.

Last month, I zoomed into some discussion on the failure of coronacomms and was stopped in my tracks by a point from another war reporter, John Sweeney; as societies become used to death, he advised, their attitudes become increasingly callous. Although an impression drawn from his war reporting experience, he suggested that it would most likely be another implication of covid-19. We shall see, I thought. Perhaps in the UK this might mean more calculated arguments for “herd-immunity” – views already re-emerging – or a difference in restrictions for certain generations. Now, I am convinced this is connected to our soaring levels of domestic violence, sexual harassment and assault (see here), although a comparatively tiny issue. The impact upon women and children from Afghanistan to Syria, the DRC and beyond, the pattern suggests, will be significantly worse sexual abuse.

As ever, those on the front-line will be the first to find out and, while it is a grim fortune to know that Christina Lamb will report what they do, that really cannot be enough. In January 2020, a report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact concluded that the FCO’s “Prevention of Sexual Violence in Conflict Team” (created under William Hague in 2012) was not delivering and risked letting survivors down. Hague – alongside Angelina Jolie, in the days when her presence, and not politics, seemed unusual – was committed to preventing sexual violence in conflict; launching a declaration at the UN General Assembly on the issue, backed by 155 countries. Obviously, it takes more than a motion but, damningly, subsequent Foreign Secretaries have been significantly less committed: in 2014, the PSVI department had a team of 34 and a £15million budget – last year, it comprised just three staff.

Without a concerted international approach to tackling sexual violence, the tired excuse that “rape happens” rings embarrassingly hollow. From Sarajevo to Syria, this is a reoccurring pattern of war that we must lobby those in power to act upon. Rape is all too often used as a systematic weapon and a deliberate ideological policy that must be called out for what it is, and followed through with sentencing in the International Court. An awareness of the frequency, horror and implication of rape are conversations that must continue around the world and in our collective histories. More women on the bench (and, as in Israel, in the army) help to both convict and reduce sexual crimes; I tack this on not as a simplistic solution, but because they seem so obvious and yet remain so rare.

Back to the book: it’s not all abhorrent. The pages on Baden Wurttemburg, the German state that has taken in over one thousand Yazidi women and girls – deeply traumatised former sex slaves – restores a little faith in one’s humanity and, more importantly, shows how much governments can do to rectify the horrors of history. But the British government refused to take a single Yazidi woman. We have to do better.

POSTCRIPT: I finished Our Bodies just before the DFID/FCO merge. Time will tell what the impact for international development will be, but I hope someone, somewhere, is already exploring the potential to further align aid with the diplomatic approach to tackling sexual violence, particularly within warfare. 0.3% of UK development aid currently goes on projects to prosecute and support victims of sexual violence. Hague suggests it should be a 1% minimum, particularly as so much can be achieved with relatively low sums of money. The global sustainable development goals advocate for the elimination of violence against women and girls, and this book shows just how far there is to go.

*Gove may have overseen perhaps the most incompetently handled crisis in British history, but of course he should be allowed a copy of David Irving... I hope he gets a copy of this, too.