Sexual violence in conflict: The Bangladesh War
Background of the conflict
The Bangladesh Liberation War or the Bangladesh War of Independence was an armed conflict that emerged from the Bengali nationalist and self-determination movement in the erstwhile East Pakistan, during the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide. The war culminated in Bangladesh gaining independence. The territory of Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, which was divided into West (Pakistan of today) and East (erstwhile Bangladesh), with India in between (BBC, 2019). The Pakistani army at the time largely comprised more representatives from West Pakistan than from East Pakistan, leaving the Bengali majority in the latter region poorly represented, and this added to the divide.
Two years after Pakistan was created, the Awami League was founded with the aim of calling for East Pakistan’s autonomy (BBC, 2019). In 1970, the Awami League won in a landslide election in East Pakistan, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Awami League, was declared the Prime Minister-designate. This was the first election in Pakistani history where voters participated in electing the members of the National Assembly. However, the landslide victory implied the potential loss of control for the government in West Pakistan, as the Awami League was now going to be in charge. West Pakistan refused to acknowledge the outcome of the elections, and riots began (BBC, 2019).
In 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared independence, renaming East Pakistan as Bangladesh. All attempts at reconciliation between West and East Pakistan failed. On March 23, 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called for the celebration of Resistance Day, as against national Republic Day (BBC, 2019). He was arrested and taken to West Pakistan. The Pakistani military junta in West Pakistan launched Operation Searchlight, targeting the people of East Pakistan, on March 25, 1971 (BBC, 2019). The operation aimed to eliminate nationalist Bengali society, and annulled the outcome of the 1970 elections in Bangladesh, arresting the elected Prime Minister-designate Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The war eventually ended on December 16, 1971, when West Pakistan surrendered, and Bangladesh’s freedom fighters defeated Pakistan’s soldiers with the help of Indian military forces (Alffram, 2009).
Human Rights Watch estimated that Pakistani forces killed up to 3 million people, though the Pakistani government sets that number much lower, at about 26,000. Hundreds of thousands of women and young girls were raped, though estimates on sexualized violence vary greatly as well. However, as Yasmin Saikia, chair of Peace Studies at Arizona State University's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and author of several books about the Indian subcontinent, explains, the 1971 war must be viewed in the context of longer-term conflict in the region. Present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, she says, all committed profound acts of violence between the late 1940s and early 1970s.
Systemic targeting of women through sexual violence
During the 1971 war, several women were targeted through sexual violence. Women of all ages were targeted (Brownmiller, 1986). Rape camps were in operation where several Bengali women were abducted and held hostage in barracks where they were raped each night (Brownmiller, 1986). The women were tortured and deprived of food and had to dig graves for their fellow captives when they died from continuous torture. Pornographic movies were played for the soldiers to “work the men up” (Brownmiller, 1986; Lamb, 2020). Girls and women were strapped to banana leaves and gang-raped repeatedly (Das, 2011). Over the nine months of war, as many as 200,000 women and girls were raped according to Bangladeshi government estimates. Human Rights Watch (2009) noted that the numbers were large but remained undetermined. This was especially because reportage remained low, because survivors of rape were often excluded and stigmatized, and speaking up was not always easy.
The basis of sexual violence
Cultural attitudes centred on gender stereotypes and deep-rooted misogyny and patriarchy endured as the main basis for sexual violence. Women were part of the nationalist movement, but gender roles continued to prevail and operate. Sexual violence was used to dominate over women and to wield power over them. By abducting and holding women hostage and depriving them of food, the idea was to wield power and prevent access to basic resources and rights, while also repeatedly subjecting them to torture and sexual assault. A second major reason for sexual violence was to humiliate women and to destroy society. The prevalence of cultural and structural violence in the form of misogyny and patriarchy established the enabling environment for sexual assault. Once a woman faced rape, she was not accepted into her family, and she was stigmatized by society. When they were not accepted at home and were stigmatized outside of it, they had nowhere to go – and several of them wound up killing themselves. The idea of stigma followed these women, who the government called birongona or “war heroines” (Lamb, 2020).
Following the war, a tribunal to prosecute war crimes began to prosecute the first perpetrator in 2011, a good 40 years after the war (BBC, 2011). However, it was limited to prosecuting only perpetrators in Bangladesh and not the Pakistani soldiers, who, at the most, could have only been tried by Pakistan. It charged and convicted four men of rape, abduction, confinement, and torture. However, the decisions of the tribunal have come in question for the lack of fairness in trial and non-adherence to due process. Of these men, two were given the death penalty, while another was given the death penalty but that was commuted to life imprisonment.
Alffram, Henrik (2009) Ignoring Executions and Torture: Impunity for Bangladesh's Security Forces. Human Rights Watch.
BBC (2011) “Bangladesh war crimes trial begins in Dhaka” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-15811848
BBC (2019) "Bangladesh profile - Timeline" https://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-12651483
Brownmiller, Susan. Against our will. Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, 1986.
Das, Bijoyeta (2011, September 4) "Bangladesh Rape Victims Say War Crimes Overlooked" https://womensenews.org/2011/09/bangladesh-rape-victims-say-war-crimes-overlooked/
Human Rights Watch (2009) "Ignoring Executions and Torture Impunity for Bangladesh’s Security Forces." https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/bangladesh0509web.pdf
Lamb, Christina. Our Bodies, Their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women. Scribner, 2020.