Sexual Violence in Peacetime: Uyghur Women in China
This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
For a few years now, there have been reports on Uyghur Muslims in China being detained in camps for “re-education purposes.” Research has revealed that they are subjected to all forms of violence and abuse, including slavery, forced sterilization, forced abortions, and forced labour. Even more recent research by the BBC has showed that women in these re-education camps have been subject to rape, sexual abuse, and even torture. However, the Chinese Communist Party denies these allegations.
The BBC reported testimonies from some of the people who were in these camps before managing to escape to the United States. One testimony from Tursunay Ziawudun, who fled Xinjiang to the United States of America after having been tortured and gang-raped thrice in the camp, shows that “women were removed from the cells ‘every night’ and raped by one or more masked Chinese men.” The story also reports testimonies from those who taught at the camp. A woman who taught Chinese at the camp mentioned hearing from an Uyghur woman that “rape has become a culture,” and that aside from gang rape, women are also electrocuted and subject to horrific torture.
Another teacher mentioned that guards “picked the girls and young women they wanted and took them away.” Some of the testimonies point to sex slavery where men – from outside or policemen – would pay money to have their pick. While there has been no comment on the BBC’s reports just yet, the Chinese Embassy in the US claimed that the forced abortions and sterilizations were acts of emancipation of women in a tweet that said: “a study shows that in the process of eradicating extremism, the minds of Uyghur women in Xinjiang were emancipated and gender equality and reproductive health were promoted, making them no longer baby-making machines. They were more confident and independent.” However, the Tweet has been removed by Twitter for violating its rules.
The BBC reports that the policy targeting the community emerged from China’s President, Xi Jinping. Following a terror attach by Uyghur separatists, as documents leaked to the New York Times revealed, he had directed local officials to respond with “absolutely no mercy.” The United States of America has said that China’s actions amount to genocide – but China continues to deny such conduct.
The incidents reported by the BBC, buttressed by testimonies from former detainees and a guard who either experienced or saw evidence of an organised system of mass rape, sexual abuse and torture, point to gross violations of International Human Rights Law. The Torture Convention 1984, which China signed and ratified, prohibits all forms of torture. The use of sexual violence, sexual slavery, and acts of torture have also been proven as acts amounting to genocide.
With the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda completing two decades, it is doubly disheartening to note such major cases slipping through the cracks: and even more so to note that the cracks themselves are wide chasms to say the least. That such camps can exist in a global setting where human rights are guaranteed and not given – an affirmation of individual agency and liberty – is in itself horrifying.
The international community treats the prohibition on torture and genocide as jus cogens norms, meaning that they are peremptory norms from which no derogation is permissible. Yet, even as these painful stories emerge, precious little has been done to address the issue or to hold China to account for these reported incidents. The reduction of security to military security has paved the way for the prioritization of military prowess and muscle-flexing over human security, and more so, gender security. The silence of the international community is unconscionable to say the least.
“'Their goal is to destroy everyone': Uighur camp detainees allege systematic rape” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-55794071
“Behind The Camps’ Gates: Rape And Sexual Violence Against Uyghur Women.”
Eftekhari, Shiva (2004). Rwanda, Struggling to Survive: Barriers to Justice for Rape Victims in Rwanda. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/report/2004/09/30/struggling-survive/barriers-justice-rape-victims-rwanda