Sexual Violence Against Armenian Women: A Weapon of Genocide


Facing_History_and_OurselvesBy Adam Strom

Many who talk and teach about the Armenian Genocide have had real difficulty over the past 100 years naming the systemic abuses against Armenian women for what they are: sexual violence and rape as tools of genocide.

Even ten years ago, when I was working on Facing History and Ourselves’ book Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization: The Genocide of the Armenians, crimes of sexual violence and rape were rarely addressed, despite the fact that nearly every account of Armenian women during the genocide included these experiences. I found myself unsure how to tell these stories, despite years of working in education on issues related to genocide.

But much has changed in the last ten years. Increasingly survivors, scholars, and activists are looking for ways to break the silence. At a 2014 United Nations Global Summit on sexual violence in conflict, actress and activist Angelina Jolie explained, “We must send a message across the world that there is no disgrace in being a survivor of sexual violence. The shame is on the aggressor.”

According to genocide scholars John Roth and Carol Rittner, rape has been a used as a weapon of war for centuries, but until recently it was not recognized as a war crime worthy of prosecution or a topic worthy of study. It was not until the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1996, the first international war crimes trial held since World War II, that the victims and activists finally moved international political will to prosecute rape and other forms of sexual violence as an international war crime. On June 28, 1996 a headline in the New York Times read: “U.N. Court, for First Time, Defines Rape as War Crime.” The historic ruling included the indictment of eight Bosnian Serb military and police officers for their connection with the rapes of Muslim women during the war in Bosnia. This historic ruling was a landmark in the efforts to prevent and prosecute sexual violence during war.

Victims of wartime sexual violence have often been discouraged from speaking about the abuse they suffered, fearing shame, stigmatization, and ostracism. However, scholars note that survivor accounts of genocide and mass violence often explicitly speak to sexual abuse; this is particularly true in testimony from the Armenian Genocide. But it is true of sexual assault elsewhere as well: In a 1998 case before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Jean-Paul Akayesu became the first person convicted of rape as a component of genocide. That same year, the Rome Statute was establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC). Increasingly, Armenian American theater and literature have been exploring these themes as well, including recent work such as Chris Bohjalian’s “Sandcastle Girls”, Joyce Van Dyke’s “Daybreak” or Judith Boyajian’s “Women of Ararat.”

Facing History and Ourselves recognizes the difficulty of talking about sexual violence and rape inside and outside of the classroom. Educators, in particular, need to be particularly sensitive about the ways they share these stories with their students who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and life experiences. They will need practice, professional development, and resources to help think through developmentally appropriate strategies for introducing these histories into their curricula.

As part of the revision of our landmark resource Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior, we worked with Professors Rother and Rittner to produce a mini-documentary, Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War and Genocide. It is only one part of a larger conversation that is that examines the effect of genocide on women, and when viewed in the context of Facing History’s approach to teaching, can be a useful introduction for classrooms.

Facing history can be hard and uncomfortable. At the same time, that discomfort, if well facilitated, can create opportunities for deep moral and ethical reflection. All of us who care about the history of the Armenian Genocide, and preventing genocide today, have to find a way to name the crimes and recognize the patterns. It is only then that prevention is possible.

(Adam Strom is the Director of Scholarship and Innovation at Facing History and Ourselves. He is the author, editor and producer of numerous digital, print and video resources and publications including Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization: The Genocide of the Armenians. The Armenian Genocide at the Armenian Library and Museum of America and Facing History and Ourselves are co-sponsoring Past and Present: Commemorating Women Affected by Genocide on April 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown.)