COE 1999 : SEMINAR Men and Violence

in situations of armed conflict

EuroPROFEM - The European Men Profeminist Network 


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66d-en_vio ... Violence


European Council of Europen - Human Rights

Section Equality between women and men

Seminar : Men and Violence Against Women

Strasbourg, 8 October 1999 - Palais de l'Europe - France


Men's violence against women and children

in situations of armed conflict


Dubrovka Kocijan Hercigonja (Croatia)


Violence of men against women and children in war


Violence of one person against another is the result of many factors, but basically it is the result of the personality structure of the bully, which is the product of bio-psycho-social factors that influenced this person during his/her developmental stages. However, violence is different in war and in peace, although there are some people who are violent in both situations.


In peace, individuals or groups, due to many psychological, biological and social factors, develop psychopathological deviations. As a result aggression develops in order to satisfy some of these pathological deviations and needs. In war, bullies act as they would in peace, but now their actions are often unpunished and sometimes even rewarded. But, some people who act violently in war would never be violent in peacetime. So, what is it that makes an average normal man become aggressive, especially towards women and children? If we analyse wars through history, we will notice that violence against women and children has been a basic characteristic of some wars, and such violence was used as a means to hurt the opponent. In the main role it is not the woman and child, but a man, an opponent, who needs to be hurt and defeated; women and children are just used as a means to this end. Over the last 100 years, wars have been like this, and my opinion is that this was the case especially in very patriarchal countries where women have no rights, but it is a man’s duty to protect the woman and guard her honour. In such surroundings, a women is just a wife and a mother and not a person, so in such wars it is not a woman who is being punished, but her husband who was not able to save her and their children. In countries where women are emancipated, the aggressor aims at women as people, but this has other dimension. 


In the war in the area of former Yugoslavia, my opinion is that there are some elements of aggression towards women and children as a way of fighting against men, but also as a way of fighting against the whole country. I would like to present a few cases later.


By way of an introduction, I should like to present the results of research that I conducted in 1989, before the war. I worked in a Military hospital in Zagreb, capital of Croatia, in the department of psychiatry. In this department, we would mostly see young soldiers in crisis, those who were not able to accept the army, its structure and separation from their families. I have analysed the differences in clinical pictures based on nationality. In Yugoslavia, there was a law stating that young men cannot serve the army in their country. I have analysed only soldiers from other republics: Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, "the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia", Serbia and Kosovo. The study took a sample of men aged 18-19, who had finished or partially finished high school. They all found themselves in a foreign republic, in a strange town, but in almost identical military organisations. The reactions of those who were not able to accept the structure, demands and separation were different, depending on their nationality, and the analysis showed that their reactions had the characteristics of the history of their republics. Some sorts of behaviour had statistically significant connections with nationality. The most common behaviour was aggression, alcoholism, depression and suicide attempts. After two years, the war started, and some of the characteristics of my sample proved to be massive characteristics of all people of that republic in war. I emphasise this fact to make it more understandable why some things happened in war, and why war was so aggressive in certain areas in former Yugoslavia.


Case 1


A 36 year old Muslim woman from a village with a mixed population in Central Bosnia came to therapy after she escaped with her two children, a son of 10 and a daughter of 7 years of age. Her physician referred her to me because of depressive symptomatology.


From anamnesis I found out that, before the war, her neighbours were both Muslims and Serbs who were friends and raised their children together. Then the war divided Serbs from Muslims. Muslim men had to escape their villages so they would not be killed, and their women and children stayed. My patient was taken with her children to a cottage in the mountains where a group of Serbian soldiers camped, led by her first neighbour. She was raped daily for three months, mostly by her neighbour. Her children were forced to watch. The rapes were especially brutal and aggressive when the soldiers returned from actions in which many of them were killed or wounded. When she asked their leader, her neighbour, why he was doing this to her when earlier she was like a sister to him, he said: “…that was before, now you are “ustaska” whore. Now your husband is fighting for Tudjman, but let us see how he will feel when we tell him what we did to his wife”. 


In therapy this woman made almost no progress, she was deeply depressive and suicidal. During therapy she told me: “Don’t bother with me, I don’t want to live because I can’t look into my son’s eyes because of the shame I caused him”. Later she moved to Sweden and I do not know what happened to her after that. 


Depression and suicidal thoughts are reactions to the shame that she caused her son because she was raped. It proves that aggression towards women, against women themselves, represents an attack on men and not on themselves. There are numerous examples where women were kept in concentration camps and raped daily. When they got pregnant, men would keep them in camps until they were almost due to give birth and then they were sent to Croatia to show themselves to their husbands and sons with messages: “…now your husband will have to feed a little Serb child.” or “your husband will never be able to sleep peacefully after he sees you like that”. Some of these women tried to kill themselves after coming to Croatia, and some gave their children away after giving birth, not wanting even to see them. 


Case 2


Two sisters from Vukovar, a destroyed Croatian town, were kept in a concentration Camp in Vukovar. One was 17 years old and had a baby of a few months old, and the other sister was 7 years old. The husband of the older sister was a Croatian soldier. She was raped daily in camp in front of her younger sister who had to hold her baby and keep her from crying because “if she (baby) cried, they would kill her”. The rapists kept sending messages about what they were doing to her to the front to her husband. Later they raped younger sister as well. 


I have presented these cases to try to explain the process of violence where the goal is to hurt the opponent where he is most vulnerable. Some women have told me that there were Serbian soldiers who refused to rape women, but then they would be threatened with death. So, the politics of war was to destroy the opponent, hurt his wife and children, destroy churches, all roots, cemeteries, destroy the future.




The question we want to hear the answer to is still unanswered:


Where does this aggression of men over women and children in war come from?


My opinion is that causes are in:


1. Politics and manipulation of people by politicians who use socio-cultural factors and psychological characteristics

2. Fear

3. Influence of alcohol and drugs

4. Psychologically deviant personalities of people who are pushed into war by politicians who often reward their deviant way of behaviour.


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