Rape as a Weapon of Genocide: Systematic Sexual Abuse Within China’s Internment Camps

Rape as a Weapon of Genocide: Systematic Sexual Abuse Within China’s Internment Camps

Author’s note: This article contains mentions of rape, sexual assault, and genocide. Reader’s discretion is advised.

Since 2017, the Chinese government has surveilled and forcibly detained citizens who are part of the Uighur ethnic and religious community, who represent 11 million of the total population. Of this Muslim Turik minority group, more than one million have been detained on the basis of their religious beliefs, in a network of internment camps in the region of Xinjiang. The Chinese government has denied this, covering up the allegations by claiming them to be “re-education” camps meant to address religious extremism.

In reality, those being targeted are innocent individuals who are identified as being part of the minority group perceived to be disloyal to the Communist Party. Those detained are having to do forced labor and undergo forced sterilizations and experiments — all things considered, the Uighur minority appear to be undergoing a state-sanctioned genocide. The US recently emphasized this by calling it as such. Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, called it “the stain of the century.”

While all these characteristics are emblematic of genocide, so is the recent news of rape occurring within the camps. Uighur women are subject to rape, sexual assault, and torture.

 A BBC article published two weeks ago broke the news coming from the voices of former detainees and a prison guard, who witnessed mass rape, sexual abuse, and torture. The article recounts Tursunay Ziawudun’s experience, in particular. She was subject to nine months of human rights abuses and witnessed gross atrocities. She explained that 14 women would sleep in a cell with horrible conditions. Throughout the night, women would be taken out of their cells to be sexually assaulted and tortured by police officers. All were subject to torture and “re-education” designed to remove them of their culture, language, and religion.

While “re-education” has been a central feature of Chinese internment camps, so has the culture of rape. Due to the intersection of gender and ethno-religious identity, Uighur women experience a unique kind of oppression within these camps. Ultimately, according to Allison Ruby Reid-Cunningham in her piece “Rape as a Weapon of Genocide,” the female population is a target for sexual assault because the act not only breaks her, but helps create a rift throughout her whole community. In Ziawudun’s words, what she witnessed and experienced “[was] designed to destroy everyone’s spirit.” 

Sadly, China is not an isolated case. The Chinese government’s efforts fall within a long history of women’s bodies becoming sites of abuse during genocide. Looking at genocides in Rwanda, Myanmar, and Bosnia, for example, women’s bodies acted as sites for inflicting ethnic cleansing across all of these cases. China is only the most recent case in this disturbing trend. 

The reasons for this trend is best explained by Susan Brownmillier; “Man’s discovery that his genitals could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe.”

The act of rape is an act of intent because it not only seeks to “cleanse” the victim, but also seeks to harm her for this purpose. Rape is meant to hurt the individual and affects them as such. It is a tactic to humiliate, dominate, and instill fear.

Therefore, during genocide, females become prime targets of rape because rape works to destroy the spirit. For example, Ziawudun shares how her cellmate returned from her abuse “completely different… she wouldn’t speak to anyone, she sat quietly staring as if in a trance.” The impact sexual violence on the individual cannot be overlooked. It extends far beyond her —it strategically works to ‘cleanse’ the whole community. 

Rape is used as a method of genocide for demographic reasons as well. Mass rape, “the military strategy of widespread, systematic sexual violence and rape perpetrated intentionally against civilians,” can physically damage a woman’s reproductive system, making her incapable of bearing children. As such, it limits the number of children from targeted groups and helps work towards group eradication.

The woman’s reproductive autonomy is also infringed on when the rape ends in a pregnancy. The in-group views the child as soiling the group’s bloodlines, stigmatizing not only the child but also the mother because she is now viewed as being “tainted” by the enemy. Ultimately, the act of rape and impregnation is symbolic of conquest and ethnic cleansing— not only is this damaging to the woman and her sense of autonomy and identity, but it becomes generalized onto her group. The effects of this “conquest” are evident. After rape, women are often shunned as they are not seen as holding any value within the community. As a result, due to the cultural position of women, her rape weakens the minority’s sense of community and collectivity.

In her book, Our Bodies, their Battlefields, Christina Lamb explains that rape as a weapon of war has continued to be employed largely because victims have had their suffering ignored. The genocide against the Uighurs has gone on for years and Chinese authorities continue to enjoy impunity. The Chinese government continues to cover-up the abuse—even the recent BBC report has been deemed a “false report” by China’s foreign ministry. This lack of accountability is largely due to the International Criminal Court (ICC) being incapable of delivering justice as China falls outside of their jurisdiction. This is reminiscent of the genocide in Rwanda where survivors explained that the UN “just stood by and watched us be raped”.

Despite the wide availability of news on Chinese concentration camps over the past several years, the international community has done little to intervene and hold the Chinese government accountable. Two decades ago, the US and many other international actors, refused to acknowledge the Rwandan genocide. In fact, “they shunned the term ‘genocide,’ for fear of being obliged to act.”

In this sense, the US has improved its response to mass atrocities by not only naming it but also placing sanctions on China. Alongside the US, more countries, namely, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand have come out and, unreservedly, condemned the genocide of the Uighur population in China.

In light of the recent allegations of sexual assault, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister has called for greater transparency and the need for the UN and international observers to be given access to the camps. While this is significant, it is important to note that the UK has been advocating for the UN to have access to the region for over a year now. Further, it has been over a year since 22 countries issued a statement condemning the atrocities.

While these steps are necessary, evidently more is needed. Otherwise, the Uighur genocide will become another case of ‘the West’ using “uncompromising rhetoric regarding the crisis, but [refusing] to impose sanctions… to create political pressure” and meaningful action. 

Historically, mass rapes like this have been overlooked by important international actors. Does the Chinese case demonstrate a possible shift in how the West approaches mass atrocities? Depending on the action taken by the international community and International Organizations, this case could create a rift in this historically entrenched trend and catalyze change for the better.

If there is no meaningful action taken, China risks becoming another country on a list that remains too long to begin with. The costs of this failure will be born, first and foremost, by Uighur women. 

Edited by Yu Xuan Zhao.

Photo credits: Saadwi Balaji, Graphic Designer at Catalyst

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