Last week a woman was arrested in Belgium who was suspected of having committed war crimes in Liberia. In the media she was portrayed as an extremely cruel, brutal and sadistic perpetrator who had killed many hundreds of people and allegedly cooked and ate human beings. These are terrible crimes but more newsworthy than the fact that such crimes were committed was the fact that the suspected perpetrator was a woman.
Since the establishment of the international criminal courts and tribunals who actively seek to prosecute suspects responsible for committing international crimes, we are used to see men in the dock for terrible atrocities. From the over 280 people convicted for international crimes by international criminal courts and tribunals so far, only two were women. The first woman ever to be convicted by such an international tribunal was Biljhana Plavsic, a politician who was convicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) and – after a plea agreement- sentenced to 11 years imprisonment. The second woman was Pauline Nyiramasuhuko who was convicted for genocide and sexual violence by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and sentenced to life imprisonment (a conviction and sentence which are currently under appeal). Next to these two women only two others have been indicted: Ieng Thirith was indicted by the Extra-ordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) but was judged to be not mentally fit to stand trial and Simone Gbagbo who was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. She is the wife of Laurent Gbagbo the former president of Cotê-Ivoire, who is currently on trial at the ICC. Women consequently represent less than 1% of all the people prosecuted, indicted and convicted by international criminal courts and tribunals. Many more women were prosecuted by national courts such as the two nuns who were prosecuted in Belgium for their role in the genocide in Rwanda but on the national level just like on the international level women represent only a small minority of all those prosecuted for international crimes. This raises the questions why so few female perpetrators have prosecuted? Do only men – together with a very few very exceptional women – commit mass atrocities? Ad do we have to conclude that women are less capable of committing mass atrocities than men?
The reason why so few women have been prosecuted by these international criminal courts and tribunals is simple: these courts and tribunals focus on the political leaders and the physical perpetrators and women are underrepresented both within the political leadership and within militarized units. This does however not mean that women do not fight in wars and cannot commit mass atrocities. Many more women than assumed so far have been involved in other ways in the perpetration of mass atrocities. Most of them can be found in administrative and supporting roles. There are however also many women who were more active and performed roles such as prison guards, interrogators, killers and even as sex offenders. Especially the mass involvement of women in the genocide in Rwanda caught the attention of the world after African rights published its report entitled Not so innocent – when women become killers. This was however certainly not the only episode in history in which women played a prominent role. Recent research has for instance shown that women have played a prominent role in the Nazi Holocaust especially within the bureaucracy of death but also as nurses in the Euthanasia program and as camp guards. Women were also involved in the war in former Yugoslavia and a number of them are currently on trial in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The pictures of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib also shows the active participation of female American soldiers in the sexual humiliation and torture of these prisoners. Women are known to be active in conflicts in Africa and the Daily Mirror recently reported in its headlines: ‘British female jihadis are running ISIS ‘brothels allowing killers to rape kidnapped Yazidi women.’ (See link) These young British women – one of whom was identified as a 20-year old student from a university in Glasgow who dropped out of university to join ISIS – thus contribute to the system of sexual slavery installed by ISIS. (See also the report published by the UN on ISIS and how they use women and sell them to young men as a means to lure them into joining ISIS). The many examples within literature and these recent reports consequently show that women are no less capable than men of getting involved and committing mass atrocities.
The portrayal of these female perpetrators within the media and literature even seems to suggest that women are more cruel and brutal than their male counterparts. Female perpetrators are often portrayed as lacking agency (and being forced by men to commit such atrocities) as mentally insane or sexually deviant. It might be true that a small minority would indeed fit any of these descriptions but research has shown that many have similar motives as their male counterparts and are driven by ideology, greed or fear. The way woman are trained and socialized into committing mass atrocities does not differ much from the way in which men are trained. The main difference is probably that women are still under-represented in the military and in many military units they are not recognized as equals and are for instance often not allowed to take part in active combat. They are consequently due to this inferior position at the same time more vulnerable to abuse and eager to prove themselves. Overall however men and women do not differ that much and women who commit mass atrocities are just like their male counterparts ordinary (wo)men in extra-ordinary circumstances. The fact that the media often portrays them as more brutal and cruel than the male perpetrators might very well be caused by the fact that people are more shocked seeing a woman commit such atrocities than when seeing a man commit such crimes.