A group of presenters at Nassau Community College this month included survivors of some of the worst human catastrophes of the 20th century. Speakers told an audience about the extreme and unique threats that women face when societies collapse into violent genocidal conflict.
“[Sexual violence] is a military strategy, not something that overwhelms an individual,” said Dr. Holly K. Shaw, a nurse who specializes in trauma and crisis intervention. She said that it’s more dangerous to be a woman in a war zone than a soldier, and that the perpetrators can come from all directions.
“It’s not only the designated bad guys,” she said, explaining that rape or sexual exploitation can happen at the hands of rescuers, aid workers or other refugees and victims. Shaw adopted her daughter, Ushuuda Prosperine, when Prosperine was a young woman in a refugee camp in Uganda after she was displaced by violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Prosperine suffered sexualized violence in the DRC, then suffered repeated rapes in the refugee camp.
The Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County organized the event, “Women, Not Victims: Moving Beyond Sexualized Atrocities During Genocide,” which featured speakers and breakout sessions, on March 13.
Beth Lilach, educational director at the HMTC, opened the conference. “The experiences of women are essential to learning about genocide,” she said. “An example of the significance of the female perspective is the myth of the Nazi brothels. Male survivors and male historians have inaccurately described the sexual slaves during the Holocaust as ‘prostitutes.’ In certain Nazi camps, privileged non-Jewish male prisoners were given a ‘reward’ of a visit to the ‘brothel.’ For the female prisoners, whether they were Jewish or non-Jewish, their reality was enslavement in a rape barrack. It was not a reward, it was not a brothel, and they were not prostitutes. They were women and young girls suffering rape after rape after rape after rape in a Nazi concentration camp. All attempts at resistance ended in execution.”