The war babies of 1971 are still without a support system
Among the many other issues it dealt with as part of its post-reconstruction, Bangladesh faced a horrific reality -- the war babies, children who were born of rape. After the Liberation War against Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh had discovered around 200,000-400,000 women and girls physically victimized by the Pakistan Army and its local collaborators. From girls aged eight to a 75-year-old lady -- no one was spared.
The nature of sexual violence that the Pakistan Army and its collaborators committed against Bengali women included physical torture, rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, and so on. The outcome of this massive crime, which can be termed as a crime against humanity under international criminal law, shocked the international community. Thousands of babies were born in the aftermath of war, and the then government of Bangladesh had initiated programs to identify them and give them safe shelters.
A history of rape
During World War II, the issue of children born of rape was first publicly announced and discussed. Norwegian women were brutally raped by German soldiers during the war, as an outcome of which hundreds of war babies were born, who struggled for their own identities since their birth. Another instance was the Vietnam War, which ended with a huge number of war babies who had been born out of rape committed against Vietnamese women by American soldiers.
In the Bosnian war again, around 40,000 women were raped and became victims of forced impregnation in order to produce Serbian babies.
Why is rape so common in war?
Now, the question may arise, why exactly is the crime of sexual violence visible in almost every war scenario? A possible and popular response to this is that the crime of sexual violence, more specifically rape, has always been treated as a weapon of war. To weaken the enemies, often, the other party of the war commits rape against the communities of the enemies. Another factor might be creating authoritarian power through rape.
Sometimes, when soldiers fear losing the war, in their frustration they perpetrate sexual violence against communities which represent the enemy party. Many times, it has been observed that during wars, once the superior group directs their troops to commit systematic rape as a part of war tactics, at some point, the soldiers lose control and increase the severity on their own. Even General Niazi of the Pakistan Army commented after the war: “It is not uncommon in history, when a battle has been lost because troops were over indulgent in loot and rape.”
While the majority of the perpetrators of sexual violence are men, and the majority of its victims are women, the most important factor is that anyone can be a victim or a perpetrator -- regardless of their age, gender, sexual orientation, ability, appearance, ethnicity, education, race, or religion.
The state after the Liberation War
In the case of Bangladesh, local collaborators had a huge impact in the massive scale of rape and torture committed against the female Bengali population. In the first phase, collaborators guided the army as informers and traced possible houses where soldiers could find and capture unmarried or young girls and women. Afterwards, many instances show that the collaborators themselves started committing rape in their localities. The captured women and girls were at times taken to army headquarters or rape camps (or bunkers) for sexual slavery.
One of the main targets of the army was to produce a pure Pakistani race through committing forced impregnation against Bengali women and girls. After the war, it was found that the victims of sexual violence faced HIV and severe skin and other genital diseases, and most of them carried the children of the defeated enemy.
Unfortunately, the official number of the victims of sexual violence is still not accurate, as many of them did not want to get exposed or be blamed. In a conservative country like Bangladesh, where society views female sexuality as sacred, rape was, and largely still is, seen as an enormous source of shame for the assaulted woman.
According to Dr Geoffrey Davis, an Australian physician who came to Bangladesh and helped victims with safe abortions throughout 1972, mentioned: “These mothers of raped children were treated in the worst possible way by many of their husbands or family members.”
Another issue was that many of them committed suicide or aborted their child secretly. But it is not impossible that the estimate could be around 400,000, considering the fact that around 90,368 Pakistani soldiers were found surrendering after the cease of war, and there must be many who had committed rape at least twice or thrice in those nine long months of war. The situation of war babies was even scarier. Many of them were aborted as their mothers did not want to name them. Due to social stigma and fear of getting rejected by family members, most women helplessly agreed to abort their children. The government issued the Abortion Law, which had been regulated between January to October 1972.
Dr Davis himself aborted around 5,000 unborn children, while estimating that between 150,000-170,000 pregnant women had aborted their children in total. He also mentioned in an interview that many war babies had been brought to death either by being poisoned or drowned to death in the ponds. According to a 1972 The New York Times article titled “Killing of Babies Feared in Bengal,” some 25,000 women gave birth to children who were born due to rape.
Measures were also taken to send many of the war babies -- those born as a result of wartime rape -- abroad for adoption by foreign families. The then prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, wrote to the Geneva International Social Services to take part in the process. Being a Muslim majority nation with hard rules discouraging adoption, it was difficult for the government to initiate the process.
Later, the Bangladesh Abandoned Children (Special Provisions) Order, 1972, was promulgated as part of a broader program designed to deal with the issue of war babies. This legislation was in conflict with “prevalent Muslim personal law and Sharia law, which forbids adoption.”
The law defined abandoned children as those who were “deserted or unclaimed or born out of wedlock” and authorized the government to appoint “statutory guardians” -- a person or authority entrusted with the care and custody of an abandoned child. However, one important factor had been avoided in the law, and that was whether those children would be provided with any inheritance right of the adoptee (the new parents of that child).
Throughout 1972, these children were adopted and sent to the UK, the US, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Institutions like the Missionaries of Charity and Planned Parenthood came forward to adopt many of them. Some individuals also applied for the process. Then again, the exact number of children who had been adopted by institutions and organizations could not be made clear. There is no list prepared for war babies, neither do we have a specific record.
The war babies of Bangladesh genocide are now in their late 40s. These individuals have faced fear, humiliation, loss of control, vulnerability, embarrassment, guilt, or anger in their teenage years. As a matter of fact, those who were born and raised by their mothers in the territory of Bangladesh did not receive any psycho-social counseling or financial support. Till date, there has been no official initiative taken for their social well-being.
The domestic tribunal established to prosecute international crimes which occurred in 1971, namely the International Crimes Tribunal Bangladesh, opined in one judgment that war babies were the secondary victims of the crime of sexual violence.
The case of Syed Md Qaiser (ICT-BD [ICT-2] Case No 04 of 2013, Chief Prosecutor vs. Syed Md Qaiser: Judgment: 23 December 2014), where Shamsun Nahar testified before the tribunal, was the first ever time in history when a war baby has testified before a judicial structure. The tribunal observed that war babies like Shamsun Nahar had been deprived of normal lives and rights, including social recognition. Shamsun Nahar was the symbol of trauma the nation as a whole had gone through (Qaiser judgment, para 990).
The tribunal, in the same judgment, gave directives to the Ministry of Liberation War Affairs, Ministry of Social Welfare, social organizations, and non-government organizations “to initiate prompt and necessary steps first, in a coordinated way, to identify war time rape victims and 'war babies' as the secondary victims of rape and then to formulate effective programs aiming to honour them, and reducing their problems resulting from trauma and stigma they sustained, and also to make an arrangement of providing monthly honoraria. It is to be done to remove the scar imprinted not only to rape victims but to society and the nation” (Qaiser, para 991).
More than six years have passed since the judgment, but no such progress with regards to honouring and supporting war babies has been visible. Till date, no memorialization process has been initiated to respect the suffering and trauma they have gone through since their birth.
Very soon, we shall be celebrating our country’s 50th anniversary. It is an earnest hope that these unfinished tasks are completed soon, so that we can bring hope and aspirations to those who have led half of their lives in trauma and distress.
Naureen Rahim is a coordinator at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Justice, Liberation War Museum.