Civilians, especially women, children, the elderly and the
disabled are often the victims of violence during times of
conflict, which range from armed international or civil wars
to state-sponsored or state-condoned human rights violations
against political, racial, ethnic, national or religious minorities.
Especially, women are prone to suffer the worst kind of human
rights abuses in nation-building processes and they are either
silent or silenced by state historiography.
are usually targeted based on the religious, ethnic, racial,
national and/or other political affiliations. Rape is the
most common form of violence against women in political conflicts,
which is now considered a war crime. Mass rapes of women have
been documented over the last decades in East Pakistan/Bangladesh,
Cambodia, Haiti, Peru, Somalia, Uganda, Bosnia and Rwanda.
civil war of 1971 between the East and West Pakistan culminated
into a war of national liberation which created Bangladesh.
Loss of life during the war (excluding natural disasters)
range from 200,000 to 1.5 million; the government of Pakistan
claiming that 100,000 non-Bengalis were killed prior to the
military intervention (The New York Times, August 12, 1971).
Dislocation and displacement of the number of refugees vary.
The government of Pakistan cited 2 million whereas the Indian
estimate is 10 million. The United Nations and the World Bank
estimates supported the Indian figure (The New York Times,
October 17, 1971). Estimates on refugees were more accurate
since they were issued ration cards or placed within camps
in India. At any rate, a displacement of between 10 to 20
percent of East Pakistan’s estimated 75 million occurred
during the crisis.
strategic use of rape as a genocide tactic makes the 1971
war a particular case study of gendercide and rape as a war-crime
During the conflict an estimated number of 200,000 Bengali
women were raped by soldiers with an estimated number of 25,000
official history of 1971 narrates the political and military
struggle which finally gave birth to a nation-state for the
Bengalis. Its birth was invested with the expectations of
a citizenry without whose sacrifice it could not have come
into existence. However, due to the continuous political turbulence
in the country, those expectations remain as elusive as ever.
Bangladesh has yet to achieve social justice and an inclusive
internal identity, even after more than 32 years of independence.
The political, social and cultural movements that often evoke
1971 give importance to the heroes or the anti-heroes of the
national struggle. However, more than anything else the story
of 1971 was the experience of the common people of Bangladesh
and their struggle.
material exists on women’s experiences of 1971. Except
for minor references mainly based on statistics, stories of
women remained virtually ignored. Most women quietly slipped
away in the folds of history. These are the women who were
left to take care of their families, the aged and the infants,
when the men went to fight the war; women freedom-fighters
who fought alongside with the men in the war; women who supported
the freedom-fighters by providing them with food, medicine
and taking care of the wounded which often led to their own
incarceration by the Pakistani army or the Razakaars (collaborators);
and finally, women who were raped either in their homes or
taken to rape camps for repeated rapes and forced impregnation.
was the term introduced by the first Prime Minister Sheikh
Mujibur Rahman to acknowledge the sacrifice of women for the
freedom of Bangladesh in 1971. The literal translation of
the word is ‘war heroine’. The term had been originally
intended to honour all women, the political activists, the
freedom-fighter women, rape survivors and so on who participated
in the national struggle. For example, the proposal brought
before the parliament to commiserate the death of one Awami
League MP, Badrunnessa Ahmed, also described her as a Birangona
(Kamal, ASK report, 2001: 18). However, the term was more
commonly used to identify women who were subjected to rape
and sexual violence during the war.
women are visible only as victims of the war story. But beyond
the powerlessness of victimhood the 1971 war has seen women
come out, mobilize resistance and confront the Pakistani army.
Women participated in the guerrillas warfare either as formal
soldiers or as loose-knit defense and paramilitary units.
They have emerged as agents of political transformation. Many
women combatants were also subjected to sexual abuse.
our funding campaign, with the help of Ain-O-Shalish Kendro
we have identified seven such women who fall under one or
more of the categories of war affected women. Please check
on the profiles to read additional information on each of
>> Bina D'Costa
>> June, 2003