Women involved in mass atrocities just like men

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In a context of collective mass violence, such as a war, women can be just as cruel as men, commit crimes against humanity, and act with the same motives. Still many more men are involved in mass violence than women, but the number of women is much larger than has been assumed so far. That is one of the main conclusions of this new research.

Women can be just as ruthless and cruel as men

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Until the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 it was generally assumed that women tend to play a very limited role in periods of mass violence. Recent research shows however that there seems to be no role women haven’t played in the past. Moreover, many more women than so far assumed have been involved in mass atrocities. This research shows evidence for the involvement of women not only in for instance Nazi Germany, but also in more contemporary conflicts in Sierra Leone, Sudan, Colombia and Iraq to name but a few.

Most women are indirectly involved by supporting the regime and the criminal policies or behavior of their husbands. Many women have an administrative or supporting role but still quite a few are physically involved as traitors, thieves, prison and camp guards or combatants. Women can even be involved in sexual violence – sometimes in a supporting capacity (holding the victim) but in some cases also as the main physical perpetrator.
The gathered evidence shows that women too can commit horrendous crimes and physi¬cally or sexually abuse, maltreat or kill other people in a context of collective mass atrocities. The reason why so many more men are involved is not because they are more evil but simply because militarized units which are the main organizations responsible for the physical perpetration of interna¬tional crimes are still male dominated. How many women are and have been involved exactly is impossible to tell but it is clear that there are many more women involved than we would expect.

Research also shows that the women who are involved in mass violence are not mentally disturbed sadists or being forced into it as media reports tend to suggest. Some might have been forced and others might indeed have been disturbed but so many women have been involved in mass atrocities that it is simply impossible to qualify all of them as such. It is time to accept that many female perpetrators are ordinary women and that ordinary women just like ordinary men can become involved in mass atrocities.

Why is this so important

It was generally assumed that women tend to play a very limited role in periods of mass violence. This research shows that, more often than assumed, perpetrators are women.


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Prof. dr. Alette Smeulers is a professor of international criminology at Tilburg University and University of Groningen. Her research focuses on international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and terrorism to which she takes an interdisciplinary approach. Her research focuses on the causes of these crimes, the perpetrators thereof and the international criminal prosecution.

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My expertise

war crimes; crimes against humanity, criminology, international crimes, genocide, international criminal law, terrorism