Book Review: Christina Lamb’s Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women 

By Alexia Rauen

Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence

In fact, they realised, women had been speaking up about this from the very start – it was just that no one was listening. ‘In the Juntas Trial in 1985 in which nine commanders were tried, there was a victim who said I was raped, and the prosecutor just ignored this. He literally said, “Don’t lose the wood for the trees. We need to focus on the torture and murder.”’ 1 

In her work Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women, Christina Lamb explores the phenomenon of sexual violence in armed conflict. Her travels take her from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (nothing democratic about it) to Iraq and the former Yugoslavia. She also goes to Argentina, where she explores the violence against women that occurred during the military regime from 1976 to 1983. 

The Argentine regime forcibly disappeared somewhere between 13,000 and 30,000 individuals, depending on your source.2 Lamb explores both the better-known abduction of children – pregnant women kidnapped by the regime had their newly born babies stripped from them and handed over to families sympathetic to the regime – and the lesser-known systematic rape of women held in torture centers. 

While she focuses on both violences committed against women, it is the tension between the patriarchal state and society and the survivors of systematic rape that is most captivating – and is a thread woven throughout Lambs’ work. The women are blamed for the sexual violence their captors subjected them to: “people whispered she had survived because she had gone to bed with the military.”3 In the testimony of one of the survivors, the survivor explains, “‘We as women were in a situation where we were totally at the mercy of any force or any man who happened to be there.’”4 The defense team for the captors charged in the 1985 Argentine trial, of course, “portrayed her as promiscuous and a traitor.”5 

These survivors of systemic rape struggled to have their voices heard and for the crimes against them to be charged. It was not until 2009 that the first perpetrator would be charged with rape.6 This phenomenon is not unique to Argentina. Across the globe, women have struggled to have the crimes against them taken seriously by local and international courts. In the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which began in 1994, out of thirty-seven indictments, none were for rape.7 This was shocking, as Lamb notes, given the documentation of widespread rape during the genocide. For instance, in 1996, Human Rights Watch released a report “documenting horrific stories of rape, forced marriage, gang rape and women speared to death through their vaginas.”8 It was only after one of the tribunal’s judges, Navanethem Pillay of South Africa, began to ask pointed questions about rape, that in 1997 the mayor of a small town in Rwanda, Jean-Paul Akayesu, was charged with rape and sexual violence.9 Akayesu was found guilty of a number of charges, including rape, the following year.10

The aftermath of this landmark case has been less than encouraging. Lamb states that there have been “disappointingly few successful prosecutions since.”11 The first perpetrator to be charged with rape in Argentina, Jorge Acosta, received a life sentence, but not for rape.12 Pointing to the global nature of the issue, Lamb states that there has been no prosecution for sexual violence of ISIS members who held Yazidi sex slaves, or for members of Boko Haram who abducted schoolgirls, or the Burmese military who perpetrated mass rape against members of the Rohingya minority.13 

Combatting and preventing sexual violence requires political will. Without political will, survivors will not find justice. Even while there is increasing awareness of sexual violence in war, Lamb notes there is no international body to collect evidence, and impunity for sexual violence remains rampant – whether occurring in armed conflict or not.14 One only needs to read Chanel Miller’s memoir, Know My Name, to recognize the failures in the U.S. criminal justice system’s treatment of survivors of sexual violence. 

Each chapter in Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women could stand alone, but together, their impact is profound – profound in the intense realization of the vastness and frequency of mass rape in addition to the devastating impact rape has on the individual and at a community level. Lamb focuses on the voices of survivors, and she lets the survivors speak for themselves. For Lamb, justice will only come when survivors are listened to and the reality of systemic rape is acknowledged. 

  1. Christina Lamb, Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women, (London: William Collins, 2020), 230.
  2. Ibid, 210.
  3. Ibid, 232.
  4. Ibid, 232.
  5. Ibid, 232.
  6. Ibid, 234.
  7. Ibid, 137.
  8. Ibid, 134.
  9. Ibid, 138.
  10. Ibid, 147.
  11. Ibid, 374.
  12. Ibid, 235.
  13. Ibid, 374-375.
  14. Ibid, 396-399.

Lamb, Christina. Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women. London: William Collins, 2020.

Image: Wikimedia