Assigning gender identities to perpetrators of wartime sexual violence is a problematic affair. The evolution of modern warfare has ensured that the attributes that have traditionally distinguished men and women are becoming increasingly blurred. Gender can be described as a social construct that is influenced by a variety of different factors; political and economic in/stability, societal pressures, culture and tradition, to name but a few. Men and women adapt to insecurity by constructing and deconstructing gender personas which will ultimately ensure their survival, as evident in the case of Biljana Plavšić and Pauline Nyiramasuhuko. Whilst they did not wield the weapons themselves, they are as equally guilty as the men under their command.

High profile female perpetrators of wartime sexual violence, such as Nyiramasuhuko, who was, rather ironically, the Rwandan minister for the family and women’s issues, and Plavšić, former president of Serbia, are both currently under the jurisdiction of the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) in The Hague and the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) in Tanzania respectively, for their complicity in crimes against humanity. Their crimes have revealed an unsettling pattern in modern warfare; women as perpetrators of rape as a weapon of war and conflict-driven violence. Whilst this is not necessarily huge breakthrough, as we know that women in Nazi Germany and Cambodia took part in genocide, our preconceptions of what men and women are capable of are challenged in a most upfront and personal way.

These women had assumed masculine identities in an effort to capitalise upon the benefits such a role could offer in two patriarchal societies-political power. Traditionally ‘masculine’ characteristics such as aggression, extreme nationalism and an encouragement of physical violence were utilized in order to achieve these ends. However, both women evoked ‘feminine’ personas in an effort to assuage their clear complicity in acts of extreme brutalization. Suddenly, Nyiramasuhuko was not even capable of killing a chicken, let alone instructing the men beneath her to rape and mutilate Tutsi women. Plavšić, a professor of biology, was, despite giving hundreds of racist speeches alluding to the apparent racial inferiority of Serbia’s enemies, no longer addressed as ‘Doctor’ or ‘President’ as a man accused of her crimes would have been; she was ‘Mrs. Plavšić’; a woman who had nurtured the political ambitions of her nation, just as a mother would have done for a son.

‘Gender’ is a term that refuses to be analyzed objectively. Determining the guilt of war criminals, as we have seen, is flawed by the narrow use of the term ‘gender’ and it downplays the extent to which women can be recognized as perpetrators of wartime violence.