This case note documents the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. It contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union were embroiled in a nuclear arms race, competing to see who would build more advanced bombs between 1947 and 1991 (Niedenthal, 2007). The United States of America tested 24 nuclear weapons between 1946 and 1958 on Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands (Richards et al., 2008). These tests were conducted at 7 sites on the reef, on the sea, in the air, and underwater. In combination, these test weapons produced a yield of 42.2 MT of TNT in explosive power (Richards et al., 2008). The second test in 1946 was called “the world’s first nuclear disaster” (Weisgall, 1994) for the large condensation cloud it created, contaminating all of the target ships.
In the second series of tests in 1954, a dry-fuel thermonuclear bomb was tested. It was 1000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II (Rowberry, 2001). Residents of Bikini Atoll were forcibly shifted to Rongerik Atoll and later to Kili Island – both of which proved unsuitable to sustain life. They were promised that they could return – but over time, through these and other subsequent tests, Bikini Atoll became unfit for habitation owing to the contaminated soil and water, which made subsistence farming and fishing dangerous. In 2016, an investigation revealed that radiation levels on Bikini Atoll remain as high as 639 mrem yr-1, which is well above the established safety standards for habitation. The entire span of 67 nuclear tests conducted in the Marshall Islands had the equivalent impact of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs exploded every single day for 12 years (Wright, 2018.)
Gendered Harm: Sexual Violence and Harm to Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights
The radiation from all the nuclear testing produced significant harm, especially among residents of Rongelap and Utirik atolls. They experienced radiation sickness, manifesting as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, alopecia, skin lesions, leukaemia, and thyroid cancer. Studies show that radiation levels affect the functioning of the female reproductive system (Grossman et al., 1999). Following the nuclear tests, the female population of the Marshall Islands had a 60 times greater cervical cancer mortality than a comparable mainland US population (Lauerman & Reuther, 1997).
When the US military arrived to take people out of zones that were exposed, they made the women strip in order to hose them down in full view of the military, medical personnel, and the women’s male relatives (Conway, 2019).
Women who were exposed to radioactive fallout faced far higher risks of miscarriage, stillbirth, and birth defects in their children (Adams, 2019). In the areas within the Marshall Islands that were most exposed, women gave birth to “jellyfish babies,” or babies born without bones and with transparent skin (Gault, 2019). The prevalence of breast cancer increased significantly, and breast-feeding mothers exposed to atmospheric nuclear testing passed Iodine-131 to their children through their breast milk (CTBTO, n.d.).
Gendered Harm: Impact on Cultural Practices and Livelihood
Primarily a matriarchal society, land is passed from mother to child in the Indigenous Marshallese community. However, displacement as a result of nuclear testing prevented the women from exercising their cultural rights as custodians of land in their society (Dimmen, 2014). The displacement also prevented the women from earning a livelihood through the handicrafts and household supplies they made using materials on the islands (Johnston & Barker, 2008).
That the nuclear weapons were being tested against the background of the Cold War is inherently reflective of the violent nature of the process in itself. The fact that the Marshall Islands were colonized and appropriated by the United States to test a dangerous weapon with dangerous consequences on human health and life is inherently demonstrative of necropower – where the lives, culture, and livelihood of indigenous people was no more than collateral damage to the broader aim of national security for the United States.
Adams, L. (2019). The human cost of nuclear weapons is not only a “feminine” concern. https://thebulletin.org/2019/11/the-human-cost-of-nuclear-weapons-is-not-only-a-feminine-concern/
Conway, M. (2019). What Does Feminism Have to Do With Nuclear Policy? https://outrider.org/nuclear-weapons/articles/what-does-feminism-have-do-nuclear-policy#:~:text=A%20feminist%20society%20would%20see,Centre%20for%20Feminist%20Foreign%20Policy
CTBTO (n.d.). The Effects of Nuclear Testing: The US Nuclear Testing Programme. https://www.ctbto.org/nuclear-testing/the-effects-of-nuclear-testing/the-united-states-nuclear-testing-programme/
Dimmen, A. G. (2014). Gendered Impacts. https://unidir.org/sites/default/files/publication/pdfs//gendered-impacts-en-620.pdf
Gault, M. (2019). Climate Change Is Breaking Open America's Nuclear Tomb. https://www.vice.com/en/article/3kxmav/climate-change-is-breaking-open-americas-nuclear-tomb
Grossman, Charles M.; Morton, William E.; Nussbaum, Rudi H.; Goldberg, Mark S.; Mayo, Nancy E.; Levy, Adrian R.; Scott, Susan C. (January 1, 1999). "Reproductive Outcomes after Radiation Exposure". Epidemiology. 10 (2): 202–203.
Johnston, B. R. and Barker, H. M. (2008). The Rongelap Report: Consequential Damages of Nuclear War, Left Coast Press.
Lauerman, John F.; Reuther, Christopher (January 1, 1997). "Trouble in Paradise". Environmental Health Perspectives. 105 (9): 914–919.
Niedenthal, J. (2007). A Short History of the People of Bikini Atoll. http://www.bikiniatoll.com/history.html
Richards, Z. T., Beger, M., Pinca, S., & Wallace, C. C. (2008). "Bikini Atoll coral biodiversity resilience five decades after nuclear testing" (PDF). Marine Pollution Bulletin. 56 (3): 503–515.
Rowberry, Ariana (November 30, 2001). "Castle Bravo: The Largest U.S. Nuclear Explosion." https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2014/02/27/castle-bravo-the-largest-u-s-nuclear-explosion/
Weisgall, Jonathan (1994). Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press.
Wright, G. (2018). How a tiny paper in the Marshall Islands has given voice to victims of nuclear testing. https://www.cjr.org/analysis/marshall-islands-journal-nuclear.php