Women as War Criminals
Gender, Agency, and Justice
Izabela Steflja and Jessica Trisko Darden



Zolja entered Trušina, a village roughly 50 miles from Sarajevo, for the first time on a spring morning in 1993. Trušina was a diverse community, home to Bosnians who were Muslim, Roman Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Serbs and who shared a common language and history. Along with her fellow soldiers in the Zulfikar Special Purposes unit, Zolja had come to eliminate the village’s non-Muslims. That day, 22 unarmed Croats, including women and the elderly, were killed in cold blood. After a firing squad executed three civilians and three prisoners of war, Zolja shot each one a second time to make sure they were dead.

Two decades later, Zolja—also known as Rasema Handanović and Sammy Rasema Yetisen—became the first woman sentenced for war crimes by a Bosnian court.1 To face trial, she was extradited to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) by the United States, which had given her refugee status—as a victim of persecution—and then American citizenship after the war. In 2012, she pleaded guilty to charges of killing ethnic Croats. As a result of the Bosnian War, the ethnic composition of Trušina shifted from a prewar 54 percent Bosnian Muslim majority to an 89 percent majority after the conflict.2 Croats, who had been the target of Zolja’s war crimes, fell from 26 percent to 6 percent of the area’s population.

Zolja’s narrative about her role in the ethnic cleansing that characterized the Bosnian War is emblematic of how many women war criminals are depicted: young, naïve, and controlled by men. “Yes, I was in the civil war . . . I was 20 years old and a female in an army of men when we went into Trušina,” she testified. “The government writes like I was giving orders but I was not, I did what the commander told us to do.”3 In emphasizing her gender and age, Zolja, like women war criminals before and after her, strategically used existing gender stereotypes to absolve herself of agency and responsibility in an attempt to avoid the consequences of her actions.

In exchange for her guilty plea and cooperation with the prosecution, the court sentenced Zolja to five years and six months in prison. Her cooperation helped ensure the conviction of Edin Džeko, the leader of the firing squad, who received a 13-year sentence.4 After serving her time, Zolja returned to the United States and lived in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. However, her American Dream ended abruptly in March 2019 when the U.S. Department of Justice stripped her of American citizenship.5

Zolja is one of the many uncounted and relatively unknown women who have committed acts during the conduct of war that violate international laws and principles: in other words, war criminals. Although there is no single legal document that definitively outlines war crimes, the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions, the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court all identify and prohibit behaviors in the conduct of international or domestic conflicts that transgress internationally accepted norms. Such crimes range from torture to forced displacement to genocide.

Women war criminals go unnoticed because their very existence challenges our deeply held assumptions about war and about women. Yet women from vastly different walks of life, cultures, and communities have been implicated in war crimes across a range of national and international conflicts. For instance, recent reexaminations of women’s participation in the Holocaust find that Nazi women’s involvement and complicity in war crimes extended well beyond their visible roles as concentration camp guards.6 Nazi women were an integral part of the machinery of the Holocaust in their roles as investigators, guards, nurses, secretaries, and wives of top Nazi officials.

While some Nazi women were prosecuted for their crimes, their accountability was spread unevenly across time and space. Roughly 13,500 members of the SS and Gestapo were exempt from indictment by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg, which decided that clerks, secretaries, and other low-level support staff were not threats to postwar German society.7 Women, as a category, were assumed not to be a risk. Nazi women were prosecuted for murder or accessory to murder in East Germany, but they numbered only 220 during the 45 years preceding reunification.8 The few women who were prosecuted were judged on the emotional nature of their responses. According to historian Wendy Lower, “Court officials noted when women cried during questioning or proceedings. Such a display of emotion seemed to indicate humanity, sensitivity, and presumably an empathy that was consistent with the nature or instinct of female innocence and caring.” 9 When female perpetrators appeared in war crimes trials, gendered assumptions about them took center stage.

Despite the lack of accountability for most female perpetrators of the Holocaust, women war criminals from all over the world continue to be found and brought to justice. In 2007, a researcher found Erna Wallisch, an at-large Nazi war criminal, living in a comfortable apartment in Vienna.10 In 2011, Azra Bašić, a nursing home assistant and factory worker, was arrested in Stanton, Kentucky, four years after the United States received a formal extradition request from her native BiH.11 Bašić was sentenced to 14 years in prison by a Bosnian court for the murder, torture, and inhumane treatment of Serb civilians and prisoners of war while she was serving in the Croatian Defense Council during the Bosnian War.12 In 2013, a U.S. District Court judgment stripped Beatrice Munyenyezi of American citizenship and sentenced her to 10 years in prison for intentionally lying about her involvement in the Rwandan genocide. The prosecution argued she concealed that “she had aided and abetted in the genocide and persecution of Tutsis, including the murder, rape, and kidnapping of Tutsis, at a roadblock outside of her residence.”13 While jurisdictional limitations prevented her prosecution for genocide in U.S. courts, Munyenyezi’s sister, Prudence Kantengwa, was found guilty of immigration fraud, perjury, and obstruction of proceedings before an immigration court.14 In 2015, 260,000 counts of accessory to murder were brought against a 91-year-old German woman for her role in the Auschwitz death camp as a 20-year-old telegraph operator.15 In 2018, Ranka Tomić, a former captain of the Bosnian Serb Army’s Petrovac Women’s Front, received a five-year sentence for the assault and murder of a captured Bosnian army nurse. Her sentence was reduced to three years on appeal.16 In 2019, a 27-year-old woman was charged in Germany with murder, war crimes, and membership in a foreign terrorist organization for her alleged role in the death of an enslaved Yazidi girl that she owned while a member of the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group.17

These cases signal a growing awareness of women’s direct involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity. This awareness stems in part from the burgeoning scholarship on women as perpetrators of terrorism and political violence. Taken as a body of work, the existing research addresses when, why, and how women participate in political violence, including sexual violence and terrorist acts.18 However, when examining how female perpetrators of violence are treated when war ends, researchers tend to focus primarily on women’s postconflict reintegration rather than questions of accountability and justice.

How women as perpetrators—as opposed to victims—of wartime violence are treated by legal systems, both domestic and international, has received only limited attention. Suzannah Linton correctly argues that the topic of female perpetrators of extreme crimes “cannot but challenge the dominant contemporary dogmas in the international arena” and has largely been avoided in scholarship.19 That avoidance stems from the concern that emphasizing women’s war crimes detracts attention from the regularity with which men commit such crimes, as women are indeed more likely to be victims of wartime violence, commit violent crimes at lower rates than men, and constitute a minority of those accused of war crimes.

It has also been common practice during war to assume that the only clear civilian deaths are those of women and children, enshrining all women as civilians and, by extension, victims.20 The routine identification of women as civilians is based on an unfounded assumption that women do not have the same opportunities and motives to participate in warfare.21 Similar to Zolja’s experience in the United States, African and European officials assumed that women could not be perpetrators of mass violence and automatically granted refuge to women who fled Rwanda during and after the genocide. Only later did it become clear that some women fled in order to avoid genocide-related charges.22 This tendency has been reinforced by the passage of United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1325, which emphasizes that women and children are the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict and that women have an important role in preventing and resolving conflict and building peace.23 Subsequent Security Council resolutions, national-level action plans on Women, Peace, and Security, and an emergent body of scholarship have reinforced the “women as peacemakers” narrative.24

The evidence shows that women’s social, cultural, and political incentives and constraints for participating in warfare are highly contextual, leading researchers to call for the recognition of the multiple and varied roles women hold in armed conflict.25 The underrepresentation of women as perpetrators and supporters of violence reinforces the absence of violent women from our understandings of conflict. Women’s participation in violence is often perceived as implausible, thereby reducing women’s accountability for their wartime actions. When women’s violence is recognized, the focus moves to understanding why women (rather than individuals in general) commit violence. The motivations for women’s violence are explained very differently than those of men. Women’s choice to commit violence is often presented as forced upon them, a result of victimization at the hands of men. For instance, female suicide bombers are often attributed personal histories involving sexual violence or personal trauma.26 Such explanations often assume that women’s motivations are distinct from men’s, without accounting for the different opportunity structures that female perpetrators encounter.27

Women who commit violence are distinguished not only from their male counterparts, but also from other women—“normal” women—who are peaceful, nurturing, virtuous, dignified, and restrained. These gendered assumptions alienate women who commit violence from the rest of society. As Laura Sjoberg explains, “Because their stories do not resonate with these inherited images of femininity, violent women are marginalized in political discourse. Their choices are rarely seen as choices, and, when they are, they are characterized as apolitical.”28 But the commission of war crimes and the decision to prosecute (or not) perpetrators of war crimes are inherently political acts. War criminals are both political and social actors.

To understand how the actions and trials of women war criminals are both political and politicized, we draw on Caron Gentry and Laura Sjoberg’s identification of three (nonexclusive) narrative frames used in literature, media, and society to marginalize and differentiate violent women: Mother, Monster, and Whore.29 In the Mother narrative, a violent woman is protecting or nurturing (symbolic or real) sons or becomes violent because she has lost her (symbolic or real) sons. In the Monster narrative, a violent woman is psychologically unstable, a deviant whose actions are driven by an insane, socially unacceptable version of femininity. In the Whore narrative, a violent woman is driven by disturbing, inappropriate sexual desires that stray from traditional feminine sexuality. Mother, Monster, and Whore are frames which simultaneously locate violent women as transgressive, anomalous, and irrational.30 However, focusing solely on these frames neglects other important identities and constructed categories, including age, race, religion, nationality, and rank. We therefore focus on how social and political contexts influence the construction of gendered arguments.

The gendering of violence is directly connected to legal responses to crimes committed by women. Analyzing academic, media, and literary sources, Sabrina Gilani illustrates “the permanence and influence of [gendered] perceptions not only in how we conceptualize women’s engagement in violent behavior, but also how we legally and publicly manage and respond to such conduct.”31 Courts have routinely rejected women’s guilt or have given women disproportionately lighter sentences than men who committed similar acts of violence. Given this context, Gilani concludes that violence by women should be studied as an “autonomous choice clearly indicative of the human capacity for violence”—an objective that we endorse.32 This book provides a more holistic approach to women and justice.


1. “Bosniak Ex-Soldier Becomes First Woman Convicted of War Crimes,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 30, 2012, https://www.rferl.org/a/bosniak_first_woman_convicted_of_war_crimes/24564893.
html; Rick Anderson, “U.S. Authorities Seek to Strip Citizenship of Bosnian War Criminal Living in Oregon,” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2018, https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-oregon-war-criminal-20180406-story.html.

2. Federacija Bosne i Hercegovine Federalni Zavod za Statistiku, Popis stanovništva 1991 (Sarajevo: Federalni Zavod za Statistiku, 1998), http://fzs.ba/index.php/popis-stanovnistva/popis-stanovnistva-1991-i-stariji/; Agency for Statistics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Stanova u Bosni i Hercegovini, 2013 (Sarajevo: Agencija za statistiku Bosne i Hercegovine, 2016), http://popis2013.ba/popis2013/doc/Popis2013prvoIzdanje.pdf.

3. Seth Augenstein, “Bosnian War Criminal Stripped of U.S. Citizenship,” Forensic Magazine, March 6, 2019, https://www.forensicmag.com/news/2019/03/bosnian-war-criminal-stripped-us-citizenship.

4. Albina Sorguc, “Bosniak Ex-Officer’s War Crimes Appeal Rejected,” Balkan Transitional Justice, April 30, 2019, https://balkaninsight.com/2019/04/30/bosniak-ex-officers-war-crimes-appeal-rejected/.

5. Edin Džeko also obtained U.S. citizenship and was denaturalized on August 15, 2018. U.S. Department of Justice, “Justice Department Secures Denaturalization of Convicted War Criminal Who Fraudulently Obtained Refugee Status and U.S. Citizenship,” news release no. 19–189 (Washington DC: Office of Public Affairs, March 5, 2019), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-secures-denaturalization-convicted-war-criminal-who-fraudulently-obtained.

6. See for instance, Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (New York: Mariner Books, 2014).

7. Lower, Hitler’s Furies, 167–168.

8. Ibid., 169.

9. Ibid., 168.

10. Michael Leidig, “Elderly Woman Is Wanted Nazi War Criminal,” Telegraph, October 22, 2007, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1566994/Elderly-woman-is-wanted-Nazi-war-criminal.html.

11. Brett Barrouquere and Bruce Schreiner, “‘Lovely’ Ky. Woman Accused of Horrific War Crimes,” Associated Press, March 18, 2011, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/42145729/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/lovely-ky-woman-accused-horrific-war-crimes/#.XVRIui3Mwes; Emina Dizdarevic, “Female Bosnian Croat Fighter Jailed for War Crimes,” Balkan Transitional Justice, December 27, 2017, https://balkaninsight.com/2017/12/27/female-bosnian-croat-fighter-jailed-for-war-crimes-12–27-2017/.

12. “Bosnia War Crimes: Former Female Fighter Azra Bašić Gets 14 Years,” BBC News, December 27, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-42495423.

13. U.S. Department of Justice, “U.S. District Judge Revokes Beatrice Munyenyezi’s U.S. Citizenship” (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Criminal Division, Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, March 2013), https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/criminal-hrsp/legacy/2013/03/21/HR-Newsletter-March-2013.pdf.

14. U.S. Department of Justice, “Court of Appeals Upholds Conviction and Sentence of a Woman who Concealed her Role in Rwandan Genocide” (Boston: United States Attorney’s Office, March 26, 2015), https://www.justice.gov/usao-ma/pr/court-appeals-upholds-conviction-and-sentence-woman-who-concealed-her-role-rwandan.

15. Associated Press, “German Woman Aged 91 Charged over Nazi Death Camp Allegations,” Guardian, September 21, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/21/german-woman-charged-nazi-allegations-auschwitz-death-camp.

16. Milica Stojanovic, “Serbian Court Cuts Female War Criminal’s Prison Sentence,” Balkan Transitional Justice, July 16, 2019, https://balkaninsight.com/2019/07/16/serbian-court-cuts-female-war-criminals-prison-sentence/.

17. Melissa Eddy, “German Woman Goes on Trial in Death of 5-Year-Old Girl Held as ISIS Slave,” New York Times, April 9, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/09/world/europe/germany-isis-trial.html.

18. For instance, Miranda Alison, Women and Political Violence: Female Combatants in Ethno-National Conflict (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2009); Mia Bloom, Bombshell: Women and Terrorism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Dara Kay Cohen, “Female Combatants and the Perpetration of Violence: Wartime Rape in the Sierra Leone Civil War,” World Politics 65, no. 3 (2013): 383–415; Alexis Henshaw, Why Women Rebel: Understanding Women’s Participation in Armed Rebel Groups (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016); Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry, Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics (London: Zed Books, 2007); Laura Sjoberg and Caron E. Gentry, eds., Women, Gender, and Terrorism (Atlanta: University of Georgia Press, 2011); Reed M. Wood, Female Fighters: Why Rebel Groups Recruit Women for War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

19. Suzannah Linton, “Women Accused of International Crimes: A Trans-Disciplinary Inquiry and Methodology,” Criminal Law Forum 27, no. 2 (June 2016): 162.

20. Charli Carpenter, “Innocent Women and Children”: Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (New York: Ashgate, 2006); Izabela Steflja and Jessica Trisko Darden, “Making Civilian Casualties Count: Approaches to Documenting the Human Cost of War,” Human Rights Review 14 (2013): 347–366.

21. Carpenter, “Innocent Women.”

22. Lisa Sharlach, “Gender and Genocide in Rwanda: Women as Agents and Objects of Genocide,” Journal of Genocide Research 1, no. 3 (November 2007): 387–399.

23. UN Security Council Resolution 1325, Women, Peace, and Security, S/RES/1325 (October 31, 2000), https://undocs.org/S/RES/1325(2000).

24. Amy C. Alexander, Catherine Bolzendahl, and Farida Jalalzai, “Defining Women’s Global Political Empowerment: Theories and Evidence,” Sociology Compass 10, no. 6 (June 2016): 432–441; Joshua S. Goldstein, War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Swanee Hunt, Rwandan Women Rising (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); Mary Moran, “Our Mothers Have Spoken: Synthesizing Old and New Forms of Women’s Political Authority in Liberia,” Journal of International Women’s Studies 13, no. 4 (2012): 51–66; Cecilia L. Ridgeway, Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

25. Steflja and Trisko Darden, “Making Civilian Casualties Count”; see also Chris Coulter, “Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War: Challenging the Assumptions,” Feminist Review 88, (2008): 54–73; Jessica Trisko Darden, “Assessing the Significance of Women in Combat Roles,” International Journal 70, no. 3 (2015): 454–462; Jessica Trisko Darden, Alexis Henshaw, and Ora Szekely, Insurgent Women: Female Combatants in Civil Wars (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2019).

26. Bloom, Bombshell.

27. Trisko Darden, “Assessing the Significance”; Lower, Hitler’s Furies.

28. Laura Sjoberg, “Women and the Genocidal Rape of Women: The Gender Dynamics of Gendered War Crimes,” in Confronting Global Gender Justice: Women’s Lives, Human Rights, eds. Debra Bergoffen, Paula R. Gilbert, Tamara Harvey, and Connie L. McNeely (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2011), 27.

29. Sjoberg and Gentry, Mothers, Monsters, Whores; Caron E. Gentry and Laura Sjoberg, Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Thinking about Women’s Violence in Global Politics (London: Zed Books, 2015).

30. Gentry and Sjoberg, Beyond Mothers.

31. Sabrina Gilani, “Transforming the ‘Perpetrator’ into ‘Victim’: The Effect of Gendering Violence on the Legal and Practical Response to Women’s Political Violence,” Australian Journal of Gender and Law 1 (July 2010): 1–40, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/AUJlGendLaw/2010/1.html.

32. Gilani, “Transforming the ‘Perpetrator,’” 30.