Conflict and Violence
03 June 2019

Sexual Violence: A New Weapon of War

Empirical evidence contradicts the common sense that conflict-related sexual violence is ubiquitous.

Horrifying stories of sexual violence perpetrated in the context of armed conflict have become ubiquitous. The issue first burst on the international agenda with the rape camps reported from Bosnia in the 1990s. Infamous reports of sexual exploitation and abuse from UN peacekeepers trailed these stories of systematic rape. Reliable statistics of the extent of such violence and abuse are difficult to establish. However, neither issue has gone away, and there is a sense that sexual violence in conflict has become a standard repertoire of warfare. Sexual violence against women and girls in Yemen, South Sudan, and Iraq, Yazidi women in Northern Iraq, and Rohingya women and girls fleeing the Myanmar military all seem to point to the new normality of such practices. Increasing evidence shows that sexual violence targets also men, and there have been reports of significant levels of such violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Syria, Sri Lanka, Peru, and Bosnia. Sexual violence against men differs in form (e.g. it includes castration in addition to rape, forced prostitution and other violations women experience), and it is more often perpetrated in situations of detention (such as for example at Abu Ghraib). 

Whether or not sexual violence is effective as a strategy of war, it has clear effects on its victims. The psychological costs are immeasurable as it demolishes a basic sense of security; for men it often in addition puts in question their masculinity. Costs to communities include the destruction of trust and social cohesion. Moreover, groups that are selectively targeted may decide to leave an area rather than risk becoming the victims of violations. 

International policies affirm the weapon-of-war character of sexual violence. It was recognised as a war crime and a crime against humanity in the statutes of the International Criminal Court in 2002. Moreover, in a series of resolutions since 2008, the UN Security Council has condemned the practice and sought measures to counteract it, including the deployment of Women’s Protection Advisors in its peacekeeping missions, the appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and the creation of UN Action, a programme to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence. But there is concern that the new visibility lent by this normative framework to sexual violence also has inadvertently normalised it as a standard weapon of war. 

Yet, empirical evidence contradicts the common sense that conflict-related sexual violence is ubiquitous. Research shows that there are significant variations in its prevalence and is beginning to discern some patterns. Some suggest that sexual violence may be more common in ethnic conflicts such as that in the former Yugoslavia, where it supported a genocidal agenda. However, in other ethnic conflicts, such as the one in Sierra Leone, such violence was rampant but did not involve specific ethnic targeting, contradicting the idea that it was a strategic instrument of genocide. One explanation is that gang rapes there may have served as a means of socialising militia members. Indeed, there is evidence that such rapes are more common in militias that forcibly recruit their members, often young boys. In contrast, sexual violence is less common among leftist insurgents, as was the case in El Salvador and Peru; and although there are documented cases of such violence in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), these are far outstripped by the level of sexual violence perpetrated by the paramilitaries. 

Framing sexual violence as a weapon of war has served to mobilise governments and the UN but it is also problematic because it assumes that warring groups obey a hierarchy of command where soldiers follow orders to rape. Studies show that this is not always the case, and there are considerable problems of command and control in undisciplined armed groups. More typically, armed groups provide a permissive environment. Indeed, research with perpetrators in the DRC shows them complaining that they often go without pay and thus cannot either buy sex or marry and therefore feel that rape is justified. Orders from command play less of a role in this than expectations of masculinity and a sense of male entitlement.

Framing sexual violence as a weapon of war is also problematic because it draws an artificial line between such violence perpetrated in war and outside war. Against this, some feminists have argued that sexual violence itself needs to be considered an act of political violence enabled by patriarchal structures, institutions, and values. They worry that establishing conflict-related sexual violence as something qualitatively different from sexual violence more broadly disregards the conditions that make it possible. It is indeed difficult to think of societies rent by sexual violence as peaceful. Conversely, definitions of war based purely on battle deaths ignore the experiences of women, as sexual violence often continues long after the guns have been silenced. 

Framing conflict-related sexual violence as strategic and thus different from such violence outside armed conflict problematically obscures that “peace” typically is built on a patriarchal bargain. The new visibility of sexual violence may therefore lead us to begin to question the distinction between war and peace and recognise the pervasive harm done to populations gendered “other” in the wars that constitute their everyday lives. 

This article was originally published in Globe #23
Photo credit: Isaac Billy/UN photo