Sexual violence in armed conflict

Sexual violence in armed conflict has reached epidemic proportions. Evidence from conflicts over the last decade shows that, in some cases, war allows for sexual violence within armed forces (i.e. the military institution of a state) and groups (i.e. groups distinct from the state’s military institution) to remain hidden in the shadows of history, which can translate into the acceptance of post-war sexual violence and impunity for its perpetrators.

In other cases, sexual violence has been deliberately and systematically used as a method of warfare. War-time rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in Rwanda has led to its description as a “weapon of war” and, for this reason, to its proscription worldwide. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1820 of June 2008 demands a complete halt to all acts of sexual violence as a method of warfare.

What is wartime rape?

Wartime rape and the use of rape as a weapon of war is not a new phenomenon. For example, during World War II, rape was perpetrated by all parties against civilians or members of opposing armed forces or groups. Both women and men have been and continue to be raped in war, though the rape of women is more frequently reported and subsequently documented in the news or literature.

Since World War II, wartime rape has occurred in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Americas and Europe. Numerous reports have offered statistical data on wartime rape in a number of different wars around the world. However, it should be underlined that there are no accurate statistics on these occurrences.

Rape can be defined as an act that:

  • involves the penetration of the mouth, vagina or anus by any object or bodily part;
  • is forced or non-consensual. (This definition of rape is based in large part on the definition offered in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Elements of Crimes, Article 7 Crimes Against Humanity, 7 (1) (g)-1, Crime against humanity of rape.)

Wartime rape involves the following two components:

  • the physical act of rape (i.e. forced penetration) as defined above, which is perpetrated by a member of an armed force or group during wartime; and
  • a myriad of war dynamics that surround and influence the perpetration of rape.

In other words, we understand wartime rape as involving more than the act of forced penetration. It includes the dynamics of war that largely influence who rapes who, for what purpose, in what way, where and when. These dynamics can be organized into the following themes:

  • Type of conflict: Is a conflict internal or international? What is its purpose (secession, resource control, etc.)? The extent to which the type of conflict determines the consequences of the rape is hard to know without further analysis.
    • Characteristics of armed forces or groups who perpetrate rape: Among other things, this includes the structure of the armed group (is there a clear hierarchy, reporting structure and a functioning chain of command?); group dynamics (are the soldiers disciplined?); alcohol and drug abuse amongst the ranks; and rape dynamics within the group (are there rules or laws on rape within the group and if so, are these enforced?).
    • Motivations for perpetrating rape in war: What are the reasons for perpetrating wartime rape both at the individual and group levels? Do individuals perpetrate rape as a result of peer pressure, as an act of group solidarity, for their own individual reasons—among other things, sexual desire or a desire for power/domination over another individual—or because they were ordered to do so?
    • Characteristics of the rapist (both male and female): What background factors make an individual likely to perpetrate rape in war? This does not refer to psychological factors, but rather to the circumstances and reasons for which an individual joined a particular armed group; the level of education of this individual; their religious and/or political beliefs; their marital status; and whether or not substance abuse is a factor involved in the perpetration of rape.
    • Characteristics of raped individuals An individual’s background information such as their sex, age, ethnicity, religious affiliation, profession/ livelihood, educational background, as well as their experience of rape (by whom, where, how often, in what way, and whether or not they were witnesses to other rapes, etc.); and the physical outcomes of the rape (physical injuries, pregnancy, etc.). These variables aim to capture the experience of both male and female targets of rape and may reveal factors associated with an individual’s ability to cope with and recover from this experience in the long term.
    • Characteristics of the rape: The manner in which rape was perpetrated in the war and its level of brutality. Variables include, among other things, the location of the rapes (public spaces, private homes, designated areas, etc.); when rape is most frequent (before, during, after a military operation); the use of weapons or objects to commit rape; the number of attackers at a time; how widely rape is perpetrated; and whether or not rape is accompanied by other forms of violence.

Global responses to wartime rape

The International Community has taken action by various means to fight wartime rape. As mentioned earlier, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1820 in 2008, recognizing for the first time sexual violence against civilians as a security issue in and of itself. This was followed up in 2009 with the adoption of Resolution 1888, which appointed a Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict for a period of two years. In 2010, Resolution 1960 was adopted asking the United Nations Secretary General to, among other things, list known parties that perpetrate sexual violence against civilians in armed conflict. Three years later, Resolution 2106 was agreed, stressing the importance of accountability for the perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict.

It must be stressed, however, that not all wartime rape is perpetrated as a ‘weapon of war’, and it is not always perpetrated against civilians. Wartime rape is also perpetrated within the ranks of an armed force or group. These cases require the same level of attention and action as cases of wartime civilian rape.

Practical responses to wartime rape in conflict-affected settings require an understanding of the war dynamics listed above, possible linkages between them, and above all the social context in which wartime rape is perpetrated. Social context includes, among other things, legal and cultural norms, practices, attitudes and beliefs regarding rape, sexuality, masculinity, and gender roles, which may lead to country-, community- and even individual-specific consequences of wartime rape. All of these factors ought to be considered together in order to design and implement effective and efficient responses in line with all relevant Security Council resolutions.

To date, research on cases of wartime rape has generally focussed on the individuals raped. Finding the answers to addressing wartime rape is not possible if we do not consider the perpetrators. To what degree combatants are willing perpetrators or not, or the consequences of raping individuals on the perpetrators themselves, is unknown. Understanding these aspects has important implications for halting and preventing this type of violence in the future.

Sources and further information:

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