Saturday, 14 June 2014

Sexual violence in conflict has to stop!

Yesterday was the last day of Summit in London to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. For the past few days various influencers spoke about the issues concerning atrocities during conflict and were trying to attract more attention to ending sexual violence during conflict. Speakers included famous persons such as Angelina Jolie, John Kerry and William Hague. The summit was supported by other events all over the world.

Sexual violence during conflict is somehow omitted problem by many politicians, treated as a “spoils of war” and inevitable part of warfare. There has been many misconceptions regarding conflict-related sexual violence both in the political sphere, social sphere as well as in the academic research.

The main problem is that media and influencers bring attention to the greatest atrocities that involve sexual violence during conflict. They share the terrifying stories of women raped, violated, abused and mutilated. We hear the dreadful stories and we feel horror for the victims. But such attention brought to the high profile cases has one unforeseen consequence… We’ve learned to think that sexual violence is an inseparable part of the conflict, because it happens everywhere.


Conflict-related sexual violence is neither inevitable nor common. It is not a widely used weapon of war. In fact, there are number of groups that do not use sexual violence against civilians. For example, in all of Africa’s conflicts from 1989 – 2009, only 29% of conflict actors perpetrated sexual violence. More, there are few groups that forbid the use of sexual violence. Research shows (Wood, 2004; 2006; 2009) that actually more strategic to the war advances is not to use sexual violence against civilians, especially when a particular group rely on supplies or support from civilians.

It is not to say that wartime sexual violence is not a serious issue. It is. And it need to be prevented. It has to stop. My argument is that if it isn’t common and evidence suggests that many conflict do not witness terrible atrocities and sexual violence perpetration, then it can be prevented. We can learn from a more positive stories and try to apply them in other contexts.

When I was writing my thesis on conflict-related sexual violence, I had many awkward conversations with people who were trying to show me that my research is pointless, because everything is already known about this subject. The major misconception I encountered is that rape committed by armed groups is a psychological response to trauma, release of stress and uncontrolled biological response. I remember one friend of mine cited her teacher, who said that soldiers rape, because during fighting the part of their brain responsible for procreation gets activated and they feel compelled to rape. It’s pure biology. And for her that response was sufficient enough.

There is much we don’t know about reasons for committing wartime rape, but for sure we know it’s not biology. If it really was biology, then EVERYBODY would rape. Everybody. All soldiers would rape anything that resembles a women and no soldier would be blameless. However the fact that majority of soldiers are able to refrain from committing rape and in fact many groups do not rape and condemn sexual violence, speaks for itself.

Also if it was a biological response, only women in the height of their reproductive time would get raped. The logic would suggest that desire and willingness to extend ones species should take part. It couldn’t be further from the truth. For example, in conflict in Sierra Leone the age of rape victims varied from 7 years of age up until 70. No women could feel safe. Majority of girls aged 12-15 were taken as brides. Many instances of sexual violence involved use of force, mutilation, humiliation and sadism.

Furthermore, it isn’t a psychological response to trauma connected to the battle and tough life of during a conflict that pushes men to rape the women. Sexual violence happened in many conflicts during periods of relative tranquillity, when there is no regular battle and the soldiers are mostly inactive. Research by Nordas and Cohen (2012) states that “sexual violence is relatively less common in the most-lethal conflicts than in conflicts with fewer annual casualties”.

It also isn’t a weapon of war directed against opposing side/culture/enemy group. Unfortunately, many conflicts see indiscriminate violence against all of the representatives of female group, regardless of their ethnicity or affiliations.

Feminists also had their say about conflict related sexual violence. Gender inequality theory says that sexual violence is not about sexual desire, but a desire of men to “exert dominance” over the female population (Gottschall, 2004). The soldiers perpetrating sexual violence “vent their contempt for women” and in the same time they enforce and perpetuate “patriarchal gender arrangements” that are beneficial to all men (Gottschall, 2004).

I can’t agree with feminists on this issue as their claims are not supported by evidence. Current warfare has seen the emergence of most gruesome ways of inflicting terror on the people. Sexual violence is no longer committed only by men on women. There are instances of men raping men, women raping men and women raping women. Also the use of rape is not consistent across conflicts, even in the settings with similar cultural backgrounds. Even in the countries with a widespread use of sexual violence not all areas are affected. For example, in DRC sexual violence was rarely committed in areas supervised by UN Peacekeepers. However other areas were not as safe.

What we do know about conflict-related sexual violence is more appalling than previous claims, but it also shows that sexual violence can be prevented. In most African conflicts, sexual violence has been perpetrated mainly by government forces. Only 30% of unorganised or semi-organised militias committed acts of sexual violence, mainly when they were supporting pro-government forces which allowed or even encouraged perpetration of rape. Most of those militias, who engaged in acts of sexual violence, widely recruited child soldiers.

Research conducted by E. J. Wood shows that the group organisation and belief system has a great impact on perpetration of sexual violence by this group. If the members of the group believe that they cannot rape (for any reason) and commanders condemn and punish perpetration of rape, the group will rarely perpetrate rape in fear of being punished. However, if a group shares a belief that rape is acceptable and commanders do allow or even encourage soldiers to rape, sexual violence will be prevalent and almost unavoidable.

We cannot forget about foreign forces and their involvement in this crime. In few conflicts where foreign security forces where involved and there was little or no control of their action outside of official manoeuvres, soldier raped and engaged in other violations, as they knew that no punishment will be imposed. For example, a high profile case from former Yugoslavia shows that UN Peacekeepers where involved in prostitution and human trafficking. In Sierra Leone, foreign forces were responsible for more rape cases than government forces.

Finally, there are armed groups who do not allow to rape. For example, Tamil Tigers, despite their wide spectrum of human rights violations, they never allowed to rape in the areas which they controlled. There has been reports stating that Tigers, who did rape a women, were severely punished in most of the cases. Evidence suggest that clear condemnation of perpetrating sexual violence and widespread group belief that sexual violence is unacceptable did have a positive impact on soldiers behaviour.

The conclusion is clear: sexual violence during conflict is not determined by “outside” forces beyond one’s control. It is deliberate and conscious decision made by individuals. No perpetrator can be excused. And as in many cases perpetration of sexual violence is granted by governments and perpetrated by their security forces, international spectators are able to put a pressure and prevent it from happening. Wartime sexual violence CAN be stopped and HAVE TO be stopped.

It is up to us whether we will allow for it to happen.

Written by Vespertilio


  • Gottschall, J. (2004) ‘Explaining Wartime Rape’ The Journal of Sex Research 41(2): 129-136.
  • Nordas, R., Cohen, D. K. (2012a) ‘Sexual Violence by Militias in African Conflicts’ CSCW Policy Brief 01-2012.
  • Nordas, R., Cohen, D. K. (2012b) ‘Sexual Violence in African Conflicts, 1989 – 2009’ CSCW Policy Brief 02-2012.
  • Wood, E. J. (2004) ‘Sexual Violence During War: Explaining Variation’, Order, Conflict and Violence, Yale University, 30th April – 1st May. New York: Santa Fe Institute.
  • Wood, E. J. (2006) ‘Variations in Sexual Violence During War’ Politics Society 34: 307-341.
  •  Wood, E. J. (2009) ‘Armed Groups and Sexual Violence: When is Wartime Rape Rare?’ Politics Society 39: 131-161.

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