Ask the Experts: Preventing Sexual Violence
from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Ask the Experts: Preventing Sexual Violence

Female victims of sexual violence at Panzi hospital in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo on September 6, 2007 (James Akena/Courtesy Reuters).
Female victims of sexual violence at Panzi hospital in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo on September 6, 2007 (James Akena/Courtesy Reuters).

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Last week, forty members of Congress re-introduced the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA). As Amnesty International’s Cristina Finch explains, the I-VAWA “would coordinate and improve the U.S. government’s efforts to stop this global scourge by making it a priority in diplomatic and foreign assistance initiatives. This will help to ensure that the United States lives up to its international responsibility to end violence against women and girls.”

Combating, mitigating, and preventing sexual violence in conflict zones has been a rhetorical priority for the international community for over fifteen years. Over the last several years, however, the issue has gained increasing traction on the international agenda. In 2008, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1820, which, for the first time, formally recognized sexual violence as a tactic of war. And in January, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon released a report, Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, which took the unprecedented step of naming and shaming specific countries where sexual violence is pervasive, whether in situations of conflict, postconflict, or civil unrest. The list included Colombia, Ivory Coast, Myanmar, South Sudan, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Egypt, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

One hurdle to developing effective prevention strategies is the extreme difficulty of understanding the full scope of sexual assaults—even outside of conflict zones. In the United States, for instance, 1.1 million women experienced “nonconsensual vaginal, oral, or anal penetration” in 2005, but only 16 percent reported the incident to law enforcement. Even in conflict zones where sexual violence is reported, high impunity rates virtually assure that perpetrators go unpunished.

Of course, not all victims of sexual violence are female. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), 19 percent of all rape or sexual assault victims in the United States are men. At the same time, a 2010 Journal of American Medical Association article found—under a broader definitionof sexual violence than the DOJ—rates of reported sexual violence to be 40 percent of women and 24 percent of men.

In an effort to raise awareness of this nuanced, politically-loaded issue, and to better inform U.S. and international policymakers, we asked six leading scholars to respond the following question:

 “U.S. policymakers are attempting to develop strategies to prevent sexual violence in conflict zones. Based on your research, what are two to three things they should know about the phenomenon? What would be your recommendations for effective policy responses?”

Dara Kay Cohen is assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (as of July 1, 2012) and is writing a book based on fieldwork in Sierra Leone, East Timor, and El Salvador, analyzing how the recruitment practices of armed groups can help predict whether the group is likely to commit wartime rape, especially gang rape. Elisabeth Jean Wood is professor of political science at Yale University and is writing a book on wartime sexual violence, drawing on field research in Sri Lanka, Colombia, Israel and Palestine, Peru, and El Salvador.

Policymakers’ increased attention to wartime rape is a welcome change, but one that should be guided by sound research and the priorities of victims themselves. Based on our own research and others’, we clarify four common misperceptions about wartime rape.

First, the rape of civilians is not ubiquitous in war—not even in ethnic conflicts—and is probably not getting worse over time. While many armed groups perpetrate rape and other forms of sexual violence, there is ample evidence that many other armed actors effectively prohibit these types of violence—even while engaging in other, sometimes brutal, violence against civilians. Armed groups that engage in high levels of rape are more often state actors, not insurgent groups, as frequently presumed.

While rape has indeed been used as a form of violence in bitter ethnic war and genocide, as in Bosnia and Rwanda, there are a large number of cases where rape occurred in non-ethnic wars, as well ethnic wars where it did not. Rape is not systematically predicted by ethnic war in statistical studies.

Moreover, extremely high levels of rape in wars in previous decades cast doubt on the claim that wartime rape is getting worse: the number of women and girls raped during and after the sieges of Nanking and Berlin likely exceed that of Bosnia. More likely, increased reports of wartime rape mean that we are better at detecting and reporting sexual violence than in the past—but this does not mean that the underlying incidence of rape is increasing.

Second, widespread wartime rape is not an “African problem.” As a percentage of civil wars, sub-Saharan Africa experienced fewer conflicts with reported mass rape than did eastern Europe over the past thirty years.

Third, when rape occurs with high prevalence, this does not imply that it is used as “a strategy of war.” The claim that rape is a strategy of war is often assumed from a pattern of widespread rape by an armed group. But rape need not be ordered to be frequent. Rape often emerges from troops on the ground and is then tolerated by the chain of command—not because commanders have recognized strategic benefits but because the costs of effectively suppressing it appear too high. There are few cases where there is evidence that rape was explicitly ordered by commanders (who are nonetheless legally responsible for war crimes committed by their troops.)

Fourth, it is not the necessarily the case that victims of wartime rape are overwhelmingly female—or that the perpetrators of rape are always men. Male victims are increasingly reported, although we simply we do not know the true numbers. Used against male civilians, rape is often reported as a form of torture, confounding efforts to study the problem. In addition, recent research suggests that female combatants are sometimes perpetrators of wartime rape, and other forms of sexual violence. One reason is that women may be subject to the same pressures to commit acts of brutal violence as their male peers.

Some observers argue that rape increases during war because combatants have more opportunity to rape than civilians. But most men do not rape given the opportunity; even in war, close contact with civilians is often unaccompanied by rape. Nor does rape occur as a substitute for consensual sex, as some military commanders appear to believe. High rates of rape occur in some settings where fighters have regular access to prostitutes or to sexual slaves. And this substitution argument does not explain the extreme brutality of rape or the high frequency of gang rape during war.

Effective policy requires that policymakers listen to those affected by wartime sexual violence. It is important not to assume that wartime rape is the worst thing that has ever happened to victims, or that it is the highest priority of local women’s groups. Rape and other forms are sexual violence are usually not the most common forms of violence reported by women (or men) during wartime. For example, in the thousands of testimonies given to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, forced displacement and killing were far more frequently reported than any form of sexual violence.

Maria Eriksson Baaz is associate professor at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg and The Nordic Africa Institute; Maria Stern is professor at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg

The contexts in which wartime sexual violence occurs differ, as do the causes of conflict. Wartime rape cannot be explained by one single explanatory framework. While conflict-related sexual violence can be a strategic weapon of war reliant on orders from above in efficient military hierarchies, there are numerous examples where the opposite holds true. In such cases, wartime sexual violence is fed by fractured chains of command and weak military cohesion. Hence, understanding and addressing the role and meaning of rape in any given conflict requires an in-depth analysis of the shifting dynamics of the particular conflict and the ideology and set-up of the armed groups involved.

This conclusion precludes formulating recommendations equally relevant in all contexts. However, while there are no generalized remedies to prevent sexual violence, let us highlight two common problems in policy efforts aimed at preventing sexual violence.

One is the tendency to adopt quick, easy and visible remedies, such as isolated workshops on human rights and IHL, and information campaigns, rather than long-term commitment addressing the complex structural causes. One can see why such remedies are so tempting: they tend to be uncontroversial, respond to a sense of urgency, and provide visible proof for the constituency that something is being done. However, these types of superficial interventions seldom have any tangible effects. The main problem in most warring contexts is not that the perpetrators of rape are unaware that rape is wrong and a crime.

A second problematic tendency in current interventions is the propensity to isolate sexual violence from other forms of violence committed against civilians. This problem is tricky, as the newly won arrival of sexual violence in the global security arena also signals a great success, which should not be underestimated or undermined. However, the resulting singular focus on sexual violence in many conflict arenas can carry some unintended and unfortunate effects. In addition to rendering us deaf to women’s (and men’s) stories of other violence committed against them, such a singular focus risks contributing to a commercialization of sexual violence, as has been the case in the DRC. This ultimately banalizes sexual violence. The fight against sexual violence is best served, not by a singular attention only to sexual violence, but by better listening to the stories of those affected by war, and by situating the prevention of sexual violence in the context of civilian protection and women’s rights more generally.

Jocelyn Kelly is the director of the Women in War Program at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

For the past five years, I have worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) speaking with combatants in nonstate armed groups about conflict-related sexual violence. Thinking about this blog series, I reflected on the complex process of trying to understand one of the most incomprehensible human behaviors. I have come to realize, however, that within this intricacy there are a few truths that have become a substrate for further understanding.

First: dehumanization breeds dehumanization.

The combatants I have worked with—from different groups and regions, men and women of all ages—say they feel profoundly, acutely traumatized by their time in armed groups. They describe their lack of access to food and other basic human needs. Predation, of all forms, becomes a norm. Sadly, many combatants say they joined armed groups to prevent the very violence they now perpetrate. And many communities that have experienced sexual violence say the children who have seen this violence are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors.

This relates to a second truth: dehumanization is “sticky.”

It can last across time and generations, igniting future cycles of violence. Communities note that sexual violence, because of its intensely private nature and impact on reproductive health, deeply disrupts social cohesion at a time when this support is most important.

We think about conflict as a straight timeline: pre-, current-, and post-conflict. But these are, after all, linear concepts to determine what can, sadly, be a circular phenomenon.

Keeping this in mind, I believe there are measures help interrupt the “contagion” effect of violence and prevent and address sexual violence in conflict. First, it is vitally important to identify trends of sexual violence in conflict early, and to address this issue through political pressure on armed parties and consistent punishment of perpetrators. Processes of abuse and dehumanization must be interrupted before they escalate, as they did in the case of DRC.

Ensuring nonstate actors go through effective disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) processes can also interrupt cycles of violence. DDR to date has often been highly ineffective, feeding into “revolving door” demobilizations. DDR must to address combatants’ rehabilitation not only through providing sustainable and context-appropriate vocation training, but also through providing psychosocial support to help combatants reacclimatize to civilian life. Security sector reform helps ensure countries effectively transition away from active conflict by training security forces to be protective rather than predatory forces. This lays the groundwork for effective justice in the future. Finally, it is women who often face the greatest burden of conflict in general, and sexual violence in particular. Including them in political process such as peace negotiations will help ensure perpetrators of sexual violence will be held accountable for their actions.

Sandesh Sivakumaran is professor at the University of Nottingham

Sexual violence is committed in conflict zones by different actors to different extents for different reasons. To prevent sexual violence it is thus imperative that we understand why it is being committed in the particular conflict. Once the reasons are identified, they need to be matched to the associated lever. This is crucial as rarely can a single solution be adopted across the board. Instead, complementary measures will need to be taken that are tailored to the specific situation at hand.

To illustrate: a group that purports to fight for human rights and represent the country on the world stage may be persuaded by focusing on its reputation, a factor that will have little effect on a group whose aim is to commit genocide. Opportunistic, rather than systematic, acts may be ameliorated through greater training, monitoring and sanction. A government that is reliant on another country for its war effort will be more open to change its behavior if instructed to do so by that other country than by pressure from outside organizations.

In considering the necessary measures to be taken, the issue should be looked at holistically. This includes dialogue with all relevant persons, including victims and perpetrators; analyzing the cycle of violence, from prevention to prosecution; and protecting all victims, male or female, civilian or soldier.


More on:

Defense and Security

Conflict Prevention

Political Transitions