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Is sexual violence in conflict inevitable? If it were, sexual violence would occur similarly in all conflicts, but a growing body of research demonstrates a high level of variation in its use across armed groups, conflicts, and countries. This variation suggests that sexual violence in conflict is “far from inevitable.”
A recent U.S. Department of State event looked at whether this assumption, and everything else policymakers think they know about wartime rape, is wrong. Current research dispels common and pervasive misconceptions: that rape is ubiquitous in war, more common among rebel groups than state militaries, or that perpetrators are always male and victims female.
Knowing that sexual violence in conflict is not inevitable indicates that there are actions that can prevent or mitigate it. The following are a few priority areas.
First, commanders must be held accountable for sexual violence perpetrated by their soldiers. Commanders (of either state armies or rebel groups) may choose to “order, tolerate, or prohibit rape by their soldiers,” and research suggests that this decision is influenced by the armed organization’s institutions, ideology, and culture. Given that commanders have the ability to build institutions that “enforce norms against rape,” those who endorse or order sexual violence should be held to account. Ending impunity for wartime rape was the central focus of the 2014 Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The outcome included an international protocol to improve documentation, investigation, and prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence at the national and international level.
Second, conflict and atrocity prevention efforts should better address wartime rape. Early warning systems can track when there are situations in which wartime rape is more likely. For example, in a review of eighty-five civil wars, armed groups that recruit through abduction or pressganging also used significantly higher levels of rape (perhaps to create unit cohesion). There is a how-to guide for gender-responsive early warning and example indicators that governments and institutions can use. And if there is conflict-related sexual violence, then the ceasefire and peace agreement process should address it, such as through language that prohibits conflict-related sexual violence and provides for the monitoring of sexual violence. Guidance for mediators walks them through how to ensure this, in consultation with gender experts and women.
Third, security forces—military, police, peacekeepers—should be trained to protect civilians from conflict-related sexual violence. Pre-deployment training can include scenario-based tools that teach participants how to respond to “potential, impending, and ongoing” sexual violence. Post-deployment, best practices—such as those learned from peacekeeping efforts—should become standard.
Fourth, women must be included in developing solutions to the security factors that place them at risk. Women’s perspectives should inform efforts to prevent conflict and secure peace. And work to protect women from sexual violence in conflict is incomplete without also enabling them to engage in public life. These are themes that run throughout the recent United Nations (UN) Global Study, which assessed progress over the fifteen years since the passage of the first UN Security Council Resolution on the role of women in peace and security.
Against the backdrop of prevention efforts, it is crucial that survivors of conflict-related sexual violence receive the support they need to recover and rejoin the social and economic structures of their societies. This includes access to services—health care, psycho-social support, and legal and socio-economic assistance. Reparations can be transformative by simultaneously responding to the immediate needs of survivors while also addressing the social and economic barriers that women and girls face in their societies.
Moreover, sexual violence is not the only form of violence that women experience in conflict, and conflict is not the only time that women experience sexual violence. These issues are interconnected, and policy responses should reflect this. Policymakers can draw on what works to prevent other forms of violence during conflict, and can learn from successful approaches to addressing sexual violence in peacetime.
Wartime rape is not inevitable. A broad coalition of actors—from government leaders to security officials to survivors—can collectively work to prevent sexual violence and transform the structures and norms that place women and girls, as well as men and boys, at risk.