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Conflict-Related Sexual Violence: What It Is and Why It Matters

Photo: Blake Fitch

Rape is an act of aggression with severe legal penalties in all societies. But as horrifying as it may be under “normal” circumstances, the nature and causes of sexual violence are different during armed conflicts.

To appreciate this contrast, put yourself in these two scenarios.

1. You live in a relatively safe place, go to work every day, and believe you have a normal life. Then one day, as you are walking to your car, you are pulled into a dark corner and raped.

2. Your country has descended into chaos. Armed men control the streets, and people are fleeing. While you are trying to escape, six men break down your door and, one by one, rape and torture you in front of your children.

Rape in war and conflict situations often means gang rape and is often accompanied by torture. Sexual slavery and forced prostitution also typically occur during conflicts that involve sexual violence. Any civilian is at risk whether man, woman, or child.

Why? As civil society falls apart, armed groups give themselves license to impose their deviant norms on the civilian population. For example, group leaders may feel the need to promote bonding for members, whom they can neither pay nor even feed.

Be they a standing army, paramilitary, or militia, any armed force may be motivated to commit these crimes.

Issues of credibility and blame, social taboos and stigmatization, even the ability to collect viable evidence all work against the execution of justice.

In fact, research shows that standing armies commit sexual (also called gender-based) violence more frequently than do irregular armed groups.

Let’s not assume these atrocities take place only in the southern hemisphere. During the Balkan war in the 1990s, many Muslim women were held as sex slaves in Serbian rape camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Sexual violence is defined by the International Criminal Court to include rape; sexual mutilation, torture, or slavery; and forced prostitution, pregnancy, or sterilization, all of which are seen in wartime.

Even in the best of times, rape is vastly under-reported and under-prosecuted across the globe. Issues of credibility and blame, social taboos and stigmatization, even the ability to collect viable evidence all work against the execution of justice.

The turmoil of war adds fuel to these combustible factors. And sexual violence often continues for years after “peace” takes hold.

In my next post, I will go into the reasons sexual violence occurs during conflict and lessons from the latest research that may help us stop it in the future.

Maya Hadar, Communications Director, PROOF