Food For Thought

Gender Violence in Conflict: The Search for Healing and Justice – an In-depth Look at the Issues Worldwide 

“It is time that rape is treated as a security issue with real consequences, not a second-class crime that happens to second-class citizens.  This war tactic is as effective as any bomb and as destructive as any mine, and it needs to be addressed with the same determination as any other deadly weapon used in war.”

– Zainab Hawa Banura
UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict

 By Donna Shaver

Since the beginning of recorded history, armed conflict has usually included gender-based violence.   The aggressors, whether part of a regular army, a revolutionary militia or an insurgency, are largely male.  Conflict itself enhances any tendencies toward violence, aggression is normalized, encouraged and rewarded, participants are cut off from the stabilizing influences of normal family life, and most fall in the most violent demographic—young men.  It has long been shown that people in groups will commit more extremes of violence than people alone, thus the prevalence of gang rape, which is often deliberately used to enhance the bonds among soldiers.

Women and girls are uniquely vulnerable.  Women are often mothers alone with dependent children, and many have the task of caring for elders as well.  They are much less mobile than men and unlikely to be armed. In developing countries, both women and girls are exposed to attack when fetching water or firewood.  And should they flee their homes, they become especially vulnerable.

But more than the lack of mobility and means of defense, the low status of women and girls by virtue of their gender puts them at risk.  In patriarchal societies, women lack autonomy, because they are considered to be the property of men.  They cannot say when, or whom, they will marry.  Marriage itself is usually an exchange of property between families—with the bride being part of the property.  Since a woman has the status of property, an assault on her is an assault on the men of the family.  Her body becomes part of the battlefield.

Studies of gender violence find that the conditions that lead to sexual violence in conflict situations are complex.  But when gender violence is a factor, the cost to women is enormous.  It often includes being rejected by husbands and ostracized by the community.  Even though family and community may have witnessed the rape, the woman will usually bear the blame.  Should a woman bear a child as a result of rape, the child is also rejected.


Gender-Based Violence in Conflict

History is filled with stories of horrific levels of gender-based violence during wars between nations, civil wars, insurrections, and other conflicts.  Currently, the levels of rape and other gender violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are capturing worldwide attention. In many conflicts, particularly those in the past, women are the forgotten victims of war.

Estimated numbers of rapes from conflicts past and present:

Estimates Timeframe Conflict areas
  20,000 –  80,000 1937 Chinese women and girls in the Rape of Nanking in China
100,000 – 200,000 World War II “Comfort women” held in brothels for the Japanese military
100,000 1960-1996 Guatemala Civil War
200,000 – 400,000 1971 Civil war between West and East Pakistan (Bangladesh)
  20,000 –  50,000 1991-1994 Bosnia-Herzegovina
250,000 – 800,000 1994 Rwanda
215,000 – 257,000 1991-2002 Sierra Leone
1,150/day present day Democratic Republic of the Congo

The chart above was compiled using estimates from The Economist, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Women’s Media Centre, Physicians for Human Rights and the American Journal of Public Health. All citations are provided in the PDF version.

Rape statistics for any given armed conflict are unreliable, and usually presented as a wide range.  Gathering reliable information during conflict is impossible and, in the case of sexual crimes, many victims will not come forward. The consequences of reporting can be life-threatening.  Since women own almost no property, they may even be turned out of their home. Throughout the Middle East – although not uniformly – a woman who has been raped has sullied the family’s “honor”, and the only way to restore honor is to kill her.  Honor killings are visited upon rape victims in general, whether conflict-related or in peacetime.   Sometimes, rape victims commit suicide.

For women, there is almost no benefit in reporting rape, and compelling reasons to not report it. And in a conflict situation, there may be no authority to which to report, or it may even be hundreds of miles away.

Until recently, gender-based violence in conflict was seen as unfortunate, but not taken seriously as a profound violation of human rights.  Rape and other forms of gender-based violence were discussed in terms of collateral damage or the spoils of war—a soldier’s reward.  These crimes have started to command the attention they deserve.  Rape and other forms of gender-based violence are strategic weapons, used to tear the fabric of society, sow terror in opponents, and enhance group cohesion among aggressors – which often manifests in gang rape.  Rape and gang rape are highly effective tools, and the effects last long after the conflict is over, especially in societies that blame and marginalize the victim.


The Nobel Women’s Initiative report, War on Women, lists reasons that sexual violence is used in conflict:

  • Strategy of war:  Ethnic cleansing and genocide
  • Means of creating cohesion between combatants
  • Reward to soldiers
  • Destroy social and cultural cohesion
  • Economic ends:  Includes sex trafficking and forced labor, or forcing people off the land
  • Means of extracting information


A United States Institute of Peace report, Wartime Sexual Violence:  Misconceptions, Implications, and Ways Forward challenges many preconceptions about gender-based violence in conflict:

  • Levels of sexual violence in war vary across countries, conflicts, and armed groups.  It is not inevitable, and some armed groups prohibit it.
  • It is not specific to geographic regions or type of conflict (e.g. ethnic vs. non-ethnic).
  • State forces are more likely to be reported as perpetrators of sexual violence than rebel forces.
  • Many perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict are civilians. Perpetrators and victims can be either sex.
  • Wartime rape is often not a strategy of war, but may be tolerated by military leaders.


Regarding ethnic conflicts, in the Sri Lankan civil war, there was considerable sexual violence on the part of the government, but very little by the secessionist Tamil Tigers. According to a special report of the United States Institute of Peace, one possible explanation for the fact that rebel forces are less likely engage in rape is that they may rely on civilians for support, including food and other resources.  Since they aspire to power, they may want the loyalty of the population.  On the other hand, insurgent groups may want to terrorize the populace, as happened in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where sexual violence was used to force people off lands where valuable minerals could be found.  Using these community-destroying tactics may also come into play to keep the populace from aiding the government forces.  When militias or insurgencies recruit by abduction, rape is commonly used to build group cohesion.

Although patriarchy may be a contributing factor, some armed groups do not rape despite coming from a patriarchal society.


“Sexual violence may be part of a calculated policy to attack the heart of a society, to demoralize and dishonor the opponent.  The manner of the sexual violence is often such as to maximize the humiliation of the victim and their family and community, and to ensure a level of powerlessness and fear that will remain entrenched.”  


Women in an Insecure World

One of the consequences to women and girls is increased risk of disease.  According to the World Health Organization, sexual violence against women, especially in conflict, increases the risk of the victims acquiring sexually transmitted infections and HIV. Combatants and military are noted as “high prevalence” groups for STIs and HIV.  In Rwanda, HIV rates in rural areas went from 1 percent in 1994 – prior to the conflict – to 11 percent in 1997.

When we think of child soldiers, whose conscription has been a serious issue in African conflicts, we think of boys.  But many girls have been pressed into service as well—as fighters, as “bush wives” for the leaders, and as sex slaves.  Many have been forced to commit terrible atrocities to save their lives.  When the conflict ends, they are ostracized by their families.  Many have children, and no place to go.


Rape in armed conflict is not inevitable

If gender-based violence is forbidden at the command level and violators are punished, it doesn’t happen.  Such was the case with the Tamil Tigers, as well as the insurgent army Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) in El Salvador.

In April 2013, the Democratic Republic of the Congo army suspended 12 senior officers over mass rapes.

In Mali, training has begun for defense and security forces on protection of women and children, and on international humanitarian law.  The Ministry of Defence partners with UN Women and four other UN agencies to provide the training.  Such training is a promising development.

In conflicts, the focus is on the violence of combatants, but many of the rapes are perpetrated by civilians.  According to the United States Institute of Peace, in population-based investigations, “many victims report that the perpetrator was an intimate partner, acquaintance, or some other noncombatant”. It cannot yet be determined the extent to which civilian or non-combatant rape may or may not be related to the conflict, but the lawlessness and upheaval that arises from conflict is likely to offer opportunities to rape with impunity.


Genocide and Ethnic Conflict
Strategic rape is rape that is deliberately adopted by military leaders to advance objectives.  Strategic rape may be more common in campaigns of ethnic cleansing, where the goal is the destruction of a group. Pregnant women have been attacked to kill a fetus—often resulting in the death of the woman. Rape has been used to impregnate the enemy and assert ethnic superiority, which was documented in Bosnia.  The Serbs set up rape camps, where Muslim women were raped repeatedly.  When a woman or girl became pregnant, she was often held until the baby was born.  Women were taunted about their “Serbian babies”.


“There isn’t a switch in the brain that enables you to turn off the trauma….I can bathe and bathe forever—I will feel dirty for as long as I live.”   
Bakira Hasecic, Bosnian victim of rape


Catherine A. MacKinnon, author of Are Women Human?, asserts that genocidal rape is different from war rape in a few key ways:

  • Aggressors seek to physically destroy the group:  Aggressors can perpetrate on victims any mental or bodily harm to bring about the group’s destruction.
  • Genocide is one-sided.
  • The identity of the perpetrator is important:  The victim and her group need to know, not only that rape occurred, but who was responsible.  The victim represents her group.
  • Rape is calculated, not an accident.  It is not rape out of control, it is rape in control.


Attempting to escape from conflict may be as dangerous as staying in the war zone, especially for women who are traveling with children, other women, and/or elderly relatives. They are easy prey for roaming combatants.

Life may not be much better for female refugees in a refugee camp.  In Sierra Leone, between 1991 and 2001, 50,000 to 64,000 women in camps for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) were sexually assaulted by combatants.  Somalia has 513 IDP camps. Rampant rape and gender violence in the camps has been perpetrated by government troops,  armed militias and gangs of armed young men. At least 1,700 women were raped in IDP camps last year in Mogadishu.  Rape at the huge Kenyan refugee camp, Dadaab, is a significant problem. Women leaving the camps to search for firewood are at high risk of attack.

In the camps, women may be forced into survival or transactional sex with aid workers and camp employees to obtain food necessities. Underage girls are particularly at risk, with little accountability. UN staff are immune from prosecution and military peacekeepers are under the jurisdiction of their state.

Sexual violence is growing among Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan, leading to an epidemic of child marriages to ensure that girls are married off before they can be raped.  Most refugees are living in poverty, and young girls bring high bride prices, especially from wealthy men from the Middle East who may want them only for a Mu’tah, or pleasure marriage, which ends in divorce after a few days or weeks.


The Aftermath  –  A Culture of Violence
Following conflict, the violence usually continues.   There may be attempts to reintegrate combatants into society, but seldom are there serious efforts to heal the wounds that women have suffered and welcome them back into their communities.  The stigma lingers for victims of rape and for women and girls pressed into the service of rebel forces as soldiers, bush wives, and slaves.

As Helen Scanlon of the African Gender Institute noted, “In Mozambique there are communities of women still living in the bush who were left behind when the DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration) process was finished (when the war ended in 1992), while the men were loaded in trucks and taken to their communities for reintegration.


Post-Conflict Domestic Violence:  People have suffered widespead trauma, and both family and community networks have been disrupted.  Women may have asserted far more autonomy during the conflict, because the men were away.  Domestic violence may be an attempt to force women back to pre-war gender roles.  (But it is only fair to say that domestic violence is appallingly common without the influence of armed conflict.)

“The civil war is over, but the new war is rape.”   Tupee Kiadi, resident of Monrovia, Liberia.


Examples of post-conflict gender violence:

  • Guatemala:  In 2010, 685 women were murdered, compared with 213 in 2000.  More than 40,000 complaints of violence against women were filed, with only one percent resulting in sentencing.   According to Amnesty International, in the last 10 years, as many as 5,700 women have been murdered.
  • Liberia:  A survey in 2007 found that about 12 percent of girls aged 17 and under acknowledged having been in some way sexually abused in the previous 18 months.  Of the 275 sexual violence cases treated by Doctors Without Borders between January and April, 28 percent involved children aged four or younger, and 33 percent involved children ages 5 through 12.  Only in December 2006 did rape become illegal.
  • Sierra Leone: Rape continues unabated years after the conflict ended.  The International Rescue Committee (IRC) runs several counseling and treatment centers for women victims of rape and violence.  They suggest that rape was normalized during the war, even for children, so it continues unabated. Of the 1,176 IRC clients in 2007, 65 percent of them were under 15 years old. Of 896 IRC clients that sought legal action against their attackers in 2007, just 13 perpetrators were convicted.


The vast majority of women and girls affected by gender-based violence in conflict return to their communities and cope as best they can—bearing both the physical consequences of their victimization as well as the social, communal and familial consequences that result from blaming the victim.  Although there are few programs available to help them cope, the groundwork is being laid.  The following are two initiatives among many that strive to bring healing to the victims of conflict:

  • The International Rescue Committee, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Washington collaborated on a study of 405 women victims of sexual violence from 15 villages in North and South Kivu in the eastern Congo.  They found that group therapy was roughly twice as helpful as individual counseling in decreasing trauma symptoms.  After six months of treatment, only 9 percent of women receiving the group-based Cognitive Processing Therapy still have probable PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), depression or anxiety compared with 42 percent of women who did not participate.
  • The Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) provides counseling and community mental health activities to those who suffered torture and war trauma. Most survivors receive small group counseling, meeting weekly for about ten weeks.  Survivors with severe trauma symptoms receive individual counseling.  CVT is currently active in Dadaab and Nairobi, Kenya, Amman, Jordan and in northern Ethiopia.


The Hague convention of 1907 was the first international treaty that implicitly outlawed sexual violence, but didn’t end impunity.  The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg after World War II did not prosecute sexual violence, and the Tokyo Tribunal had nothing to say about the “comfort women”.  The 1949 Geneva Convention stated that women should be protected from rape, enforced prostitution, and indecent assault.

Atrocities in Yugoslavia and Rwanda prompted two International Criminal Tribunals in the 1990s, in which rape could be prosecuted as a crime against humanity. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a UN court of law, was established in 1993. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (UNICTR) was established in 1994.  In addition, the International Criminal Court was established in 2002 as a result of the Rome Statute, a treaty which broadly defined war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity—including  rape and other sexual crimes of similar gravity. The breakthrough came in 1998, when the UNICTR convicted Jean-Paul Akayesu of numerous crimes in the Rwandan genocide, including incitement to torture and rape.  He was sentenced to life in prison.

Starting in 2000, the UN Security Council passed a series of resolutions, beginning with UNSCR 1325, to combat gender violence in armed conflict by addessing various aspects of gender-related violence, such as protection of women and girls, gender training in peacekeeping, recognizing sexual violence as a tactic of war, monitoring and reporting and ensuring  participation of women in peacemaking and conflict resolution.  The latest of these, UNSCR 2106, passed in June 2013, emphasized more consistent and rigorous investigation and prosecution of sexual violence as central to deterrence and prevention.

A Bosnian women, Nsureta Sivac, persistently gathered testimony from survivors of rape in Bosnia and brought their compelling testimony to ICTY at the Hague, where rape was established as a war crime. Thirty people have been convicted at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague and another 30 cases are ongoing.   (For their own protection, most of the women testifying were not identified.)

The UN announced in July 2013 that it will be “unleashing an army of highly trained Women Protection Advisers (WPA’s) specifically tasked with curbing sexual violence in war zones.” The first deployments will be in South Sudan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, the Central Africa Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mali.

These are very small steps, but a beginning none the less.  Women continue to be excluded from the negotiations for peace.  The Women’s International Perspective has reported that not a single woman is at the table for the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC guerillas, even though six women an hour were victims of sexual violence between 2001 and 2009.


“Sexual violence has been used throughout the ages because it is such a cheap and devastating weapon.  The perpetrators must understand that there can be no hiding place, no amnesty, no safe harbor.”
Zainab Hawa Bangura
UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict

Recommended readings:

Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict:  Global Overview and Implications for the Security Sector (PDF)  Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.  2007.

War on Women: Time for Action to End Sexual Violence in Conflict (PDF)  Nobel Women’s Initiative.  May 2011.

Wartime Sexual Violence: Misconceptions, Implications, and Ways Forward (PDF)  United States Institute of Peace Special Report.   February 2013.

Women in an Insecure World:  Executive Summary (PDF)  Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF).   September 2005.


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o “Somalia to Confront Rape in Camps.” International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict. April 25, 2013.
o “Study in Congo reveals dramatic impact of group therapy on sexual violence survivors in war zones.” International Rescue
Committee. June 5, 2013.
o The UN Millennium Development Goals Indicators: Data. United Nations.
o “Violence against women and HIV/AIDS: Critical Intersections.” World Health Organization. Information Bulletin Series, Number2. 2004
o “War on Women: Time for Action to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.” Nobel Women’s Initiative. May 2011.
o “War-Related Sexual Violence in Sierra Leone: A Population-Based Assessment.” Physicians for Human Rights. 2002.
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