The Human Impact

Is wartime rape inevitable?

April 28, 2014

The mass rape of hundreds of thousands of women and girls from Bosnia to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo has reinforced the conventional wisdom that rape and sexual violence are an inevitable feature of war.

But rape is not a fact of all wars and if sexual violence does occur within a war, not all armed groups are necessarily involved, experts say.

“There has been a certain kind of rhetoric that all armed groups through history have engaged in sexual violence. But not all armed groups do engage in sexual violence. It’s not just something that always happens in war. Some armed groups can and do prohibit sexual violence,” said Elisabeth Wood, an expert on wartime sexual violence and professor of political science at Yale University.

“Knowing that rape is not inevitable in war gives us hope that things can change. We have to better understand the causes of sexual violence during war to be more effective in preventing it,” Wood told Thomson Reuters Foundation, speaking on the sidelines of an event on sexual violence in Bogota this week.

She cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example of a protracted war where rape has not been common in recent decades.

“Rape appears to be rare despite violations committed by both parties – Israelis and Palestinians – of other international laws of war,” Wood told an audience of survivors of sexual violence and government officials in the Colombian capital.

According to a recent study by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), of the 48 conflicts in Africa between 1989 and 2009, involving 236 armed groups — including state security forces, rebel groups, and pro-government militias — 64 percent of armed groups were not reported to have engaged in any form of sexual violence.

While in countries such as Sierra Leone and Colombia it is well-documented that all warring factions have carried out sexual violence against women, in some wars not all sides do.

Research by Wood and other academics in a 2013 United States Institute of Peace (USIP) report notes that armed groups even within the same war do not perpetrate sexual violence to the same extent or in the same forms.

During the 1980-1992 civil war in El Salvador, for example, state forces reportedly perpetrated rape and sexual violence during military incursions and against male and female prisoners. But in contrast, sexual violence by the country’s leftist rebel group, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), during the civil war was “quite rare”, the USIP report says.

In addition, not all women in a particular conflict are targeted by armed groups, Wood said. Sexual violence against women can be directed at particular ethnic groups, such as the Tutsis in Rwanda and Muslim women in the Bosnian War.

Another conventional wisdom challenged by Wood and other academics is that wartime rape is often seen as a strategy, tool or weapon of war ordered by commanders.

Wartime rape is often not an intentional strategy of war and it is more frequently tolerated than ordered, Wood said.

“Rape can be tolerated by commanders even though there has been no explicit order to carry out rape because from the point of view of the commanders punishing those responsible could endanger group cohesion and it costs more to repress the practice, which they don’t view as serious, than to punish it,” she said.

Even if commanders in effective control of their troops did not order their fighters to carry out rape they are still accountable for those war crimes committed under international law, Wood said.

As such, prosecutors during international war crime trials should step up efforts to prosecute warlords based on evidence of whether commanders knew or should have known about sexual violence carried out in the ranks, the USIP report says.

Another common misconception is that rape is most often carried out “by unruly and undisciplined rebel forces,” the USIP report notes.  It says recent research shows that state armed groups are far more likely than rebel groups to be reported as perpetrators of rape and other types of sexual violence.

“This finding may strengthen efforts to hold states accountable for violations by their representatives or within their borders. Research shows that states can be effectively named and shamed and recent international campaigns have aimed to do just that,” the report said.

Photo: Rebel fighters walk in a rebel controlled territory in Upper Nile State February 14, 2014. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic 

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