top of page

VOICES FROM THE FIELD: Sexual violence as a tool of war

OPINION: When anything goes, it's women who lose.

Those who study the various manifestations of gender-based violence know that they are not studying a novel occurrence. No - they are studying the mundane. The normal. The expected.

June 19 marks the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, and marks the 10-year anniversary of the establishment of the mandate of the UN’s Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

the logo for the 2014 gender summit in london used the #timetoact to help end rape in conflict

#TimeToAct was the theme for the 2014 Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict held in London. Five years later, the violence continues. Pic: UN.

The office was established in 2009 as part of a series of resolutions recognising the detrimental impact of sexual violence during times of conflict while acknowledging it as a crime that also undermines efforts to ensure peace and security, and to rebuild society, once the war is over.

These resolutions, according to the UN, mean that rape is no longer seen as an inevitable byproduct of war, but rather as a crime that is preventable and punishable under International Human Rights Law and International Criminal Law.

But as too many women in conflict zones have realised since then, warring sides do not always read UN resolutions, and when your home and body are being violated, Geneva is a long way off.

a young rape survivor in liberia after the war.

A young survivor of rape at a place of safety in Liberia. It is believed that up to three-quarters of the women in the country suffered sexual violence during the country's 14-year civil war. Pic: UN

Rape during wartime not only happens but is expected - unfortunate but unavoidable. The term “rape and pillage” goes far back into English literature, with tales of warring men entering villages and laying ruin to property and people.

As Brownmiller states in her seminal book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape: “The body of a raped woman becomes a ceremonial battlefield, a parade ground for the victor's trooping of the colours. The act that is played out upon her is a message passed between men—vivid proof of victory for one and loss and defeat for the other.”

A message passed between men - because historically, rape against women was condemned as an economic or property crime against her father or her husband. It is only during the last century that this thinking was challenged, that female autonomy and women’s individual experiences were taken into account. And only then did laws start to change.

The United Nations played a pivotal role in getting rape during times of conflict recognised as a crime against humanity, a war crime and tool of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The changes in international law occurred in the aftermath of the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides in the last decade of the twentieth century.

During the Yugoslavian genocide, an estimated 60 000 women were raped between 1992 and 1993, with 4 500 rapes being reported in the area of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Systemic rape and sexual enslavement were widespread practices.

In Rwanda, an estimated 49,4% of women were raped by the end of the 100-day period between April and July 1994. That is nearly half of the country’s women, in less than 4 months.

After the tribunals that followed the genocides, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1325 in 2000. This called on its member states to actively increase women’s participation in both the prevention and resolution of conflicts, as well as the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.

The establishment of the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court in 2002 used the definitions appropriated by the international tribunals that oversaw the trials following the genocides.

In 2015 the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed that 19 June would become the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. In doing so, it hoped to “raise awareness of the need to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence, to honour the victims and survivors of sexual violence around the world and to pay tribute to all those who have courageously devoted their lives to and lost their lives in standing up for the eradication of these crimes”.

The UN has adopted a survivor-centred approach in both its preventative efforts and in its response to conflict-related sexual violence. According to their website, this includes the following:

  • medical and psycho-social assistance;

  • sexual and reproductive health care;

  • educational, economic, and livelihood support;

  • justice for survivors and their children; and

  • the end of impunity for perpetrators.

The Council on Foreign Relations has a live conflict tracker that follows ongoing conflicts around the world. It estimates that there are approximately 25 ongoing conflicts currently taking place, with eight of those conflicts considered to be worsening. According to the United Nations Peacekeeping website, they are currently involved in 15 peacekeeping operations in conflict zones internationally.

While it is true that both men and women can be raped, and are during violent conflicts, women are disproportionately affected by the crime. Holding that rape occurs in a patriarchal system, it can be said that rape harms differently sexed or gendered individual in different ways. This is not to say that raped women suffer more, but rather that the meanings of rape differ for men and women as victims and survivors of this crime.

The atrocities that took place in the wars of the past, and in the Rwandan and Yugoslavian genocides more recently, hold brutal but useful lessons. June 19 gives the international community an opportunity to acknowledge that the atrocities of the past are not absent from the world of today; that historic injustices are still being perpetrated in modern times. It allows us to take action - share an article, do some research or read a book relating to the topic, donate to a cause that is fighting the scourge of sexual violence in conflicts today.

It also allows us to reflect on and mourn the atrocities that have occurred, and to vow to prevent them from occurring again today.

For it has been shown that when anything goes, it is usually women who lose.

journalist and gender-rights activist Dalaine Krige.

Dalaine Krige (@LaineyKrige) is a journalist and gender-rights activist based in Cape Town, South Africa.

She is busy with her Masters Degree in Political Science at Stellenbosch University under the supervision of Amanda Gouws. Her research areas include gender-based violence and wartime conflict.

For more resources from the UN, click here.

Or follow the conversation on social media #EndRapeinWar.

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon
  • Google+ Social Icon
  • YouTube Social  Icon
  • Pinterest Social Icon
  • Instagram Social Icon