Ending wartime sexual violence

Julian Wucherpfennig and Anita Gohdes explore ways to curb wartime sexual violence, as Nobel Prize goes to victims' advocates.

On 10 December, Denis Mukwege, a physician from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nadia Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi survivor of sexual slavery by the Islamic State, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.”

Mukwege and Murad are worthy Nobel laureates, for they have raised global consciousness about the prevalence of the problem. But if their efforts are to lead to real change, heightened awareness must be turned into concerted action.

Prosecuting perpetrators is often held up as one solution; but in most cases, criminal charges are not a timely deterrent. We need to reduce sexual violence during war. Fortunately, new research can help frame the problem and guide policymakers toward effective solutions.

Some of the findings are surprising. For example, gender inequality and ethnic grievances are insufficient explanations of wartime sexual violence. Victims can be male or from the same peer group as their attackers, while assailants can be female, government soldiers, or even United Nations peacekeepers. But perhaps the most important new finding is that sexual violence is not an inevitable side effect of conflict. In recent civil wars, many armies and rebel groups have not engaged in such atrocities.

The question for researchers, then, is why some armed groups condone sexual violence and others condemn it. One explanation is that rape is a war tactic designed to hurt civilians directly. Examples include ordered and organized rape during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, the Syrian regime's use of sexual violence as a means of torture, and the rape of indigenous women and girls by soldiers during decades of civil war in Guatemala and Peru.

A second explanation is that sexual violence is either made available as a reward for fighters, or tolerated because it cannot be controlled. For example, while rape and other forms of sexual assault were widespread during the civil war in Sierra Leone, there is little evidence that it was directly ordered.

In many conflicts, only one side commits sexual violence, suggesting that it is the ideology of armed groups – and not the “fog of war” – that is to blame. Interventions should therefore target groups, not entire battlefields, and they should target perpetrators’ superiors. Holding leaders responsible for crimes they order or knowingly fail to prevent is a crucial step to affecting change, a view shared by the German military, which investigated drill instructors last year for alleged sexualized hazing rituals at a special operations training centre.

At the international level, campaigns to “name and shame” – like the ones run by Mukwege and Murad – are also effective. When perpetrators of sexual violence are called to account in high-profile settings, such as the UN, it becomes difficult for individual states to ignore activists’ demands.

Of course, effective solutions must consider local context. Sexual violence can take many forms; understanding its possible purpose can help predict and prevent its use. For example, armed groups that use force as a recruiting tool are more likely to commit egregious forms of sexual violence than groups that recruit through other means. Moreover, people living in the shadow of armed groups with genocidal goals have a higher risk of being targeted by sexualized violence – such as forced pregnancies. And armed groups that torture their victims are particularly prone to using sex as a tool of war. Monitoring such groups is thus essential for protecting civilians and holding criminals to account.

Ending wartime sexual violence will require significant changes to cultural norms. Impunity for attackers, and societal pressure that encourages victims to remain silent, are impediments to accountability and justice that must be removed. At great personal risk, Mukwege and Murad have brought the world’s attention to the victims of wartime sexual violence by making their voices and stories heard. That is an important first step. Now it is up to the rest of us – policymakers, military leaders, educators, and others – to take action commensurate to the horror. 

First published on Project Syndicate

Read our student piece on Dr Mukwege's fight to end wartime sexual violence in the Congo in The Governance Post.


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