Sexual violence used systematically as a weapon of conflict is uniquely destructive: it effectively destroys the life of the victim without killing them, leaving them with a heavy burden of physical and psychological harm for the rest of their life. Beyond the individual, it may aim to destroy the reproductive potential of a group or community, and to spread disease. By committing these crimes in public, or coercing family and community members either to witness or take part in these atrocities, perpetrators impact the whole community, destroying social bonds and relationships. As a weapon of conflict, sexual violence aims to demoralise a community or a whole ethnic group, destroying their resilience and ability to rebuild and recover.
Sexual violence in conflict takes many forms, including rape, gang rape, penetration with objects or weapons, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy or abortion, forced marriage, sexual torture, and a host of other horrific abuses designed to humiliate and destroy the sexual identity and autonomy of the victim.
Beyond injury and disease, the psychological and social impacts of humiliation and shame are corrosive for victims and their communities alike. Victims are typically excluded from their families and communities, and children born of rape face lifelong stigmatisation and rejection. Moreover, communities and authorities fail to hold perpetrators to account, preferring to maintain the status quo, enabling impunity and fuelling a downward spiral of abuses.
Brutal sexual violence committed in
conflict settings is also connected with an increase in all forms of
gender-based violence. Domestic violence, child marriage, and sexual
exploitation are all exacerbated in humanitarian settings for many reasons,
from family separation, to food insecurity and the impunity of perpetrators.
Rape and sexual assault are also committed out of individual opportunism in a
Sexual violence does not stop when the conflict ends. Armed militias may demobilise or be incorporated in the regular army, but often continue to commit crimes for as long as lawlessness persists. Sometimes entire generations are brought up to believe sexual violence is a common part of life, or that it is the norm. Sexual violence is deeply rooted in a society’s gender norms which determine what society expects of women and men, their roles, privileges and limitations. Gender inequality exists in all societies, also prior to conflict and displacement. In fragile or humanitarian settings, it becomes a fertile ground for the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. We see sexual violence in conflict through a gendered lens. That means we understand that by ‘weaponising’ gendered roles, populations are more vulnerable to sexual violence as a weapon of war, and it is more likely that this type of violence will be committed.
We believe that for change to happen it is crucial
to break the silence around sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Our approach is survivor-centred, meaning that survivors themselves define their needs and solutions. We work to create the conditions that will allow survivors to take the lead in fighting for their rights. Our aim is to help transform victims into survivors, and survivors into agents of change.
We are working towards a future where sexual violence in conflict is no longer seen as inevitable and is recognised for what it is: a crime that should have consequences. We want the international community to draw a line against wartime sexual violence and strengthen its accountability mechanisms against states and individuals.
The Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation sees three interconnected strategies as essential for change to happen: