Consequences of wartime sexual violence

The use of rape as a weapon of war has long-term impacts on the victims and societies. Large-scale sexual violence also threatens international peace and security.

Wartime sexual violence has a long-term impact on the lives of victims. If their needs are not addressed adequately, survivors suffer the physical and mental consequences, even after a conflict has ended.

Many societies shun and exclude women and girls who have been raped, because of the shame associated with sexual violence. In the eyes of their families and societies, they have lost their honour. As a consequence, women often lose their job or income. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for example, they are sometimes shunned by their customers who don’t want to buy their fruits and vegetables at the market anymore.

The shame that surrounds sexual violence also affects children born of rape. They are often rejected by their families and harassed by their peers. In countries like Iraq, women carrying children as a result of rape have been killed by their families.

Men who admit to have been raped, also face ostracism, especially when they were assaulted by other men. In some countries, they even risk being prosecuted, since the rape by another man can be seen as a homosexual act, which is criminalised in dozens of countries.

Due to the fear of rejection and stigmatisation, victims often stay silent. They have no recourse to justice and are left with little means to survive.

A survivor of sexual violence and her child in Central African Republic. Women who have been raped, and children born of rape, are often excluded from society. Photo: (c) 2017 Smita Sharma for Human Rights Watch

Rape as a weapon of war: consequences for societies

The use of rape as a weapon of war has long-term consequences for societies affected by conflict. Years of conflict result in dysfunctional states, with weakened institutions, justice systems, and a destroyed social fabric.

Former soldiers or militia members, who often experienced violence against themselves, continue to commit domestic violence and rape after the war, against their wives and children.

When the crimes are left unpunished, children and young adults learn that sexual violence is acceptable, and regressive violent customs and practices reappear. In such circumstances, civilian rapes and other forms of gender-based violence are common.

Conflict-related sexual violence is also a security threat that destabilises countries for generations. It highlights the inability or unwillingness of a government to protect its citizens and makes it more difficult to rebuild the country after the war: research has shown that the lower the level of trust in the state is, the harder it becomes for a government to execute its policies.

The UN Security Council recognised the use of rape as a weapon of war, and identified conflict-related sexual violence as a threat to international peace and security.

Nancy’s story

Nancy was raped three times in her life. For many years she tried to hide the wounds. But with the support of other survivors she became stronger. Today Nancy is an activist and helps other women who experienced sexual violence during the conflict in Colombia, to speak out.

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