Rape as a
weapon of war

Sexual violence is a feature in armed conflicts around the world, and often used as a strategy. But it is not inevitable.

Throughout history, belligerent parties have been using rape as a tool to punish, terrorize and destroy populations. In some cases, armies, rebel groups and terrorist organisations employ sexual violence as a strategy to pursue their objectives. In other cases, commanders allow their soldiers to rape women and girls as a form of reward.

Sexual violence during wartime is often committed in public and by several attackers. It includes gang rape and attacks with objects and weapons, which are inserted in the victims’ vagina or anus. Conflict-related sexual violence takes different forms, such as sexual slavery, forced prostitution, and sexual torture.

Wartime rape affects both, men and women. Men can be victims, and women can be perpetrators.

Under international law, conflict-related sexual violence are characterised as war crimes and crimes against humanity. When it is committed with the intend to destroy a population, such as during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, systematic sexual violence can amount to genocide.

Refugees during the war in Kosovo, where rape was widespread. Photo: UN-Photo/UNHCR/R LeMoyne

Why is rape used as a weapon of war?

Rape is rarely the result of uncontrolled sexual desire, but rather a way to exert power and instil fear in victims and their community.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1820 states that, sexual violence is “a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or an ethnic group.”

Rape is used to demoralize and destabilize entire communities. It destroys the cohesion of families and societies, for example when village chiefs are raped in public or sons are forced to rape their mother.

Sexual violence is also used to obtain information, for example as a method of torture in detention centres. During periods of genocide and ethnic cleansing, sexual violence is used to systematically attack the lineage of a group, for example by impregnating or sterilising women.

Sexual violence and terrorism

In recent years, extremist groups increasingly employed sexual violence as a tactic of terror to achieve their goals. In Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) used the sale of women and girls into sexual slavery to raise funds. In particular, members of the Yazidi religious minority in Northern Iraq have been subject to systematic rape and sexual slavery.

Some terrorist groups use rape and sexual slavery as a means to attract and retain fighters.

Rape as a weapon of war: a global problem

Sexual violence is a feature of conflicts around the world. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the rape and sexual violence has been prevalent for two decades. During the civil war, sexual violence has been utilised as a cheap weapon of war.

Despite the high prevalence and protracted use in history, sexual violence is not an inevitable aspect of war. Rape never happens accidentally. It is a choice to employ or tolerate it, and, therefore, it can be stopped.

Read Nancy's story

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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