Sexual Assault During Armed Conflict
last updated February 1, 2006

Women are often the targets of sexual violence during armed conflict. In Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Uganda, the former Yugoslavia, and countless other conflicts, women have been subjected to rape, sexual slavery, and other forms of sexual abuse. As Christine Chinkin explains, "[w]omen are raped in all forms of armed conflict, international and internal, whether the conflict is fought primarily on religious, ethnic, political or nationalist grounds, or a combination of all these. They are raped by men from all sides—both enemy and 'friendly' forces." Like other forms of violence against women, "rape in war is not merely a matter of chance . . . . Nor is it a question of sex. It is rather a question of power and control which is 'structured by male soldiers' notions of their masculine privilege, by the strength of the military's lines of command and by class and ethnic inequalities among women.'" From Christine Chinkin, Rape and Sexual Abuse of Women in International Law in European Journal of International Law, vol. 5, no. 3 (1994).

Women are the targets for sexual violence during armed conflict when rape, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual abuse and assault are used as deliberate strategies of war. Rape is employed by military forces to destabilize, humiliate and degrade a population. Forced impregnation becomes a tool of ethnic cleansing, as women are forced to bear children of another ethnicity. As the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has explained, "[s]ince women's sexuality is seen as being under the protection of the men of the community, its defilement is an act of domination asserting power over the males of the community or group that is under attack. . . . Women are particular targets as they are often regarded both as representing the symbolic honour of the culture and being the genetic gatekeepers to the community." From Review of Reports, Studies and Other Documentation for the Preparatory Committee and the World Conference, Note by the Secretary-General, transmission of Contribution by Special Rapporteur Radhika Coomaraswamy to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance on the subject of race, gender and violence against women, 120, 121 (A/CONF.189/PC.3/5) (27 July 2001). As Elisabeth Rehn and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf describe:

Men and boys as well as women and girls are the victims of this targeting, but women, much more than men, suffer gender-based violence. Their bodies become a battleground over which opposing forces struggle. Women are raped as a way to humiliate the men they are related to, who are often forced to watch the assault. In societies where ethnicity is inherited through the male line, 'enemy' women are raped and forced to bear children. Women who are already pregnant are forced to miscarry through violent attacks. Women are kidnapped and used as sexual slaves to service troops, as well as to cook for them and carry their loads from camp to camp. They are purposely infected with HIV/AIDS, a slow, painful murder.

From Elisabeth Rehn & Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Women, War and Peace: The Independent Experts' Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women's Role in Peace-building 10 (2002). It has been estimated that since 1992, "between 20,000 and 50,000 Muslim women were raped in Bosnia, many of whom were held in so-called 'rape camps' where they were forced to conceive and bear Serbian children against their will." From Peter Gordon & Kate Crehan, Dying of Sadness: Gender, Sexual Violence and the HIV Epidemic, SEPED Conference Paper Series; UNICEF, Fact Sheet: HIV/AIDS and Children Affected by Armed Conflict (2002). Reports estimate that in some villages in Kosovo, between thirty and fifty percent of women of reproductive age were raped. From International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Women 2000: An Investigation into the Status of Women's Rights in Central and South-Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States 519 (9 November 2000).

Until recently, however, rape in times of conflict, while prohibited, was often regarded as an inevitable aspect of war. The understanding of the use of systematically organized rape as a weapon of war, however, changed dramatically in the wake of the mass-scale violations of women's rights that occurred during the conflicts in Rwanda and the former Republic of Yugoslavia. The creation of the ad hoc tribunals—the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)—with jurisdiction over genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the conflicts in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) have been important milestones in the development of international criminal law on the issue of sexual violence against women. Sexual assault has been included as a crime against humanity and as a war crime in the statutes of the ICTY and the ICTR. Both the ICTY and the ICTR have issued indictments that contain counts of sexual violence, the ICTY has convicted defendants of war crimes of sexual violence, and the ICTR has convicted a defendant of genocide based in part on acts of sexual violence. Regional bodies in the Americas and in Europe have also recognized sexual violence and rape as human rights violations. Sexual violence is also included in the statute of the ICC. From United Nations Department of Public Information, Women and Armed Conflict: Fact Sheet No. 5 (DPI/2035/E) (May 2000).

Armed conflict is also generally associated with increases in sexual violence against women. Women's bodies become commodities that are exchanged for ammunition or supplies. "During internal conflict, violence can occur prior to flight. Male leaders sometimes barter women or girls for ammunition or other necessities." From Carolyn Patty Blum & Nancy Kelly, The Protection of Women Refugees, in 3 Women and International Human Rights Law 197, 210 (Kelly D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig eds. 1999); United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sexual Violence against Refugees: Guidelines on Prevention and Response (1995).

The increase in sexual violence against women during conflict is connected to militarization and the absence of traditional societal networks and structures. As the former Special Rapporteur explains, evidence indicates "that the militarization process, including the ready availability of small weapons, that occurs leading up to and during conflicts, as well as the process of demobilization of often frustrated and aggressive soldiers after a conflict, may also result in increased violence against women and girls." From 2001 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Violence Against Women Perpetrated and/or Condoned by the State During Times of Armed Conflict, 57 (E/CN.4/2001/73) (23 January 2001).

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Systematic Rape, Sexual Slavery and Slave-like Practices During Armed Conflict, Including Internal Armed Conflict adds that women's bodies may also be viewed as the "spoils of war," and that military training desensitizes combatants and rewards particularly aggressive behavior. From Contemporary Forms of Slavery: Systematic rape, sexual slavery and slavery-like practices during armed conflict, Update to the final report submitted by Ms. Gay J. McDougall, Special Rapporteur, 20 (E/CN.4/Sub.2/2000/21) (6 June 2000). As Julie Mertus explains, "[i]n military culture, sexual abuse of women has been described as 'standard operating procedure.' Rape of enemy women is expected." From Julie A. Mertus, War's Offensive on Women: The Humanitarian Challenge in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan (2000).

Yet the violence women experience during armed conflict "does not arise solely out of the conditions of war; it is directly related to the violence that exists in women's lives during peacetime. Throughout the world, women experience violence because they are women, and often because they do not have the same rights or autonomy that men do." From Elisabeth Rehn & Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Women, War and Peace: The Independent Experts' Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women's Role in Peace-building 10 (2002). The abuses women experience during wartime must therefore be understood as part of a continuum of violence against women that occurs before, during and after armed conflicts.

Although sexual violence during armed conflict has only recently been the focus of international attention, international legal prohibitions on sexual assault in times of conflict are well-defined. The 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention states that women are to be "protected against any attack on their honor, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault." (Article 27). Two 1977 protocols to the Geneva Conventions further define that rape carried out by combatants is a crime against international humanitarian law. Protocol II states that the "humane treatment" of civilians and those who have ceased to take part in hostilities includes an absolute prohibition on "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form or indecent assault . . . [as well as] slavery and the slave trade in all their forms." (Article 4(e), (f)).

While women experience significant and devastating abuses during war, it is important to note that they are also actively engaged in many ways during conflicts and play critical roles in reconstruction processes. As Elisabeth Rehn and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf explain, "[w]omen are not always victims. They actively work to improve their situation, and they often actively support one side or another in conflict. Given that many conflicts arise out of social and economic inequality, it is not surprising that women take sides in an effort to better their lives, or to protect themselves and their families. Women become combatants, provide medical help, protect and feed armed groups." From Elisabeth Rehn & Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Women, War and Peace: The Independent Experts' Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women's Role in Peace-building 10 (2002).

Although sexual assault is always devastating, it can have particularly significant consequences for women even long after the end of a conflict. Women who were sexually assaulted during the conflict in Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, were forced to remain silent about the abuse or face recrimination and stigmatization from their community. As explained in a report by the Network Women's Program:

Traditional 'family values' weigh heavily on women who have experienced domestic violence or rape in war and conflict areas. After the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Kosovo, women agonized over whether to report rapes, fearing that not only would they face personal and familial shame, but that their speaking out could be construed as a threat to ethnic or nationalist agendas of victimized communities. Though rape has finally been recognized as a war crime, few individuals or governments have been held accountable.

From Open Society Institute, Network Women's Program, Bending the Bow: Targeting Women's Human Rights and Opportunities 23 (2002); Elisabeth Bumiller, Deny Rape or Be Hated: Kosovo Victims' Choice, New York Times (22 June 1999).

In a survey conducted in Kosovo, "respondents mentioned a fear of stigmatisation as a barrier for women in seeking help. They mentioned cases where their husbands divorced women after disclosing rape. Other women feared they would not be able to marry." Although in cases of inter-ethnic sexual assault, women were less likely to be blamed,

[w]ith the strong cultural bias that associates a woman's purity, virtue and eligibility for marriage with virginity, after an unmarried woman has been raped, gentlemen callers stop calling. In the case of married women, husbands, families and community members often assume the attitude that the woman has been irreparably damaged, soiled, violated. The violation against the woman, however, is sometimes seen as less important than the violation of men's "property". For this and other reasons, women keep the stories of their rape in silence to prevent post-rape stigmatization by the community, and to protect the male members of their families from experiencing shame for not providing adequate protection for them. Thus, it is not uncommon for community members to berate a raped woman for breaking silence because of the shame and embarrassment that the males in her family will experience when her story is known publicly. For these reasons it is no surprise that women rarely report rape.

From International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Women 2000: An Investigation into the Status of Women's Rights in Central and South-Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States 517 (9 November 2000).

Further discussion of the international law that addresses rape as a weapon of war is available in the international law section of this site. For further discussion of the status and particular vulnerabilities of women in armed conflict please visit the women in armed conflict section of this site.

For a collection of research and reports on sexual assault during armed conflict, click here.