The perpetration (act) of sexual violence in conflict?

Written by – Áine Hanrahan

Sexual violence in conflict occurs for many reasons. Some of the causes will be addressed in this essay but first, sexual violence must be explained. According to Pankhurst (2009) there are five meanings of sexual violence.

These are rape as either a weapon of war; a reward for troops; the result of a breakdown in social constraints; the consequence of a ‘root cause’ of masculinity; or the expression of frustration-aggression and male trauma.

This article will discuss the power dominance role using the Balkan war and Rwanda as an example. Further on, rape and sexual violence in the military will be examined.

This area also briefly examines masculinity with regards to sexual violence. From there the consequences of sexual violence will be discussed and towards the end possible solutions to end this form of violent behaviour will be given.

By the end of reading this article there should be a clearer understanding for the reader as to why these sexual acts occur, what consequences they hold and what international organisations are doing presently to end sexual violence during wartimes,

There are different situations where sexual violence can occur. There is opportunistic which is someone, who is left without protection and someone takes advantage of the situation or there is systemic where sexual violence is used as a weapon of war.


This article will prioritise the systemic sexual violence. From DeLargy’s (2012) work systemic sexual violence includes rape, sexual slavery, bodily harm, abduction and it is used as a weapon to terrify and take control of individuals, families and communities. Sexual assault is a power tool used in times of conflict. This type of violence has been said to show dominance and assert power over communities within war. Men and women have been victimised in this aspect of dehumanising behaviour in order for the people attempting to take charge to demoralise and make the community fear them.

Rape and the various forms of sexual violence has been recognised by many international organisations as a war crime. Some of these include the International Criminal Court as well as in post-conflict tribunals (Pankhurst, 2009). The most common or widely known form of sexual violence is mass gang rape done publicly as well as in camps.

Gang rape not only creates fear in the community but also openly shows who is in charge. In many of these cases women are killed or die from the wounds and the modern day presence of HIV has only increased the number of deaths due to sexual violence (Pankhurst, 2009).

Sexual violence in some cases has also been used as a form of ethnic cleansing, allowing one religion or race to take over as the dominant one in a society or country.

Alison (2007) discusses the ethnic cleansing in the Balkan wars where it is believed culturally that women are the incubators and carers for children but the father’s genes determine their nationality and faith.

A large number of rape camps were set up and women were continually raped and kept there until impregnated and it was too late to abort the pregnancy. It is said that there were approximately 250,000–500,000 women and girls raped in these camps (AIDS Weekly Plus, 1996).

Similarly, Rwanda had systematic and targeted rape of primarily Tutsi women. These women were brought to rape camps also, not only was this a form of torture but HIV was spread widely around the camp.

Impregnating women was not the goal in Rwanda but was inevitable as many of the women fall pregnant in these camps.

Women in Rwanda also helped facilitate and explain to younger generations to accept the fate that they would be raped. For example, one women kept a young girl in order for her son to rape as this was seen as a less traumatic experience over being passed around in camps and on the streets (Jones, 2002).

The systematic rape of women in conflict is traumatic for the victims and its communities as seen in both Rwanda and the Balkan wars.

Military and armed forces have also been seen to partake in sexual violence throughout history. In Sierra Leone, Vietnam and many more conflicts US troops have been involved (Wood, 2006).

Wood (2006) explains there is more opportunity to commit a sexual violence whilst in times of conflict. Primarily young men are taken from their norm and are sent to fight, their involvement includes going into homes where the occasion to commit a sexual act may occur.

Morris (1996) states that the US military is not full of rapists, however, there could be a rape culture within the military. This means there are some members of the military more open to committing a sexually violent act that may encourage others in their troop to do so as well.

Morris continues to say the type of culture the military have may attract those who are not opposed to sexual violence. This culture can be classed as the masculine, macho stereotype that is portrayed socially and in the media. A soldier is also something that is made according to Welland (2013).

Welland’s interpretation is that pre-military recruits are impressionable and can be moulded to tolerate or commit violence. Soldiers learn everything about who they are and what type of acts are acceptable. If a soldier was under the command of an individual or a group who is open to sexually violent acts this may influence the soldier to commit an offence of this kind also.

The military has a reputation of hegemonic masculinity. This means cultural norms and institutions place men in a more powerful role than women.

This perceived power includes “physical strength, practical competence, sexual performance, and protecting and supporting women” (Alison, 2007). Alison (2007) explains a certain level of aggression is associated with hegemonic masculinity. This aggression could manifest in different ways such as sexual violence as being discussed here.

Cockburn (2010) explains that the masculinity gives men an entitlement or power over women. This power can manifest in different ways such as slavery, violence and sexual violence. Masculinity is the domination of others through mind and body in this instance.

The consequences of sexual violence in war for victims varies greatly globally. Having discussed why these atrocities may occur we now focus primarily on Pamela DeLargy’s (2012) work on the effects this violence may have. Looking at physical health there is very few to minimal amenities for people in war let alone rape victims.

Hospitals and health facilities are targeted in war times leading to limited accessibility to medical care. Results of sexual violence can lead to pregnancy, abrasions or tearing which needs medical care, mental illness and sexually transmitted diseases (STD).

In many instances there are very strict abortion laws in war-torn countries which means even in rape cases women may be forced to carry on with the pregnancy.

Access to birth control would also be limited due to the lack of health services. The lack of facilities endangers both the female and her possible child.

A result of sexual violence can effect a woman’s living situation, women who have been sexually abused may be forced out of their community as they are shamed by the fact they were raped or they must keep it a secret in order to continue their life among their families. This is due to the shame is brings to the community.


Rape against women was seen as a power tool against men, the men who raped had the power whilst males from the victim population had to face the fact that they could not protect females from their village from this attack (Alison, 2007, pp.85).

As well as the effect on a rape victims living situation a STD can affect her long term health. HIV is left untreated could be a death sentence, other STDs that do not receive medical attention could harm the future chances of the female becoming impregnated, could have serious health risks for her future child.

The sexual violence people must face can also affect their mental health which can result in depression or suicide. These issues men and women must face after their rape can go untreated and in silence. As Pamela DeLargy (2012) suggests finding a purpose within their community can be one of the best solutions however, for many people in times of conflict there may not always be a community or home to go back to.

Some religious based and humanitarian groups can help but usually many of these sexual violence victims must face these issues in silence due to the shame it may bring her and her family.

Much of the research done on sexual violence is lacking in many key areas. This includes collecting accurate data. Women whom have been sexually violated may choose to keep this to themselves for many reasons, as mentioned previously the shame it may bring to her, her family and her village, the life she may have to leave behind.

The female may be inclined to stay silent for fear of it occurring again or her mental health may not be ready to face such memories. As well as women staying silent there are the many recorded deaths which may be partially due to sexual violence.

This could be the death from pregnancy after rape, the lack of treatment available to STDs. Other areas Alison (2007) points out that are understudied would be male to male sexual violence. During the Balkan wars male prisoners were castrated or forced to have sex with other male prisoners.

This was to enforce the idea that homosexuality was weakness and that their manhood/masculinity lay with their genitals. Very little study could be done here as many men were unable to admit what had happened due to embarrassment, fear of judgement. These are similar to the issues female victims faced after the sexually violent event happened.

The lack of data in this field means that much of this theory is from limited sources, if a researcher is talking to a victim there should be services available to help with their situation which in many cases isn’t possible (Alison, 2009).

The persistence of sexual violence in times of conflict is one many organisations wish to tackle.

 The United Nations (UN) as part of  Resolution 1325 (2010)  have called on “all parties to armed conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, and all other forms of violence in situations of armed conflict.”

 Religious and humanitarian organisations have supported aiding women in times of conflict against the effects of Sexual violence. UNICEF (2016) has said they will and have funded and aided women in “reproductive health services for refugees to counter high birth rates, maternal mortality, STDs and HIV/AIDS.”

The World Health Organisation (2016) works with the United Nation Action plans to work with countries on their own teams and to aid with peacekeeping; to educate and create awareness of UN goals and also create a platform for politics to address sexual violence during times of conflict.

Discussed here was some of the major reasons sexual violence prevails and occurs during times of conflict. They include the power factor – asserting dominance over individuals or groups; the military culture – where one person open to sexual violence may provoke the whole group to do so; belief that masculinity means dominance over women.

Consequences such as health issues and the issues of receiving true data as well as the important role international organisations play in the future care of this issue were looked at.  The prevalence and effect of sexual violence is interlinked as the damaged caused is long-term and can effect full communities.

Sexual Violence symbol.svg


AIDS Weekly Plus. (1996). Violence against women in war: Rape, AIDS, sex slavery (1996). AIDS Weekly Plus

Alison, M. 2007, “Wartime sexual violence: women’s human rights and questions of masculinity”, Review of International Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 75-90.

Cockburn, Cynthia. (2010) Gender relations as causal in militarization and war. International Feminist Journal of Politics, Vol.12 (No.2). pp. 139-157

DeLargy, P, 2012. “Sexual Violence and Women’s Health in War.” Chapter 3. Cohn, Carol, ed. 2012. Women and Wars. Malden, MA: Polity Press pp. 54- 78

Jones, A. 2002, “Gender and genocide in Rwanda”, Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 65-94.

Morris, M. 1996, “By Force of Arms: Rape, War, and Military Culture”, Duke Law Journal, vol. 45, no. 4, pp. 651-781

Pankhurst D (2009) Sexual violence in war. In: Shepherd L (ed.) Gender Matters in Global Politics: A Feminist Introduction to International Relations. London: Routledge, 148–160 (2016). Sexual violence as a weapon of war. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Nov. 2016].

UN Security Council, 2010, Security Council resolution 1325 [on women and peace and security], UN Security Council 2000

Welland, J. 2013, “Militarised violence’s, basic training, and the myths of asexuality and discipline”, Review of International Studies, vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 1-22.

World Health Organization. (2016). Sexual violence. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Nov. 2016].

Wood, E.J. 2006, “Variation in Sexual Violence during War”, Politics & Society, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 307-342.

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