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Combating Sexual Assault in Conflict

by svonwendel
May 7, 2014

A woman holding a newborn stands in front of African Union troops in the Central African Republic, April 2014 (Courtesy Reuters/Siegfried Modola). A woman holding a newborn stands in front of African Union troops in the Central African Republic, April 2014 (Courtesy Reuters/Siegfried Modola).


Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is by Sigrid von Wendel, who edits the Development Channel and Democracy in Development blogs.

For centuries, sexual assault in armed conflict was viewed as an unfortunate inevitability. The international community acknowledged the endemic problem in 2008. In a United Nations Security Council resolution, world leaders voted unanimously to identify rape as a war crime and threat to international security. Since then, the UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict coalition has brought together thirteen UN entities to end sexual violence in conflict. Some infamous perpetrators have since been brought to justice, including Lieutenant Colonel Mayele, charged with commanding the rape of over three hundred men, women, and children in the eastern Congo. But more must be done.

A growing body of research finds that sexual violence is not as inextricably linked to conflict as was once believed. For example, Professor Elisabeth Wood’s work finds that sexual violence varies over time, place, armed group, and conflict—and some armed groups refrain from committing sexual assault almost entirely.

Strong command and communications frameworks, strategic considerations, and religious and ethnic differences can all be reasons for armed groups to refrain from perpetrating sexual violence. In some cases, for example, commanders insist their troops not engage in sexual violence against the local population for fear of losing public support and intelligence tips. Wood and others find “the wide variation in wartime rape across armed groups demonstrates that these groups can, and often do, prohibit sexual violence. This in turn creates an opportunity to push for greater accountability.”

Sexual violence also varies based on motivation and identity of the armed groups. It can be committed by state or non-state combatants through centrally organized or unorganized campaigns. These differences are crucial to prevention efforts: as Wood notes, “if we want to decrease the instances of sexual violence, we should acknowledge that rape happens for different reasons in different contexts and figure out what motivations can move the relevant actors towards eliminating it.” At times, sexual violence is an explicit war tactic used to intimidate, control, and harass local populations. In these cases, orders to commit acts of sexual violence come down through the command structure and are conducted with a strategic objective in mind. Even when sexual assault is not used as a military tool, weak command structures and lax enforcement of policies can allow sexual violence to become a decentralized practice, conducted by perpetrators acting without or against orders.

In order to protect citizens trapped in war’s path, governments and international organizations should first and foremost ensure that their agents in the field are not committing acts of sexual violence themselves. The UN has helped reduce sexual violence, but also faces its own internal challenge of its peacekeepers and other humanitarian workers conducting rape in conflict zones, including in the Congo,Côte d’Ivoire, Haiti, and Sudan. For the UN to truly lead the charge in ending sexual violence, it must enforce a zero-tolerance policy, strong reporting and command structures, and thorough training programs regarding sexual violence.

The United States military also has its share of sexual violence — both within ranks and against civilian populations — but recent exposés have pushed military leaders to strengthen prevention, training, and reporting programs. As a part of this pursuit, Washington should make sexual violence prevention training a cornerstone of not only of its own operations, but also of those it conducts in other countries. Making sexual assault prevention a part of military partnerships worldwide, and stressing the strategic gains of defending local populations, has both foreign policy and human rights benefits. By combating and preventing sexual violence, governments can make way for economic recovery and prosperity, defend human rights, ensure the safety and support of local populations, and, in turn, stabilize volatile regions.

Governments and international organizations should focus more research and development funding toward this topic. Current research sheds light on variation in sexual violence, but there is not yet enough in-depth study on why it occurs in some situations and not others, how sexual assault strategies and practices are formed and changed, and how that information can be translated into effective prevention policies. As gruesome reports of widespread sexual violence in the ongoing Syrian conflict prove, there is no time to waste in understanding sexual violence in armed conflict and developing strategies to end it. Sexual violence needs to be viewed by governments, militaries, and international organizations as a preventable problem, with strategic importance to global stability and development.

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