Sexualized violence in the context of wars

Sexualized violence is being used as a weapon everyday in conflict zones and war zones worldwide

“Many women are fleeing Syria for fear of being raped….But they are also under threat of sexual violence in the refugee camps”. This and similar reports on wartime atrocities in Syria made the news headlines in many national media outlets in Germany over a year ago.1 Since then, the focus of attention has shifted to reports on the wartime atrocities committed in Iraq by the extremist organization, Islamic State (IS). The advance of IS in Iraq and Syria is carrying to the extreme the terror and atrocities to which civilians in particular are being exposed. Reports of crimes, torture, executions, murder and repeated gender-based violence committed by them continue to pour in, as this report from 18.8.2014 shows: “‘Barbaric’ sexual violence perpetrated by Islamic State militants in Iraq.....against women and teenage girls and boys belonging to Iraqi minorities. We are gravely concerned ... that some 1,500 Yazidi and Christian persons may have been forced into sexual slavery.”2

Yet, it is not just in Syria and Iraq, and not only through extremists and other insurgents and rebel troops, that civilians are massively under threat and affected by acts of violence committed during wars and armed conflicts. And, all over the world, women and children especially are the target of gender-based violence in particular, which is a vital reason for their wanting to flee. “Sexual Violence in the Congo. Systematic and Brutal Terror”3, “Rape and War in South Sudan”4, “Sexual Violence in Egypt”5 – these are just a handful of examples from existing regions of crisis and conflict across the globe that have amassed over the past months and years in newspapers, websites, blogs and on television in Germany.

Before I delve further into the background and links between wars and armed conflicts, on the one hand, and gender-based, and, in particular, sexualized violence, on the other, as well as the impact and consequences of this specific form of violence as well as the strategies and measures to combat it, I would first like to clarify some of the terminology.

Clarification of terminology

I am working on the assumption that the term “gender” is a social, political and structure-building, societal category and a manifestation of specific power relations. As a result, hierarchical gender relations within societies are described and analyzed more specifically. These are interwoven with other – for example, political and economic – power structures, and influence private and public life.

Accordingly, gender-specific or gender-based violence means physical, mental and social abuse as well as economic exploitation and suppression on the grounds of gender and/or gender identity. The commonly perceived classic forms of violence are forced prostitution, so-called “honour” killings, suttees, or forced marriage. Much of this affects men just as much as women, although usually only women are viewed as “victims” in the eyes of the media or general public. The persecution of homosexuals, kidnappings – such as the recent abduction of girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram – as well as the ban on women owning land, or their exclusion from forms of education, are not seen to constitute gender-based violence. Yet, these also result from unequal gender-specific power structures.

One specific form of gender-based violence is sexualized violence. It is direct, personal violence and one of the traits behind physical abuse. Contrary to the frequent assumption, it is not about living out sexual urges or about sexual acts based on the so-called steam boiler theory but rather about living out extreme forms of aggression6 that are performed in order to humiliate others – born out of ambitions for power – and in order to demonstrate hegemonic masculinity. Here, the term hegemonic masculinity, as coined by the sociologist, Raewyn Connell, is understood to refer to a dominant act of masculinity in society enacted against other people, women especially, but also against subordinated men.7

The gender dimension of armed conflicts and wars

2013 saw more wars and armed conflicts across the globe than at any time since the end of World War II8. According to the Heidelberg Institute, these were predominantly domestic, regional conflicts primarily centred in the Near and Middle East and North Africa as well as in the Sub-Saharan regions.9 Generally speaking, the background and causes of the outbreak of conflicts and the rise in violence are manifold and vary depending on the region and past events.10 The main root causes11 generally cited are socio-economic interests and inequality, which are associated with the struggle among political groups or groups of varying ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds to maintain or gain power. These, above all, include fighting for or having the power to dispose of resources such as land, water and extractable raw materials (e.g. diamonds, uranium, coltan). Increasingly, the conflicts revolve around ever-shorter supplies of energy resources such as mineral oil and natural gas, as well as around the tapping or safeguarding of sales markets. In ideological terms, overreaching nationalism – usually linked to ethnic and religious agitation – is regarded as the factor that triggers or aggravates the conflict.

One other significant aspect that is consistently masked out in conventional analyses and, correspondingly, also in security policy strategies, is the “gender dimension”. Feminist peace and conflict researchers as well as gender researchers from the social and political science community have long since been aware that crisis-stricken societies are especially imperilled by the particular distributions of power – usually of a hierarchical nature – between women and men, and by gender-political dynamics, i.e. developments and changes in gender relations, and that they are susceptible to conflict. In one study, American conflict researcher, Mary Caprioli, came to the conclusion in 2005 that the risk of civil war in countries rises in proportion to the increase in the power divide between the genders.12

Using the former Yugoslavia as an example, Marina Blagojevic, a Serbian professor of sociology, examined the impact of shifts in the established gender order. There, men lost their traditional role and function as the breadwinner of the family and head of the household in the 1990s, a status which had already begun to crumble in the 1980s in the light of economic changes. The chasm between social realities and norms, on the one hand, and the perceptions of identity, on the other, grew larger; a dramatic masculinity crisis ensued, especially since women became more diverse in their role and more empowered in their position. In an attempt to take back accustomed male positions of power, heavily nationalistic, sexist and ethnocentric debates subsequently erupted. “Gender processes”, writes German sociologist, Ruth Seifert, “became entwined with political and economic processes and led to a specific construct of the militant conflict.”13

On a more general scale, specific culturally-driven gender attributes, behavioural norms, and expectations in terms of masculinity and femininity images become a breeding ground for violent conflicts and hostilities whenever changes in the economic or social conditions rock the established gender orders and men in particular cannot fulfil their ideas and social expectations (any more), e.g. due to unemployment and a fear of social decline.

Sexualized violence as a weapon of war

Just as the root causes and background of wars have a gender dimension, so, too, are gender-based and sexualized violence intrinsic in militant conflicts.

Even today, warring factions all too gladly trivialize violent sexualized assaults as so-called forms of “collateral damage” during wars and dismiss them as isolated phenomena. And public and political recognition of gender-based violence as an element of warfare was a long time coming. Mass rape, violent abductions and enslavement of the “spoils of war” are intended to humiliate and demoralize the enemy and raise the propensity among one’s own fighters to commit acts of violence. Gender-based violence is a form of warfare and an integral part of militant conflicts that carries high symbolic value. This has become evident since the Serbian and Bosnian Wars in the 1990s at the latest.14

During those wars, it is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women were, in all manner of ways, raped, tortured, at times abducted, and at other times also murdered. Supported by women’s organizations, courageous women – survivors of sexualized torture – from Bosnia ultimately brought the mass rape of women and children that was committed during the Bosnian War in the 1990s to the attention of the public and reported on their own traumatic experiences – also with a view to coming to terms with and politicizing the problem. “They wanted to destroy us, but we survived”, reads the caption above a photo documentation in SZ-Magazin as recently as October 2013.

Since then, information has increasingly come to the fore about acts of gender-based and sexualized violence committed in various corners of the world. Time and time again, reports have surfaced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo of the most barbaric sexual crimes of violence being enacted on women and children, but also on men, that have reached “epidemic proportions”15. Gender-based violence is also known to occur in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Libya, Afghanistan, Uganda and Sierra Leone, and the list could be extended, not just to include countries in which war and armed conflicts have been or are being conducted but also to countries run by totalitarian regimes and despotic forms of government16

Target groups – those affected by sexualized violence

In every recent war and armed conflict, civilians are the ones who suffer most. Of these, women and girls of all ages especially are exposed to and affected by gender-based and sexualized violence. And even if they flee from the violence and war, they are still not safe; the threat and danger also looms during their flight and inside refugee camps – often from their own family members – and this can continue once the conflict officially ends, during the reconstruction of post-war societies.17

However, whilst women and girls account for the largest group of victims and survivors of gender-based violence, we now know that boys and men also become victims of sexualized violence on a mass scale. This holds true for the former Yugoslavia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as for numerous other regions of conflict. The men concerned, not least of all soldiers or rebels, are even more afraid than women of raising this, for them, extremely humiliating form of violence as an issue and giving account of it. Conflict researcher and sociologist, Dubravka Zarkov, has researched the raping of men during the Balkan Wars. She calls it the “taboo within the taboo”18 because this form of violence undermines traditional images of masculinity. That men become victims (not just) of sexualized violence blows the myth on male fortitude and inviolability and on women as the victim (that need protecting).19

In many, especially hetero-normative and also frequently homophobic, countries, people whose gender identity deviates from the overriding norm – most notably homosexual men, transsexuals and intersexuals – often become the target of extreme violence, humiliation and degradation, not just in times of war but also in the post-war era, as has been seen in the case of Uganda, for example.

One particularly tragic and also neglected group that is the target of sexualized violence in wartime is that of the so-called child soldiers. Across the globe, hundreds of thousands of children are press-ganged into becoming soldiers. At times, these girls and boys come from wretched conditions, having lived on the streets or as refugees, for example, and then find themselves taken in and exploited above all by rebel troops. The children stand guard, carry provisions or guard positions, and are kept as sex slaves by the warlords. At times, they are recruited using sexualized violence and other forms of coercion and humiliation and thus also forced to take up arms, sometimes involving extreme forms of the most barbaric acts of violence against their enemies. Girls especially are and have been exploited as forced prostitutes as well and pressured to provide other services for (rebel) troops, e.g. in Sierra Leone, Uganda or Liberia.

The perpetrators and their acts

The classic images of perpetrators are those of perpetrators in uniform – male members of combat units, rebel groups and militia, insurgents, or soldiers belonging to regular armies, sometimes also with bands of marauders being declared accountable for sexualized acts of violence and other wartime atrocities. Yet, they are, in part, only carrying out orders – after being egged on and incited. The actual warmongers and beneficiaries of war, and often those also responsible for committing gender-based wartime violence, are usually omitted in the portrayal of the perpetrators, as are the, more likely fewer, numbers of women – from within the immediate family, for example – who, at times as combatants in rebel or regular armies, are also involved or accountable.

Indeed, the main actors belong, in part, to the local or national power elites; they are mostly powerful men within their social circles20 who, including in latent crises, often consciously and concertedly add fuel to the mood of crisis and run hate campaigns against other groups, for example ethnic or religious minorities, or against people of a different gender identity. As warlords, they are also the ones to issues orders – in part systematically – to commit acts of sexualized violence, above all on women and girls, but also on men and boys.

One prominent and very widely-known case in point is that of the former President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, who, as the commander of the rebels in Sierra Leone, was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone at the ICC in 2012, among other things, of sexualized war crimes and crimes against humanity, not as the immediate perpetrator of such acts but as an instigator and commander – a judgement that is an absolute exception for trials that very rarely take place at the best of times. For this reason, it is seen as a milestone in international criminal jurisdiction.21

Among the – often especially barbaric – perpetrators is a group that has already been mentioned as victims and sufferers of wartime gender-based violence: the child soldiers. As highlighted in the 2014 Unicef Report, they are forced to torture and kill – with devastating effects and consequences, firstly for the children themselves and then also for entire societies and generations to come. For them, it can generally be said unquestionably: they are the victims and survivors of the violence and the perpetrators all at the same time.

Yet, this is frequently also true of adult perpetrators who are members of armies or the militias: they are guilty of sexualized war crimes, but, in part, also the survivors of wartime sexualized violence at the same time.

The acts – forms of sexualized war crimes

“I was conscious until the tenth time. I had counted ten up to that point. Then, I lost consciousness and I know that some of them brought water over and poured it over me.”22 “Young girls raped and impregnated before their bodies are able to carry a child. Boys held at gunpoint and forced to sexually assault their mothers and sisters (…) Women raped with bottles, wood branches and knives to cause as much damage as possible,” said American actress and UNHCR Special Envoy, Angelina Jolie, at a UNSC meeting as recently as 2013.

Mass rape, women’s and children’s bodies slashed and lacerated, foetuses killed inside pregnant women, acts of violence publicly propagated and paraded, acts of rape in front of one’s own people and family members; commanders coercing people to eat the brains of the raped and killed ... the atrocities that have come to light appear inconceivable and never cease to shock and startle.

Whether in Bosnia and Croatia, in Sierra Leone or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Uganda, Syria or Iraq – the reports given by survivors when speaking of specific forms of sexualized torture resemble those provided in the media about acts of violence in war zones in terms of their brutality and obscenity.

In this context, the following account from the Serbian/Bosnian War is a particularly perfidious example: the raping of Bosnian and Croatian women (was) videotaped and used as propaganda on the TV news broadcast in Serbian-occupied Banja Luka, with a faked reversal of roles: Serbian women from Croatia and Bosnia had allegedly been the victims of acts of rape – this representation specifically and consciously “fuelled” hatred against “the others, the brutes”.23

Background and functions of wartime gender-based violence:

These acts of violence are often primarily depicted as by-products of wars that virtually automatically lead to brutalization and subsequently also to excessive violence – as “collateral damage” as it were. That may be true in isolated, in exceptional, cases. But, as the perfidious example taken from the Serbian/Bosnian War illustrates: wartime sexualized violence is purposefully used as war propaganda in order to incite and fuel hatred and a willingness to use violence. As a systematic means of waging war, sexualized war crimes, mass rape, violent abductions and the enslaving of the “spoils of war” seek to humiliate and demoralize the enemy and exhibit the superiority of the perpetrators. The committing of such acts of violence, especially against women and children – often before the eyes of men – is equally intended to demonstrate to the enemy that they are incapable of protecting their own family and relatives, that they are failures in their role and function as men. In this respect, these acts are also directed against men and their gender identities, and the female body is used symbolically as a target. Women are therefore abused figuratively and literally. Insofar as men become victims of sexualized violence, the aim here is also to demasculinize, to deprive men of their gender identity and thus to denigrate them to the extreme.

Such acts have yet another purpose: they are intended to raise the willingness of one’s own “fighters” to engage in violence and to stick together as a group, and also help them overcome their own experiences of violence and humiliation.24 Accordingly, the commanders, at times, give the orders for such crimes themselves.

Against this backdrop, the root causes and background of such violent crimes reflect established gender orders and images, above all the concepts of hegemonic masculinity mentioned at the outset of this article.

Impact and consequences

Fundamentally speaking, sexualized violence in particular is fraught with taboos in every society. Not least of all for this reason, it has an especially identity-destroying and traumatizing impact on survivors of this form of abuse and violence. Very frequently, the survivors – both women and men – keep silent, out of a sense of shame and a feeling that they have been subjected to the most extreme forms of humiliation and degradation by the enemy. Quite apart from the immediate physical wounds and injuries, at times ending in mutilation, these sexualized forms of torture often result in a variety of long-term physical and brutally psychological effects. The manner in which each gender exhibits or comes to terms with this tends to vary:

Women frequently withdraw, keep silent, and direct the violence that they have experienced at themselves by committing self-destructive attacks. This also means that they are especially susceptible to committing suicide or that they “lose themselves” when caring for others, their family and their husbands, and suppress all the things that they have experienced.

Moreover, female survivors, and especially those who can be identified as former recruits and child soldiers, are often excluded and expelled by their families and communities because of their patriarchal mentality. This is yet another reason for them to maintain their silence on what they have experienced. They subsequently end up living on the streets or turn to prostitution in an attempt to survive.

Among male survivors of sexualized violence, there is a danger of them seeking to rebuild their deeply humiliated and bruised masculinity through excessive and particularly aggressive male conduct that goes beyond the traditional hegemonic behaviour exhibited by males – that of “militarized masculinity”. Even in the aftermath of the conflicts, i.e. during the reconstruction, the “peace” phase, the impact of such actions is particularly devastating. Researchers of violence assume that those men especially are susceptible to further propelling the spiral of violence in and between communities and of becoming repeat offenders.

Their propensity to settle disputes and arguments with violence, including the use of weapons, is extremely high. In this respect, they are easy prey as recruits for any form of military formation, including militia and marauding paramilitary groups, but also for security services.25

Should they be denied the opportunity to reiterate their male identity – especially in post-war periods – their willingness to engage in violence turns to their own wives in particular. In the aftermath of armed conflicts – during the (re-)construction of democratic structures – women often suffer an exponentiated level of domestic violence and rape at the hands of their own husbands returning home from the conflict. Consequently, women and children often do not experience post-conflict situations, and most definitely not any form of “peace”; for them, the violence, humiliation and degradation within their own family continue.

This also means that, if these people are unable to come to terms with and process these forms of traumatization, a vicious cycle of recurrent acts of wartime violence ensues.

The international community and counter-strategies

The (inter)national intervention and conflict resolution strategies and political concepts for ending armed conflicts and wars have either not or not sufficiently accounted for these problems and the far-reaching consequences of wartime gender-based violence. For this, and for other reasons, these strategies and concepts cannot be effective in the long term, as the repeated outbreak of battles and wars in individual regions, not least of all in the DR of the Congo, Iraq and Middle East, but also in (South) Sudan or Somalia testify.

Moreover, the rise in prostitution, the trafficking of women and rape within the confines of virtually every international operation, illustrate that male UN or EU “peacekeepers” represent and act out similarly hegemonic male images that predominate in the countries of their deployment – which, in turn, has further consequences: native males perceive this as competition from other countries and cultures and as an assault on their male identity. This also has a dramatic impact on women and family structures.

At the same time, wartime gender-based crimes continue to go unpunished.

Numerous resolutions or other legally binding UN Security Council instructions passed between 2000 and 2013 on “women, peace and security” have done little to change the situation.26 Whilst it is true that they have recognized wartime sexualized violence as a crime against humanity, as a war crime, and as a danger to international peace and security that must be prosecuted and subjected to legal sanctions, these resolutions have either not or only barely been implemented. 

Through their latest Resolution 2106, passed on 24 June 2013, however, the 15 members of the UN Security Council have sent a clear signal to all national governments that combating sexualized violence in conflicts must take absolute precedence. Essentially, the UNSC is calling for the conflicting parties not just to prevent all forms of sexualized violence but also to be more stringent and consistent in their investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators – among other reasons for prevention and deterrence purposes. Generally speaking, amnesties should not be granted (any more). As with its previous resolutions on this subject, the UNSC is strengthening the role and significance of women(’s organizations) and civil society by recognizing their specific expertise, and calling upon member states to cooperate, consult and assist. Other instruments and measures from preceding resolutions are also being bolstered as a result. The Security Council has declared a zero-tolerance policy for peacekeeping UN missions and expects troop-contributing countries to educate their action forces on sexualized violence, and also to step up the deployment of women. The Secretary-General is being called upon to ensure that women’s protection advisers continue to be deployed and acquire suitable qualifications.27

It remains to be seen how the individual UN member states and also the International Criminal Court will continue to deal with these requirements. After all, those attending the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence held in London in June 2014, including, not just a highly-prominent UNHCR Special Envoy in the shape of Angelie Jolie, but also leading politicians such as the UK’s (then) Foreign Secretary, William Hague, declared yet again that wartime sexualized violence was a key political issue, including in terms of preventing and resolving armed conflict.

With regard to implementation, this means: all ceasefire and peace agreements and, subsequently, all conflict resolution programmes, must include measures on how perpetrators of sexualized violence can be prosecuted, as well as how their criminal acts can be processed, and also how the victims as well as survivors and family members of those murdered can experience justice, be assisted, and can come to terms with and be compensated for the traumas that have been inflicted upon them.

A constant obstacle in this negotiation process is that representatives of the warring factions, and thus possibly also the commanders behind such crimes, would prefer the prosecution and processing of such acts to be thwarted. This makes it all the more important and therefore, as an initial step, absolutely necessary that, women – as experienced experts, as well as peace activists from various groups of civil society, together with political activists – are invited in sufficient numbers to take part in negotiations.

Furthermore, programmes and measures need to be devised and introduced with the specific aim of enabling the as yet conflicting parties within the corresponding community to come to terms with the acts and reach reconciliation and to develop equal relations between women and men. Here, too, peace activists from the ranks of civil society, who are often involved in projects on the ground and are familiar with the specific circumstances and requirements, are indispensable.


[1] Here: Zeit online, 14 January 2013
[2], 18.8.2014
[3] taz, 10 June 2014
[4] Huff Post, 27 June 2014
[5], 30 June 2014
[6] Seifert, Ruth, Krieg und Vergewaltigung. Ansätze zu einer Analyse. In: Stiglmayer, Alexandra (Hrsg.): Massenvergewaltigung. Krieg gegen Frauen. Freiburg i. Br.: Kore Verlag, p. 85-108. Dies. 2006, Gender und Konfliktentstehung. Eine Skizzierung der Problemlage. Lecture held on 12 May 2006 during expert talks organized by the then Feminist Institute of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Berlin “Gewaltförmige Konflikte. Ursachen, Verlauf und Lösungsansätze im Lichte der Geschlechterverhältnisse“
[9] In this context, neither the Federal Republic of Germany nor the USA are cited as conflict parties.
[11], 21.8.2014
[12] Caprioli, Mary: Primed for violence. The Role of Gender Inequality in Predicting International Conflict, in: International Studies Quarterly 49/2005
[13] Blagojevic, Marina: Conflict, Gender and Identity: Conflict and Continuity in Serbia, as well as Ruth Seifert: Einleitung: Identität, Gender und kriegerischer Konflikt, both in Ruth Seifert (editor): Gender, Identität und kriegerischer Konflikt, Das Beispiel des ehemaligen Jugoslawien, Münster 2004
[14] Valentich, Mary: “Rape revisited: sexual violence against women in the former Yugoslavia”, The Canadian journal of human sexuality 3/1 (1994), p. 53–64, here: p. 53. Mischkowski, Gabriela: “... damit es niemandem in der Welt widerfährt”: Das Problem mit Vergewaltigungsprozessen; Köln: medica mondiale e.V. 2009,
[15] “DR Kongo: Gewalt gegen Frauen ist epidemisch”,
[16] See Schäfer,Rita: Transitional Justice – Geschlechterpolitische Perspektiven für Übergangsgesellschaften, Band 10 des Gunda-Werner-Instituts, Berlin 2013
[17] De Keyser, Véronique: “Bericht über die Lage der Frau in bewaffneten Konflikten und ihre Rolle beim Wiederaufbau und beim Demokratisierungsprozess in diesen Ländern nach Beilegung des Konflikts - A6-0159/2006 (2005/2215(INI))”, p.15–17
[18] Zarkov, Dubravka und Scheub, Ute : “Männer wurden Opfer sexueller Gewalt – Interview”, taz Nr.7063 (26.05.2003), p.6
Scheub, Ute: Heldendämmerung: die Krise der Männer und warum sie auch für Frauen gefährlich ist, München: Pantheon 2010, p.96.
[20] See Buckley-Zistel, Susanne/ Stanley, Ruth (Hg.): Gender in Transitional Justice, Palgrave Macmillan 2012, as well as Schäfer, Rita: Transitional Justice – Geschlechterpolitische Perspektiven für Übergangsgesellschaften, Band 10 des Gunda-Werner-Instituts, Berlin 2013
[22] Witness in the Foča trial, quoted from Sabrina Köhler: Sexuelle Kriegsgewalt - Eine kritische Auseinandersetzung mit einem Kriegsphänomen, beispielhaft am Balkankonflikt. Masterarbeit an der Europa-Universität Viadrina Fft., 2011.
[23] MacKinnon, Catherine A., 1993: Turning Rape into Pornography. Postmodern Genocide. In: Gewalt-tätig. Beiträge zur feministischen Theorie und Praxis 17. Jg., H. 37, p. 42
[24] MaryValentich, Rape Revisited: Sexual Violence against Women in the Former Yugoslavia, in: Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 3, 1 (1994), p. 53.,Schäfer,R.: Transitional Justice, volume 10, 2013, p. 12/13
[25] See, e.g.: Scheub, Ute: Heldendämmerung: die Krise der Männer und warum sie auch für Frauen gefährlich ist, München: Pantheon 2010.
[26] UN Security Council Resolutions 1325, 1820, 1888  and 1960, 2116


This article appeared first under the title: »Sexualisierte Gewalt im Kriegskontext« in: 37/14 – »Frauen und Krieg« Ein Diskussionsbeitrag in Verantwortung für den Frieden (Tagung der Evangelischen Frauen in Baden und der evangelischen Akademie Baden) (