Sexual Violence in War: Facing up to a Haunting Reality

Sexual violence is wed to war. The two have been joined for millennia. Indeed, many bygone societies deemed non-combatant women spoils of conflict, treating them as wives, concubines, commodities, or short-lived toys[i]. Women, however, were not only abused to satiate the desires of soldiers. Their psychological and bodily subjugation was also used to consolidate the sociopolitical power of conquerors over the conquered. Sexual violence, in particular, was wielded as an effective tool for debellation and has been closely intertwined with honor killings, forced prostitution, efforts to traumatize children, the spread of STIs, mutilation and fatal injury, pariahdom and ethnic cleansing. Recorded history is inundated with examples of factions wielding sexual violence as a potent weapon of war.

Nevertheless, history also includes a smattering of attempts to prevent and circumvent such atrocities. The philosopher and legal scholar, Hugo Grotius, often called the grandfather of international law, exclaimed in 1646 that “rape should not go unpunished in war any more than in peace”[ii], and Emer de Vattel, another standard bearer of international law, argued that male and female civilians must be spared from any form of violence[iii]. Building on these proclamations, a number of treaties and war codes were passed in the 18th and 19th centuries. They condemned wartime rape, albeit only vaguely. For instance, the 1785 Treaty of Amity and Commerce, the 1863 Liber Code, and the 1919 WWI Commission of Responsibilities (though, they weren’t always upheld…) included general condemnations of rape as a weapon of war.

Shamefully, however, the Post-WWII Nuremberg Trials failed to discuss and formally condemn the sexual violence practiced by the Nazis. In stark contrast, the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal convicted and executed Japanese officers for failing to prevent mass rape and butchery on a horrific scale. Significantly, the 1949 Geneva Conventions specifically condemned sexual violence against non-combatant women, stating that “Women shall be especially protected against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault”. However, the status quo after the Geneva Conventions was still plagued by glaring omissions. Systematic sexual violence was not formally identified as a war crime until the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993, and it wasn’t identified as a crime against humanity until the establishment of International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994.

The ICTY and ICTR both took incredibly important steps forward, but much remains to be done, particularly in the Global South. The widespread use of sexual violence in Sudan’s ongoing civil war is particularly egregious, as is the systematic rape perpetrated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (an estimated 48 women are raped every hour[iv]), and in the Middle East, where Yezidi women in Northern Iraq have been systematically raped by soldiers of the Islamic State. These examples are by no means the only cases of systematic sexual violence perpetrated today. Across the globe, sexual violence is still a common and potent tool of war, shattering the hopes and dignity of individuals, families and communities. One can only be haunted by this reality.

Yet, despite the atrocities taking place in the Global South, the developed world cannot simply claim the moral high ground, for the colonizers of old (well-meaningly bearing the white man’s burden), and many postindustrial nation-states (well-meaningly bearing the capitalist’s burden) helped to create the conditions for the very violence that they now rebuke. Moreover, despite international and military laws, sexual violence has not yet been eliminated from the unofficial praxes of contemporary military hegemons. For instance, it is estimated that 25% of American servicewomen have been sexually assaulted and that 80% of American servicewomen have been sexually harassed[v]. Likewise, reportedly 1 in 8 Israeli servicewomen were sexually assaulted in 2013[vi]. Civilian women have also suffered sexual violence at the hands of our soldiers and peacekeepers. For example, women in the Central Republic of Africa have been raped by French UN Peacekeepers while Haitian girls have exchanged sex for food and medicine from American Peacekeepers[vii], and Iraqi and Afghani women and children have been raped by the American soldiers trained to protect them[viii].

One cannot help but ask: Why is this still happening? Military mores (e.g., the dehumanization of enemies), alpha male machismo, politico-economic disparity, libido, and the stressful surreality of warzones are among the many variables at work. As with all human behavior, we must navigate through a socio-psychological web of nature and nurture when seeking explanations for sexual brutality, both in times of war and relative peace. We cannot expect a reassuringly facile answer. However, it is clear that failing to condemn rape plays a role in its perpetuation. So, difficult though it may be, we must endeavor to understand and decry the evil behind us, the evil around us, and the evil within us—as must our children, their children, and so on. In doing so, we must persevere and hope (against the odds) that history might cease to be written in innocent blood.


   [i] Conley, Carolyn, ‘Sexual Violence in Historical Perspective,’ The Oxford Handbook of Gender, Sex, and Crime. (eds.) Gartner, R. & McCarthy, B. Oxford University Press. (2014). Print.

[ii] Grotius, Hugo. The Rights of War and Peace. Liberty Fund, New Edition edition. Book 3, ch. II, s.13 p. 355-356 (July 22, 2005). Print.  

[iii] De Vattel, Emer The Law of Nations, Or, Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns, with Three Early Essays on the Origin and Nature of Natural Law and on Luxury (LF ed.) [1797]. (eds.) Whatmore, R. & Kapossy, B. Liberty Fund, Inc. (2008).

[iv] Townsend, Mark. ‘Revealed: how the world turned its back on the rape victims of the Congo,’ the Guardian. (June 13, 2015). Web.

[v] Meade, Barbara J.; Glenn, Margaret K.; Wirth, Oliver. ‘Mission Critical: Getting Vets with PTSD Back to Work’. NIOSH: Workplace Safety and Health. (March 29, 2013). Web.

[vi] Efraim, Omri. ‘Report: 1 in 8 IDF women soldiers experienced sexual assault in 2013’ Ynet News. (February 3rd, 2014). Web.

[vii] Ali, Aftab. ‘UN peacekeepers sexually abuse hundreds of women and minors in Hati in exchange for food and medicine, new report will reveal’ The Independent. (June 10, 2015). Web.

[viii] Robrhan, Steve. ‘Ex-solider bragged about Iraqi rape, deaths: lawyer’ Reuters. (April 28, 2009). Web.

Stephen Sanders, Blog Writer

Stephanos Argyros, Blog Editor


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