Rape as a Weapon of War | HART International Women’s Day Blog Series

3 March 2015

This is the fourth article in HART’s blog series for International Women’s Day 2015. Yesterday, Alice Robinson provided an introduction to sexual violence in conflict, this blog will explore the issue in more depth. Read the whole series here

“Women and children are disproportionately targeted in contemporary armed conflicts and constitute the majority of all victims.” – Report of the Secretary-General on women, peace and security (2002)

Although in modern conflict settings more men than women are killed as a direct cause of fighting, women and girls suffer the brunt of a myriad of debilitating long-term consequences. Major-General Patrick Cammaert, former commander of UN peacekeeping forces in the eastern Congo, stated “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.” Women in conflict settings are targeted by perpetrators of gender-based violence (GBV), which is violence that is directed against a person on the basis of gender and that therefore reflects and reinforces inequalities between men and women. This blog will focus exclusively on one form of GBV: the rape of civilian women by predominantly male combatants.

Understanding GBV requires an understanding that sex and gender are distinct. Sex is the biological make-up of an individual which denotes their body as biologically male or female. Gender is the socially produced characteristics assigned to sex (feminist and queer theorists have written extensively on this distinction, notably Judith Butler who argues that gender is a ‘performance’). Normative gender roles applied to the female sexed body have made women a strategic target of warfare.  Rape of ‘enemy women’ aims to destroy the fabric of society, targeting women because they are “symbolic bearers of ethno/national identity through their roles as biological, cultural and social reproducers of the community”. The assault on female physical and mental health has deep symbolic consequences that can shatter social structures and relationships. Reid-Cunningham (2008) argues that “The sexual nature of the violence increases its impact because of the cultural and social context in which the rape occurs”. Rape in conflict settings is now accepted as a strategic ‘weapon of war’. As such, rape can constitute a crime against humanity, a war crime and a form of genocide.


“The violence tears flesh as well as souls, and the effective healing of both is not guaranteed”Pratt (2004)

Physical Health

Rape is a violent attack on the reproductive capacity of the female body. Consequences of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections can contribute to the genocidal nature of systematic rape in conflict. For example, in Sudan, where traditionally a child’s ethnicity is derived from their father, pregnancy from rape is changing the landscape of the ethnically motivated conflict. The Government of Khartoum, led by al-Bashir, seeks to eliminate the ethnic diversity of Sudan with intention of formulating an Islamic-Arabic state. One victim of the de facto ethnic cleansing in Darfur recounted her rapists’ threats: “Black girl, you are too dark. You are like a dog. We want to make a light baby… You get out of this area and leave the child when it’s made.”  The 20th Activity Report of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights reported purposeful HIV/AIDS infection by military forces in The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): “about two thousand AIDS suffering or HIV-positive Ugandan soldiers were sent to the front in the eastern province of Congo with the mission of raping girls and women so as to propagate an AIDS pandemic among the local population and, thereby, decimate it”.

Rape of pregnant women can also result in miscarriage and premature birth. Additionally, violent rape can result in a multitude of physical injuries to the female genitalia and reproductive organs. Examples include (but are not limited to): traumatic fistula, uterine prolapse, abdominal pain and infertility. In severe cases, rape can result in death from injuries to internal organs or from long-term implications. In many conflict zones, reports have emerged of page-3-8.13.14-PM-8.13.14-PM-8.13.14-PM1soldiers mutilating victim’s genitalia, breasts and stomachs or marking their faces in a way which will scar to publically signify their rape (pictured right [Picture Credit: Mia Farrow, Source:]). Attached to each of these physical symptoms is social stigma.

Mental Health

The stigma attached to rape survivors in regions where female value lies in virginity, wifehood and child bearing is akin to “social murder”. Social rejection and consequential isolation can result in confused emotions of shame and loss. Furthermore, the culture of victim-blaming can lead to women being branded as unfaithful or ‘fallen’ and therefore unsuitable for marriage. HART’s partner SWAN, produced a report documenting 173 incidents of rape by Burmese army troops in Shan State, Burma. This account from a rape survivor illustrates the cultural ostracisation that women can experience: “When my husband came home (after the rape), I told him what had happened. He was furious at me and beat me. The relationship between me and my husband suffered tremendously as a result of the rape…When I went to see my children, they said: ‘Whore, you are not our mother, don’t come see us anymore,’ and drove me away. My husband said: ‘You didn’t control yourself. You had sex with another man. You are no longer my wife. Leave our house right now.’”

Psychological impacts of rape include depression, personality disorders, post-traumatic shock disorder, substance abuse, anxiety and a multitude of long-term effects due to shock, fear and shame. Indirectly psychological health impacts can cause problems in other areas of life, for example families can become malnourished if the female provider is afraid to collect food or fuel and women can experience problems maintaining intimate relationships. Fear of rape can also be a driver of displacement, and an ongoing threat for those who have been forced to flee, including for those who reside in IDP or refugee camps.


Notions of ‘ownership’ of women, means that rape of an individual translates to become an assault on her community and the men who belong to it.

Collective Memory

Rape survivors and children born of rape evoke memories of conflict within the community. Thus, social isolation and avoidance of survivors may be a mechanism for protecting against memories of hardship. The experiences of individual women become magnified to apply to the whole population through processes of retelling and reactions to the victim. The nature of sexual assault, which directly attacks female sexuality and areas of the body deemed private, is an invasion of female ‘decency’. Socially constructed sensitivities around sex and the genitalia, makes rape an attack which scars collective memory with shame, humiliation and repulsion, as well as pain.

Family Structures

By targeting civilian women, militants can disrupt core family structures. In many societies, women play a core role in social cohesion within and between families. An attack of women can shatter family dynamics, whether her health is implicated to a point whereby she can no longer fulfill her usual role or if she is shunned from the family.

Silencing of Women

The power of the military, combined with social factors that silence women from speaking out about their abuse, often grant soldiers impunity to rape in conflict settings. For example, accusations that Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi had issued soldiers with Viagra to increase their sex drive for participation in mass rape have remained under-investigated and silenced. In many ways, rape is the ‘perfect crime’: it tears deeply at community structures and often goes unreported and unpunished.


There has been much research into how the military promotes hyper-masculinity, valuing attributes such as strength, power, domination and toughness and refiguring them as male traits. Rape may then serve as a manifestation of heterosexual male dominance, where female bodies become a canvas for the illustration of masculinity. Rape also acts as an assault on the masculinity of the husbands and fathers who failed to protect ‘their’ women.

The Soldier’s Perspective

In a paper that interviews Congolese soldiers on their own perspective on rape in conflict, Erikson-Baaz and Stern (2009) find that soldiers distinguish between ‘types’ of rape, stating that a difference exists between ‘lust’ rapes and ‘evil’ rapes. The first form of rape, ‘lust’ rape, is driven by their perceptions of male sexual desire and ‘need’: “a soldier, if he has no possibilities, no money so that he can go the normal way…He will take a woman by force. Physically, men have needs. He cannot go a long time without being with a woman. It is very difficult to stop him”. Through this normative reasoning rape becomes a performance of masculinity, which is then used as justification for male entitlement. The other form of rape, ‘evil’ rape, is a strategic attack on femininity for community destruction: “if it is about lust, you will use the organ you have. Why would you put a stick in her? We see that a lot…It is not about the physical needs. That is from a need to destroy, to destroy dignity, the human dignity of a person.” In each case, rape is a demonstration of power derived from socially constructed notions of masculinity.

However, Seifert (1993) argues that “rape is not an aggressive expression of sexuality, but a sexual expression of aggression”. The soldier’s application of some form of ethical separation of rape ‘types’ allows them to separate themselves from the violence of the act, dismissing some acts of rape as a male ‘right’. Soldiers may also become ‘morally disengaged’ and desensitized to brutality, because of the ‘spiral of violence’ that they become locked into by continually being subjected to and committing violence. They may see themselves as victims of war, enabling them to ‘justify’ violent behaviour and shift the blame away from themselves. Prevalent use of drugs and alcohol can further remove any sense of agency and responsibility.

Another viewpoint contributing to the understanding of why soldiers rape is that it is a means of controlling the female population through fear, and reaffirming inequality through disrespect: the original impulse to rape does not need a sophisticated political motivation beyond a general disregard for the bodily integrity of women”. This disregard is echoed across military ranks, making rape a possible strategic tactic which is economically effective. The act of rape perpetuates gender binaries from which inequality is borne, worsening the situation of women in conflict and post-conflict settings. After the cessation of conflict, evidence suggests that women continue to be the victims of sexual violence, with elevated rates of prostitution and trafficking persisting. This indicates that the gender roles carved out in times of conflict are difficult to overcome long-term.


On 11th February 2015, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report documenting 221 cases of civilian rape in the village of Tabit, North Darfur over a 36-hour period of 10th October – 1st November 2014. Some perpetrators of the mass rape were recognized as Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), plus some from El Fasher and Khartoum.

One mother recounted the attack on her family: “They raped my three daughters and me. Some of them were holding the girl down while the other was raping her. They did it one by one. One helped beat and the other raped. Then they would go to the next girl.”

The Government of Khartoum has created a “climate of fear” which has meant that some women have not felt able to seek medical attention and that the people are afraid to speak out about the attack. One man, who was overheard talking to a relative and taken to a military intelligence prison, told HRW: “They said if I talked about Tabit again that I was going to be finished.… They kicked me. Tied me and hanged me up. They beat me with whips and electric wires.”

ICC indicted President al-Bashir has publically dismissed the validity of the report, but yet continues to deny UNAMID and all other external organizations unmediated access to the area. A statement by UNAMID concurs with al-Bashir’s assessment, that no such crimes were committed, without conducting a valid investigation. This illustrates the organisation’s complete failure to fulfill their mission to protect civilians and monitor the situation in Sudan. UNAMID have withheld information and subsequently only visited the area under supervision, attempting to collect information under military intimidation which guarantees the silence of the victims.

The attack violates Protocol II of the Geneva Convention and constitutes war crimes and crimes against humanity under the ICC Statute. Rape also meets the threshold severity of torture, as found by international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The report highlights that “under international law, Sudan is obligated to investigate alleged war crimes by its nationals, including members of its armed forces, and prosecute those responsible”.

Sudan is one of the few countries left to ratify The Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which obligates states to put an end to sexual violence and gender discrimination, illustrating the country’s lack of commitment towards facilitating an environment in which women are equally entitled to human rights.


2014 saw the establishment of a great deal of high-profile work to end sexual violence in conflict settings and beyond, including the launch of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) led by William Hague and Angelina Jolie-Pitt.  Momentum for change must be retained through continued engagement and pressure from the public!

Write, Tweet or meet your local MP to lobby them to continue applying pressure to the Government to make ending sexual violence in conflict a priority.

Support civil society organizations that are passionately campaigning for female equality. For example, you can fundraise for or donate to HART to support our amazing partner SWAN and their far-reaching Women’s Crisis Support Programme. You can find out more about their work here.

Campaign for female representation in politics and the media, for equal education of women, for valuing the necessary female contribution to peace-building and perhaps by reducing the perceived gender gap, gender-based violence will also be reduced. Increased female empowerment is necessary to combat rape impunity. Women must feel able to report rapes and other crimes of sexual violence, in the knowledge that they will be treated seriously.

Everyone has a part to play in ending violence against women and girls because it stems from gender inequality. Challenging the gender norms that make women a subject of rape for strategic purposes in war can start at home. Read, write and speak about why female empowerment and equality is a necessary condition for peace – you can start by sharing the HART International Women’s Day blogs! More than this, act, in every moment, as if women were born equal. Always treat men and women in the same way, with the same respect.

Engage with International Women’s Day as a way of celebrating women claiming their equality! Use Twitter hashtags #MakeItHappen #PaintItPurple #womensday and #IWD2015 to follow events on the day and to contribute.


Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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