Shaming Survivors of Sexual Violence – in the UK and Abroad | HART International Women’s Day Blog Series

2 March 2015

This is the third article in HART’s blog series for International Women’s Day. Read the whole series here

Sexual Violence in Conflict

The lasting damage which sexual violence inflicts on individuals and communities is unlike that of any other type of violence perpetrated during conflict.

Rape is a particularly effective and ubiquitous weapon of war because the damage it causes is not limited to the physical consequences. The shame associated with sexual assault frequently leads to the rejection and isolation of survivors, causing lasting damage to families and communities.

Personal testimonies of survivors of sexual violence clearly demonstrate this; as one woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) described, “Your husband is the first person to reject you [after rape], and then comes your family.” One study, from a specialist hospital in the DRC, showed that only 0.9% of women arriving for care after sexual violence were accompanied by their spouse. This is far from unique. In diverse contexts, countries and cultures, stories of survivors frequently exhibit these common themes – of stigmatisation, isolation and shame – of suffering which is never limited to the initial act of violence.

The shame associated with rape is so great, that for some men, the possibility or assumption that their wives have been raped is enough for divorce. One woman, interviewed by Human Rights Watch in the DRC in 2011, said that her husband divorced her “because men know women are raped at the prison I was in.”

Sexual Violence and Gender Inequality

Why is the rejection of survivors of sexual violence by spouses, families and communities so common? The answer to this lies in deeply-entrenched gender roles and inequalities between men and women, constructed and maintained during times of peace but amplified by a situation of violence and hostility. Strict cultural ideals about women’s sexuality facilitate the stigmatisation of survivors. Power structures which promote male control over women’s bodies drive the rejection and shaming of victims. This, in turn, allows perpetrators of sexual violence to divide communities and destabilize social structures with one act of violence.

A 2013 study by the International Rescue Committee in Syria, where a family’s honour is often bound up with the perceived sexual ‘purity’ of female family members, found that women were afraid of being killed by family members if they report sexual violence. This not only creates a disincentive for survivors to report rape, but an incentive for aggressive forces to commit rape, knowing the profound shame and damage it will cause to individuals, families and communities.

In a paper on rape with extreme violence in the DRC, authors Mukwege and Nangini stated, based on extensive research: “We consider rape an efficient form of biological warfare that is inexpensive to implement, effective over large areas, and does not particularly endanger the attackers. Its effectiveness relies on the perception, deeply embedded in patriarchal societies, that women’s sexuality is a prefecture of male ownership, and it is linked to the persistence of unequal gender relations and particularly to the way women’s bodies are regarded(Mukwege and Nangini 2009, p. 1-2).

Constructions of masculinity and femininity are inextricably bound up together, and by no means only affect women. When men are raped, different but equally destructive gendered constructions come into play. Male rape violates a masculine identity bound up with strength and social dominance, resulting in a situation where survivors face condemnation and disbelief. They have difficulty accessing support, medical and psychological care, may be left by their wives and ostracized by their communities, and in societies where homosexuality is illegal, may be arrested or killed. The failure to support male victims is even seen in NGOs addressing wartime sexual violence. Research from the University of California has found that of 4,076 such NGOs, only 3% mention men in their literature, despite the fact that, in eastern Congo, for example, 22% of men have reported conflict-related sexual violence.


To tackle the power and the persistence of sexual violence in conflict, we must challenge stereotypes that devalue and dehumanize both men and women who become victims of rape. This is not unique to conflict-ridden countries. Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, receives emails on a weekly basis from women who have been sexually assaulted but are too afraid to report it, in case they are blamed [Laura Bates at a speaker event]. Victim blaming is a global problem.

It would be easy to see the problem of sexual violence in conflict as being “over there” – a cause for intervention but not for introspection. Yet, when survivors of sexual violence in conflict seek safety in the UK, they are often exposed to further isolation, shame and stigmatisation. Where the skepticism often faced by individuals who report rape meets the heavily politicised arena of immigration, it seems to crowd out compassion and common sense. In the UK asylum process, explaining your reasons for seeking asylum can mean women having to repeatedly recount experiences of sexual abuse to strangers. Those who do not immediately disclose the details of their sexual abuse can have their claims rejected on the basis of disbelief. Given that many are fleeing situations where security forces are as likely to be perpetrators as protectors, the asylum system must allow women time, and a safe space, to open up about their experiences.

Women for Refugee Women interviewed 72 women who had sought asylum in the UK. 66% had experienced some kind of gender-related persecution, including rape, sexual violence, forced prostitution, forced marriage or female genital mutilation. 48% had survived rape as part of the persecution they were fleeing. 32% had been raped by soldiers, police or prison guards.

67 of those 72 women were refused asylum. 76% were refused because their stories were not believed. In the foreword to the report, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC states: “Women have always faced scepticism when they give histories of rape and sexual abuse, but there is something particularly cruel about the failure to accept their accounts of violation when they are fleeing zones of conflict and war. Their shame at having to recount such degradation, their cultural inhibitions and their utter fear are so often ignored or misunderstood.” 

Furthermore, out of those 72 women, 67% had been made destitute – banned from working and left without any means of support or accommodation. 16% experienced sexual violence whilst destitute in the UK. We are failing women who come to seek safety, allowing them to become trapped in cycles of destitution: vulnerable once again to sexual violence.

The first thing that we can do to alleviate the suffering of survivors of sexual violence in conflict is the closest to home – with our voices and our votes, we can change the situation in the UK for individuals fleeing sexual violence, and challenge the stigma which runs through all societies including our own. One survivor of sexual violence seeking safety in the UK said, of her experiences of asylum and detention in the UK, ‘It was not what happened to me in my own country which broke me. It was what happened to me [in the UK]. That was what broke my spirit’ [Saron, interviewed by Women for Refugee Women – read her story here.].

Gender equality in all spheres, and in all countries, during times of peace and of conflict, as well as better treatment, support and access to justice for the victims of sexual violence, would help to prevent the shame, stigma and isolation faced by survivors. This, in turn, would help to erode the brutal efficacy and power of rape as a weapon of war.

In tomorrow’s blog, Sam Hudson will explore these issues in more depth, drawing on case studies from Sudan and Burma.

Image Credit: created by the IWillESV team for Scenarios Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign,

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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