Confronting Conflict-Related Sexual Violence this Sexual Assault Awareness Month

The horrors of any war and conflict are often quantified by the death and destruction they wreak on nations and communities. Yet, equally catastrophic – and less discussed – are the human rights violations committed in the name of war that leave indelible scars on generations to come and threaten peace and security long after conflicts have “officially” ended.

In light of ongoing global conflicts and reports from Gaza and the West Bank, we feel urged to address sexual violence as a shadow atrocity of conflict, this Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Several UN and international organizations have reported evidence of sexual violence in Gaza and West Bank as a consequence of the long-drawn occupation and conflict over the last few decades.

In early March 2024, in her briefing on her report relating to the 7 October attacks in Israel to the UN Security Council in New York, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, stated “while nothing can justify the deliberate violenceperpetrated by Hamas, nothing could justify the collective punishment of the people in Gaza”. The report noted evidence of sexual violence during the Hamas attacks on October 7, 2023 and reasonable grounds to believe ongoing violence committed against hostages and also indicated exacerbation of human rights violations and sexual violence in the context of detention. Since October 2023, UN bodies and as well as other international organizations have reported a steep increase in arbitrary detentions, human rights violations at checkpoints, blocked access to resources and protective services as well as multiple forms of sexual violence experience by women and girls.

Conflict-related Sexual Violence (CRSV), as a term refers to rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict.  

United Nations

As an organization dedicated to serving survivors of gender-based violence (GBV), and having worked with survivors from conflict zones, we are understand the devastating long-term impacts of conflict related sexual violence not only on the victims but also its potential to exacerbate pre-existing gender inequalities, perpetuate a cycle of trauma and violence that spans generations and severely disrupt the peace and well-being of nations.

Sadly, sexual violence in conflict is not new. Over the history of humankind, multiple forms of sexual violence have been used as means of control and instilling fear, demoralize and destabilize communities, and at times, change the ethnic makeup of the next generation.

Ancient history is rife with examples of sexual violence used as a tool to exert dominance, a war tactic or even as a blatant reward for war victories. Just a few examples from ancient history include the Siege of Tyre (332 BC), Fall of Constantinople (1453) and the Roman invastion
The use of sexual violence as a tactic of war, intimidation, power, and control is deeply entrenched in South Asian history, traceable even to the narratives of ancient epics. Take for example, in the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic from around 400 BCE, there is an episode involving the public humiliation and disrobing of Draupadi, a pivotal character, by Dushasana, one of the Kauravas, after her husbands “lose her” to the Kauravas in a game of dice, symbolising an act of ultimate vengeance and dishonor. Though there is under-reporting and not enough documentation, sexual violence has been undeniably present in conflicts during colonization or post-independence nation building (Partition, 1947). The post-independence era with its share of interstate conflicts, settler conflicts or ethnic and religious conflicts, civil wars, sexual violence especially against women was often used as a symbol of revenge, military tactic or a measure to control insurgency, among other reasons.

Sexual violence continues to be a strategic weapon of war in modern conflicts, as potential aide to genocide and a tactic to hinder conflict resolution and recovery. For decades, several UN as well as other international organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented various forms of violence against women and girls in conflict zones across the world.

These include and are not limited to:

  • Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been termed the rape capital of the world, with widespread sexual violence that is ongoing since 2000. A 2011 study estimated that 1.8 million women in the DRC had experienced rape in their lifetime. Sources: Un reports, American Journal of Public Health
  • Syria: Since 2011, Reports of sexual violence, documented cases of rape, forced marriage, and sexual slavery used as a tactic of war, with victims often targeted based on their religious or ethnic identity. Sources: United Nations, Human Rights Watch.
  • South Sudan (Darfur): Since the outbreak of the civil war in 2013, wide-spread cases of sexual violence have been reported – mass rapes, sexual slavery. In 2018, a UN report estimated that 70% of women in Juba had experience sexual assault.  Sources:  UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), Human rights groups.
  • Myanmar (Burma): documenting systematic rape, sexual assault, and other forms of gender-based violence as part of ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya women and girls during the 2017 political crisis and military crackdown on the Rohingya population in the Rakhine state. Sources: UN and other organizations
  • Afghanistan: Sexual violence against women in Afghanistan was prevalent during the war/ invasion with increased reporting since the Taliban takeover in 2021.
    Sources: United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Amnesty International.
  • Colombia: The National Victims Unit of Colombia reported over 15,000 victims of sexual violence related to the conflict between 1985 and 2017.
  • Nigeria: Sexual violence in Nigeria got international attention with the Chibok schoolgirls’ abduction in 2014, however mass abductions, rape, forced marriages were since the rise of Boko Haram in 2009. Sources: United Nations, Human Rights Watch.
  • Yemen: There have been reports of ongoing and increased sexual violence as a result of and since the escalation of conflict due to Civil war in 2015. Sources: United Nations reports, International NGOs.
  • Rwanda: Rwandan women were subjected to sexual violence ranging from rape, assault, sexual slavery on a massive scale, perpetrated by members of the infamous Hutu militia groups known as the Interahamwe, by other civilians, and by soldiers of the Rwandan Armed Forces(Forces Armées Rwandaises, FAR), including the Presidential Guard, as part of a systematic genocide in 1994. Source: Human Rights Watch.
  • Korea, China, the Philippines, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Manchuko, Taiwan, the Dutch East Indies, Portuguese Timor, New Guinea, and Japanese-occupied territories during and before World War II : 360,000 to 410,000 “comfort women” were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in the territories and countries it occupied in the period between 1938 and 1945. Sources: The Gender Security Project, The Asian Women’s Fund; Agribay 2003.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina: It is estimated that in the 1992-1995 war in former Yugoslavia and the brutal conflict between Bosnian Serbs and Muslims., approximately 20,000 women and men were subjected to rape, sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence by military and paramilitary groups as a systemic and widespread policy of terror and violence designed to achieve “ethnic cleansing.”  Sources: Amnesty International, US Office of Justice Programs, Department of Justice.
  • Ukraine: During and after Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, numerous cases of sexual violence including rape, forced nudity, and sexual torture perpetrated by Russian forces in occupied territories were reported with documented sexual violence as a form of torture and inhumane treatment against civilians and prisoners of war. Source: OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)
  • Cameroon: During the (2017-ongoing) Anglophone war, also called Ambazonia War or the Cameroonian Civil War, there have been numerous reports of the use of rape as a weapon of war, or revenge, sexual exploitation and violence by clashing separatists and security forces. Source: International Crisis Group
  • Haiti: Gang violence continues to escalate in Haiti, with women and girls especially targeted with extreme acts of gender-based violence (GBV), including collective rape, in order to humiliate, terrorize, and consolidate control over local populations.  Source: The International Rescue Committee (IRC)

These examples, while significant, barely scratch the surface of the actual global prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence. However, we bring them up here as a stark reminder that sexual violence is often a deliberate and systematic weapon of war, not just a by-product. This #SAAM2024, let’s recognize the interconnectedness of our global community and humanity to support efforts that prevent such devastating violations to peace and security.

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