What Do We Really Know About Wartime Rape?

There's more will than ever before to fight sexual violence in conflict, but the world can't stop what it doesn't understand.


Whether spurring mass protests in India or being covered up on American university campuses, rape and other forms of sexual abuse are being discussed openly as never before. This goes too for sexual violence committed in war. And with that openness are increasing calls to change the way the world handles these crimes.

This fall, reports of sexual violence perpetrated by Islamic State kidnappers (including violence committed against minority communities in Iraq) were met with international outrage. There have been similarly troubling reports about sexual assaults committed by African Union troops in Somalia and by all sides of the conflict in the Central African Republic. This summer, then-U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague and U.N. Special Envoy Angelina Jolie co-chaired the largest-ever gathering on the subject, with 1,700 delegates from 123 countries convening to discuss the promise of “ending sexual violence in conflict.” Although concrete commitments were few, government ministers promised to address impunity, extend a range of services to those who have suffered sexual violence in war, take responsibility for their country’s own armed forces, and improve international cooperation.

Those pronouncements are welcome, of course. But their ability to foster real change depends on understanding sexual violence in all its complexity, whether in conflict or outside of it. Which begs the question: What is actually known about the scale and forms of sexual violence, and how what happens in peacetime affects what happens in wartime — and vice versa?

In some respects, a lot is already known. Despite complaints that sexual violence is not yet a sufficiently studied topic in political science, networks of dedicated scholars exist and are growing. Research over the last decades has shown that not all conflicts are marked by sexual violence to the same extent or in the same way, an important corrective to ideas of it as inevitable. New and extensive efforts at data collection also suggest that, in contrast to common assumptions about rebel groups and civilian victimization, state armed forces are the major perpetrators. We know that sexual violence persists — and can even increase — after war’s end, and that it has a complex relationship to peacetime abuses. There is good reason to think that under-reporting is a problem, but that this can be corrected somewhat by creating a better and safer environment for the victims who report such crimes. And we know that men and boys are survivors too.

Yet unfortunately, such important insights often do not drive policy as much as they could.

In part, this is because for all that is known about sexual violence in war, there’s much more that remains unclear. One major problem is how difficult it is to get a reliable picture of the global level and distribution of sexual violence. The bulk of well-researched human rights reports focus on specific conflict zones, and the pattern of atrocities they sketch out often is not comparable to other studies, making a comprehensive view frustratingly elusive. For instance, studies don’t always use the same conceptual frameworks. Some define sexual violence to include sexual slavery, while others do not. Some include sexualized torture against men held in detention, while others only look at crimes against women. It is still regrettably common for gender to be used as a synonym for women, ignoring that men’s experiences of war are also gendered. Some themes — such as the connection between violence against men, especially those who are abducted as boys by armed groups, and the violence they go on to perpetrate — are not even visible without that inclusion. These are not merely technical questions, but political ones. The exclusion of some from the role of survivor reinforces political narratives about victims and perpetrators, narratives that in turn shape who gains political recognition and agency.

Without more accurate data — such as reliable baseline surveys on sexual violence before war begins — researchers can only make rough judgments about where violations are greatest, and what role conflict plays in driving them. Decisions over where best to focus limited resources are more robust, or at least more transparent, when changes in sexual abuse committed over time and different events are better understood. Without this kind of effort, it is too easy for individual cases and horrifying scenarios to drive both policy and media attention.

Of course, sexual violence is infamously bedeviled by problems of measurement. One of the most reliable methods — the large, nationally representative survey — is rarely employed, and often cannot be, in conflict situations. Moreover, fluctuations in reporting, driven by factors such as relative security and confidence in authorities, can produce a false sense of precision.

The U.S. military serves as a case in point. The latest investigation of sexual violence in the military by the Department of Defense (DOD) reports a 50 percent increase reported cases in 2013. This is the largest year-on-year jump in a steadily rising trend that began in the mid-2000s. Although critics are right to identify a range of failures in DOD programs, it is highly unlikely that the rate of perpetration has shifted so dramatically in 12 months. Instead, the change points to a willingness to report, attributable either to better procedures within the military or greater confidence on the part of survivors, who are perhaps now more aware that their cases are not isolated ones. After all, up until a few years ago, the issue of rape in the military was not much discussed in the media. Today, however, the experience of assault is better documented and has gained the attention of policymakers.

Even where reliable figures exist, misleading statistics often persist. In the case of wartime sexual violence, mythical numbers can linger not only as under-estimates (because of low reporting) but also sometimes as over-estimates. In the aftermath of the Liberian war, for instance, it was often claimed — including by influential commentators like Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times — that 75 percent of all Liberian women had been raped, a conclusion derived from one study by the World Health Organization that had in fact only sampled women who had experienced gender-based violence. In other words, the original research had been on the prevalence of rape amongst survivors of all forms of gender-based violence (including humiliation, sexual beating, and other human rights abuses), not the prevalence of rape among Liberian women in general.

As scholars Dara Kay Cohen and Amelia Hoover Green argued in the Journal of Peace Research in 2012, such figures persist in part because there are incentives for advocacy groups to base their campaigns on dramatic claims. Assuming that a global public is ever more inured to tales of horror, it becomes tempting to choose the most shocking number over the most accurate one. This is not to say that advocacy groups maliciously distort known data, but to warn that the periodic fixation on extreme cases necessarily means that responses are less consistent than they could be, and may fail to address the social and conflict dynamics that lie beneath shock figures.

Global responses to sexual violence depend on how it’s counted, and whom researchers think counts. The willingness of policymakers to take sexual violence seriously in recent years has largely come from a framing of it is a weapon of war — that is, a mass atrocity deliberately adopted as a tactic of war to access economic resources or conquer strategic zones. The result has been an over-emphasis by media and activists on military perpetrators. Studies that focus on testimony from war zones or that foreground stories of attacks by soldiers are likely to discount the high levels of intimate partner and civilian-perpetrated sexual violence that also occur in conflict situations. Although there is no universal ratio to rely on, existing evidence from several studies suggest that a significant proportion (and perhaps the majority) of sexual violence is not carried out by armed groups at all. This remains an ongoing controversy in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where most media and policy focus has been on the idea of rape as a weapon of war, rather than on non-military perpetrators or much more complex dynamics of violence. If the global response focuses mainly on formal military hierarchy, many survivors will go unrecognized.

The challenge for policy professionals is identifying when sexual violence is being orchestrated for the purpose terror, and when it is a spontaneous criminal act. On the one hand, they must deal with gaps in data and the considerable complexity of sexual violence across diverse settings, and on the other, they cannot allow ongoing debates over that complexity to stand in the way of concrete action. Women — and men — will continue to need medical interventions, psychosocial support, justice, and conflict resolution regardless of whether agencies are working with the best data. But improved methodologies in collecting data could provide a better evidence foundation not just for well-designed government interventions, but also for a consistent standard against which governments can be held to account.

This tension between knowledge and action can in part be resolved by seeing reliable research not as a distraction from, but as in fact integral to, effective policy. Organizations — whether governmental, non-governmental, or inter-governmental — need to invest in knowledge. Too often, the relationship between research and policy is framed as a failure of academics to speak the right language, or present their findings in the right way. But the obligation flows both ways. It is also the duty of practitioners to base their interventions on the best of current research, and to push for greater investment where that research is not comprehensive enough. The alternative is to see only some violence, and then in distorted ways. A greater alignment between research and policy is not a luxury, but essential to realizing the bold promise of ending sexual violence.

Paul Kirby is a lecturer in international security the University of Sussex, where he teaches courses on the politics of war and gender violence. Kathleen Kuehnast is director of the Center for Gender & Peacebuilding at USIP. The views expressed are their own.

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