Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict? First, Understanding It

Published: 
June 10, 2014
By: 
Viola Gienger

The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence, co-hosted in London this week by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and actress and United Nations envoy Angelina Jolie, will draw on research by young scholars who have documented the causes, responses and potential solutions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, El Salvador and elsewhere. The researchers recently highlighted their significant and often unanticipated findings at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Despite widespread assumptions about sexual violence that stem from intense news attention to certain instances, research reveals a huge range in the frequency and nature of such violations. Cases that tend to get the most attention include gang rape, such as the recent high-profile incidents in India or, in conflict zones, the use of rape as a weapon of war as in the cases of Bosnia two decades ago and, more recently, Syria.

USIP focuses specifically on conflict zones, and research from young scholars has begun to better document the many other forms of sexual violence that occur in war and the patterns that emerge, such as how often men or boys are victimized as a tactic of war. Interviews with perpetrators in groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army, which has operated in border regions of four African countries since 1986, also examined the factors that contribute to such atrocities.

The early-career researchers who presented these findings and more during a two-day event at USIP May 22-23 are part of a network that emerged from five years of work by the Institute and its partners to establish a community of practice to study and develop approaches for preventing sexual violence in conflict. In 2013, USIP hosted the first global Missing Peace Symposium with more than a dozen organizations to bring together practitioners, researchers, policymakers and activists to better understand the challenges and identify the gaps in this field.

The Missing Peace Young Scholars Network is made up of early-career researchers from a range of academic backgrounds who are seeking to understand and help end sexual violence in war. The network was formed in 2013 by a consortium of USIP, the Human Rights Center at the University of California Berkeley, the Peace-Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and Women In International Security (WIIS).

UN agencies estimate that between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped during the three months of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and as many as 60,000 were raped in the wars of the former Yugoslavia from 1992 through 1995. In Liberia's conflict between 1989 and 2003, the count is more than 60,000, and the numbers reach at least 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1998, according to the U.N.

In a letter to the June 10-13 U.K. summit, the Missing Peace scholars identified three persistent myths about sexual violence in conflict:

  • that it is ubiquitous and inevitable;
  • that it is a weapon of war;
  • that it is a product of war and will end when peace arrives.

Instead, research has shown that more than 40 percent of conflicts from 1989 through 2010 had no reports of sexual violence by any group.

"Several armed groups, including the Salvadoran rebels and the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, have avoided sexual violence almost completely," the scholars said in their letter.

Furthermore, sexual violence in conflict is not always the result of a deliberate strategy and cannot always be addressed with prosecution and punishment, they said.  The scholars noted that intimate partners, not fighters, are the most common perpetrators.

"Sexual violence is a symptom of larger structural issues in society such as gender inequality," they wrote.

"All gender-based violence, including sexual violence in conflict, is vastly underreported," the scholars wrote in their letter. "While we have acquired some understanding of sexual violence perpetrated by armed groups, we have little understanding about the motivations and patterns of sexual violence perpetrated by other groups and individuals. As a result, we have little understanding what works to prevent sexual violence in conflict."

One of the key findings from last year's Missing Peace Symposium is that this form of violence is more about power dynamics than sex, and it affects men as well as women, including children.

The acknowledgement of male victims of sexual violence remains a taboo but is critical to help stop the cycle of violence, Kathleen Kuehnast, USIP's director for the Center on Gender and Peacebuilding, has said.

"We have to broaden our understanding so [that] we get our policy and prescriptions for prevention right," said Kuehnast, who will be attending the London summit.

And even though sexual violence usually continues after conflict ends, cease-fire and peace agreements almost never include provisions that consider such brutalities to be a violation.

Michele Leiby, an assistant professor in political science at the College of Wooster, Ohio, studied the use of sexual violence by state-aligned armed forces, including police and paramilitaries, during the era of civil wars in South and Central America. She conducted most of her research in Guatemala, Peru and El Salvador.

"If we limit our understanding of sexual violence to rape and gang rape, in the context of Peru, for example, that excludes more than 50 percent of all reported acts of sexual violence that have been documented," Leiby told the USIP audience last month. Some of the most frequent other forms of sexual violence include sexual mutilation, sexual torture, sexual humiliation, forced abortion and forced impregnation."

The interviews with members of the Lord's Resistance Army and other rebel groups in Eastern and Central Africa revealed brutal initiation rituals clearly intended to redraw the lines of what recruits see as appropriate and inappropriate behavior, said Jocelyn Kelly, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. She directs Harvard Humanitarian Initiative's Women in War program, and has interviewed rebels in the region about their experiences, motivations and the internal structures of their groups.

"This is helpful to understand how behavior evolves, how it changes, how it's codified and then how it's maybe calcified throughout the course of conflict," Kelly explained during the May discussion at USIP. "Soldiers are actively deconstructed and mentally reconstructed during often highly violent and systematized initiation rights."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has supported Hague's drive to end sexual violence and will attend the London summit, called the campaign "a critical mission." The U.S. in February changed its visa policies to affirm that sexual violence can be considered a war crime because "it is often organized and systematic, not an unavoidable by-product of war," he said in a commentary published June 9 in the London Evening Standard newspaper.

"The next step in this overdue process will be persuading every government to deny safe haven to those who commit these vile acts," Kerry wrote. "That should be a key legacy of the London conference."

Experts caution that perpetrators and victims sometimes are one and the same.

Alexander Vu, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the university's Bloomberg School of Public Health, works to develop screening methods and approaches to improve the health of people displaced by armed conflict and natural disasters.

He told the USIP audience last month about a case in Uganda of a 25-year-old male refugee from Congo. The young man had been coming to a relief organization for two years with occasional pain, trouble sleeping and problems doing his daily work. But the aid workers could never pinpoint the source of his issues.

A screening process that Vu helped develop began to open a discussion with the man.

"We found out that this gentleman was raped," Vu explained. "And he was also forced to perpetrate rape in front of his family and to rape his own daughter."

The deep societal damage linked to sexual violence – often as cause and effect – has prompted Hague to push the issue even at the Group of 8 (G8) economic powers. He and Kerry published a joint commentary in The Huffington Post online on Feb. 25.

"Preventing sexual violence isn't just a great moral cause of our generation. It is a national security imperative," they wrote in the column. "Sexual violence destroys lives. It fuels conflict, forces people to flee their homes and is often perpetrated alongside other human rights abuses, including forced marriage, sexual slavery and human trafficking. It undermines reconciliation and traps survivors in conflict, poverty and insecurity."

June 10, 2014