Three top researchers explode myths about wartime sexual violence and conclude that rape in war is neither ubiquitous nor inevitable. Variation occurs across countries, conflicts, and armed groups. The fact that some commanders are able to prohibit sexual violence suggests that prevention is possible and interventions should be aimed at the level of armed groups

Summary

  • Wartime rape is neither ubiquitous nor inevitable. The level of sexual violence differs significantly across countries, conflicts, and particularly armed groups. Some armed groups can and do prohibit sexual violence. Such variation suggests that policy interventions should also be focused on armed groups, and that commanders in effective control of their troops are legally liable for patterns of sexual violence they fail or refuse to prevent.  
  • Wartime rape is also not specific to certain types of conflicts or to geographic regions. It occurs in ethnic and non-ethnic wars, in Africa and elsewhere.  
  • State forces are more likely to be reported as perpetrators of sexual violence than rebels. States may also be more susceptible than rebels to naming and shaming campaigns around sexual violence.  
  • Perpetrators and victims may not be who we expect them to be. During many conflicts, those who perpetrate sexual violence are often not armed actors but civilians. Perpetrators also are not exclusively male, nor are victims exclusively female. Policymakers should not neglect nonstereotypical perpetrators and victims.  
  • Wartime rape need not be ordered to occur on a massive scale. Wartime rape is often not an intentional strategy of war: it is more frequently tolerated than ordered. Nonetheless, as noted, commanders in effective control of their troops are legally liable for sexual violence perpetrated by those troops.  
  • Much remains unknown about the patterns and causes of wartime sexual violence. In particular, existing data cannot determine conclusively whether wartime sexual violence on a global level is increasing, decreasing, or holding steady. Policymakers should instead focus on variation at lower levels of aggregation, and especially across armed groups.

About the Report

Under the collaborative leadership of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP); the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley; the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO); and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute North America (SIPRI North America), this special report is launched to mark the first convening of The Missing Peace Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings. Over the past eighteen months, this core group of organizations along with others have developed a community of practice made up of scholars, policymakers, practitioners, and military and civil society actors to examine the issues of conflict-related sexual violence, to identify gaps in knowledge and reporting, and to explore how to increase the effectiveness of current responses to such violence. This report summarizes ten major misconceptions about wartime sexual violence, highlighting both advances and gaps in our knowledge. Drawing on social science research, it outlines for policymakers the current state of knowledge about wartime sexual violence, details gaps in existing knowledge, and explores the implications of these findings for policymaking.

About the Authors

Dara Kay Cohen, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, is completing a book project on wartime rape during recent civil conflicts. Amelia Hoover Green, an assistant professor of political science at Drexel University, is focusing her current book on armed groups’ efforts to controrepertoires of violence against civilians. Both Cohen and Hoover Green were USIP Peace Scholars in 2008–09. Elisabeth Jean Wood, a professor of political science at Yale University, was a USIP Peace Scholar in 1993–94. Her work focuses on political violence, civil war, and social movements. She is completing a book manuscript titled Wartime Sexual Violence. The report was written by the authors in their personal capacities, and the views are theirs alone.[1]


1. The authors thank Michele Leiby, Xabier Agirre Aranbaru, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments. Dara Kay Cohen has received research support from USIP, the National Science Foundation, the Peace Research Institute of Oslo and the Folke Bernadotte Academy. Elisabeth Jean Wood has received research support from USIP, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, the Santa Fe Institute, and Yale University. Amelia Hoover Green has received research support from USIP, the Benetech Human Rights Program, and Yale University.

Related Publications

How the Taliban’s Hijab Decree Defies Islam

How the Taliban’s Hijab Decree Defies Islam

Thursday, May 12, 2022

By: Belquis Ahmadi;  Mohammad Osman Tariq

The Taliban continued this week to roll back Afghan women’s rights by decreeing women must be fully covered from head to toe — including their faces — to appear in public. This follows decrees limiting women’s ability to work, women’s and girls’ access to education and even limiting their freedom of movement. Afghan women are rapidly facing the worst-case scenario many feared when the Taliban took over last summer. While the Taliban justify these moves as in accordance with Islam, they are, in fact, contradicting Islamic tradition and Afghan culture as the group looks to resurrect the full control they had over women and girls when they ruled in the 1990s.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

GenderHuman RightsReligion

Protecting the Participation of Women Peacebuilders

Protecting the Participation of Women Peacebuilders

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

By: Negar Ashtari Abay, Ph.D.;  Kathleen Kuehnast, Ph.D.

Worsening violence against women is often a precursor to — and early outcome of — the rise in coups and authoritarianism that have made recent headlines. Not only does protecting women’s participation in public life and decision-making go hand-in-hand with democracy, but the former is actually a precondition for the latter. As we mark International Women’s Day in 2022, we would do well to remember that global efforts to prevent violent conflict and sustain peace are significantly undermined when women are deterred from access to participation and full leadership without fear of reprisals and violence. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

GenderPeace Processes

Peaceful Masculinities: Religion and Psychosocial Support Amid Forced Displacement

Peaceful Masculinities: Religion and Psychosocial Support Amid Forced Displacement

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

By: Negar Ashtari Abay, Ph.D.;  Andrés Martínez;  Carolina Buendia Sarmiento

The number of people displaced globally due to conflict and violence nearly doubled between 2010 and 2020 from 41 million to 78.5 million, the highest number on record. Forced displacement, within and across national borders, exposes persons to stressful events and trauma, making psychosocial support a critical part of successful integration in new communities and societies. Those forcibly displaced include women and girls, men and boys, and gender and sexual minorities.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

GenderReligion

View All Publications