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 to Make Women Count in the Response to Coronavirus

How to Make Women Count in the Response to Coronavirus

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

By: Danielle Robertson

As health organizations and national governments seek to stem the spread of COVID-19, it is critical that they understand the gender dynamics in their societies. Efforts to combat the pandemic will only go so far if women and girls are left behind in the process. For example, how can a woman experiencing domestic violence quarantine at home safely? Thankfully, global efforts to integrate women as equal partners in peace and security can provide key lessons in responding to health epidemics more inclusively and effectively.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Gender; Global Health

Afghanistan: Can This Be a Real Peace Process?

Afghanistan: Can This Be a Real Peace Process?

Monday, March 23, 2020

By: Sharif Shah Safi

Like every Afghan, I’m watching with fear and hope to see what will emerge from last month’s agreement between the United States and the Taliban. My hope is that it can help end more than 40 years of war. My fear is that the current process may not result in a just and dignified peace where all Afghans are considered equal citizens, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. I fear that the Taliban’s rigid interpretations of Islamic laws will undermine our country’s gains of the past 18 years: an open media, women’s presence in public spheres, and more.

Type: Blog

Gender; Peace Processes; Youth

What Women Have Won

What Women Have Won

Friday, March 6, 2020

By: Nancy Lindborg

Five years ago, as the newly appointed and first woman president of the United States Institute of Peace, I was celebrating International Women’s Day in Kabul with the wonderful Afghan women on our USIP country team. Having first visited Afghanistan in 1997, when the country was in the grip of the Taliban, it was a joyous opportunity to mark nearly two decades of progress with this group of professional women—lawyers, scholars, and program managers.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Gender

How Kenya’s Women Are Preventing Extremism and Violence

How Kenya’s Women Are Preventing Extremism and Violence

Thursday, March 5, 2020

By: Nicoletta Barbera

A group of women gathered recently in Kiambu, an overcrowded Kenyan town, to build their local response to a national problem: recruitment, especially of young men, by extremist groups such as al-Shabab. Kiambu’s women form one of several groups nationwide that are launching local dialogues—typically among community members and authorities—to build well-rooted efforts to counter extremist influence. These groups are part of a network called Sisters Without Borders, which has risen from Kenya’s grassroots over the past five years. On the upcoming International Women’s Day, the story of Kenya’s sisters is worth noting as a success for women building peace and confronting terrorism in their homelands.

Type: Blog

Gender; Violent Extremism

View All Publications