Conflict-related sexual violence is not only an indicator of rising atrocity risk — it can also constitute an atrocity crime itself. And while the U.S. government has implemented conflict-related sexual violence response efforts, concurrent international efforts on the issue offer a solid foundation for the United States to go beyond responding to these crimes and toward prevention.

A Yazidi woman in a refugee camp outside Dohuk, Iraq. July 24, 2015. Many Yazidi women were subjected to sexual slavery by the Islamic State. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)
A Yazidi woman in a refugee camp outside Dohuk, Iraq. July 24, 2015. Many Yazidi women were subjected to sexual slavery by the Islamic State. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)

Of course, the U.S. government won’t be starting from scratch when it comes to prevention. Existing architecture, such as the recently released U.S. Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities, aims to significantly improve U.S. practice in protecting civilians. But as the U.S. government begins to implement this new strategy, there’s a chance to address existing gaps and minimize the ways in which atrocities “inflict long-term trauma and destroy lives and communities” by incorporating analysis of conflict-related sexual violence as both a cause and consequence of atrocity crimes.

To effectively leverage this opportunity, relevant U.S. departments and agencies should undertake four approaches: improve the evidence base for conflict-related sexual violence and atrocity risk; better integrate indicators of conflict-related sexual violence into early warning efforts; improve training of U.S. government staff and policymakers to address conflict-related sexual violence; and include conflict-related sexual violence mapping in atrocity risk mapping in priority countries.

This will improve U.S. government understanding of conflict-related sexual violence and its relationship to atrocity risk, strengthen prevention efforts, and enhance U.S. protection policy.

Priority Action 1: Establish a Body of Knowledge on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

The new U.S. strategy calls for the development of a more robust knowledge base regarding atrocity prevention. As that process unfolds, we must include analysis on the weaponization of sexual violence in the commission of atrocity crimes. Adding such analysis offers a chance to expand upon existing U.S. government atrocity assessment frameworks in a way that uncovers the motives and root causes inciting this violence — as well as informs future indicators for rising atrocity risk.

For example, deep-rooted and long-standing inter-ethnic tensions have led to ethnic cleansing and genocidal rape campaigns in atrocity contexts throughout history. During conflicts in Bosnia, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, armed groups have forcibly impregnated women and subjected them to sexual disfigurement with the goal of removing their ethnic identity and/or replacing it with the perpetrator’s ethnic identity.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also captured and enslaved female non-believers as a tool of ethnic cleansing, violent extremism, forced religious conversion and genocide. Genocidal rape has also been reported in recent humanitarian crises and conflicts, including against Rohingya Muslims and Tigrayan women and children.

If the United States wants to improve its atrocity prevention strategy, these types of ethnic, religious and national tensions must be understood as key risk factors — and understanding the use of sexual violence as a weapon will help U.S. policymakers design prevention efforts that address these complex dynamics.

Priority Action 2: Integrate Conflict-Related Sexual Violence into Early Warning Systems

The new U.S. strategy recognizes early warning systems — a critical prevention tool that assesses a country’s level of risk for violence — as central to identifying escalatory atrocity risks. Conflict-related sexual violence should be included as an indicator of risk to increase the predictive capacity of these systems. Early warning systems can also be designed to monitor escalatory risks for the perpetration of conflict-related sexual violence itself, strengthening U.S. government atrocity prevention early warning efforts overall.

Research shows that the predictive capacity of early warning systems is improved by the inclusion of gender-sensitive indicators. These indicators measure sexual and gender-based violence both directly (i.e. the trafficking of women or girls) and indirectly (i.e. demand for contraception). An increase in this specific type of violence correlates to an increased atrocity risk because conflict-related sexual violence can contribute to an enabling environment for the commission of other atrocities and can indicate rising levels of insecurity.

Early warning systems can also be tailored to assess the risk for conflict-related sexual violence itself. Risk indicators in these systems include, but are not limited to, recruitment by armed forces, proliferation of small arms and light weapons, and misogynistic propaganda.

The Early Warning Project, a joint initiative between the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Dartmouth College, has a statistical risk assessment that is one of several risk assessments referenced by the U.S. government in designing preventative interventions. However, the assessment is conducted at a global level, which gives rise to data criteria restrictions and collection limitations. As a result, sexual and gender-based violence is not included as one of the 34 variables in the assessment.

To strengthen preventative action for the commission of atrocities generally and for conflict-related sexual violence specifically, the U.S. government should enhance its collection of data on sexual and gender-based violence to include in its internal risk assessments. This will strengthen the ability of U.S. government stakeholders to more accurately identify, predict and understand escalatory atrocity risks, thereby strengthening preventative action.

Priority Action 3: Include Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Atrocity Prevention Training

The new U.S. strategy also views training as a crucial tool for improving the practice of atrocity prevention. As these training programs continue to be developed and expanded, incorporating conflict-related sexual violence could take several forms.

One possibility is the development of modules on different forms of — and motivations for — conflict-related sexual violence, as well as the integration of conflict-related sexual violence into existing training modules. Including conflict-related sexual violence in early-warning training modules, for example, would allow for better identification and monitoring of early warning indicators, strengthening the likelihood that effective preventive measures can be taken.

Training should address conflict-related motives of this violence — such as combatant socialization — and conflict-related driving forces — such as whether existing social exclusion is producing instability or whether extremist ideologies have begun to coalesce.

In Sierra Leone, El Salvador and Timor-Leste, for example, men and boys abducted by armed forces reported experiencing sexual violence as a form of combatant socialization. Therefore, an associated early warning indicator in these contexts could be increased reports of abduction, which would signal a higher risk for perpetration of conflict-related sexual violence and, consequently, atrocity crimes.

In Iraq and Syria, reports have indicated the specific targeting of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgender persons due to their perceived abandonment of social norms that were already under tension. Such targeting points to the presence of violent extremism in these conflict contexts, exacerbating prejudice against minority populations. An associated early warning indicator could be increased hate speech targeting gender and sexual minorities, which similarly signals an escalatory risk for conflict-related sexual violence and atrocity crimes.

Early warning monitoring can thus be enhanced by integrating conflict-related sexual violence into atrocity prevention training because it allows government personnel to better identify motives and driving forces that are not otherwise present in general atrocity prevention trainings or in general gender-based violence prevention trainings.

Priority Action 4: Mapping Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

Per the new U.S. strategy, the interagency Atrocity Prevention Task Force must identify priority and intensive-focus countries for atrocity prevention programming. This identification process includes conducting quantitative and qualitative assessments and drawing upon civil society input. Assessing state capacity — both local and national — to respond to sexual violence may provide critical information on not only the level of atrocity risk but also the ability and political will of the state to meaningfully address it.

A country must be able to sustain prevention programming for it to be effective. For example, growing ethnic tensions and targeting of ethnic or national groups may also indicate escalatory risk for rape campaigns and forced pregnancies. In these situations, as is occurring in Ukraine, emergency contraception and protection is needed. Mapping will determine whether local infrastructure is able to sustain the distribution of emergency contraception and, if not, can indicate where U.S. departments and agencies can engage in institutional capacity building to ensure the efficacy of prevention efforts.

Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

The next six months will be critical for the effective implementation of the U.S. Strategy to Anticipate, Prevent, and Respond to Atrocities as interagency representatives further develop a plan for atrocity prevention programming. Importantly, this moment offers an opportunity for the U.S. government to internationally signal its prioritization of the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence by integrating these efforts into atrocity prevention. To fulfill the promise of prevention, the U.S. government should look to establish a body of knowledge relating to atrocity prevention and conflict-related sexual violence, enhance early warning systems by including indicators of sexual and gender-based violence, expand atrocity prevention training, and map local and national infrastructure.

Mikaylah Ladue is a visiting scholar from Princeton University at USIP.

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