Rape And Sexual Abuse Of Girls And Women As A Weapon Of War In Armed Conflict


The use of sexual violence against women has been an abiding feature of historical conflicts around the world. Systematic sexual violence is often seen as an inevitable consequence of war and is usually used by military forces as a way of demoralizing the enemy, with women being collateral damage in the execution of this egregious military strategy. Natalie Browes of the Denis Mukwege Foundation states that “sexual violence is seen as opportunistic actions of an individual or a soldier or a small group operating in a military environment where violence, trauma and hyper-masculinity have become the norm.”

Conflict-related sexual violence against women takes place in different ways, such as rape, sexual mutilation, sexual humiliation, forced prostitution, and forced pregnancy. Throughout history, women have been viewed as “spoils of war” to which soldiers are unconditionally entitled, an obtuse notion deeply entrenched in the idea of women as “property”, chattels accessible to the highest bidder or for no price at all.

Another reason that the UN cites as being a cause of conflict-related sexual violence is the demoralization of the men in the enemy force or community, as their masculinity will be questioned for failing to protect “their women”. It can also be used by military forces as a way of quelling women’s political involvement during times of conflict or punishing them for being involved with people whose political ideals vary from those of their aggressors.

In other cases, such as the genocide in Rwanda, rape can be used as a form of ethnic cleansing, to change the genetic make-up of the “enemy” people. A WHO Report on Violence and Health revealed that sexual abuse of men and boys is also a relevant issue in this context. In armed conflict, it is often used by military officials and non-state combatants or insurgents as a form of punishment and humiliation, or as way of establishing hierarchies of respect and discipline. However, male-centred sexual abuse in armed conflict seems to be premised on the humiliation, demoralization or feminization of men. This is because sexual acts between men in the societies that this form of violence is perpetuated in are seen as a transgression of a societal norm. These rape victims sometimes become aggressors as a way of reasserting their masculinity in an attempt to distance themselves from the shame that society attaches to individuals that have undergone this violation.

Women are more likely to be, and have been, subjected to more sexual violence than men in peaceful settings. This is not a trend that has been altered during times of conflict. The Women 2000 Issue by the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women in the Department of Social and Economic Affairs gave a chilling account of events during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in 1992. Reports divulged the disconcerting inner-workings of the Bosnian-Serb military structure, which used rape as a deliberate and systematic part of their campaign to achieve victory. It was very apparent that sexual violence against women played a major role in the Bosnian-Serb combatants’ assertion of military force. They set up detention camps specifically for raping women. The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1820 on 19 June 2008, demanding “the complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians” and indicated that “rape and other forms of sexual violence could constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.”

The Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict was established by the Security Council 1888 of 2009 and has established various initiatives aimed at addressing conflict-related sexual violence, such as training on conflict-related sexual violence, development of early warning indicators, addressing conflict-related sexual violence in ceasefire and peace agreements and development of comprehensive strategies to combat sexual violence.

Increased conflict and military activity in the Middle-East and some parts of Africa in recent years has led to a devastatingly high number of women being subjected to conflict-related sexual violence. This report will focus on two key areas in which these acts have taken place: Syria and Iraq.

The Bosnian-Serb military force is not alone in its torture of women. Their counterparts in Syria and Iraq seem determined to transcend the mastery of their predecessors in continuing to use the subjection of women to sexual violence as a weapon of war in armed conflict. The Islamic State (Da’esh, ISIL, ISIS) has not shied away from its transgressions regarding sexual violence against women. In November 2014, a document surfaced online containing prices set by ISIS to sell Yazidi and Christian girls abducted by its members as sex slaves. According to the Daily Mail UK, the document stated, “The market to sell women and spoils of war has been experiencing a significant decrease, which has adversely affected ISIS revenue and financing of the Mujahideen.” The price list is as follows:

A woman aged 40 to 50 – 50,000 dinars (£27)

A woman aged 30 to 40 – 75,000 dinars (£40)

A woman aged 20 to 30 – 100,000 dinars (£53)

A girl, aged 10 to 20 – 150,000 dinars (£80)

A child under nine – 200,000 dinars (£106)

In an article on 4 August 2015, the Independent UK reported that the UN’s Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangura confirmed that the document was authentic. While speaking to Bloomberg after her trip to Iraq to investigate the authenticity of the document, Bangura stated that girls in the region get “peddled like barrels of petrol.” During her speech at the United Nations in March this year, International Human Rights lawyer Amal Clooney stated that “ISIS is a bureaucracy of evil leaving behind it a trail of evidence that nobody is collecting.” She urged the Iraqi government and the UN and its member states to act, lest the world is left once again regretting their inaction after too many lives have been lost and destroyed—as was the case in Rwanda.

Despite its blatant commissions of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, members of the Islamic State have yet to be tried in a court of local or international jurisdiction. The Iraqi force’s modus operandi of killing captives while in detention does nothing but frustrate investigations and fuel ISIS’ cause. Attempts at obliteration of the entire Islamic State will do nothing to stamp out increased terrorist activity, as the killing of an individual does not destroy his/her ideals.

Terrorism is a rapidly evolving problem and the UN and the international community need to do more than perpetually express their horror and disgust at the Islamic State’s actions. These women need action to be taken now, or we will be left saying ‘Never Again’ once again, remembering the Yazidi genocide and waiting to express our outrage and sadness as yet another genocide unfolds before our eyes long after the victims are gone.