Sexual violence and war: inevitable?

A key reason for the seeming ubiquity of sexual violence in war is not its inevitability, but the impunity associated with it, says Maria Neophytou

Maria Neophytou
19 May 2011

Incidences of sexual violence during war have commonly been dismissed as the unfortunate misdemeanours of wayward soldiers, seen as largely inevitable, implicitly even legitimate, but generally as not as something which should detract attention from the ‘real issues’ at stake when states are at war.  It was only in 1995 that sexual violence in war was first prosecuted as a crime against humanity and the first ever convictions for this crime, second only in gravity to genocide, were not handed down until 2001.

There are three dominant portrayals of sexual violence in war.  One is sexual violence as an inevitable consequence of war, such as in accounts of the Red Army rapes in 1945 where the violence appeared to be spontaneous and unsanctioned.  The second is sexual violence as a strategic instrument of war, such as in Bosnia and Rwanda where it was used as method of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The third is sexual violence as an integral component of the war machine, such as the institutionalised system of comfort women employed by the Japanese military. However none of these accounts alone are sufficient in explaining the widespread occurrence of sexual violence in war; what most explanations fail to grasp is the need to locate this violence in its wider social context. The cultivation of a military masculinity which sexually objectifies women; the foregoing during war of the standard moral codes societies abide by; and pre-existing relations of inequality between men and women, are all indispensable in understanding not only why sexual violence occurs, but why it has historically been ‘invisible’ and seldom punished.

Sexual violence defies a homogenous account; it occurs in a variety of contexts and serves an array of purposes. It functions to motivate, mollify or reward soldiers within a military culture which prizes sex as an entitlement. It becomes a means of humiliation, terrorisation, torture, ethnic cleansing and genocide. It can be opportunistic, occasioned by the generally lawless environment of war, or it can be targeted at specific individuals, for instance on grounds of ethnicity. It can take place in prison or detention, in rape camps or brothels, or in the supposedly safe environment of the home. It can occur with the knowledge and complicity of high ranking military officers and politicians, on their orders, or despite them. It generally goes unpunished. Throughout history, soldiers have had very little to fear from such transgressions, and a key reason for the seeming ubiquity of sexual violence in war is not its inevitability, but the impunity associated with it. 

The sidelining of sexual violence during war performs certain key functions. It serves to uphold the gendered images of the ‘just warrior’ and the ‘beautiful soul’, it helps to preserve the institution of war as a ready option and it reinforces the social system of patriarchy. To acknowledge the true nature, severity and extent of sexual violence in war would pave the way for changes which are still powerfully resisted. Hence, a pattern of contextualisation is evident in the way that sexual violence in war is reported; each new incidence which comes to light is greeted with renewed shock then explained away with reference to particular historical circumstances, cultural characteristics or war tactics. This enables us to eschew uncomfortable questions about whether soldiers have a proclivity towards rape or whether war itself relies on the permissive moral environment which makes sexual violence more likely, even probable. Which begs the question, how inextricable are sexual violence and war? Is war without sexual violence any more possible than war without killing? 

While war where civilians are completely immune from harm is seen as improbable, war without the rape camps of Bosnia ought to be possible. A historical absence of condemnation and the failure to adequately punish such crimes has only served to perpetuate them. Sexual violence could be mitigated by measures such as stricter military discipline, a more equitable gender balance at all levels of military personnel, the promotion of a culture where women are viewed with respect rather than sexually objectified and comprehensive punishment of crimes when they do occur.

In 1995, Cynthia Enloe wrote that we are standing on “the threshold of a significant breakthrough in the international politics of violence against women.” A comparison between coverage of the Vietnam War and coverage of wars in the 1990s shows how far we have come. Susan Brownmiller’s interview with a Vietnam War correspondent is indicative; “like the rest of the Saigon press corps, this Pulitzer Prize winner he had never filed a rape story from Vietnam, but like the rest of the press corps he had certainly been aware of its incidence.” In the 1990s, rape reports were far from uncommon, and the first reports of rape from even long standing conflicts started to appear. In 2002, the US State Department took the unprecedented step of ordering an international investigation of accusations of mass rape against the Burmese military.

The current prominence of sexual and gender based violence in war may have as much to do with public fascination with ‘sex and death’ as with a genuine commitment to reform. As Afghanistan showed, the issue can easily be manipulated for political purposes. And as the post war continuance of sexual and gender based violence in so many countries shows, the issue is all to often brushed aside once war is over. The historic convictions secured at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda respectively and the gender provisions enshrined in the Statute for the International Criminal Court  have given us grounds for cautious optimism. The still widespread occurrence of sexual and gender based violence and continuing resistance to measures to fully address it, show that there are no grounds for complacency.

To read openDemocracy's full coverage of the Nobel Women's Initiative conference, May 23-25, 'Women Forging a New Security: Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict',  click here







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