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Sexual violence against women in conflict: an extreme manifestation of violence and a weapon of war

14 April, 2015

By Andrada Filip – Research Assistant

Sexual violence against women remains an unresolved human rights problem. Time and again conflicts erupt during which alarmingly high rates of rape and other forms of sexual violence are being recorded. The purpose of this article is to offer a brief historical overview of this gruesome practice, and make an analysis of the current situation encountered in several countries. The aim is to point out that while sexual violence is deeply rooted in patriarchal social norms, it ultimately represents a predatory mode of warfare which is dehumanizing and brutal. It is essential to adopt and implement adequate legislation to prohibit such acts. Nevertheless, such an approach is insufficient, unless values of gender equality and are instilled in all members of society, in order to change the underlying social norms.

Brief Historical Overview

Sexual violence against women has existed since time immemorial. Testimonies of horrific acts perpetrated against women in times of conflict have been written over and over again, from antiquity to modernity. Soldiers of Greek, Macedonian and Roman armies used to perpetrate degrading sexual violence against women and girl captives, this being a habitual objective and a practice of ancient warfare.[1] A narrative from the Babylonian Talmud’s account of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem tells the story of the Roman general Titus who breached the walls of Jerusalem and raided the temple, where he seized a woman and raped her on the altar.[2]

Sexual violence is the ultimate form of exhibition of power and dominance not just on women but on a community or nation as a whole. In the twentieth century, during the Second World War the Japanese army established so called “comfort stations”, which combined several elements of control: deprivation of liberty and forced sexual labour.[3] In effect, this represented a system of slavery, violating customary international law.  Both German and Russian soldiers raped women in their countries of occupation as rewards for their fighters or simply because they could.

A few decades later, a similar pattern of behaviour became evident during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1992-1995, when systematic rape was carried out. It is widely acknowledged that the Bosnian case represented an instance in which sexual violence was used in an ethnic conflict as a weapon of demoralization against an entire society.[4] The genocide in Rwanda, which occurred between April and July 1994, represents another instance in which rape was carried out on a massive scale against Tutsi women, as a key strategy of the genocidal campaign. The Akayesu case represented the first instance in which the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) agreed that acts of sexual violence can also be qualified as acts of violence.[5] As such, the tribunal recognized that consent bears no meaning for acts of a sexual nature that have a nexus to genocide, armed conflict and crimes against humanity.[6]

Current Situation: Examples of incidents and perpetrators

Presently, we are witnessing sexual violence being carried out against women in several regions that are experiencing conflict around the world, spanning from Syria and Iraq to Nigeria and Sudan.  The nature of each of these conflicts is different, so are the stages in which they unfold, and the war strategies being implemented by the parties involved. The fundamental characteristic shared by each of these conflicts is that women are regarded as some sort of prey to be captured, enslaved, raped, tortured and abused in a way which the perpetrators deem suitable and even rewarding.

According to Amnesty International, “hundreds of Yezidi women and girls have had their lives shattered by the horrors of sexual violence and sexual slavery in IS captivity”.[7] These women are exposed to a series of horrendous traumatic experiences in captivity, leaving them emotionally and physically scarred for life – should they survive the toll of the atrocities inflicted upon them by the cruel insurgents.The following testimonies reveal the intensity of their suffering, despair and helplessness:  “The man who was holding us said that either we marry him and his brother or he would sell us”… “At night we tried to strangle ourselves with our scarves. We tied the scarves around our necks and pulled away from each other as hard as we could”.[8]

The existence of various international legal instruments which prohibit and punish acts of sexual violence have done little to stop or prevent these heinous crimes or deter the abusers. Depending on the nature of the conflict, the perpetrators can be state or non-state actors, such as insurgent militias or terrorist groups. Very often, the perpetrators from the lower and higher levels of the responsible government remain unpunished, should an investigation and trial even take place. In order to ensure that such horrific acts of violence against women cease to occur when a conflict erupts, it is necessary to make further advances in the realm of international and national law, when it comes to defining and punishing such acts. Furthermore, it is also important to address prevailing social norms, which lie at the roots of extreme patriarchal values. These envisage women as completely subservient to men, while projecting them as mere commodities to be used in order to advance the purposes of men. It is not mere coincidence that when a conflict erupts, women are usually far more vulnerable than men.  This is not because men are called to arms and women are left alone to care for their homes and families, but because male soldiers or insurgents often have such degrading perceptions of women that they end up inflicting torture, rape and other cruel acts upon them.

The justifications given for such acts vary, and there is no systematic official data available on sexual violence in conflict. According to the testimony of a perpetrator of sexual violence during the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “when we rape we feel free”.[9] In the case of ethnic conflicts, such as in Rwanda and Bosnia, males from one ethnic group raped the women of the other rival clan in order to wipe out their ethnicity.

Over the last five decades we have witnessed how Islamist movements have asserted themselves as relevant political players in the Middle East. Brigadier-General Mark Kimmit, former spokesperson for the American troops in Iraq, considered that Islamist movements are reactionary movements in revolt against modernity, trying desperately to turn back the time.[10] Meijer also argues that Islamist movements represent social movements, which primarily seek to create meaning and identity, operating usually in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states, initially at the periphery of society.[11]

Sexual Violence perpetrated by the IS and sexual crimes in Islamic countries

The IS (Daesh) has adopted and disseminated a flawed interpretation of Islam among its followers, according to which adherents are permitted to rape infidel women, and even take so called ‘sex slaves’. As such, a pamphlet was released by IS a few months ago, offering guidelines to their followers on how to capture, keep and sexually abuse female slaves.[12] A report published by Amnesty International in 2014 makes reference to accounts given by Yezidi women who have managed to escape imprisonment.[13] According to their testimonies, these men were not always IS fighters, but also local businessmen, who bought or made arrangements to be married to Yezidi girls, thus forcing them also to convert to Islam.

There have also been numerous cases reported in the media in recent years of Shar’ia courts punishing the rape victim, usually a young girl, instead of her rapist(s), when the alleged act was discovered in the community. Thus, Shar’ia courts in Pakistan have punished young women, who dared to accuse their attackers. Similarly, cases of raped women being punished have also been recorded in Bangladesh and Somalia.[14] A case from Afghanistan of a 10-year old girl who was raped by a mullah sparked fierce criticism by national women NGOs, after the perpetrator was allowed to go scot-free while the girl’s family openly planned to carry out an ‘honour killing’ against her.[15]

Women’s rights in Islam represent a sensitive issue, and the topic becomes ever more controversial in the face of atrocious crimes such as mass rapes and enslavement carried out by Islamist groups, and the discourses of cultural relativism surrounding the lives of Muslim women in Islamic communities and Western societies. At present we are witnessing an upsurge of Islamist groups, amassing a large number of recruits from both conservative and Western societies, adopting a twisted and rigidly conservative interpretation of Islam, and legitimating violent crimes such as rape and sexual enslavement of women. Even though sexual violence is universal, the atrocities inflicted by these Islamist groups and their radical followers bear a particularly misogynistic and scarring element towards the targeted women. It is important to note that throughout the history of Islam, only men have interpreted the sources of Islamic tradition[16]. Likewise, Muslim men have arrogated to themselves the task of defining the ontological, teleological and sociological status of women.[17]

Sexual Violence perpetrated by Boko Haram

Boko Haram is another Islamist movement which originated in Africa and has been applying a similar treatment to women: captivity and enslavement. The movement originated in Nigeria in 2002 and its initial goal was to oppose Western education. ‘Boko Haram’ means ‘opposing Western education’ in the local Hausa language. In 2009 the group started conducting military operations in order to create an Islamic state, which was subsequently declared in 2014.[18] As of late, Boko Haram has made a pledge of allegiance to the IS, vowing to push forward its expansion.[19]

Testimonies of women who have managed to escape from Boko Haram militants indicate that they were forced to marry their oppressors and have been subjected to sexual violence, even if they were are underage.[20] Some of those women have reportedly returned to their villages after a couple of months, a few pregnant and others with infants born during captivity.[21] According to estimates from a Human Rights Watch Report, approximately 500 girls from Northern Nigeria have been abducted since the establishment of the group.[22] Most women seem to have been intentionally abducted because they were students, Christian, or both. Those women, who opposed converting to Islam, have been especially subjected to elevated levels of physical and psychological abuse, rape and forced marriage. Additionally, abducted women have also been forced to engage in attacks against government officials and civilians and carry ammunition. One victim, who was forced to take part in such an operation, recalls how “on the way back from another operation, I was told to approach a group of five men we saw in a nearby village and lure them to where the insurgents were hiding.“[23] The report states that government forces fighting Boko Haram have committed numerous abuses against the civilian population, using excessive force and persecuting anyone suspected of supporting the Islamist group.[24] Violations against women and girls have also been committed, thus the reports calls for fair investigations and prosecutions of all perpetrators, irrespectively if they are part of Boko Haram or the Nigerian armed forces. The need to support survivors of gender-based sexual violence with adequate medical and mental health services is also emphasized.[25] Due to the existing culture in some highly conservative and religious parts of Nigeria, which stigmatizes victims of rape and leaves them covered in shame, it is assumed that many cases of sexual violence have gone underreported.[26]

Analysis and Discussion

The necessity arises to stress that sexual violence is not linked to any religion in particular. Indeed, Islamist groups have been carrying out such crimes recently on a large scale in regions where they seek to assert their own deeply misguided interpretation of Islam, along with a series of hardline conservative values and principles. However, Islamist groups must not be singled out as the main perpetrators of sexual violence, since rape was endemic in conflicts such as the Korean War and Sri Lankan Civil War, which had nothing to do with Islam. Furthermore, sexual violence remains a huge social problem in some parts of democratic societies as well, this being the case of the world’s largest democracy ̶ India.  Sexual violence is carried out there in rural and urban areas alike, whereby a culture of silence is obscuring rapes and sexual crimes, so that investigations are rarely carried out and perpetrators are often not prosecuted. In his first parliamentary address, India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, emphasized the need to ensure the protection of women and that they deserve to be treated in a dignified manner.[27]  This occurred after the nation’s conscience was jolted when a young medical student was brutally gang-raped in a moving bus and dumped alive on the street after being eviscerated. [28] The grotesque act led to massive national protests prompting the government to amend and tighten the existing anti-rape law. The media also began to bring sexual violence ever more into the spotlight, framing it as a national social problem.

The aforementioned cases illustrate that sexual violence can occur in times of war, in a country experiencing political instability and conflict over longer periods of time as well as in democracies and in times of peace. Thus, it can occur in areas of a country where the government is lacking sufficient capacities to properly oversee the implementation and adherence to national laws and international legal standards. Sexual violence is predominant in patriarchal societies in which women are not put on the same equal status as men, attributing traditional gender roles to both of them, and seeking to stigmatize and silence the issue of sexual relations inside and outside of marriage. Nevertheless, rape remains a global problem, by no means restricted to developing countries, as it is inextricably linked to male privilege and superiority, which are encountered everywhere.

Hence, sexual violence can occur as collateral damage to an ongoing conflict or it can merely be a manifestation of conservative, patriarchal values, or deviant sexual behaviour. The crucial point is to acknowledge its dimension as a crime, violent in nature, affecting the victim physically and mentally, and not just an act infringing upon the dignity and honour of another human being.

The Importance of Legal Instruments

UNSC Resolution 1820 states that ‘rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide’.[29] The Resolution also emphasizes that girls and women are particularly targeted and subjected to sexual violence during war, as part of a strategy to humiliate, instill fear and forcibly relocate a particular community or ethnic group.[30] Girls and women are tools in this strategy. They are recipients of the hatred and desire to inflict punishment and exact revenge on a particular military group. Sexual violence is perpetrated with the overarching goal of weakening and humiliating a perceived enemy.

In order to efficiently and effectively address the social malaise represented by sexual violence, it is necessary to ensure that any such acts are strictly prohibited and punished under national and international law. It is also crucial to highlight that the problem need not necessarily be tied to a conflict or war strategy in particular, but that sexual violence in itself is a violent crime, and that the physical and psychological harm caused to the victim is sufficient proof to have the perpetrator prosecuted and tried. Besides being a medical issue, rape is also subject to legal inquiry, whereby along with bringing evidence of physical and psychological damage, one must also prove criminal intent. This implies that crimes of sexual violence ought to be regarded as a matter of international human rights law, and not limited to humanitarian law. Thus, they can be applied to anyone, in times of peace and conflict alike. Legal instruments must seek to protect women and girls from such acts of violence, and at the same time, complementary efforts must be taken in the cultural realm of social norms and principles. However, it is not enough to merely create legal instruments and to enact laws.


The legal practice of investigations, prosecutions and trials, and an educational system which instills in individuals the belief that men and women are equal and deserve the same kind of treatment must be cemented continuously in order to eradicate the scourge of sexual violence. Ultimately, social mindsets that give preference to patriarchal norms cannot be altered without educating all members of society.

[1] Gaca, Kathy (2011) , Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights, University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 80,
[2]  Watts Belser, Julia (2014 ) ‘Sex in the Shadow of Rome: Sexual Violence and Theological Lament in Talmudic Disaster Tales’ Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, p. 6
[3] Argibay, Carmen (2003), ‘Sexual Slavery and the Comfort Women of World War 2’, Berkley Journal of International Law, Vol. 21 (2), p.375
[4] Coneth-Morgan 2004 in Skjelsbaek (2006), ‘Victim and Survivor’, Feminism & Psychology, Vol. 16(4), p. 373
[5] For further information please consult: http://www.unictr.org/en/cases/ictr-96-4
[6] MacKinnon, Catherine (2008), ‘The ICTR’s Legacy on Sexual Violence’, New England Journal of International and Comparative Law, Vol. 14(2), p. 102
[7] Iraq: Yezidi women and girls face harrowing sexual violence, December 2014, available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/articles/news/2014/12/iraq-yezidi-women-and-girls-face-harrowing-sexual-violence/
[8]Horrors of Sexual Violence: Yazidi Women forced into Slavery, Commit Suicide, Amnesty Says’, December 2014, available at: http://rt.com/news/216891-yazidi-women-suicide-isis/
[9] As the Democratic Republic of Congo suffers another day of bloodshed, its soldiers talk with astonishing candour of their own brutality’, June 2014, The Independent, available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/exclusive-as-the-democratic-republic-of-congo-suffers-another-day-of-bloodshed-its-soldiers-talk-with-astonishing-candour-of-their-own-brutality-9506990.html
[10] Meijer (2005), ‘Taking Islamist Movements Seriously: Social Movement Theory and the Islamist Movement’, International Review of Social Theory, Vol. 50, p. 282
[11] Kimmet (2004), cited in Meijer (2005), ‘Taking Islamist Movements Seriously: Social Movement Theory and the Islamist Movement’, International Review of Social Theory, p. 282. The remarks were made in the aftermath of the Fallujah attacks.
[12] ‘Isis releases ‘abhorrent’ sex slaves pamphlet with 27 tips for militants on taking, punishing and raping female captives’, The Independent, December 2014, available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-releases-abhorrent-sex-slaves-pamphlet-with-27-tips-for-militants-on-taking-punishing-and-raping-female-captives-9915913.html
[13] Escape from Hell, Torture and Sexual Slavery in Islamic State Captivity in Iraq (2014)Amnesty International Report, p.9
[14] Chelser, Phyllis (2014), Punished for being Raped and for Accusing Rapists: Women’s Burden under Sharia, Breitbart, available at: http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2014/10/28/punished-for-being-raped-the-burden-of-women-under-sharia/
[15] Nordland, Rod (2014), Struggling to Keep Afghan Girl Safe After a Mullah is Accused of Rape, The New York Times, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/20/world/asia/struggling-to-keep-afghan-girl-safe-after-a-mullah-is-accused-of-rape.html?_r=1
[16] For this article, the following are being considered as the sources of Islamic tradition: the Qur’an, the Sunnah (practical traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), hadith (oral saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), fiqh (jurisprudence), and the Shari’a, a code of law which regulates aspects of Muslim life. Riffat, Hassan (2005), ‘Women’s Rights in Islam: Normative Teachings versus Practice’, in Islam and Human Rights: Advancing a US-Muslim Dialogue, Shireen Hunter & Human Malik eds., CSIS Press Washington DC, p 45
[17] Riffat, Hassan (2005), ‘Women’s Rights in Islam: Normative Teachings versus Practice’, in Islam and Human Rights: Advancing a US-Muslim Dialogue, Shireen Hunter & Human Malik eds., CSIS Press Washington DC, p.46
[18] Chothia, Farouk (2015), ‘Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists?’, BBC News, available at: http://m.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13809501
[19] ‘ISIS welcomes Boko Haram’s allegiance and plays down coalition victories’, 12 March 2015, the Guardian, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/12/isis-welcomes-boko-harams-allegiance-and-plays-down-coalition-victories
[20] Alter, Charlotte (2014), ‘Girls who Escaped Boko Haram Tell of Horrors in Captivity’, Time Magazine, http://time.com/3540263/girls-boko-haram-escape/
[21] ‘Those Terrible Weeks in Their Camp: Boko Haram Violence against Women and Girls in Northern Nigeria’ (2014), Human Rights Watch Report, p. 18
[22] ‘Those Terrible Weeks in Their Camp: Boko Haram Violence against Women and Girls in Northern Nigeria’ (2014), Human Rights Watch Report, p. 21, available at: http://features.hrw.org/features/HRW_2014_report/Those_Terrible_Weeks_in_Their_Camp/assets/nigeria1014web.pdf
[23] Ibid. p. 26
[24] Ibid., p.5
[25] Those Terrible Weeks in Their Camp: Boko Haram Violence against Women and Girls in Northern Nigeria’ (2014), Human Rights Watch Report, p. 6
[26] Ibid. p. 35
[27] Virmani, Priya (2014), ‘Sexual Violence in India is a Patriarchal Backlash that Must be Stopped’, The Guardian, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/17/sexual-violence-india-patriarchal-narendra-modi-women-reform-rape
[28] Rama, Lakshmi (2014), ‘Two Years After Infamous Delhi Gang Rape, India isn’t any Safer’, The Washington Post, available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/12/16/two-years-after-infamous-delhi-gang-rape-india-isnt-any-safer/
[29] UNSC Resolution 1820, adopted in June 2008, available at: http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/CAC%20S%20RES%201820.pdf
[30] UNSC Resolution 1820, adopted in June 2008

About Andrada Filip

Andrada is a Research Assistant in the Human Rights and Conflict Resolution research division. She has benefited from a considerable amount of diversified work experience related to the United Nations system.