Human Rights Watch recently released a report documenting the torture and sexual abuse of women held in prisons in Iraq. Tragically, such reports are all too familiar. Stories of women raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Syria reinforce the common perception that sexual violence against women in times of war is inevitable. Even some modern militaries have engaged in rape of civilians to a significant degree, as in the case of US forces in Vietnam.
But the truth is: rape during war is far from ubiquitous. It is not the unavoidable collateral damage we tend to think it is. Many armed groups effectively prohibit rape of civilians. The Sri Lankan secessionist rebels, for example, were notorious for their violence against civilians; but they rarely engaged in rape.
A pervasive practice?
A recent study by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo of all forty-eight conflicts and all 236 armed groups – including state, rebel groups, and pro-government militias – in Africa between 1989 and 2009 found that 64 percent of armed groups were not reported to have engaged in any form of sexual violence.
Of course, in most contexts, especially war, sexual violence is under-reported. But even after 2000, when wartime rape became a highly salient public issue actively investigated by NGOs, more than half of armed groups were not reported to have engaged in sexual violence.
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Why does this matter? Instead of framing rape as an inevitable outcome of war, by understanding which groups engage in sexual violence – and which do not – and what accounts for the difference, advocates and policy makers will be far better positioned to limit – and perhaps even to end – this scourge of war.
A recent study found that in about 40 percent of conflicts, only one side was reported to engage in moderate to high levels of rape. Many groups effectively prohibit rape even when their opponents use it. Most often, the data showed, it was rebel groups rather than state militaries that effectively curbed rape of civilians.
That rape often occurs for many years with one actor engaging in high levels but not the other suggests that cultural factors shared between the warring parties, such as patriarchy or a common religion for example, do not account for the difference. In other words, to understand why certain groups rape and others do not, we need to focus on the norms, practices, and discipline of each armed group on its own.
Of course, many armed groups do engage in rape, sometimes on a massive scale, like the Bosnian Serb militias, Hutu forces during the Rwandan genocide, the Guatemalan military during the early years of its civil war, and many militias as well as state forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And some do so as an explicit strategy of war.
But not all groups do so as a strategy of war; some engage in a sustained pattern of rape that the chain of command tolerates but does not order. In those instances, rape becomes a practice rather than a strategy.
A particularly clear example of a practice (albeit one occurring within the ranks rather than against civilians) is the sexual assault of servicewomen and servicemen by their colleagues in the US military. It is clearly not a strategy ordered or even condoned by the top generals and military officials. It is nonetheless remarkably robust. Reported sexual assaults increased by 50 percent in 2013, despite ongoing efforts to end it.
The distinction between whether rape occurs as a practice or a strategy matters because it might mean different policy measures are needed to effectively combat it.
Where rape occurs as a practice, human rights groups, women’s groups and international actors may be more effective in persuading commanders to take more seriously the political and other costs of rape of civilians by their troops, if they do not assume commanders promote rape as a strategy.
To be sure, whether rape occurs as a practice or a strategy, commanders are legally and ethically responsible for rape by their subordinates as long as they are in effective command of their troops. And if rape is part of a systematic or widespread attack on civilians, they should be prosecuted for rape as a crime against humanity. But if we want to decrease the instances of sexual violence, we should acknowledge that rape happens for different reasons in different contexts and figure out what motivations can move the relevant actors towards eliminating it.
Some may fear that recognising that the incidence of rape varies sharply across armed groups may somehow undermine the hard-fought campaign by the international women’s movement to put wartime rape on the international agenda. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Acknowledging that not all armed groups rape sharpens rather than blunts policy efforts.
Policy makers can learn valuable lessons by studying the groups that do not rape. Recent research indicates that in war, the threat of discipline may not be enough to prevent some combatants from engaging in rape as a practice. But groups that combine discipline with ongoing indoctrination emphasising respect for all civilians including women can effectively prohibit rape.
By documenting and analysing the absence of rape of civilians by some groups, we have all the more grounds for holding accountable those groups that do engage in rape.
Elisabeth Wood is a professor of Political Science and International and Area Studies at Yale University and a Public Voices Fellow at The Op-Ed Project.