Sexual violence has played a prominent role in recent media treatments of wars in the Middle East. In Syria, reports of a “massive” rape crisis strongly suggest that government forces are using rape as a military tactic against communities associated with the rebels. In Iraq, rape by Islamic State forces is said to be used as a weapon of war and as a tool of ethnic domination. These stories are horrifying, but they also serve a political narrative: Forces of evil in the Middle East are using rape as a weapon in terror campaigns against natural allies of “the West,” including ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and anti-regime communities in Syria.
To scholars of sexual violence, these media narratives look typical in three related ways: They are selective and sensationalist; they obscure deeper understandings about patterns of wartime sexual violence; and they are laden with false assumptions about the causes of conflict rape. The narrative in play here carries concrete implications for politics and policy, including the inadvertent aiding of perpetrators and worse outcomes for survivors. Policies that prevent and mitigate the effects of sexual violence require attention to the whole problem – not just one media-friendly subset – and to solid research on wartime rape.
Selective, sensationalist stories about rape can be useful. Scholars have argued that extreme numerical claims can galvanize the supporters of activists and humanitarians, cut through donor fatigue and spur policy changes. But there are downsides: Inaccurate or unverifiable extreme claims can make accurately-reported epidemics of wartime rape seem minor by comparison, skewing policy responses. They also marginalize other forms of sexual violence (including, for example, sexual torture, forced incest, forced abortion and forced perpetration of sexual violence), disincentivize programming focused on other types of suffering and victimhood during conflict, and – perversely – make other wartime atrocities harder to prosecute.
These narratives influence both understandings of and reactions to sexual violence in Syria and Iraq. Reports of Islamic State imprisonment and rape of Yazidi women have effectively erased more common and complex patterns. For example, the International Rescue Committee has documented patterns of sexual violence by landlords and potential employers who exploit Syrian refugees’ economic vulnerability in host states like Lebanon and Jordan. In many wars, intimate partner sexual violence is significantly more common than sexual violence by combatants. Yet these victims are receiving neither attention nor needed resources. Ultimately, the selectivity of media reports feeds into policy responses that target stereotypical perpetrators (like Islamic State) rather than underlying problems (such as refugee poverty).
Focusing only on the most visible victim groups compounds the challenges that survivors face. Media narratives about Iraq and Syria are almost exclusively focused on women, concealing and marginalizing male and LGBT victims who may be equally in need of help. Syrian and Iraqi refugees must cope with extremely limited access to health-care services, which are frequently underfunded and unprepared to treat survivors of sexual violence. Restricting treatment and services to particular categories of victims makes access to these services even more fraught for others. Moreover, focusing exclusively on rape and rape survivors, as if these crimes occur in isolation, masks other forms of suffering and ignores other vulnerable groups. For example, advocates and policymakers tend to ignore children born of wartime rape. Children whose mothers suffered sexual violence in Syria, Iraq and the refugee diaspora are no exception to this rule.
Graphic, selective narratives about patterns of sexual violence carry weighty foreign policy implications. The impulse to “save” Syrian and Iraqi women from sexual violence has been repeatedly used to justify intervention. This rhetorical tactic is not unique to the current crises. Yet wars fought partially in the name of “saving women” in the Middle East have produced disastrous results for those very women – and for civilians in general. Military interventions add to refugee flows and contribute to unstable economic conditions, placing more civilians at risk for sexual violence and exploitation.
In addition to giving us the wrong idea about patterns of wartime rape, selective narratives strengthen false assumptions about the causes of wartime rape, encouraging policymaking that addresses symptoms rather than root causes. Press reports and punditry about sexual violence in Iraq and Syria continually employ the phrases “weapon of war” and “tool of terror.” Without a doubt, some wartime rape is a weapon of war: Some commanders use rape or the threat of rape strategically to punish enemy communities, induce compliance, or demoralize opponents. But the “weapon of war” narrative is disastrously incomplete. Research suggests that rape has multiple causes, and is more closely associated with fighting forces’ internal practices (like forced recruitment, training practices, or the strength of the military hierarchy) than with strategic imperatives, ethnic hatred, or other “conventional wisdom” causes. In short, to assume that wartime rape is always “rape as a weapon of war” is to ignore the majority of cases.
Moreover, to the extent that wartime rape is a weapon of war, policymakers who invoke the “weapon of war” narrative may actually strengthen belligerents’ strategic positions. Commentary about the Islamic State’s sexual “brutality” – exemplified in a recent policy recommendation aimed at “shaming” the organization – risks reinforcing the Islamic State’s intimidating reputation (which is already well-known on the ground and in the refugee camps). Reputations and rumors matter in conflict; recent research in Lebanon has suggested that fear of rape has become an important reason for refugees to leave Syria. Playing into combatants’ rhetorical strategies could result in increased refugee flows, contribute to efforts to diminish women’s involvement in public life, or even increase the incidence of wartime rape.
Research also shows that “bad guys,” such as the Islamic State and the Syrian regime, aren’t the only perpetrators of wartime sexual violence. While the United States, Britain, France and other interventionist countries may identify themselves as “good guys” fighting “good wars,” the idea that only the United States’ enemies rape is simply incorrect. The United States and its allies have frequently perpetrated sexual violence in war. The U.S. military itself has a record of sexual violence, both against civilians and within its ranks. Moreover, while the majority of sexual violence in Syria appears to be perpetrated by government forces, reports to the United Nations suggest that Syrian opposition factions – the very groups U.S. officials intend to train and arm to fight against the Islamic State – have also committed acts of sexual violence. Put briefly: The United States has a credibility problem on this issue in this region.
Narratives that focus on a narrow subset of sexual violence – strategic rapes, with rhetorically convenient perpetrators and victims – are powerful but dangerous. They encourage policy elites to ignore a growing body of research on wartime sexual violence more broadly. Thankfully, other policymakers and scholars themselves have proposed research-informed policy solutions that would both benefit survivors and work toward prevention. For example, the former administrator of USAID has argued in favor of clarifying the “Helms amendment” via executive order; this move, along with increased funding and training for medical providers, would improve healthcare access and quality for survivors of sexual violence in war. Another suggestion, advocated among humanitarian agencies in Lebanon, is to broaden cash aid programs for refugees, which would help to protect them from some forms of sexual coercion and violence. Research on armed group structures and practices implies that, to prevent sexual violence, countries advising Syrian or Iraqi forces should incorporate training programs that teach rank and file soldiers that sexual violence is incompatible with the role of resistance fighter – and with military success.
We also have to ask: “Are We Listening?” Often the voices of survivors themselves, particularly survivors in Syria and Iraq, are sidelined in Western debates. Policymakers must seek out unfiltered perspectives from the ground. (An excellent example is the work of Mohammed A. Salih, a journalist who recently published a minimally edited interview with a 14-year-old survivor in Iraq). Scholarship on local organizing against sexual violence in countries like Egypt has cleared the way for more genuine solidarity and brought to light the oversimplified – and often racist – treatment of Arab and Muslim men frequently embodied in women’s rights campaigns directed from outside the region.
It is essential that policymakers understand the experiences and priorities of people they are ostensibly “saving” and the broader facts about patterns and prevention of wartime sexual violence. It is imperative to ask whether interventionist stories and actions ease or exacerbate the situations of victims and those at risk. And, moving beyond Syria and Iraq in particular, it is time for a policy discussion of wartime sexual violence that moves beyond the “weapon of war” narrative to encompass the full range of perpetrators, tactics, victims, survivors, causes and consequences.
Kerry F. Crawford is an assistant professor of political science at James Madison University. Amelia Hoover Green is an assistant professor of political science at Drexel University and a field consultant to the Human Rights Data Analysis Group. Sarah E. Parkinson is an assistant professor of global policy and political science at the University of Minnesota.