Wartime sexual violence, which includes sexual torture and forced marriage, as well as rape and sexual slavery, inflicts excruciatingly painful, sometimes mortal injuries and suffering on victims, their families and their communities. But two decades of social science research has shown that these crimes are not inevitable and unavoidable collateral damage. These crimes can be mitigated — but this depends on understanding why and how wartime sexual violence occurs.
What do we know about perpetrators and targets?
The most important research finding is the extraordinary variability in the incidence of sexual violence by armed organizations. The fact that not all armed actors engage in rape provides critical evidence for prosecutors seeking to hold accountable those who do.
Armies — including those of Congo, Sudan, Guatemala and Peru — as well as rebels commit sexual violence during war. Forces of democratic regimes also sexually abuse civilians during war. During the war in Vietnam, U.S. soldiers in some units raped civilians, including during the infamous massacre at My Lai.
But some armed actors effectively prohibit rape. Rebel forces in El Salvador’s civil war committed few rapes even as state forces raped during massacres and sexually tortured detainees. The Tamil Tigers forced Muslims from northern Sri Lanka with little sexual violence.
Among those armed organizations that do engage in wartime sexual violence, some victimize particular ethnic groups. Some, including the Bosnian Serbs, target boys and men as well as girls and women. Others, including the Islamic State, also target gender and sexual minorities.
Understanding these differences
Wartime opportunity, ethnic hatred and lootable resources that disrupt discipline all contribute to the incidence of rape by some organizations — but these are also characteristics of organizations that do not engage in extensive wartime rape.
Nor is wartime sexual violence simply a reflection of peacetime sexual violence. It may vary sharply from peacetime patterns — often toward more-brutal forms, particularly gang rape, or occasionally toward less sexual abuse.
The Nobel committee referred to sexual violence as a “weapon” of war when it selected these two honorees. To be sure, some armed actors do adopt sexual violence as a weapon.
But rape is sometimes frequent without having been adopted as a weapon, strategy or policy. Rather, as at My Lai, commanders sometimes tolerate rape without ordering or authorizing it. Under these conditions, social pressures to conform to violent forms of masculinity can drive combatants to commit these crimes.
In these cases, rape is a practice — rather than a strategy of war. In many such organizations, combatants that were forcibly and randomly recruited are coerced to engage in gang rape of civilians, which creates social bonds among the unit.
And sexual abuse as a practice may target fellow combatants: Sexual assault of both men and women persists within the ranks of the U.S. military despite two decades of a supposed “zero tolerance” policy.
Organizations that do adopt sexual violence as organizational policy may use it as a military strategy, as in some cases of ethnic cleansing or genocide. But others adopt some form of sexual violence as policy for other reasons, often to manage the sexual and reproductive lives of members, as in the case of the “comfort women” held by the Japanese military during World War II. Colombia’s FARC forced its female combatants to use contraception and to abort if they became pregnant.
Organizations that do adopt some form of sexual violence as policy may authorize rather than order it. For example, the Islamic State authorizes its combatants to hold sexual slaves under conditions it outlines in formal regulations, but does not order them to do so.
An organization’s ideology may license sexual abuse of certain social groups; mandate its effective prohibition; or reinforce masculine entitlement over girls and women.
Organizations that effectively prohibit sexual violence build strong institutions — of socialization to inculcate norms of restraint and of discipline to ensure punishment for their breach — thereby undermining the social pressures that drive sexual violence in other organizations.
What does this mean for preventing and prosecuting wartime sexual violence?
These social science findings can and should inform policy efforts to address this profoundly destructive violence.
In the case of organizations that adopt a form of sexual violence as organizational policy, it may be easier to show that it had been authorized or institutionalized than that it was explicitly ordered. And a policy to manage the sexual and reproductive lives of combatants may be more easily documented in the organization’s doctrines and patterns of governance rather than its military operations.
When rape is frequent as a practice, liability for the crime of rape goes beyond ordering, planning or instigating. For example, the International Criminal Court can prosecute commanders if such crimes were a foreseeable consequence of a common criminal purpose (for example, that of forcible displacement).
These findings may help to define more-effective interventions during war. Forced recruitment is associated with frequent gang rape. Armies and police forces that torture detainees are likely to engage in sexual abuse as well. There are positive lessons from organizations that effectively prohibit rape.
With global institutions for criminal accountability under attack from the White House and other heads of state, recent academic work offers insight for prosecutors, judges, policymakers and advocates working to fulfill the goal of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipients — to end the scourge of sexual violence against civilians during war.
Elisabeth Jean Wood, Crosby Professor of the Human Environment and professor of political science, international and area studies at Yale University, is writing a book about sexual violence during war (forthcoming, Princeton University Press).
Ragnhild Nordås, assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan and senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO), conducts research on global patterns of conflict-related sexual violence as well as sexual violence and female empowerment in eastern Congo.