Trigger warning - This piece contains extensive mention of sexual violence. If that’s a topic you find triggering or distressing, please feel free to skip.
Amid increasing evidence of sexual violence offences being committed in Ukraine by Russian soldiers, it's more important than ever to understand how rape is used as a weapon of war, the impact this has on women and men across the world, and what's being done to stop it.
How can rape be a weapon of war?
As of 2019, rape has been used as a weapon of war in 15 countries, but cases go mostly unreported. The Metropolitan Police classifies ‘mass systematic rape and sexual enslavement in a time of war’ as a crime against humanity. Under international law, rape is something that violates the ‘laws or customs of law,’ like targeting civilians.
When discussing sexual violence, we often hear the terms ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’. However, these are understood and felt differently. Academics argue that the term ‘victim’ presents the person as passive, whilst ‘survivor’ focuses on agency and an individual’s ability to overcome their trauma. This is still the subject of debate, but this article uses ‘survivor’ to focus on agency.
Rape became a designated war crime in 1919, but there is a long history of not addressing its use as a weapon in conflicts. The 1949 Geneva Convention further outlawed the use of rape in war time, but the first prosecution for rape as a war crime only happened in 1998.
The UK is actively working to address this issue. Since 2021, it has allocated more than £50 million to the prevention of sexual violence in conflicts. In November 2022, it will host a conference in London to mark the 10-year anniversary of its ‘Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict’ initiative and to decide on future programmes.
Where has rape been weaponised?
Following the start of the civil war in November 2020, systemic rape and sexual violence has been reported in the Tigray region. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and CNN have documented such abuses. One survivor told Amnesty International: “I don’t know if they realised I was a person.” According to Amnesty, the perpetrators of the violence in Tigray are soldiers from the Ethiopian army, fighters from the neighbouring region of Amhara, and troops from Eritrea.
"I don't know if they realised I was a person"
The accused have denied these allegations. In March 2021, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claimed his government would hold perpetrators accountable. The results of a joint investigation by the UN and Ethiopia’s human rights commission concluded that atrocities had been committed both by the government and the TPLF. Abiy accepted the report, but with ‘serious reservations.’
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
Sexual violence has also been used as a weapon of war in the DRC. This started during the Second Congo War in 1998, with numerous reports of gang rapes and assaults on both men and women. One in three women in the DRC have survived sexual violence, and nearly one in four men in eastern DRC may have been raped. Due to social taboos surrounding sexual violence, most incidents go unreported which makes it difficult to document cases. In 2011, a UN official called the DRC ‘the rape capital of the world.’ To make matters worse, UN peacekeepers may be among the perpetrators. The UN has launched an investigation into these allegations.
Denis Mukwege is a DRC-based gynaecologist who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with rape survivors in 2018. In 1999, he established the Panzi Hospital to help survivors and his reconstructive surgeries have saved the lives of over 40,000 women. He established the Mukwege Foundation and the Global Survivors Fund with fellow Peace Prize Winner Nadia Murad to create reparation programmes and advocate for ‘survivor-centric initiatives.’ In an interview with The Guardian, he stated: “The most difficult reality for us is when we help a woman give birth to a daughter, born as a result of rape, and then years later we have to treat the daughter who is also raped.”
There is increasing evidence of sexual violence offences being committed in Ukraine by Russian soldiers. Human Rights Watch has recounted allegations of different types of sexual violence. Other charities are also gathering evidence and exchanging information on the Telegram messaging app. Such technology also serves as evidence which investigators may later use in international courts to bring perpetrators to justice. This is crucial as the fighting often prevents survivors from accessing support.
In early April 2022, Ukraine’s prosecutor general and the International Criminal Court announced investigations into these reports. In March 2022, Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko came to London to call for the end to UK trade with Russia. She argued that this contributed towards economic basis for the war and, by extension, towards the sexual violence carried out by Russian troops.
Murad launched the Murad Code in early April 2022. This aims to establish guidelines for the documentation of sexual violence during conflict.
How does this violence impact vulnerable groups, such as women and children?
Rape causes physical and emotional pain, resulting in years of trauma for the survivor. Ultimately, rape is a dehumanising act. Perpetrators overlook the fact they are hurting fellow human beings, and creating long-lasting cycles of trauma and distrust.
Rape survivors also face widespread stigmatisation. Social attitudes tend to judge the survivor for experiencing the rape, rather than the perpetrator for inflicting it. Such victim-blaming often prevents survivors from reporting experiences. They may fear further violence from the police, social stigma from being impregnated from the rape or ostracisation due to concerns over sexually transmitted diseases.
For more information, read our guide on Rape Culture
Male survivors may also experience feelings of emasculation, such as losing their confidence, or feeling less ‘male’ because of their sexual assault. The psychological harm arising from rape can manifest in depression, insomnia or feelings of shame for the survivor. For the perpetrators, the consequences are far fewer. Many never face justice and may remain in their positions of power. Mukewege has commented that authorities often do not enforce laws that should prevent sexual violence, which fails survivors.
Such failure links to wider social attitudes on gender roles. Mukwege told The Guardian that
“We usually tell girls to dress a certain way and instil fear in them that if they don’t, they might be attacked. But we don’t tell boys about how to behave and consequences of bad behaviour.”
One study found that former fighters in the DRC ‘described a woman’s body as a territory to be used, much like the territory that the rebels were trying to conquer.’ Interestingly, the researchers observed that the fighters strongly criticised the sexual violence committed by their enemies, implying a mental disconnect.
What conclusions can we draw and why is it important to raise awareness of this type of violence?
Ultimately, weaponising rape dehumanises women. However, we must also remember that there is no such thing as a ‘typical victim’. Women and girls are most affected by this issue, but it also concerns men and boys.
This type of violence affects the whole community, not just the immediate survivor. It results in trauma for the survivor, unwanted pregnancies and the urgent need to combat deep-rooted issues of sexism.
Cases are well documented, but justice is often limited. Currently, national and international legislation fails to prevent the use of rape in conflict, it fails to support survivors and it fails to hold perpetrators accountable. There is a clear need for the Murad Code, but the question remains of whether it can work where other initiatives have had a limited impact.
Raising awareness about this issue is crucial, but so is concrete action. In a world where one in three women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, awareness of the issue is just the first step. Taking action is another. Failure to do so lets down those who need it the most.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka