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Overview: Rape and Genocide
Rape and sexual atrocity have become tools for genocide and an integral part of violent group conflict. It wasn’t always so. But in recent situations where the struggle for political power involves the annihilation of one group by another, rape and other forms of sexual violence have become a potent tool.
Rape and sexual atrocity “work” as tactics to destroy another group for many reasons:
Of course, rape is not limited to instances of genocide. It occurs in all types of violent conflict between groups. However, when rape is used as a tool for genocide it has characteristics that make it distinct from rape that occurrs in war:
Not all genocides have rape as a central part of the strategy to destroy the target group. In ideological genocides, rape may be less frequent.
The Frequency and Nature of Sexual Atrocity in Civil Conflict
What is the nature of rape in violent conflict? Where does it happen? How often does it happen? Who are the perpetrators?
Scholars studying the role of rape and sexual assault in violent conflict report wide variation in practices. But, there are some common patterns.
Rape and sexual assault are common atrocities in violent conflict:
Where Does It Happen?
While rape during an attack is common, research also find that camps for displaced persons are very common sites for rape. Abduction and rape during flight from conflict are also common.
How Often Does It Happen?
Studies are limited regarding the frequency of rape during genocides and violent conflict. There are several reasons for this.
In some places, like Rwanda, many people assume that if a woman survived the massacre, she must have been raped. Estimates from empirical studies vary widely, from a low of 3% in pre-war Iraq to an estimated 18% in Sierra Leone. In places like Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, the frequency may be much higher among some groups.
Who Does It?
Quantitative studies of rape in genocide and violent conflict are relatively scarce and methodologically problematic. As we noted above, accurate estimates are notoriously difficult to obtain and women who are raped may have political reasons to over report attacks by certain groups.
However, what studies there are confirm the finding mentioned above that rape in genocide is heavily one-sided. The perpetrator regime or militia groups associated with the regime are often responsible for the majority of the rapes. Indeed, rape may be a matter of policy and be institutionalized in the form of rape houses or rape camps. In other cases, rebel groups may be the main offenders. While rapes may be carried out by both sides in a conflict, in no case that we examined were the two sides equally as likely to rape.
Nor was rape and sexual assault the sole jurisdiction of males. Women were sometimes also involved in rape either by encouraging their men on in the atrocity or possibly as a leader responsible for the atrocities of the soldiers (as with the case of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, ex-minister for family and women's affairs in Rwanda).
In response to the increasingly central role that rape has played in recent genocides, the concept of gendercide was developed in the 1990s. One of the primary insights behind the concept of gendercide is that genocides and other violent conflicts may have different or disproportionate effects on members of a single sex. In other words, understanding the roles of sex and gender are essential for a complete understanding of the concrete aspects genocides and other types of violent conflict. While much scholarship and policy focuses on the violence specifically targeting women in genocides, gendercide affects both sexes.
Though the concept of gendercide may have the benefit of highlighting the role of gender in violent conflict, some scholars are concerned that the term confuses gender and sex and so may muddy the waters when trying to understand the complex ways that sex and genocide relate.
Results of Rape in Genocide
The results of rape and sexual assault extend beyond the scope of the violent conflict. Sexual assault in genocide and violent conflicts can have lasting negative effects including:
Violent conflict can also affect gender roles. In some cases traditional gender roles are simply unworkable during and following the conflict. This may serve to empower women in some ways. On the other hand, disrupted traditional relations between men and women may lead to further conflict.
Adding insult to injury, local justice may be unavailable for women who are victims of sexual assault. The government may put in place insurmountable obstacles preventing those responsible from being prosecuted for rape and sexual assault. The result is not only a miscarriage of justice, but seeking to prosecute rape may actually put a woman or her family in danger.
Dealing with the effects of rape and sexual assault goes beyond seeking to prosecute the offenders. One study of rape victims living as refugees reported that:
The Legal Status of Rape and Sexual Atrocity in International Law
The past decade or so has witnessed some dramatic advances in the status of rape in international law. Since the late 1990s, rape has been prosecuted as a crime against humanity, a war crime and an act of genocide. Prosecution of rape has taken place not only in international tribunals, but is now a crime punishable by the International Criminal Court.
Even though consensus is growing on the status of rape as a crime a number of issues remain to be resolved and international tribunals are not completely consistent in the way they handle rape cases.
Keytexts used to create this overview:
Arab Women Play a Role in War-Related Rape in Darfur
Consequences of Sexual Violence for Women and Communities in Darfur
Recommendations by Amnesty International to Stop Sexual Violence in Darfur
Women and Children Are Particularly Vulnerable to Violence in Darfur
Attitudes about Women's Rights in Southern Iraq
Baath Party Groups Commit Human Rights Abuses in Southern Iraq
Unsupported Conclusions about Women's Rights and Women's Health in Southern Iraq
Characteristics of War-Related Sexual Assault in Sierra Leone
Helping Women Who Have Suffered War-Related Sexual Abuse in Sierra Leone
Sexual Assault in War Torn Sierra Leone
Gendercide Kills Both Men and Women
The Notion of “Gendercide” Confuses Gender and Sex
Gendercide and Genocide Are Different
Violent Conflict Changes African Gender Relations
Gender Expectations May Stimulate More Conflict
Consensus Increases on Rape in International Law
The Statute of the International Criminal Court Protects against Sexual Crimes
Rape May Be a Crime against Humanity in International Law
Rape May Be an Act of Genocide in International Law
Rape May Be a War Crime
How Are Genocide and Sexual Assault Related?
When Are Women Allowed to Survive Genocides?
How Rape Became a Crime against Humanity
Why Rape Was a Key Part of Genocide in Rwanda
Tragedy for Women in Rwanda
Action Research: Gathering Local Knowledge on Local Instances of Sexual Assault
What Counts as Rape in International Crimes?
Genocide Rape Is Different Than War Rape
Why Rape Is Effective for Genocide
Sudanese Government Takes Few Steps to Stop Sexual Violence in Darfur
Obstacles to Justice for Rape Victims in Darfur
Patterns of Rape in Darfur
UN Makes Recommendations for How to Stop Rape in Darfur