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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:
  • Physical death: Sexual violence can be a means for killing and a way to send a message in that murder (as in Rwanda),
  • Submission and terror: It creates a submissive and terrorized populace. Anyone in the target group may be next.
  • Humiliation: It causes shame and humiliation not only in the case of the woman who is raped, but, especially when the rape is a public spectacle, for the entire group,
  • Ethnic cleansing: It can be used as a tool to remove a group from an area, especially when its use is widespread and systematic,
  • Self hate: As in individual rape, members of the group may come to hate themselves and those like themselves because they are people this sort of thing could happen to,
  • Community breakdown: It breaks the bonds of community. Women who are raped (or assumed to have been raped) are often shunned by their communities.
  • Rape “dilutes” the race of the next generation: The race of the children born from rape may be in doubt (especially in cultures where the race of a child is associated with its father), and this, quite apart from the stigma that these children born of rape must endure.
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:
  • Rape in genocide is one sided. Rapes of individual women (or men) by soldiers may be commonplace in mass conflict—occurring on both sides of the conflict. But, genocide rape is both heavily one sided (perpetrated by one group against another) and is directed at members of a group, not merely because of their sex, but because of their group identity.
  • Identity matters. In war rape, the woman may or may not know the identity of her attacker. In genocide rape, because the individual woman is a stand-in for her ethnic, national or religious group, her identity as a member of her group and the identify of her attacker is important.
  • Rape is under control. In war, armed males may take advantage of the chaos of the conflict to rape. But in genocide, rape can become policy. Indeed, the systematic and widespread use of rape may serve as evidence that it is not the result of men out of control, but regime direction.
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.

What Happens?

Rape and sexual assault are common atrocities in violent conflict:
  • In some places, public rapes are common,
  • Rape is often associated with other forms of torture, murder, sexual assault and slavery (though women may be more likely to survive if slavery is an option),
  • Rape may be organized in camps or make-shift brothels,
  • Sexual assault takes many forms, including: rape, being forced to undress, abduction, gang rape, sexual slavery, molestation, forced marriage and insertion of a foreign object into vagina or anus.

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.
  • Governments or organizations may resist efforts to gather accurate data,
  • Women who are killed may have been raped beforehand. Unless there are eyewitnesses, evidence may not be available.
  • In places where there are few survivors, eyewitness testimony may be unavailable,
  • Women to have been raped are often unwilling to report it. Shame is one reason, but the threat of stigma is another. Other women are simply desperate to put the atrocity behind them.
  • Women may also fear reprisals if they report rape,
  • Victims may believe (perhaps with justification) that reporting rape would do little to gain them justice,
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:
  • Ostracizing or stigmatizing the victim,
  • Depression and suicide,
  • Domestic abuse,
  • Pregnancy and children born from rape,
  • Sexually transmitted diseases and other health issues,
  • Poverty.
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:
  • First, coping with sexual assault would be made easier if the basic needs of the women and their families were met. Healing from the effects rape is made more difficult by lack of food, unsafe living conditions and lack of medical care.
  • Second, the victims look beyond their immediate situation to future security. They seek some way to earn a living and receive the training and education to do this. Humanitarian assistance is, from the victims’ perspective, only a short term solution.
  • Third, the women also seek to reestablish traditional and community ties. One of the insidious effects of sexual assault is that it not only demoralizes the individuals, but it also damages and sometimes dissolves relationships the women draw on for emotional wellbeing. So, such things as religious support, traditional ceremonies, building ties with women with similar experiences and traditional healing methods are important.

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

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