20 May 2013: Kirthi Jayakumar explores why sexual violence is so common during war, arguing that rape and sexual violence in conflict is not about sex or lust, but about dominance.

Women in Darfur march against gender violence Women in Darfur march against gender violence. (Image credit: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID)

While wars take humanity to task without discrimination, it is the women who are known to be the worst sufferers of conflict. Though it is often easier to believe that it is those that serve in armies that suffer most, war inflicts greatest sufferings on women.

Women are forced to provide for their families against all kinds of adversities, as the responsibility of being a breadwinner falls on them with their men being at the battlefield. They are made to find a means to live in the face of a stark threat to their existence. If they don’t make a means to find a livelihood, hunger kills women and their families. If she makes her way out to run the gauntlet of war, sexual violence looms over her head like a sword waiting to drop. The bodies of women become battlegrounds. Combatants and non-combatants exploit women sexually.

In my last post, I spoke about how sexual violence is an element that subsists in a peacetime-wartime continuum. However, the occurrence is multiplied many times in a conflict setting. What is it that makes sexual violence so common on every warfront, and after?

Rape and sexual violence at the micro level can be a product of lustful intentions, mental disorders or depravity, as criminology offers. However, at the macro level – where the cases are not individual instances, but a collective of several individual instances that happen at dizzying speed, it is about dominance.

As men fight in war, there is a tendency towards wanting to break the enemy. Any victory is a victory: no matter how small, or how big it may be. A recent article revealed that a soldier came forth to say that they did whatever they wanted in war, and he himself had raped 53 women.

Sexual violence is deployed as a weapon of war because to the user, it is cheap, easy and extremely effective in achieving the target of breaking the enemy. When combatants rape by the dozen, it isn’t just about sexual urges, but about seeing the women of the enemy – sometimes just women – breaking before them, physically, emotionally and mentally. To them, that is a sadistic “victory”, or in more graphic terms, a way of “winning a war”. Rape and sexual violence in conflict is not about sex or lust, but about dominance, and about taking sexual violence in peacetime to a bigger scale.

And in many ways, using rape and sexual violence as weapons in war is a part of a strategic plan, like Gaddhafi’s ‘Viagra campaign’. Why is it so easy to deploy rape and sexual violence as part of campaign dynamics?

When a woman is subjected to sexual violence in any form, she suffers not only physical or psychological damage, but also suffers a stigma. Encumbered with the added trauma of humiliation, families turn these women out of their homes. When women are spurned from their own homes, the backbone of society is broken. Men refuse to marry women subject to sexual violence. Married men don’t want to welcome these women back into their lives, for in their eyes, they are “used goods”. These are not just by-products of sexual violence. These are planned and anticipated results.

In that sense, sexual violence is calculated, brutal and absolutely bereft of humanity. Using sexual violence as a modus operandi in warfare is driven by an unhealthy and hegemonic desire for power. War is about using tactics that drive fear, humiliation and destruction into the opponent society, to denigrate and erode the sanctity attached to the fabric of any peaceful society. The ulterior motive for it is that their conduct would invariably break down society entirely. Sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations, therefore, becomes for the warring factions, a preferred method that is used to reinforce gendered and political hierarchies.


nosta shoko on May 20, 2013, 12:16 p.m.

I personally view marital rape as mainly caused by the dominance highlighted in this article. \if a woman is rising, the husband might use sex as the weapon to show dominance.

Neba Mbonifor on May 20, 2013, 12:46 p.m.

<p>Sexual violence in war has the same psychological and social impact as taking battles into cities, schools, worship places and no combat areas. Besides, war also represents total break down in law and order, sexual violence then becomes one of those aberrations that would not normally be committed in peaceful times. Again, most intra-state conflicts are fought by militias recruited from the lowest quarters of their societies. These rag tags, with no previous social status, self esteem and basic human values exploit the lawlessness of war to 'become men' once in their lives. War also comes with new power, thus power to kill, maim, loot, rape(sexual violence), etc.</p>

Emily on May 20, 2013, 12:52 p.m.

I agree with all of your points in this article. Thank you for writing about this. I think we also need to expand "sexual violence" beyond rape, but also including sexual torture, mutilation, and sterilization. I would also like to expand on your argument about a tool of war, because it also affects the men in a society - when they are not able to protect their mothers, sisters, daughters..etc., it is also an attack against them. It is a way to destroy the social fabric of a community, including the ways you described. Additionally, when you look at sexual violence in genocide, you see perpetrators also use rape, mutilation, and sterilization as a tool to wipe out a race by "planting their seeds" in the enemies womb, and preventing reproduction of a race. See more here: http://www.monitor.upeace.org/innerpg.cfm?id_article=893

Rosemary Musiime on May 20, 2013, 1:02 p.m.

<p>thank you, well researched article</p>

Kirthi on May 20, 2013, 1:12 p.m.

Hi Nosta and Emily, Many thanks for reading my post and for your comments. Emily, I completely, completely agree with you on this. You're right about it - and in fact, my forthcoming posts will be addressing these issues (hopefully in a manner that does justice to being worthy of being published on Insight on Conflict!). Thank you for sharing this link as well!

Esther S. Davis Yango on May 20, 2013, 1:57 p.m.

<p>This a very good article. Rape is a very serious offense against women and girls during and after war. There is a very urgent need to address this issue, in Liberia rape is on the rampage, civil women were in the street of Monrovia last Thursday carrying on a massive campaign against rape.</p>

coordon on May 20, 2013, 10:04 p.m.

What about men who are also rape during the coflicts?

Kirthi on May 21, 2013, 1:44 a.m.

Thank you Rosemary, Esther and Coordon! Coordon, to answer your specific question, I will be addressing it in a separate post in the coming few weeks!

Syed Mohammad Shakeel on May 21, 2013, 4:21 a.m.

This is great work, form the article one can imagine the agony and sufferings of minova women, we can imagine what will happen and will be happening with all those women who were raped and in the end they are the most sufferer as we blame the survivors rather the perpetrator and punishing them, war has rules but now a days it was very rightly said that victory is victory, irrespective how small or big it is, we should raise our voices through such like articles for awareness of the masses that in such like situations it is not the fault of survivors women, the satate, the community people were unable to protect them, if we keep ourself in a moment on their places and such like things happened to us, what will be our thinking and expectations from people in our surroundings, we should discourage such like incidants as it is a henous war crime against humanity as it involve moral torpitude, we should support them rather than calling them the wife of a soldiers, so on and so forth, once again thanks to your work with a hope that please do continue such like articles in future.

Kirthi on May 21, 2013, 4:55 a.m.

Thank you Neba, apologies as I didn't see your comment earlier. Syed Mohammed Shakeel, Thank you for your detailed comment. I am in agreement with your thoughts, and I really hope that we as a community accept survivors as survivors and do not criminalise them for something they had no complicity with.

JOHN GEORGE SEMBUYAGI on May 21, 2013, 1:58 p.m.

<p>It is real painful, and I do not like to hear that sexual violence. We should serious dis campaign that.</p> <p></p>

Kirthi on May 22, 2013, 3:31 p.m.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, John. It is indeed painful.

Deborah Dauda on May 23, 2013, 12:57 a.m.

I totally agree with all your points. However, sexual violence in the home, although under-reported, is as common as it is during conflict. Even Though sexual violence is used as punishment, extortion, bonding or to “correct” a sex ( in the case of lesbians being raped by “straight” men to potentially “correct the anomaly”), it is only within the last ten years or so that rape was codified as an international crime- thus making it difficult to address in a comprehensive manner, especially in communities where sexually violating women ( both at home or at war) is part of the social fabric. Furthermore, I am also particularly interested in the intersection between trauma healing and familial re-attachment of children (boys) who are forced to rape their mothers and fathers forced to rape their daughters during conflict- How does stigma vary between these groups? Also, I was having a conversation with a family member about the issue of sexual violence in conflict and I asked her why do women rape or perpetuate sexual violence and the response is as follows: “I’ve never thought about it..well, maybe a [female] teacher raping a child but not an older woman raping an older man”. This was an interesting response but also very familiar. We often forget and disregard the role that women play both in conflict and “non-conflict” settings in facilitating the exploitation of women, sexually and otherwise ( as middlemen, madams and active combatants)- as in the case of Liberia and Sierra Leone during the war. Sexual violence regardless of the space and context it operates is the most egregious crime against humanity. As a community, and especially as women, we have a collective responsibility to address this issue on a micro level as sisters, wives, friends, daughters and on a macro level as policy makers, lawyers, educators, artists, and business owners. As women, we need to fight for each other not thwart or detract the realization of our rights- as in the case of the current Women’s Rights Bill in Afghanistan. Thank you so much for shedding light on this issue. I enjoyed reading it!

Kirthi on May 23, 2013, 6:40 a.m.

Hi Deborah! Thank you for sharing your thoughts! To answer the first thing you brought up, yes, I do agree with you, and that was why I wrote up my first post to reflect that sexual violence is a continuum, not a thing specific to war time alone. Maybe the frequency (and in consequence numbers) may vary, but it is present all the same. Your thoughts on stigma are indeed very intriguing. I hope to explore that in another post in the coming days. Thanks SO much for reading and for sharing your thoughts!

Swarna on June 5, 2013, 2:43 p.m.

Yes rape is a big weapon used. We are experiencing the same in the Naxal conflict zone in south Orissa and as well as in near central India. They want to break the women so that they dominate the opponents and also the emerging women leadership is abolished .

Eric Schneider on June 5, 2013, 2:58 p.m.

A neglected point is WHY the soldiers are so PRONE to COMMIT it. You have to look at their deep subconscious and needs... that the military (like other hard physical masculine environments where you see PIN-UPS on the walls) create a deep unbalance in the soul (since we all have masculine and feminine in us) and this seeks nurturing... which is usually subconsciously... the same is among tough US american football players, soldiers etc... Also inside the US military (documentary film The Invisible War) there is 30-60% rape victims(!) ... however, it is the same %age as in "normal society". Dominance is only part of the aspects and often it doesn't really play a role... except when soldiers are conditioned to hate the enemy as subhuman through racist propaganda. But it happens also in civil wars, by mercenaries etc who have no personal stakes against the enemy. The big thing is - why are they HOT for it? It is *not* a natural masculine trait, as you can very well see from many *healthy* human populations, be they untouched indigenous people or healthy men in modern society. What these people need is a HEALING and RECEIVING A MASSAGE (you may think I am joking) and instead express their distorted DRIVE towards actively FEEDING ON WOMEN. I am mentioning this in this context because the SAME PATTERN happens in street harassment (affecting 80+% of women), "peaceful" nation rape (affecting 30-60% of women), in growing categories of violent pornography on websites that were not even imaginable twenty years ago... and is one of the big challenges ot start addressing in *gender-defunct* societies. These matters are addressed in avantgarde sexual healing / tantric environments in progressive hotspots like Berlin and the U.S. West Coast and Australia. You also need to have in mind the psychological disorders of (sexual) child abuse that many men have suffered (20%!!! at U.S. high schools according to Girl Scouts statistics, and girls to 30%) and that this later expresses itself in 90% of victims by developing the same kind of energies... ... because the soul wants to heal by re-living the experience... what works IF done in healing environments going INSIDE like in psychotherapeutical sessions or traditional healing ceremony, sensing the pain and letting it go, but it does *not* function by feeding on abusing children (to "see their own pain in the child victim's eyes", as sexual offenders say!!!) ... All these things intermix, and if you think about the societies where recent wars employed strategic rape (Balcans, Congo, ...) (Czechnya etc??) then you know that these men have had a hard time growing up as kids already. The can of worms is very, very deep, and it is universal in most societies of today. The Battlefield merely intensifies and gives EVEN MORE lawless opportunity for unleashing the inner demons.

Kirthi on June 5, 2013, 5:50 p.m.

Thank you for reading my post and for your comments, Swarna and Eric. Eric, you bring up some very intriguing points - I am eager to know more about this. Thank you for sharing them, and I look forward to doing some research on these lines!

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