Wartime sexual violence is one of the most horrifying events in the world today, making the already tragic costs of war even more painful to bear. Despite this, it’s also unnoticed by so many of us, who are unfamiliar with its widespread reach.

The extent of the problem

Wartime sexual violence is not an isolated phenomena. Here’s some estimates of the magnitude of the problem:

In the conquest of Germany post WWII, Antony Beevor argues that “at least two million German women are thought to have been raped, and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rape.”[i]

In the Rwandan Genocide, “The Special Rapporteur on Rwanda, René Degni-Segui, concluded… that it was likely between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls had suffered from rape and sexual violence. The report concludes that ‘rape was the rule and its absence the exception’.”[ii]

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there has been an ongoing civil war, a 2011 study records that “Our results correspond to… 1.92 million reporting a history of rape, and 462293 reporting rape in the preceding 12 months.[iii]

These provide a tiny sample of the places where wartime sexual violence on an extraordinary scale has taken place- it’s been reported elsewhere in Guatemala, Bangladesh, Syria, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan, and many, many other places.

The widespread nature of wartime sexual violence means that this is not performed by “a few bad eggs”. Instead, this points to something deeper within human nature and the consequences of societal breakdown. Antony Beevor provides a chilling commentary on this: “I found myself acknowledging that perhaps most men could be rapists in extraordinary circumstances of chaos and collapse…”[iv]

Why?

A very common explanation is the use of wartime sexual violence, among others, as a weapon of war. Erika Carlsen explains: “When armed combatants rape women and girls, the rapists destroy not only the personal security of the victims, but also the security of the community because women’s bodies physically and symbolically provide the backbone of their communities.[v] This would account for the enormously destructive nature of the rapes experienced, with much rape leading to long-term damage, and reports of the deliberate spreading of sexually transmitted diseases, to inflict greater damage on the communities and humiliate opposing soldiers more fully.

Elaine Storkey comments that this is “a weapon every bit as effective as weapons or grenades[vi]. The harm inflicted on the women, with long term diseases, injuries and psychological trauma attached, combine with an often hostile reception from communities, where husbands and families often reject rape victims out of shame, to make this a particularly potent and damaging atrocity.

What can we do?

Despite the increasing attention paid to this issue by NGOs, academics and global lawmakers, such at the recent 2014 conference hosted by William Hague, this issue remains a huge and ongoing one which we will struggle to overcome without long-term collective engagement. Here are a few practical pointers:

  1. Get informed. Read Scars Across Humanity by Elaine Storkey – an excellent and challenging book on violence against women across the world, with a chapter focusing on wartime sexual violence. The bibliography contains numerous relevant and easily obtainable articles, reports and books. Hear their stories – see the following links for some harrowing examples of wartime rape. Alternatively Google is your friend.
  2. Write an email to your MP, asking if they are familiar with this issue, and what they and their party are planning on doing to stop it. You can link this article, or link some articles which you’ve read yourself, such as on the rape crisis in Syria or the Congo. Probably best to do 1 before 2 here.
  3. Pray. Yes, it’s almost a cliché. That doesn’t make it any less important, powerful or urgent. Pray for healing for victims, justice for perpetrators, and an end to this vile practice.
  4. Let others know. We are commanded to be a “voice for the voiceless”- and the victims of these atrocities who are brave enough to come forward aren’t being heard. Use your voice to change that.

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/may/01/news.features11 [Accessed 3rd August 2016]
[ii] Skjelsbæk, I., ‘The Elephant in the Room. An Overview of How Sexual Violence Came to Be Seen As a Weapon of War”, Report to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Oslo, Peace Research Institute 2010, p.18
[iii] Amber Peterman, Tia Palermo, and Caryn Bredenkamp.  Estimates and Determinants of Sexual Violence Against Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. American Journal of Public Health: June 2011, Vol. 101, No. 6, pp. 1060-1067, p.1065
[iv] http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/most-men-are-capable-of-rape-war-historian-claims-173661.html [Accessed 3 August 2016]
[v] Erika Carlsen (2009) “Rape and War in the Democratic Republic of the Congo”, Peace Review, 21:4, 474-483, p.479
[vi] Storkey, E., 2015, “Scars Across Humanity”, SPCK, p.144