The UN General Assembly’s 2015 resolution proclaimed the 19th of June as the annual date to mark an international call for the end of conflict-related sexual violence. This occasion simultaneously condemns the persistent culture of tolerance surrounding sexual violence whilst commending the efforts of those fighting to end such terrorising and destructive practices.

According to the UNFPA, “sexual violence” includes acts of rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, and imposed sterilisation. Sadly, these crimes are common all over the world, especially in long-suffering places like north-eastern Nigeria and more recently in Mozambique. These conflicts have driven people to flee, with many crossing borders into neighbouring countries like Tanzania. EdUKaid is helping local communities in the Mtwara region cope with the sudden influx of people by ensuring that schools have the skills and capacity to meet their educational needs. 

The UN General Assembly’s 2020 report found that women and girls in conflict settings face heightened risks of sexual violence, exploitation, and trafficking. The COVID-19 pandemic has also restricted prevention and protection efforts by NGOs and aid agencies. This article aims to promote understanding of some of the main functions and devastating impacts of sexual violence in conflict situations. It also discusses current efforts to eliminate these practices and how these may evolve in coming years. EdUKaid’s Heshima Project has raised awareness of these amongst local communities and education officials.

Functions of sexual violence in conflict

Sexual violence in conflict is not specific to any era, culture, or continent. In an organised form it can serve various purposes including economic, sexual, and social control. For example, during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, it is estimated that there were between 250,000 and 500,000 cases of rape. Sexual violence was used to destroy families and communities, erase future generations (through forced sterilisation), and suppress people through fear, stigma, and shame.

Widespread sexual violence in conflict can also occur in a less organised or systematic fashion. Factors that contribute to this are personal desire, lack of military troop discipline or oversight, the desire to punish civilians who soldiers feel do not understand or respect them, regard for rape as a reward or spoil of war and following the orders of superior officers.  

Impacts on victims and surrounding communities

Conflict-related sexual violence takes an unspeakable toll on survivors who are most likely civilians or non-combatants. Sexual violence is not only physically and psychologically harmful to victims, usually women, it is also a way to humiliate men. Historically, the rape of women was commonly considered a direct insult to defeated party’s soldiers who had failed to protect the honour of their female loved ones. In many cultures around the world, this attitude continues to prevail. Even if hostilities cease, the trauma of sexual violence is long-lasting for the individual and is engrained in collective cultural memory. Sexual violence in conflict consequently threatens public health, security, and peacebuilding. If the costs of war are great then the costs of war against women and girls are incalculable.

Contribution of gender inequity to sexual violence in conflict

Sexual violence in conflict is symptomatic of, and often exacerbated by underlying gender inequities. In recent years, the UN General Assembly has increasingly recognised that sexual violence in conflict is more common and subsequently more accepted in regions where sexual violence occurs in women’s everyday lives. Put simply, when women are not treated equitably, sexual violence is treated less seriously by society and authorities. The focus on treating the symptoms of sexual violence without addressing larger problematic gendered dynamics does little to eradicate root causes of sexual violence in conflict.

Gender inequities are also exacerbated when women belong to a minority group and when the language and labels applied to acts of sexual violence are vague and unclear. It was not until the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 that all forms of gender-based violence, both public and private, were identified as violations by the international community.

A child looking at the camera through bar mesh

The future

Only with a deeper understanding of the purposes and diverse impacts of sexual violence on victims, families, and surrounding communities can appropriate tools be developed to combat sexual violence in conflict. In recent years there has been significant growth in discourses and practices opposing sexual violence in conflict and more in-depth examinations into how it challenges local kinship systems and causes ongoing medical problems including miscarriages, insomnia, and painful menstruation. However, there is still a long way to go. Incidents of sexual violence in conflict often remain unreported and even when they are documented, effective responses are not always forthcoming.

In terms of justice, responses to wrongdoing differ greatly across cultures as do definitions of what constitutes sexual violence. In negotiating gender justice and forms of punishment, context-specific factors and national and international legal rights must be recognised and negotiated with respect and sensitivity. Efforts should also be made to involve men and boys as although statistically speaking they are not victims as often as women and girls, they are nonetheless affected by sexual violence and the devastation left in its wake. Education is an important means to promote understanding and raise awareness of this phenomena. The more we talk about it, the less of a taboo sexual violence will become and more can be done to overcome it. 

EdUKaid is committed to tackling sexual violence through education and raising community awareness. Donate now if you would like to support our work.