Global Challenges
Issue no. 5 | April 2019
New Grammars of War: Conflict and Violence in the 21st Century
Global Challenges
Issue no. 5 | April 2019
New Grammars of War | Article 5

Sexual Violence: A New Weapon of War?

Reading time: 4 min

Sexual violence in war is now being recognised in international law, policies, and scholarship. This new visibility has inadvertently normalised it as a standard weapon of war, which raises problematic issues ultimately questioning the distinction between war and peace.

Horrifying stories of sexual violence perpetrated in the context of armed conflict have become ubiquitous. The issue first burst on the international agenda with the rape camps reported from Bosnia in the 1990s. Infamous reports of sexual exploitation and abuse from UN peacekeepers trailed these stories of systematic rape. Reliable statistics of the extent of such violence and abuse are difficult to establish. However, neither issue has gone away, and there is a sense that sexual violence in conflict has become a standard repertoire of warfare. Sexual violence against women and girls in Yemen, South Sudan, and Iraq, Yazidi women in Northern Iraq, and Rohingya women and girls fleeing the Myanmar military all seem to point to the new normality of such practices. Increasing evidence shows that sexual violence targets also men, and there have been reports of significant levels of such violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Syria, Sri Lanka, Peru, and Bosnia. Sexual violence against men differs in form (e.g. it includes castration in addition to rape, forced prostitution and other violations women experience), and it is more often perpetrated in situations of detention (such as for example at Abu Ghraib).

The weapon-of-war character of sexual violence

Whether or not sexual violence is effective as a strategy of war, it has clear effects on its victims. The psychological costs are immeasurable as it demolishes a basic sense of security; for men it often in addition puts in question their masculinity. Costs to communities include the destruction of trust and social cohesion. Moreover, groups that are selectively targeted may decide to leave an area rather than risk becoming the victims of violations.

International policies affirm the weapon-of-war character of sexual violence. Considered a lesser abuse and an attack against women’s honour in the Geneva Conventions, it was recognised as a war crime and a crime against humanity in the statutes of the International Criminal Court that went into force in 2002. Moreover, in a series of resolutions since 2008, the UN Security Council has condemned the practice and sought measures to counteract it, including the deployment of Women’s Protection Advisors in its peacekeeping missions, the appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and the creation of UN Action, a programme to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence. These interventions have established normative frameworks sanctioning the practice. But there is concern that its new visibility also has inadvertently normalised it as a standard weapon of war.

Indeed, there is a common sense that rape has long been the right of the victor. Rapes have been reported in wars from ancient Rome to the Second World War, and stories of rape, loot, and pillage accompany European history. Yet, empirical evidence contradicts the common sense that conflict-related sexual violence is ubiquitous. Research on the matter shows that there are significant variations in its prevalence and is beginning to discern some patterns. Research with perpetrators in the DRC shows that they distinguish between “good” and “evil” rapes. Some suggest that sexual violence may be more common in ethnic conflicts such as that in the former Yugoslavia, where it supported a genocidal agenda. However, in other ethnic conflicts, such as the one in Sierra Leone, such violence was rampant but did not involve specific ethnic targeting, contradicting the idea that it was a strategic instrument of genocide. One explanation is that gang rapes there may have served as a means of socialising militia members. Indeed, there is evidence that such rapes are more common in militias that forcibly recruit their members, often young boys. In contrast, sexual violence is less common among leftist insurgents, as was the case in El Salvador and Peru; and although there are documented cases of such violence in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), these are far outstripped by the level of sexual violence perpetrated by the paramilitaries.

Framing sexual violence as a weapon of war has served to mobilise governments and the UN to engage with the issue. However, this framing is also problematic because it assumes that warring groups obey a hierarchy of command where soldiers follow orders to rape. Studies show that this is not always the case, and there are considerable problems of command and control in undisciplined armed groups. More typically, armed groups provide a permissive environment. Indeed, research with perpetrators in the DRC shows that they distinguish between “good” and “evil” rapes: they complain that they often go without pay and thus cannot either buy sex or marry and therefore feel that rape is justified; at the same time, they acknowledge that rape becomes “evil” if it entails gratuitous violence. Orders from command play less of a role in this than wanting to live up to expectations of masculinity and a sense of male entitlement.

Sexual violence in war and outside war

Framing sexual violence as a weapon of war is also problematic because it draws an artificial line between such violence perpetrated in war and outside war. Against this, some feminists have argued that sexual violence itself needs to be considered an act of political violence enabled by patriarchal structures, institutions, and values. They worry that establishing conflict-related sexual violence as something qualitatively different from sexual violence more broadly disregards the conditions that make it possible: women and those feminised in different ways are the objects of harm regardless of war or peace. Indeed, this critique questions the distinction between war and peace as based on a male point of view: it is difficult to think of societies rent by sexual violence as peaceful.Conversely, definitions of war based purely on battle deaths (of mostly male combatants) ignore the experiences of women, as sexual violence often continues long after the guns have been silenced. Framing conflict-related sexual violence as strategic and thus different from such violence outside armed conflict problematically obscures that “peace” typically is built on a patriarchal bargain that concentrates the means of violence in the hands of men.It is difficult to think of societies rent by sexual violence as peaceful 

Thus, looked at through the lens of sexual violence, war and peace mean different things to different people – they are gendered constructs. The fact that this violence is now being recognised in international law, policies, and scholarship has established it as a new weapon of war. Although there are no statistics to reliably show trends, it undoubtedly will be used in the future. But perhaps more importantly, the new visibility of sexual violence may lead us to begin to question the distinction between war and peace and recognise the pervasive harm done to populations gendered “other” in the wars that constitute their everyday lives.

By Elisabeth Prügl
Professor of International Relations/Political Science
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

Share this article:
Header image caption: Human Miseries, from the Suite of Late Wood-Block Prints

Map based on the data produced by the Small Arm Survey, and enriched by the Graduate Institute's Research Office in Geneva, in collaboration with whybe.ch.

Migration, Violence and War, with Charles Heller

Graduate Institute - Research Office

State-Based Conflict since 1946

© ourworldindata.org / CC - Creative Commons
Source: Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)
Variable description: Ongoing conflicts are represented in each year in which more than 25 deaths occurred.

Violence, Killer Robots and Regulation, with Paola Gaeta

Graduate Institute - Research Office

Terminology Related to Violence and Conflict


The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.
The World Health Organization (WHO)


Derived from the Latin word conflictus, which means collision or clash. This term is understood as a disagreement between two or more parties through which the parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests or concerns. Source

Armed conflict

A dispute involving the use of armed force between two or more parties, often referred to as war. Source

Interstate conflict

Militarised armed conflict between two or more states. Source

Intrastate conflict / Civil War

A conflict between a government and one or several non-governmental parties, often with interference or support from foreign actors.

Armed violence

The intentional use of illegitimate force (actual or threatened) with arms or explosives, against a person, group, community, or state that undermines people-centred security and/or sustainable development. Source

Gender-based violence

Violence that is directed against a person on the basis of gender or sex. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental, or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion, or other deprivations of liberty. While women, men, boys and girls can be victims of gender-based violence, because of their subordinate status, women and girls are the primary victims. Source


Armed conflicts according to international law/IHL

IHL distinguishes between Non-international armed conflict defined as "A conflict in which government forces are fighting with armed insurgents, or armed groups are fighting amongst themselves" and International armed conflict defined as "A war involving two or more States, regardless of whether a declaration of war has been made or whether the parties recognize that there is a state of war. Source


A criminal act or acts intended to inflict dramatic and deadly injury on civilians and to create an atmosphere of fear, generally in furtherance of a political or ideological (whether secular or religious) purpose.  Terrorism is most often carried out by sub-national or transnational groups, but it has also been known to be practiced by rulers as an instrument of control. Source

Research Office

To Top