Anna Hedlund: Sharp lines, blurred structures: Politics of wartime rape in armed conflict

Whenever there is armed conflict, sexual violence and rape, often against women and girls, soon emerge as central concerns in the global public. This is an important topic, as rape is often used as “a weapon of war.” It is a dangerous concern, nevertheless. Opposing war parties commonly develop public relations strategies aimed at exploiting the global concern over sexual violence. Further, “rape as a weapon of war” may be a false assumption, for it may overshadow other atrocities inherent in nearly all armed conflicts and the focus may be on rape as a selective phenomenon separated from the political and economic context.

Over the past decade, wartime rape has gained increased scholarly attention. Today it is an integral part of media coverage from conflict zones around the world. From being completely ignored or poorly understood as “spoils of war,” the subject of gender-based and sexual violence is now a widely debated topic among researchers, peacekeepers, law and justice sectors, policy makers, and organizations working to combat violence. More awareness of wartime rape has led to the formulation of guidelines to address support for victims as well as legal consequences (Linos 2009: 1548). In the Rwandan and Yugoslav war tribunals, for example, “rape as a weapon of war” was prosecuted as a crime against humanity and a constitutive act of genocide (Buss 2009). While international attention to gender-based violence in war is important and has helped to break taboos, stigma, and the silence attached to rape, social science scholars now argue that dominant global discourses, such as labeling rape as a “weapon of war,” are often inadequate, simplified, sensationalistic, and stereotypical (cf. Buss 2014: 4; see also Washington Post).

The following should be read keeping in mind that wartime rape is not my primary research focus. However, it has been an inevitable subject in my research on the politics of conflict and armed groups in the eastern territories of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The eastern Congo is known to outsiders as “the rape capital of the world”—an expression Foreign Minister of Sweden Margot Wallström1 coined after a short visit in 2011 (Eriksson-Baaz and Stern 2013). Looking at this on a different scale, wartime rape reoccurred in discussion with individuals I interviewed in the Congo (such as combatants, soldiers, child soldiers, and civilians). Likewise, it was an unavoidable discussion topic with “outsiders” trying to understand why rape is so commonplace in the Congo. The purposes in this short blog post are not to discuss the prevalence or motivations of sexual violence in the Congo conflict but rather to follow up on the current debate, simply asking: what do we actually know about wartime rape? Where is the discussion going? What are the general misunderstandings and misconceptions?

Until recently, sexual violence in armed conflicts was not considered as a research topic per se, but sexual violence (against women) was often mentioned as context or as a byproduct of other forms of violence. Much of the research available, therefore, has predominantly been carried out by humanitarian organizations, advocacy groups, and policy makers. In these reports, sexual violence is often explained as a result of disorder, the breakdown of governments, and lawlessness and as a consequence of living in violent and chaotic conditions. In the academic debate, a different focus emerged during the 1990s when the international community became aware of “rape camps” set up during the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda as part of ethnic cleansing (see, e.g., Jones 2000). Since then, scholars and advocacy groups have often discussed rape in ethnic terms (e.g., in the case of Darfur, Iraq, East Timor, Ecuador, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, India–Pakistan, etc.). Another focus is on rape as a political or military tactic used to destroy communities, to break people and split groups apart. This argues—as opposed to the social breakdown narrative—that rape is a deliberate tactic “having a systematic pervasive or officially orchestrated aspect, emphasizing that rapes are not random acts, but appear to be carried out as deliberate policy” (Buss 2009: 149, citing Niarchos 1995: 658).

Sharp lines: Beyond critiquing global discourses in the donor and media industries
This has meant that over the past decade, wartime rape has predominantly—and with a broad stroke and little regard to the political and economic dimensions of global and local warring—been defined as a strategy, a tactic, or “a weapon of war.” Such global discourse has received criticism from a number of scholars arguing, for example, that focusing on rape as a separate phenomenon in war tends to reduce other complexities of violence, such as other types of sexual violence, humiliation, forced recruitment of children in armed groups, forced labor, massacres, or mass killings that often occur simultaneously. Ericsson Baaz and Stern, who are the leading authors in this line of critique, have written substantially about rape in conflict (2009, 2010, 2013) and have sought to disentangle what the global discourse entails—especially in regard to the political consequences and unwanted side effects of a sole focus on rape as the weapon of war. For eastern Congo, they have argued that the dominant framework for understanding and addressing rape has become “so seemingly coherent, universalizing and established that seeing, hearing, or thinking otherwise about wartime rape and its subjects (e.g., perpetrators/victims) is difficult” (2013: 2). This has to do with “outside” actors and agencies and their vested interest in creating a myriad of local replicas of the global narrative.

Despite reports and figures that show the high prevalence of wartime rape, for scholars working in the Congo the “commercialization of rape” or “rape tourism” is widely known. Many have observed journalists (and researchers) who search in what they themselves declare to be “rape hospitals” or “rape communities” to find victims of rape whose stories are then published as “horror stories” in media or reports made accessible worldwide for the pursuit of funding (Eriksson Baaz and Stern 2013: 2). The critique here, Eriksson Baaz and Stern rightly point out, is not only about the ethical aspect of exploiting victim identities but also that a single focus on rape can contribute to “the recycling and reinforcement of racialized images” and “barbaric stereotypes” of the Congolese population, recalling the “Heart of Darkness narrative” (Eriksson Baaz and Stern 2010: 12). Moreover, the critique emphasizes that for many local and international NGOs working in the region, wartime rape has become a lucrative and fund-driven business (8–9), while other projects are less successful or ignored by the international community and donors.

Such opposition and mere focus on discourse and the reproduction of a global narrative and its mingling with simplified stereotypical narratives by a donor-dependent NGO and media sector creates new sets of partialities. As Mertens (2013) discusses in a blog post, it is important not to downplay or minimize the severity of rape, which remains—even though statistical numbers might be questionable—a widespread and commonplace phenomenon in the Congo society. A report, to cite some numbers, shows that about a thousand women are raped every month in Eastern Congo (see Palermo et al. 2011 for a detailed breakdown). In contrast, most perpetrators are in fact not military forces or combatants but civilians (Cohen et al. 2013). Further, a report conducted by the Demographic and Health Survey (2015) shows that only 1 percent of sexual violence cases in the DRC has been carried out by soldiers, whereas 80 percent of the cases were carried out by someone closely related to the victim. Further, the study found that sexual violence is commonplace throughout the DRC and not only confined to the conflict-ridden east (see also Congo Siasa for an overview of numbers and figures). Sexual violence, however, was more brutal when it was related to violence generated by the conflicts taking place in the eastern regions (Palermo et al 2011). What is more, there are indications that sexual violence against men is also widespread, a subject that has been less studied and heavily underreported due to stigma and shame (Dolan 2014). As these figures indicate, we must be careful with how we frame “rape as a weapon of war” as well as with what we actually mean when we speak about sexual violence and rape in contexts of conflict.

Blurred structures: Outlining patterns of variation in wartime rape
In line with what I said above, several recent studies support the critique of predominant global discourses about wartime rape as a tactic and weapon of war (see, e.g., Cohen and Hoover 2012). There are options to take the analysis further. Although rape exists in almost every conflict, there are many patterns, motives, and variations for and of rape (cf. Buss 2009). In general, an important objection against a universalized understanding of rape is that what rape symbolizes and signifies, as well as how it is lived and acted out in domestic relations and public spheres, is place specific and part of longstanding, ongoing struggles over the social construction of norms. One central theme is the battle over determining the historical, “traditional” gender relations and boundaries between socially accepted violence and inacceptable violence. This has far-reaching implications for how we understand wartime rape, for if wartime rape is regarded as a ubiquitous (male-driven) planned strategy carried out deliberately by military and rebel groups, it may appear as inevitable. Cohen et al. (2013) emphasize instead that while some rebel or military groups encourage rape, other groups follow codes of conduct that prohibit rape. Rape was very rare in the Sri Lankan conflict on the part of the Tamil secessionist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) as well as among insurgent groups such as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador (Wood 2009: 132). Further, wartime rape is largely unheard of in the Israel/Palestine conflict. These observations may well point to the fact that historical, political, and economic contexts of a conflict play a significant role in regard to sexual violence.

Another misconception is that generally, women are portrayed as victims and men as perpetrators. Even though the majority of rape victims are women, such clear-cut gender divisions emerge as ambiguous when in Haiti (Faedi 2010) and Rwanda (Jones 2002) women perpetrated sexual violence against other women and against men. Examples of female perpetration have actually been central to a case of sexual violence that has possibly had the widest media coverage in recent years. Torture testimonies from the prison in Guantanamo Bay and from sexual violence against detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had women at center stage. Similarly, during my fieldwork in military and demobilization camps in the Congo, I observed how women took an active part in mobilizing violence and encouraged soldiers to participate in violent acts to achieve the wider political and ideological goals of the group. This forces us to rethink the roles of victims/perpetrators/civilians and whom we actually refer to in the “rape as a weapon of war” discourse. What is more, rethinking these roles is important for overcoming gender and racist stereotypes that would have few remembering as wartime sexual violence in the pictures of female and male US soldiers torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

Consequently, and against widespread arguments that sexual violence as part of warfare aims to destroy community and tear a prewar social contract of mutuality apart, it seems reasonable to broaden our understanding. An important observation in this regard is that that national armies (that are supposed to protect the population) rather than nonstate armed groups (that are commonly viewed as the threat to stability) are more likely to carry out sexual violence. In cases where rape was obviously intended to serve as a strategic weapon of war, such as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, high-level commanders were often liable and held responsible for the actions (Cohen et al. 2013). Further, Eriksson-Baaz and Sterns (2013) study of the Congolese national army (FARDC) soldiers adds further complexity to the empirical foundations of our understanding of wartime sexual violence. Soldiers detailed in interviews that during conflict rape often occurred as a response to a breakdown of military leadership structures. Thus, while rape in some conflicts, as was the case in Rwanda or Bosnia-Herzegovina, was clearly used as a political and military strategy, according to Eriksson-Baaz and Stern “sexual violence can also reflect the opposite [of strategy], the breakdown of chains of command, indiscipline rather than discipline, commander’s lack of control, rather than their power; the micro dynamics of violent score-settling, rather than decisions of military and political leaders engaged in defeating the enemy” (2013: 5).

Another pattern of variation, indicating blurred structures, brings me back to my own research site, the Congo. One central explanation to why nonstate armed groups are less likely to carry out rape is that most rebel groups rely on the support from civilians (Eriksson Baaz and Stern 2013). This was also what my own analyses of one rebel group currently operating in the Congo conflict brought to the fore as its members continuously emphasized that close relations with civilians were paramount for economical, political, and military support (Hedlund, forthcoming). Again, not all rebel/civilian interactions are built on what my interviewees invoked as “symbioses” and “good relations.” Mutual trust and collaboration may go side by side with power, dominance, fear, and force—and there is always the possibility of a tipping point. The 2009 massacres in the Kivu regions, for example, show the fragility of rebel/civilian interactions and how rape was used as a deliberate “strategy.”2 Following a military operation launched by the governments of Rwanda and Congo (supported by the UN) with the goal to defeat and disarm a Rwandan Hutu dominated rebel group (FDLR), the rebels responded by “punishing” the civilian population over several weeks. This large-scale violence included mass rape against the civilian population that turned from support group to hostages as a way to communicate a political message “if you try to kill us, we will kill the civilians.”

The latter example indicates that wartime rape and other forms of violence are still an effective way to instill and spread fear as well as a way to communicate political or military messages through mutilated bodies. Although critical reflection over simplified and universalized global discourses of wartime rape and the NGO and media funding that goes along with this particular depiction of sexual violence is indicated, the prevalence and severity of rape must never be downplayed so as to prepare an analytical ground where discursive dimensions of sociability prevail over the material.

To understand the root causes of sexual violence and its relationships to other forms of violence, we must move beyond easy labels to avoid that discussions of rape in conflict become counterproductive and that narratives are sometimes wrongly conceptualized. Rather than “interpretations at a distance,” more ethnographic research based on direct encounters with perpetrators (rather than with victims) is still needed. Only in this way can we get a better understanding of wartime rape, its multiple causes, its complexity, why it occurs, when it takes place, and for what reasons. A position of sharp lines and blurred boundaries, as proposed above, might be a good point of departure.

Anna Hedlund is a postdoctoral researcher with the South African Research Chair in Social Change, University of Johannesburg. Based on fieldwork in the eastern Congo, she is currently working on a monograph on armed groups and conflict dynamics in the DRC (forthcoming, University of Pennsylvania Press).


1. At the time, Margot Wallström was working as a special representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (SRSG-SVC).

2. For a longer reading, see the report “You Will be Punished” by Human Right Watch (2009).


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Cite as: Hedlund, Anna. 2016. “Sharp lines, blurred structures: Politics of wartime rape in armed conflict.” FocaalBlog, 22 January.