WMC Women Under Siege

The need for numbers on rape in war—and why they’re nearly impossible to get

Countless women and girls have been raped to death, held as sexual slaves, gang raped, and subjected to sexual mutilation in conflicts during the last century—in the Rwandan genocide, the Nanking massacre, the war in the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone’s civil war, and Burma’s long-running armed conflict, to name a few.

Yet the number of women and girls surviving and dying from rape in armed conflict is countless largely because it has been uncounted. (While men and boys are also targeted by rape in war, women and girls are disproportionately targeted, most studies have found.)

Rape has long been seen as an inevitable yet indirect by-product of war—something completely unrelated to the use of weapons against combatants and civilians. Militaries and organizations that monitor conflict have counted battlefield injuries and deaths to the extent possible, but they have routinely failed to count the victims of rape wielded as a weapon. And women and girls have paid the price of this marginalization, in terms of lost chances at protection from sexualized violence, rehabilitation, reparations, and justice.

While the situation is improving—today, rape is widely recognized as a pervasive and brutal tactic of war that threatens international peace and security and leads to permanent injury, unwanted pregnancy, and death—little is known about the scope and nature of the injuries and deaths that result from rape in armed conflict. Gaps in knowledge persist today despite a great deal of effort and improved methods on the part of researchers, largely because of the significant obstacles that remain to gathering comprehensive and accurate data.

A number of children were born from rape in Rwanda's genocide, including this girl, seen with her mother in 2009. (Jonathan Torgovnik)

The importance of counting the victims of war
The commonly cited rationales for counting the casualties of war in general all hold true for counting those injured or killed by war rape, including the need to determine humanitarian responses to conflict and to develop “evidence-based advocacy” in order to lessen “civilian casualties.” Collecting data also helps ensure justice and reparations for victims and deter individuals and militaries from committing such crimes in the future. The data collected can later be used as the basis for prosecutions of individual rapes or of crimes against humanity, for instance, where the sexualized violence can be proved as part of a “widespread or systematic attack”—as the UN has stated is the case in two attacks on civilians in Syria in 2012.

There are also ethical reasons to count those harmed in war: to provide recognition and dignity to the victims of war—both those who survive and those who don’t.

Counting the number of women and girls raped in war, and cataloging their serious injuries, also promises to increase the stigmatization of war rape, which is key to stopping its use. Where rape is used as a “weapon” or “tactic” of war (and the UN Secretary-General has said, “Systematic sexual violence, without a doubt, can be every bit as destructive to communities as more conventional weapons”), it must be confronted the way other weapons and tactics have been successfully confronted in the past. One main way this has been done is documentation of injuries and deaths.

Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy and partnerships at Physicians for Human Rights, was involved in one of the first comprehensive studies on the heinous injuries and deaths caused by landmines. She explains that this 1993 study helped “spark the entire campaign” to ban landmines and led to states and UN agencies realizing it was important to improve and systematize the gathering of data on the issue. The stigmatization of landmines, including through a treaty banning their use, has ultimately brought about a decrease in the numbers of casualties and an increase in medical and other types of assistance to victims.  

Data collection on rape in war would also save women’s and girls’ lives by increasing knowledge and preparation among medical providers in war zones to better care for their severe and complex injuries, including traumatic gynecologic fistula and uterine prolapse.

Today, when a woman is raped in war and shows up at a local hospital, there is no guarantee that doctors will be able to repair her reproductive organs. Training for doctors in war zones does not necessarily cover the wounds of war rape. It is emblematic that the International Committee of the Red Cross, in its 1,000 page, two-volume war surgery manual, does not address even once the ways in which women and girls are injured by war rape. The manual only provides guidelines for treating women injured by conventional weapons, such as explosives.

An overemphasis on data collection can, however, be detrimental in certain cases. There is the danger, says Paul Kirby, a lecturer in international security at the University of Sussex, that organizations and governments will expect “perfect data before they begin an intervention or design a program to deliver services” to individuals affected by rape in conflict. “Data are obviously important to an appropriate health care response and to assess the scale and scope of crimes,” added Sirkin, but being “overly focused on numbers could undermine the seriousness of each and every individual case” and “because rape is such a serious crime, we don’t want there to be a threshold—i.e., if there’s not more than 1,000 rapes, we can’t respond.”

In places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there has been a great deal of international focus on the high occurrence of rape, individuals can also become overburdened by multiple data collection efforts.

“A lot of communities are exhausted talking to researcher after researcher after researcher and they should be spared” having to tell their story multiple times, explains Jocelyn Kelly, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Women in War Program. Instead, she suggests, research efforts can be coordinated to ensure that data collection is done with the consent and collaboration of communities and that the decision to tell one’s story is part of a collective and then individual process. 

Challenges to getting the numbers right
A number of challenges impede the collection of data that reflects the true scope of rape in conflict. But even in situations of peace, it is difficult to arrive at accurate statistics on rape. The numbers of women reporting gender-based violence outside of war are strikingly low: according to a global study of survivors undertaken by public health researchers, “a combined total of only 7 percent of survivors of gender-based violence … formally reported the violence to police, medical, or social services—combined.” The number “informally reporting” to friends and family members was less than 50 percent in most countries surveyed.

In war, rape reporting and data collection “problems are magnified,” according to an International Criminal Justice Review report on rape during the Rwandan genocide. Violence, insecurity, and lack of funding prevent timely data collection. In some cases, the “remoteness of locations where attacks are occurring” makes it extremely difficult to get information on what is happening, says Sirkin. Furthermore, the institutions of the state, like public registries and information systems that record civilian deaths and injuries also suffer in wartime, hindering the collection of casualty data, according to H. Patricia Hynes, a former professor at the Boston University School of Public Health who has written about war’s impact on women.

In wartime, as in peacetime, many women do not report their rapes due to pervasive stigma, shame, and threat of ostracism by their communities, families, and husbands. Erin Gallagher of Physicians for Human Rights, who investigated human rights abuses for the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, found very few women or girls willing to come forward to report rape in the ongoing Syrian conflict. Rape was unique in this way; people were “very forthcoming” when it came to speaking about and reporting bombing, shelling, snipers, torture, and family members who had been disappeared or detained. Due to this overriding stigma, Gallagher believes that “we’re probably all off as to the scope and dimensions of sexual violence in Syria” and that the world “won’t ever know the exact numbers” of women raped in Syria, at least “not from the victims themselves.” Or, at least, not until enough time has passed for victims to feel safe enough to tell others.

Fear also deters women and girls from coming forward to report rape—they do not have faith that they will be protected from their perpetrators due to the “insecure environment” of war. Syrian women refugees, for instance, who frequently do not know the people around them in the camps, may avoid telling anyone of their rapes, such as journalists, human rights investigators, or even aid workers, because they do not know where the information will go, who will overhear, or who will “be the victor in Syria,” according to Gallagher. In Syria and elsewhere, women rape survivors may also risk violence and death at the hands of family members who view rape as something that dishonors the entire family. More often, they experience divorce by their husbands or rejection by their families.

Comprehensive and effective studies of sexualized violence in war are sometimes hindered by a lack of adequate funding. “It is expensive work,” explains Sirkin, “and we have underfunded public health systems and weak medical records in many developing and conflict countries. One would hope that one consequence of this dramatically increased attention to sexualized violence globally would be more attention and investment by governments, the World Health Organization, the World Bank and aid organizations on data collection and training.”

On top of all this, the data on wartime sexualized violence that are collected are often unreliable, a phenomenon that has been extensively analyzed. Statistics frequently reflect an undercounting of the number of rape victims, for example, due to reliance on “victim narratives” or under-representative data from police or hospitals rather than “systematic data on wartime rape.” Exaggerations of the number of victims can also occur “when (the) methodology behind the research, or arguably the report itself, is not understood by those citing the estimates,” write researchers Tia Palermo and Amber Peterman.

There are, of course, significant and accurate studies being done on sexualized violence in conflict. The salutary effect of reliable, nuanced data, however, is sometimes blunted by a media prone to distortion and oversimplification. This can happen as a result of the media’s preference for headlines and sound bites, according to Sirkin, as well as journalists who write about studies of sexualized violence without fully understanding the data or context.

Finally, women and girls who die after or during rape in war often go overlooked by those studying sexualized violence in particular and those who record civilian casualties of war in general. The result is countless victims whose plight is left invisible, and whose families are unable to access justice or reparations on their behalves. One reason this happens is that war rape is not seen as part of the mandate of organizations that focus on the weapons and tactics of war. Major NGOs providing analysis and best practices on casualty recording, for instance, such as Action on Armed Violence and the Oxford Research Group, focus on “conventional” weapons and leave out any specific guidance on detecting and counting those war victims killed by or after rape. Another reason for this phenomenon is that it can be difficult to detect what exactly a deceased person suffered before death; the wounds of rape are not always as obvious as those caused by bullets or bombs.

“Doing proper mortality studies is another challenge, and deaths associated with rape are very likely underreported,” explains Sirkin. “It’s easy with landmines or gunshot wounds, but very few people are trained to document whether a person who has died in a massacre was also raped.”

Sirkin believes that there needs to be more discussion of “best practices for recording death globally” and more training of criminal investigators and medical personnel on “how and when to gather various kinds of evidence that would indicate that bodies show evidence of sexual violence, including by looking at clothing [whether it is ripped or has been removed] and bodily injury.” The documentation of sexualized violence among the dead “seems to be an overlooked area that should be and can be developed more,” agrees Gallagher, who is a “firm believer that anyone doing genocide and ethnic cleansing investigations must also be trained on sexual violence.”

It remains to be seen whether the international community can translate the heightened focus on sexualized violence in conflict—as seen in recent declarations and the June 2014 Global Summit, not to mention the UN Security Council’s seven resolutions on women, peace, and security—into the sustained and practical efforts needed, including increased funding and research and training to improve data collection. Until then, the countless women and girls under attack in conflict areas will remain, for the most part, uncounted, unseen, and untreated.

More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Rape, War, Sexualized violence



Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.