WMC Women Under Siege

Why soldiers rape — and when they don’t — in diagrams

Men came while she was working in her field. Twice. Like so many women I met a few months ago in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the woman telling her story explained how men wearing uniforms appeared as she worked her land and dragged her to a tree and tied her to it, raping her, cutting her, terrifying her. They wanted her money and they wanted her gone from her field. They wanted her land because land is one of the most precious commodities in DRC, where 71 percent of citizens are living below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. But they also wanted to terrify her, because fear is one of the ways in which militias exert power and claim dominance, ultimately laying claim to power house by house, field by field, woman by woman.

Congo is a complicated war, with resources, corruption, and gender inequality all playing into high levels of sexualized violence. But while a conflict is rarely straightforward, reasons for rape are comprehensible and, therefore, preventable.

A main part of our work here at WMC’s Women Under Siege has been to document specifically how sexualized violence has been utilized against women and men in conflicts—what are the reasons behind it and how do they differ from country to country, region to region, group to group? We’ve currently got 16 in-depth profiles of how rape is used as a tool of war around the world. In each, there’s a section called “How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War” that lays out various motivations that our team or outside researchers have identified over years.

Below is a diagram showing a few specific ways sexualized violence has been used and where. There are so many reasons behind rape: Often it’s used to terrorize or humiliate communities, sometimes it’s used to glean information about rebels or to retaliate or exert power. As they say, rape is an incredibly effective—and cheap—weapon. Cheaper than bullets, and more destructive in many cases. To compare further, take a look through our profiles here. (NB: The only conflicts included below come from our completed analyses thus far.)

In Congo specifically, we’ve identified at least 10 ways sexualized violence has been used as a weapon, by both militia groups and the Congolese Army. A bit unusual sounding, rape has been used to “protect” soldiers and has, they say, been provoked by Satan.

“Well, we were just abiding by the conditions of our magic potion,” said one soldier in a 2008 documentary by Lisa Jackson called “The Greatest Silence.” “We had to rape women in order to make it work, and beat the enemy.”

One of the more hopeless reasons soldiers have committed rape in DRC may be that they wanted to avoid violence from superiors. Rape also creates what researchers call “unit cohesion”—a kind of nasty socialization in which soldiers find something terrible they have now in common.

It leaves a bad taste—if peer pressure and a beating is enough to cause men to commit such horrible acts, what hope is there for a rape-free world?

Fortunately, researchers have looked closely at conflicts around the world and found that there exist some that have not employed sexualized violence as a weapon.

“In El Salvador, insurgents killed mayors and other civilians but they engaged in little sexual violence,” writes Yale University Professor Elisabeth Wood. She also lists Israel-Palestine and Sri Lanka as conflicts in which at least one party refrained from committing acts of sexualized violence.

“In some conflicts, rape by all parties is remarkably limited despite other violence against civilians,” Wood wrote in 2010. “There appears to be little sexual violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite other human rights violations by all parties to the conflict.”

With fighting in Gaza raging this month, there have been reports trickling out of the region of sexual harassment at checkpoints (and there have long been stories of “humiliation,” threats, and other abuses against women in Israeli detention), and reports of misogynist propaganda being spread. Still, a Palestinian women’s rights activist I spoke to this week put the rumored sexualized violence in perspective: “I cannot claim it’s as widespread as in Egypt, for instance.”

Sri Lanka’s long war was marred by many acts of rape yet Wood explains that while the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam “killed many thousands of innocent civilians,” the group rarely used rape as “part of its repertoire.”

“Indeed, the LTTE severely punished sexual violence by its troops,” writes Wood.

Before you decide rape is an “African problem” or some religion’s favored tactic, consider that research by Harvard’s Dara Kay Cohen has shown that, percentage-wise, sexualized violence is not greater in African conflicts than in Asia, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe.

And while rape is thought to be "a method of combatant socialization, in which members of armed groups who are recruited by force use rape to create and to maintain unit cohesion,” writes Cohen, groups can be trained and ordered not to rape as well, as seen in Sri Lanka.

There is hope. Not all soldiers rape. There is, instead, empathy and respect for women and their bodies out there. There are men who would never think to violate a woman. And with those men and greater education, training, and vigilance, militaries around the world can, hopefully, eradicate this brutalizing weapon from their repertoires.

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



Lauren Wolfe
Director, Women Under Siege
Sign up for our Newsletter

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