Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Women and War: Sexual Violence and International Law

A guide of search strategies for and selected resources on the topic of Women and War.

Introduction

"Rape, in wartime, refers to situations in which soldiers from national armies or nonstate belligerents sexually assault women as part of their military campaign in order to establish their domination."  The concept of rape as a weapon of war emerged in the 1990s. "The systematic and military use of rape in the former Yugoslavia conflict and in the Rwandan genocide motivated the international community to analyze rape as a war strategy. In these two cases, rape was a military stratagem and a genocidal tool. Later on, rape would expand in many civil wars in Africa and elsewhere, becoming a global concern in a very short time. The large media coverage of these post–Cold War crises contributed to the emergence of an international awareness that led to academic research and active humanitarian emergency programs." 

Plauchut, A. & Le Houérou, F. (2017). Rape as a weapon of war. In P. Joseph (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of war: Social science perspectives (pp. 1430-1432). SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781483359878.n542 

 

See the United Nation's report Conflict-Related Sexual Violence from 2019 for a global overview. 

Cover of the Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Report of the United Nations Secretary-General

 

Selected Scholarship: Books

Selected Scholarship: Journal Articles

Cohen, D. K., & Green, A. H. (2012). Dueling incentives: Sexual violence in Liberia and the politics of human rights advocacy. Journal of Peace Research, 49(3), 445–458. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022343312436769

Abstract: Transnational advocacy organizations are influential actors in the international politics of human rights. While political scientists have described several methods these groups use – particularly a set of strategies termed ‘information politics’ – scholars have yet to consider the effects of these tactics beyond their immediate impact on public awareness, policy agendas or the behavior of state actors. This article investigates the information politics surrounding sexual violence during Liberia’s civil war. We show that two frequently-cited ‘facts’ about rape in Liberia are inaccurate, and consider how this conventional wisdom gained acceptance. Drawing on the Liberian case and findings from sociology and economics, we develop a theoretical framework that treats inaccurate claims as an effect of ‘dueling incentives’ – the conflict between advocacy organizations’ needs for short-term drama and long-term credibility. From this theoretical framework, we generate hypotheses regarding the effects of information politics on (1) short-term changes in funding for human rights advocacy organizations, (2) short-term changes in human rights outcomes, (3) the institutional health of humanitarian and human rights organizations, and (4) long-run outcomes for the ostensible beneficiaries of such organizations. We conclude by outlining a research agenda in this area, emphasizing the importance of empirical research on information politics in the human rights realm, and particularly its effects on the lives of aid recipients.

Cohen, D. K., & Nordås, R. (2015). Do States Delegate Shameful Violence to Militias? Patterns of Sexual Violence in Recent Armed Conflicts. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 59(5), 877–898. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002715576748

Abstract: Existing research maintains that governments delegate extreme, gratuitous, or excessively brutal violence to militias. However, analyzing all militias in armed conflicts from 1989 to 2009, we find that this argument does not account for the observed patterns of sexual violence, a form of violence that should be especially likely to be delegated by governments. Instead, we find that states commit sexual violence as a complement to—rather than a substitute for—violence perpetrated by militias. Rather than the logic of delegation, we argue that two characteristics of militia groups increase the probability of perpetrating sexual violence. First, we find that militias that have recruited children are associated with higher levels of sexual violence. This lends support to a socialization hypothesis, in which sexual violence may be used as a tool for building group cohesion. Second, we find that militias that were trained by states are associated with higher levels of sexual violence, which provides evidence for sexual violence as a “practice” of armed groups. These two complementary results suggest that militia-perpetrated sexual violence follows a different logic and is neither the result of delegation nor, perhaps, indiscipline.

Durham, H., & O’Byrne, K. (2010). The dialogue of difference: gender perspectives on international humanitarian law. International Review of the Red Cross, 92(877), 31–52. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1816383110000032

Abstract: This article examines the meaning and potential usefulness of a 'gender perspective' on international humanitarian law (IHL). In order to do so, it considers a number of 'gendered' themes found within IHL, including the role of women as combatants, and the gendered use of sexual violence during times of armed conflict. The authors suggest that further development and understanding of a gender perspective will contribute to the resilience and effectiveness of IHL as a system of law, and will strengthen the protection of those who are victimized and disempowered during times of war.

Gottschall, J. (2004). Explaining wartime rape. Journal of Sex Research, 41(2), 129-136. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224490409552221

Abstract: In the years since the first reports of mass rapes in the Yugoslavian wars of secession and the genocidal massacres in Rwanda, feminist activists and scholars, human rights organizations, journalists, and social scientists have dedicated unprecedented efforts to document, explain, and seek solutions for the phenomenon of wartime rape. While contributors to this literature agree on much, there is no consensus on causal factors. This paper provides a brief overview of the literature on wartime rape in historical and ethnographical societies and a critical analysis of the four leading explanations for its root causes: the feminist theory, the cultural pathology theory, the strategic rape theory, and the biosocial theory. The paper concludes that the biosocial theory is the only one capable of bringing all the phenomena associated with wartime rape into a single explanatory context.

Hirschauer, S. (2020). De-securitization, sexual violence, and the politics of silence. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 27(3), 219–234. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350506819889379

Abstract: Drawing on the author’s archival research in Germany and the US, empirical data about US-allied troop sexual violence during post-World War II occupied Germany suggests a complex interplay between gender, security, silence production, and state identity. Through a feminist security studies lens, this article theorizes about an unexplored, obscured form of de-securitization: the unmaking of a security issue or referent object as active silence. De-securitization as silence provides a unique insight into silence production, gender’s normativity, and security. To move beyond de-securitization’s presumed politicization, the argument identifies specific hypervisibilities and new state-self, dominant memory regimes as acts, discursive representations, processes, or incidents of de-securitization – producing and reproducing active silence and facilitating the making of a newly imagined, ‘good’ German state-self. for genuine gender emancipation.

Hynes, H. P. (2004). On the battlefield of women’s bodies: An overview of the harm of war to women. Women’s Studies International Forum, 27(5/6), 431–445.

Abstract: By the 1990s, 9 of 10 people who died in war from direct and indirect effects were civilians. Bombs and weapons of modern war kill and maim civilian women in equal numbers to civilian men. A unique harm of war for women is the trauma inflicted in military brothels, rape camps, and the growing sex trafficking for prostitution and by increased domestic violence, all of which is fueled by the culture of war, male aggression, and the social and economic ruin left in the wake of war. Widows of war, women victims of landmines, and women refugees of war are particularly vulnerable to poverty, prostitution, the extortion of sex for food by post-war peacekeepers, and higher illness and death in the post-conflict period. While problems exist with definitions and methods of measurement, a full accounting of the harm of war to civilian women is needed in the debate over whether war is justified.

Josse, E. (2010). “They came with two guns”: the consequences of sexual violence for the mental health of women in armed conflicts. International Review of the Red Cross, 92(877), 177–195. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1816383110000251

Abstract: Sexual violence has serious and multiple consequences for the mental health of women. At the psychological level, it leads to radical changes in the image that the victim has of herself, in her relations with her immediate social circle and beyond, in the community as a whole, and in the way in which the victim sees the past, present, and future. It thus has a lasting negative impact on the victim's perception of herself, of events, and of others. At the community level, it stigmatizes the victim, depriving her of any social status or intrinsic value as a person (she is seen as unfaithful or promiscuous), and thereby modifies relationships within the community with an overall deleterious effect. This article discusses these consequences of sexual violence for the mental health of women, especially those who are its victims during armed conflicts.

Sarwari, M. (2020). Impact of Rebel Group Ideology on Wartime Sexual Violence. Journal of Global Security Studies, ogaa040, https://doi.org/10.1093/jogss/ogaa040

Abstract: Does rebel group ideology influence variation in wartime sexual violence? While existing studies have explored country-level and conflict-specific factors to explain wartime sexual violence, it is important to recognize that rebels vary in their characteristics and sexual violence behavior. Specifically, rebel groups differ in their values regarding gender equality. I argue that the ideological preferences held by rebels and their foreign supporters can influence sexual violence during armed conflict. Particularly, I make the claim that rebels influenced by a leftist ideology are less likely to commit wartime sexual violence, whereas religious groups, Islamist and non-Islamist, are more likely to perpetrate such violence. Using a statistical analysis to explore the effects of ideology of rebel groups on sexual violence during the period of 1989–2008, I find that leftist rebels commit lower levels of wartime sexual violence. Furthermore, findings reveal that leftist organizations that receive support from leftist third parties are less likely to perpetrate sexual violence. Religious rebels who receive support from conservative supporters, on the other hand, are more likely to commit sexual violence.

Trabucchi, E. (2008). Rape Warfare and International Humanitarian Law. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, 6(4), 39–48.

Abstract: Throughout time no matter where the location, rape and other acts of sexual violence towards women have always been a part of war. Shrugged off, rape warfare has become an acceptable by-product for what men do even though the Geneva Conventions, the legal framework outlining the rules of war, prohibits it. Specifically looking at the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Rwanda, this thesis will focus on how women's bodies became the battlefield. Journals, books and documentary films all present testimony on how rape went beyond being a by-product of war to instead become a tool of war itself: a strategic military plan for genocide. Secondary research examines articles within the Geneva Conventions as well as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide that directly address the safety and treatment of women during war. My findings are that these structures of law very often go ignored. The creation of an International Criminal Court and two ad-hoc tribunals, however, will prosecute those accountable for committing sexual atrocities during war and in doing so send a strong message that acts of violence towards women will not be tolerated. How well this message gets heard remains to be seen as wars continue to define our future.

Wood, E. J. (2018). Rape as a Practice of War: Toward a Typology of Political Violence. Politics & Society, 46(4), 513–537. https://doi.org/10.1177/0032329218773710

Abstract: When rape by an armed organization occurs frequently, it is often said to be a strategy of war. But some cases of conflict-related rape are better understood as a practice, violence that has not been explicitly adopted as organization policy but is nonetheless tolerated by commanders. The typology of conflict-related rape in this article emphasizes not only vertical relationships between commanders (principals) and combatants (agents) but also the horizontal social interactions among combatants. It analyzes when rape is likely to be prevalent as a practice, emphasizing not only gendered norms and beliefs of the society from which combatants come but also how those might be transformed by the organization’s socialization processes. In the conclusion, I suggest that the typology is relevant for analysts of all forms of of political violence and also for prosecutors, policy advocates, and policymakers concerned with conflict-related rape.

Reports

Cohen, D. K., Green, A. H., & Wood, E. J. (2013). Wartime sexual violence: Misconceptions, implications, and ways forward. United States Institute of Peace. https://www.usip.org/publications/2013/02/wartime-sexual-violence-misconceptions-implications-and-ways-forward

Abstract: Three top researchers explode myths about wartime sexual violence and conclude that rape in war is neither ubiquitous nor inevitable. Variation occurs across countries, conflicts, and armed groups. The fact that some commanders are able to prohibit sexual violence suggests that prevention is possible and interventions should be aimed at the level of armed groups.

The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal

The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
"
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is a United Nations court of law dealing with war crimes that took place during the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990’s. Since its establishment in 1993, it has irreversibly changed the landscape of international humanitarian law and provided victims an opportunity to voice the horrors they witnessed and experienced."  https://www.icty.org/en/about

Selected articles about sexual violence against women in the former Yugoslavia war. 

Nebesar, D. A. (1998). Gender-based Violence as a Weapon of War. University of California at Davis Law Review, 4(2), 147–180.

Niarchos, C. N. (1995). Women, war, and rape: challenges facing the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Human Rights Quarterly, 17(4), 649–690.

Skjelsbæk, I. (2006). Victim and survivor: Narrated social identities of women who experienced rape during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Feminism & Psychology, 16(4), 373-403. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0959353506068746


Legacy website of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda

Since the ICTR’s closure on 31 December 2015, the Mechanism maintains this website as part of its mission to preserve and promote the legacy of the UN International Criminal Tribunals. Visit the Mechanism's websitehttps://unictr.irmct.org/

Selected articles about sexual violence against women during the Rwandan Genocide

Lengel, L. (2018). Mediated memory work and resistant remembering of wartime sexual violence, 1992-1995. Feminist Media Studies, 18(2), 325–328. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2018.1436903

Woolner, L., Denov, M., & Kahn, S. (2019). “I Asked Myself If I Would Ever Love My Baby”: Mothering Children Born of Genocidal Rape in Rwanda. Violence Against Women, 25(6), 703–720. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801218801110

Research Tips

Useful databases to search include:

  • PAIS Index
    • The PAIS International database contains references to journal articles, books, government documents, statistical directories, grey literature, research reports, conference reports, publications of international agencies and more. PAIS includes publications from over 120 countries throughout the world.
  • Proquest Criminal Justice
    • ProQuest Criminal Justice Periodicals Index™ is a comprehensive database of U.S. and international criminal justice journals.
  • Women's Studies International
    • Provides citations and some abstracts to the core areas of women's studies.

Useful keywords to find research:

  • Crimes against women
  • Humanitarian Law
  • Sex Crimes
  • Women in war
  • War victims

 

Organizations

Data