No, war doesn’t have to mean rape

By — July 2, 2013

Almost every day, readers write to tell us that women will always be targeted in conflict. Rape, they say, is just a natural part of war, and there’s no way to stop it.

Yet research shows that this isn’t actually the case.

Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example. While fiercely arguing about the issue, people point to illegal settlements, others to suicide bombings, still others to rockets, U.S. bias, and their Palestinian-born aunt. The grim list of abuses, root causes, and reasons for allegiances is long, and it’s why some avoid the topic altogether while others dedicate their careers to it. But listen closely, and you’ll start to realize that one type of violence is rarely, if ever, mentioned in this conflict: rape.

Unlike in, say, Bosnia and Darfur, researchers have found that sexualized violence hasn’t been used systematically in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yes, both sides have killed civilians. Both have caused war to permeate everyday life to the point that violence has become expected, even mundane. But that both have avoided using rape as a tactic is significant.

Damage from an Israeli attack in Gaza. Despite the use of bombs, rockets, and other weapons by both sides of the conflict, they’ve still managed to avoid using rape as a weapon of war. (zoriah.com)

In a paper titled “Variation in Sexual Violence during War,” Elisabeth Wood, a political scientist at Yale University, recounts what representatives of one Palestinian and two Israeli human rights groups said when she asked whether they believed sexual assault was taking place in the conflict. All sides, she said, “independently and unanimously stated that they received information for almost no cases of sexual assault”—and that they were confident they would have heard about any incidents because they had received reports of “lesser instances of sexual harassment (for example, during pat-down searches at checkpoints).”

It may seem as if the two sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict avoid using the weapon of sexualized violence for fear of repercussions under international monitoring, Wood says. But that argument may not be valid. The two states, she points out, “do not appear much deterred in their other practices by their frequent condemnation by international actors.” Why, then, would they stop at rape if they don’t stop at murder?

And it isn’t just the armies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that avoid rape. Wood’s research finds that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE or, more commonly, Tamil Tigers) in Sri Lanka, as well as the insurgent force in El Salvador’s civil war, also did not use sexualized violence as a strategic weapon. At the U.S. Institute of Peace in February, Wood said there was proof of armed groups “who build warrior cultures that are very effective—and yet they don’t rape.”

The lack of this particular kind of violence is not happenstance, Wood emphasized, and it shows that rape in conflict “can be effectively prohibited.” Government forces, rebels, and other militia can train their combatants to abide by anti-rape policies, just as they train them to fire weapons.

Take, for example, Sri Lanka.

During the country’s long civil conflict, which began in 1983 and has seen much fallout since its official end in 2009, the LTTE became infamous for suicide bombings, ethnic cleansing, the forced recruitment of child soldiers, and murder. In 1990, Wood writes, “the LTTE forcibly displaced 75,000 Muslim civilians from the Jaffna peninsula, Mannar Island, and other areas of northern Sri Lanka.” Ethnic cleansing, she says, is “a classic setting for widespread rape.”

But the LTTE have reportedly not used rape as a tactic, despite sexualized violence being aimed at their own ranks by government forces. The Sri Lankan government has used rape against Tamil men and women suspected of being members of the LTTE, as Human Rights Watch and others report, but the Tamil Tigers have seemingly not used it in retaliation. Wood writes that her “review of press archives, human rights reports, documents of women’s organizations, and academic and policy literature revealed no incidents of sexual violence, in contrast to many detailed reports of robbery by LTTE cadre.”

While Wood researched the LTTE’s avoidance of rape against civilians, Jo Becker, a child soldier expert at Human Rights Watch and author of Campaigning for Justice, studied the group’s treatment of its own female fighters and found a similar lack of rape.

“One of the most interesting aspects of my research on child soldiers in Sri Lanka,” Becker told WMC’s Women Under Siege, “was the absence of sexual violence within the ranks of the Tamil Tigers. Although girls recruited as child soldiers in other conflicts have routinely reported rape or being forced to become a wife/sexual slave to a military commander, the Tamil Tigers were remarkably disciplined in prohibiting even consensual sexual activity between their cadres.”

Such restraint is no accident. At the Institute of Peace conference, Wood asserted that groups such as the Tigers “don’t just do military training—they do repeated deep political training of their military combatants.” For the Tigers, dogma about building a new society, where citizens are fairly treated, may contribute to the lack of rape. And whereas mainstream Sri Lankan culture is not known for its gender equality, the subculture of the LTTE may appeal to women who have been targets of gender-based violence. Wood writes that women appear to join the Tigers as a means toward empowerment, sometimes after they have been raped by state forces or Indian troops. The LTTE, she says, leverage the occurrence of sexual abuse by state forces “as a means to recruit female cadre.”

Alternatively, one Sri Lankan expert, who spoke with WMC’s Women Under Siege anonymously to protect her safety in a country still rife with state-sponsored violence, suggested that it was simply a matter of discipline. Well-known strict rules about both consensual and nonconsensual sex, she said, may keep LTTE fighters focused on their mission.

LTTE members also seem to receive severe punishment when those rules are broken. Wood cites a description in Margaret Trawick’s book Enemy Lines: Warfare, Childhood, and Play in Batticaloa. Some civilians, she writes, told her that when four Tiger boys gang-raped a 13-year-old girl, their fellow fighters tortured them to death as punishment.

In her research, Wood also found that the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), the insurgent army in El Salvador’s civil war, did not use rape as a tactic. In 2009, she published a paper with a stark description of her findings: “In particular,” she writes, “I learned of no cases of sexual violence against civilians by FMLN cadre during my 26 months of field research during and just after the war. Of the 450 cases of sexual violence listed by the Truth Commission in the unpublished annexes to its report … no case was attributed to FMLN cadre.”

Drexel University professor Amelia Hoover Green looked at the internal rules of the FMLN for her doctoral dissertation. She found that by the mid-1980s, all FMLN cadres had received a pamphlet called “The 15 Principles of the Guerrilla Combatants.” The rulebook came from the high command and described the proper treatment of prisoners and civilians.

“We are not an army of vengeance, we are the army constructing the future of the poor,” Hoover Green quotes from the pamphlet. The model of masculinity among insurgents was new, she writes—“a sort of revolutionary Promise-Keeper.”

She writes: “Whereas masculinity had previously been defined via provision for, and domination of, women and children, the ‘new man’ was expected to avoid alcohol, to ‘respect women,’ and to sacrifice himself for the future of the community if necessary.”

Here again, revolutionary dogma appears to play a role. Yet in certain conflicts, this argument wouldn’t seem to apply. Dara Kay Cohen, an expert at Harvard University in sexualized violence and international affairs, said in a 2013 Harvard Q&A that variations in sexualized violence may depend on the way armed groups recruit fighters. State and non-state militia that recruit by force, she said, “use rape to create unit cohesion.” For instance, in a 2012 paper, Cohen recounts an interview with a fighter in Sierra Leone who said he and his peers “laugh” and feel connected to one another when they rape women.

Several theories, aside from recruitment methods and social bonding, exist to account for the lack of rape in particular conflicts. Woods offers several hypotheses, including that groups who rely on civilians for supplies, recruits, and intelligence may want to stay in those citizens’ good graces. She also suggests that the extent to which a group has access to civilians, the degree to which sexualized violence is believed to be an effective form of terror, and the ways that higher-ups punish or tolerate (if not directly order) the use of rape may play a role.

Still, no solid explanation exists. Cohen, Wood, and Hoover Green are still puzzling it out.

But what is clear to all three researchers is that militia can exercise restraint. The armies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Tamil Tigers, and the FMLN have shown that sexualized violence is avoidable. Militia can be trained to avoid the tactic of rape the same way they can be trained to lob rockets, fire rifles, and throw Molotovs.

“Rape is not inevitable in war,” Wood writes. And if rape is not inevitable in war, it follows that we have all the more reason to hold the perpetrating groups responsible. For as bloody as war can be, armies can and do choose their weapons.