Rape in war: Are we getting it wrong?

By — October 10, 2012

Good news! We were wrong! Women are not being raped in terrible numbers around the world in conflict!

I wish I could really say that.

All day I’ve been hearing how a new report out today “upends” conventional wisdom on sexualized violence in war—that we’ve all got it wrong, that the media is misleading the world into thinking all conflicts are laden with rape, that statistics have been badly skewed in ways that make the problem seem worse than it is.

After conversations with the report’s editor-in-chief and professors who work in this field, I want to clear a few things up.

The Human Security Report Project, an independent research center affiliated with Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, published a report titled “Sexual Violence, Education, and War: Beyond the Mainstream Narrative,” which asserts a nuanced version of the above upending. The problem is that nuance isn’t something easily supported by the popular imagination. What I hope to do here is prevent a situation of reductionism that ends up hurting the very people this report could actually help. Here’s what’s going on.

The report posits: “The mainstream narrative informed by reports from the UN, human rights organizations, and media-propagated ‘urban myths,’ presents a picture of wartime sexual violence that is, with some exceptions, both partial and often deeply misrepresentative.”

I.e. not all wars look like the most severe cases, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo’s, with its remarkably high rates of sexualized violence. Here are other basic misrepresentations the authors assert are mucking up our understanding of how rape is used as a weapon of war:

1. The media definitely leads with what bleeds when it comes to sexualized violence in conflict. The worst cases, and little else, make it into the news. The authors recognize that the lack of something, such as rape in more common, less extreme conflicts may not be shocking and therefore newsworthy. It took many years to get to this point of any inclusion of women’s suffering in war into the press, so I’m a little irritable when I consider the implications of saying that the media is too focused on heavy atrocities in places like DRC or Darfur. There are terrible things happening to women, and the media needs to cover such brutality urgently as a means to hopefully stop or prevent it.

2. Women are not being deliberately targeted in all conflicts, according to the report, something I wholeheartedly hope is the case. Violence against women is a byproduct of war in that women are civilians (in most conflicts). Yet I believe women are casualties also because they have been forced into vulnerable, inferior positions in much of the world and throughout history. When you consider that, it’s hard to not call it “targeting,” but I get what the authors mean. It’s not “deliberate” in the sense that there was a strategic plan drawn up by a government or armed force specifically ordering men to rape women. At least to the best of our knowledge, such orders are rare (see Rwanda and Bosnia). (If only we could know always who is organizing what and where and against whom, impunity would not be the evil nourishment it is to perpetrators globally.)

Why do we need to watch how we talk about targeting? If we focus on targeting by armed groups when there is no such thing, we are missing whatever else is causing the violence. This is partly why I am cautious when I speak about our mapping of sexualized violence in Syria: We do not have any proof that there is a strategy to target women being organized from the top down. That is not to say that rape is not being used as a weapon of war—don’t tell me commanders are not aware when their soldiers are mass-raping women—but it does mean we cannot yet assign direct blame to the government or another body.

3. The lack of sexualized violence in war is severely understudied. Agreed. Yale Professor of Political Science Elisabeth Wood is one of the only people I know of who has studied this issue. Read her 2009 paper, “Armed Groups and Sexual Violence: When is wartime rape rare?” in “Politics and Society.” She looks at the relative absence of sexualized violence by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam of Sri Lanka and in some insurgencies in Latin America and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

4. “There is no doubt that women suffer disproportionately from sexual violence,” the report states. “But the evidence suggests that things are more complex than it is generally assumed. Men are often victims and women are sometimes perpetrators.” Men are targeted too yet rarely mentioned, the report authors argue. This skews the picture of what is going on. Yes, men are raped too. The unfortunate reality is that the world knows this and already cares very much about what happens to men. Getting people to care about what happens to women, the majority of victims, is, by far, the harder part.

5. The report authors argue that sexualized violence in conflict is not on the rise, despite UN statements to the contrary. Agreed. While there have been increasing reports of rape in the last few decades, we could chalk that up to the fact that researchers are getting ever-better at gathering stories of rape. More reports do not necessarily equal more rape. The important point to remember here is that while sexualized violence in conflict may not be on the rise, it is still happening too often.

6. Not only is rape in war possibly not increasing, it may actually be on the decline, the report authors argue. “Indirect evidence suggests that the absolute level of conflict-related sexual violence has decreased, rather than increased, in recent years,” according to the report. “This is primarily because there has been a global reduction in the number of large-scale armed conflicts. If the number and severity of conflicts decreases, we should—other things being equal—expect a decline in conflict-related sexual violence as well.”

It’s a bit of a leap, however. Dara Kay Cohen, an assistant professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University who focuses on civil conflict, gender and international relations, and wartime sexualized violence, says she believes that “it is quite plausible that lethal violence is not closely correlated with sexual violence. In a pilot study of a sample of African conflicts—in research coauthored with colleagues at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)—we find that named armed groups are still reported as perpetrators of sexual violence even after the lethal violence has stopped or nearly stopped. This suggests to me that killing and sexual violence are not necessarily correlated.”

Overblowing the case never helps anyone. So how do we strike a happy medium between speaking carefully, stating what we don’t or can’t know, and moving advocacy on behalf of women forward?

“There’s a delicate balance here,” says Laura Seay, assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, who studies advocacy efforts and U.S. legislation designed to mitigate the effects of conflict in DRC, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. “It’s really important to not let people think rape in war isn’t a problem but at same time you have to acknowledge realities on the ground. It’s a good thing if not as many women are being raped by soldiers, but you have to kind of walk a line: The situation in Congo really is as horrific as it seems.”

Seay really gets to the root of what I’m worried about here. By refuting claims that rape in war is increasing and that the media is focusing too much on extreme cases, the authors run the risk of appearing to downplay the problem. Here are other ways the report could inadvertently hurt the very cause it cares about:

The authors cogently argue that global bodies like the UN and NGOs and the media are forsaking a focus on domestic violence, which is in most cases far more prevalent than conflict-related sexualized violence, in order to promote the issue of rape in war. They don’t say this is deliberately done as a means of ignoring a major human rights crisis. Instead, they believe it is because there are tremendous policy implications (such as resource allocation) to focusing on violence that is easily understood to be related to conflict as opposed to the more “internal,” pervasive scourge of domestic violence. Really, can the UN go meddling in what many consider to be “personal” or “family” affairs? Right. It’s complicated.

Underlying gender equality problems are often the base for sexualized violence against women in times of conflict.

I asked Andrew Mack, the report’s editor-in-chief and the director of the Human Security Report Project, whether he is advocating for a shift in focus away from sexualized violence and toward domestic violence. His answer was that we very much need to add a focus on domestic abuses, not in any way stop talking about rape in war.

“It’s not that the UN is in any sense wrong,” Mack said, in focusing on sexualized violence in conflict. “Even 20 years ago, there was no discourse on wartime sexualized violence.”

He and I agreed that what we need to create is a co-emphasis on sexualized violence and domestic violence, something Gloria Steinem and I have tried to do with WMC’s Women Under Siege. As Steinem told me in February: “Violence in the home normalizes violence in the street and in foreign policy.” They are connected in ways we’re going to have to try to better understand if we’re going to put an end to any of it.  

The fear Mack has is that the heavy media focus on places like Congo (not heavy enough, if you ask me, considering the hell that country has become) is that you end up with a distorted pictured of what’s going on in much of the rest of the world. More important, Mack points out, is that “you don’t look at why there is strategic rape in some conflicts.” You don’t look, and you don’t solve the problem.  

“However well-intentioned, the one-sided nature of the mainstream narrative—and other misunderstandings—risk distorting our understanding of wartime sexual violence and make the creation of informed, evidenced-based policy difficult, if not impossible,” the report states. Here is the very heart of why all this matters. Misperceptions matter for policy for many reasons. Cohen explains that there are implications for current victims/survivors and one for future victims/survivors:  

“First, if most women are suffering from forms of violence that are not sexual in nature, then it is important that resources be directed in a way that reflects this,” says Cohen. “Researchers have found that privileging sexual violence over other forms of violence may have unintended negative consequences. For example, researchers in the DRC have expressed concern that the emphasis on rape there has incentivized women to claim that they are sexual violence victims to access services that might otherwise be difficult to receive. In addition, because the international community has focused so intensely on sexual violence in the DRC, this has created perverse incentives for combatants to use sexual violence as a bargaining chip.”

Perverse indeed.

“Second, if the policy community believes that a ‘rape epidemic’ occurs in a war-torn country only when 75 or 90 percent (both have been used to describe Liberia) of the women are raped, then the bar is raised for future conflicts. In fact, this is an impossible bar to reach. Even surveys from places like Sierra Leone, which we believe to have experienced very high rates of sexual violence, have found that ‘only’ 10 percent of women were raped there. So misperceptions can literally change the definition of what a policy problem is, and I worry that victims in future conflicts will not attract the resources they need if there is an expectation that nearly every woman in a country must be raped before policymakers will focus their attention there.”

Cohen’s point is crucial—we do not need a competition of tears, as Steinem told me, when it comes to women’s suffering in war. It is enough that one women is brutalized to want to stop it.

Listen, as much as anyone, I want to believe that because there are low reported levels of sexualized violence in many conflicts, we are doing well. But, as the authors say, these are merely levels at which rape is actually reported, which is different from levels at which it is actually happening, and reporting rape is complex and fraught—stigma reigns in keeping women and men silent when it comes to sexualized violence. Conflict conspires to kill rape victims in large numbers (in more than 20 percent of our reports of sexualized violence in Syria, the women were either found dead, witnessed killed, or committed suicide after). And the dead can’t speak.

There are many reasons I think you should read the report out today. It is a call to arms for us to recognize that we must look closely at what is happening to women so we can better understand it. It is ultimately, as Seay puts it, “a call for smarter policy.” This is exactly why WMC’s Women Under Siege exists: Without grasping exactly what is being perpetrated against women in war, we cannot stop it. Here, again, is the link to the report.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paragraph 11 has been changed to reflect that Wood has written about multiple conflicts in which sexualized violence was rare.