Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War in Sub-Saharan African Conflicts

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2010

13 Pages, Grade: A


Discuss the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war in Sub-Saharan African conflicts and examine the barriers preventing effective implementation of sexual violence programmes

Gender based violence (GBV) is a complex, multidimensional problem which the World Health Organisation (WHO, 2005) describes as a ‘universal phenomenon’. So much so, that GBV is recognised as a serious human rights and public health problem that concerns all members of society, (Murray and Lopez, 1996, Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 2005). Subsequently, GBV has been incorporated into the Millennium Development Goals, where reducing GBV will have a direct effect on achieving Goal three; the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women. This issue has gained international attention, as a direct result of civil conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda, where human rights abuses were seen violated on a magnitude never before recorded and described as acts of genocide, (United Nations Security Council, UNSC, 1999). In Rwanda, it is thought that about 500,000 women were raped by Hutu militia, (Human Rights Watch, 1996). Further atrocities have been documented in Sierra Leone, where approximately 50,000 to 64,000 internally displaced women have reported war-related sexual assaults (Physicians for Human Rights, 2002). In Kenya, following the disputed presidential elections in 2008, violence erupted which saw acts of sexual violence (SV), such as, gang rape and mutilation. United Nations (UN, 2007) reports suggest that 27, 000 rapes occurred in one region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2007. SV has been predominant in many other conflicts such as in Uganda (Giller et al, 1991) and Sudan (Amnesty International, 2004).

Research on this area tends to use the terms GBV and SV interchangeably and cannot be explored fully in this paper. There is limited research focusing on violence against males, and therefore this paper will concentrate on SV against women specifically. This paper will discuss why SV has become part of warfare in Sub-Saharan Africa and then examine the treatment programmes aimed at survivors, in particular focusing on the barriers to effective implementation of programmes.

The term GBV is an umbrella term encompassing physical, sexual and psychological types of violence. The focus of this paper will centre specifically on the use of SV, which the WHO (2002a) defines as;

“...any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim in any setting...”

SV violates many of our basic human rights such as the right to life, equality, security of the person and freedom. The growing international attention to this issue may be a reflection of the changing nature of modern conflicts. Acts of SV include gang rape, sexual slavery, genital mutilation, instrumentation, kidnapping, forced marriages, forced cannibalism, forced rape between victims, slaughter of infants and young children and the burning alive of family members, (Mukwege and Nangini, 2009).

There has been a significant amount of research conducted on the use of SV as a weapon of war, SV used in conflict is normally systematic and strategic, and has been used to terrorise populations causing mass displacement and chaos. It is coordinated, deliberate and an effective tool of biological warfare (Mukengere et al, 2009). Militias have used SV as a means of carrying out their goal of ethnic cleansing through acts such as forced impregnation, mutilations of genitals and intentional HIV transmission (Morrison and Orlando, 2004). These tactics have been predominantly seen in conflicts motivated by race, tribal and religious issues. In Rwanda, Tutsi women were taunted by Hutu rapists who told them they would be infected with HIV, and figures suggest that 70% of those victims were infected with HIV (Human Rights Watch, 1996). The impact of SV is increased when ‘ethnically cleansed’ children are produced allowing the effect to be passed onto future generations, (Gingerich and Leaning, 2004). Children conceived are extremely vulnerable to stigma, rejection and abandonment (Rumble and Menta, 2007).

A key factor in making SV so destructive is the effect it has on gender inequalities, not only does it affect the women involved in the SV, but it is being used for the specific purpose of destabilising and destroying families and communities. For the women, the rape can dishonour, humiliate and stigmatise, leading to them being ostracised and unable to participate in community life, which has an overall socio-economic effect on the community. Furthermore, SV is used by the opposition combatants to signify weakness and powerlessness of men in preventing SV from occurring, (Bourke, 2007). This is perceived by men as being the definitive humiliation, as the women’s sexuality is seen as being controlled by the men in society. The long term consequences of these strategies cause the destruction of deep cultural and social bonds within the community, (Thomas, 2007).

The use of SV as an instrument of war is inexpensive and is an effective military strategy (Harvard Humanitarian Institute, ((HHI) 2010). It ensures compliance, team bonding and allows for the elimination of resistance. HHI uses the example of the DRC, where military groups are largely unopposed and allowed to carry out acts of genocide.

The complete anarchy that results from conflict allows for the breakdowns of social and legal systems allowing environments of impunity to develop. Where, civilian men are exploiting the situation and committing acts of SV, knowing that they will not be reprimanded for their crimes. Indeed, the HHI has found that civilian adoption of rape in the DRC has increased by 1733%, between 2004 to 2008, suggesting a normalisation of rape, resulting from the destruction of all social constituents, (HHI, 2010). Furthermore, the breakdown in social norms has caused women to adopt different roles, in order to survive, such as prostitution, and using sex in exchange for food. Allowing women to become more vulnerable, to the militias, and to the people enforced with the role of protecting them, such as humanitarian aid workers and peacekeepers, (Preston-Whyte et al, 2000).

The impact of SV is profound; there are acute, chronic and even fatal implications (Marsh et al, 2006). Physical problems include Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and HIV. Untreated STIs can cause infertility, causing a negative outcome on those women who live in a culture, where value is based on reproduction. Unwanted pregnancies can cause unsafe abortions and miscarriage. Traumatic fistulas and trauma to reproductive organs are well known complications (HRW, 2002), causing urinating and menstruating to be extremely painful (Pratt and Werchick, 2004). Psychological issues include anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and depression. Social implications include stigmatisation, due to rejection by husband and family, causing whole families to suffer stigmatisation as a result of one rape, (Shanks and Schull, 2000).

In 1995, the UNHCR published the first guidelines on SV; Sexual Violence against Refugees: Guidelines on protection and response. These guidelines were updated in 2003 and focused on legal, medical and psychological components of prevention and response to SV, which the UNHCR (1995) describes as ‘the best practice for prevention and response to SV’ and called for a multisectoral approach. However, the guidelines fail to describe how sectors should provide provision and response, hindering implementation of focused programmes. The issue was further addressed in 2008, when the UNSC passed three resolutions, empowering prosecutions to be undertaken when crimes of SV constitute torture or genocide. However, there has been an inconsistent record on investigating and prosecuting crimes of SV, (Eirienne, 2009).


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Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War in Sub-Saharan African Conflicts
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Diploma in Tropical Nursing
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ISBN (Book)
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discussion, sub-saharan, african
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Nicola Weston (Author), 2010, Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War in Sub-Saharan African Conflicts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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