Sexual violence in armed conflict: cruel, unacceptable and preventable

02-03-2011 Interview

On International Women’s Day, the ICRC is highlighting sexual violence in armed conflict. The phenomenon is all too common, but it is not inevitable. Nadine Puechguirbal is the ICRC’s adviser on women and war. She talks about sexual violence in conflict, how it can be reduced and what the ICRC is doing to help victims rebuild their lives.

Does sexual violence occur in every conflict?

Horrific stories of rape and other forms of sexual violence emerge from almost all armed conflicts. Indeed, the scope of the problem has long been underestimated. This is mainly because women often remain silent about what they have gone through, afraid that their families and communities will reject them. As a result, it is difficult to say how prevalent sexual violence is in any given conflict. What we do know is that sexual violence is widespread and that in some conflicts it is used as a method of warfare.

What does this mean in practice?

When armed forces or groups use sexual violence to dominate communities, to frighten them or to force them to relocate, it constitutes a method of warfare. By violating women, arms bearers humiliate and demoralize the men who were unable to protect them. The damage to cultural and community life can persist for generations. One of the most tragic instances was the Balkans in the 1990s, when systematic rape and forced impregnation were used with the intention of destroying the identity of particular ethnic groups. Both there and in Rwanda, these practices were used as tools of ethnic cleansing, as we heard at the war-crimes tribunals in The Hague and Arusha.

Not every case of rape in a conflict falls into this category. Undisciplined soldiers and other armed men also commit rape because they consider it one of the spoils of war. However, the authorities cannot use this as an excuse not to act. Whatever the motivation for sexual violence, it is an appalling and unacceptable act that causes indescribable suffering, and perpetrators must be prosecuted.

Is it possible to prevent sexual violence occurring in armed conflict?

Yes, definitely. It is very important not to see sexual violence as an inevitable aspect of armed conflict. States bear the primary responsibility for preventing sexual violence, and  widespread rape and other forms of sexual violence thrive in a climate of impunity. Potential perpetrators would think twice if they knew that their acts of unspeakable cruelty would not go unpunished. Sadly, they know all too often that they will “get away with it.”

Sexual violence committed in connection with armed conflict is a war crime prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, the two Additional Protocols of 1977 and the Statute of the International Criminal Court. States have an obligation to prosecute anyone accused of sexual violence and to punish the perpetrators. To do so, they must have suitable domestic legislation and other measures in place. Arms bearers must obey the rules, whether they belong to government armed forces, organized non-State armed groups or peacekeeping forces.

Aid agencies can also help prevent sexual violence. For instance, women are often attacked while collecting water or firewood away from their villages. The less firewood they need, the less they are exposed to attack while collecting it. So if aid agencies provide food that needs less cooking, and stoves that burn less wood, they immediately reduce women’s exposure. Siting water collection points in safe places, close to the users, is another way of protecting women. But whatever we do, it is essential to consult the women about measures for protecting them and their children.

How does sexual violence affect the life of the victim?

Rape can have severe physical consequences, such as infertility, incontinence and sexually transmitted infections like HIV/Aids. Victims also suffer psychologically, as they may experience shame, humiliation and guilt, leading to severe depression and even suicide.

An additional burden is the fear of stigmatization. Many women are rejected by their families and communities after being raped. The blame for the perceived loss of honour often falls on the woman instead of on the rapist, especially if the woman has already attained puberty. The situation is even worse for women who become pregnant as a result of rape; not only may the rape be seen as "soiling" the line of descent, but a child born of rape may be abandoned or killed, and in many cases the victim or her family will seek an abortion by methods that involve serious risks to her health.

Despite the difficulties, many women decide to keep a child born as a result of rape. Sabrine, a young woman from the Central African Republic, was abducted by an armed group in 2008 at the age of 12. She became pregnant after one of her abductors raped her. Yet she named her child “Dieu merci” or “Thank God,” telling us that she accepted the baby because any child was a gift from God.

What type of help do the victims of sexual violence most need?

They need appropriate medical attention as soon as possible, both to treat their injuries and to stop them getting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. But effective response goes beyond medical care, and includes psychological care and economic support.

Support from the victim’s family is crucial for recovery, and families need to provide a safe and understanding environment. Communities also have a fundamental role in the aftermath of sexual violence. Community leaders should play their part in promoting acceptance of victims and in stressing to members of the community that the victim is not to blame for what has happened and, above all, is not to be stigmatized.

In the provinces of North and South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the ICRC has recently seen a decline in the number of victims of sexual violence rejected by their families or communities, with a clear majority reporting no such consequences. Likely reasons for this are the efforts of the psychosocial assistants who are encouraging families and communities to accept the victims, the awareness-raising programme and the involvement of community leaders.

What we observe in many conflict zones is that women often show tremendous resilience in coping with the consequences of sexual violence.

What is the ICRC doing?

The ICRC attempts to prevent sexual violence by training armed forces and armed groups in international humanitarian law (IHL), with special emphasis on the prohibition of rape and other forms of sexual violence. The ICRC also promotes inclusion of this prohibition in national legislation and in the internal regulations and manuals of armed forces and groups.

To help States meet their obligations under IHL, the ICRC makes representations to the authorities (when victims agree), providing details of alleged violations and urging proper investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators.
The ICRC has also set up programmes to support victims of sexual violence, covering medical, psychological, social and economic issues.

The most innovative step has probably been to establish ICRC-supported counselling centres (maisons d'écoute) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where victims of sexual violence can meet members of the community trained in psychosocial support by the ICRC. This gives them a chance to talk about their trauma, define their needs, and find ways of improving their situation. The counsellors can also refer them to medical facilities and can mediate between them and their families to reduce the risk of rejection.

In Colombia, many of the over 3 million displaced people are women, who are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence from both non-State armed groups and the army. The ICRC refers these women to Profamilia, an organization whose role includes providing health care, psycho-social support and legal advice.


Nadine Puechguirbal 

Nadine Puechguirbal


© ICRC / C.Von Toggenburg / co-e-00829