Report: Sexual violence in armed conflict: Underlying causes and prevention strategies


Building on the previous panel discussion "Responding to sexual violence in conflict: can we do better?", the ICRC and the Geneva Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action (CERAH) convened a follow-up livestreamed conference on 12 November from 18:00 to 19:30, aimed at addressing the challenging issue of prevention of conflict-related sexual violence.

The event took place on the occasion of the second session of CERAH's thematic seminar on "Sexual Violence in Conflict Settings and in Emergencies", and provided an opportunity to feature the recent publication of the International Review of the Red Cross on "Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict". The conference was also part of the third ICRC Conference Cycle on "Generating respect for the law", an ongoing reflection on how to better prevent violations of the law applicable in armed conflict.

The discussion focused on conflict-related sexual violence, committed by state or non-state armed actors involved in an armed conflict. Weapon bearers may commit sexual violence for various reasons – from strategic to opportunistic ones. In recent years, a number of research studies in political science, anthropology, psychology or military ethics have greatly contributed to a deeper understanding of the causes of conflict-related sexual violence. There is now a need to connect the wealth of research and practical experience to build effective prevention strategies.


  • Doris Schopper, Director of CERAH and member of the ICRC Assembly


  • Elisabeth Jean Wood, Professor of Political Science, International and Area Studies, Yale University
  • Siva Methil, Training Officer, Policy and Best Practices Service, UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations
  • Marie Coutin-Lequin, Programme Manager for the Africa department, Geneva Call
  • Cécile Aptel, Senior Legal Policy Adviser, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Associate Professor of International Law at Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy


Summary of the conference

What are the underlying causes?

Professor Elisabeth Wood has carried out significant analysis of existing data to work towards developing an understanding of key patterns and characteristics that can help in better identifying why sexual violence occurs. One key finding that Professor Wood emphasized is that, based on existing data, we can conclude that sexual violence is not an inevitable part of conflict

If we can show, which I think we've done, that some groups do not engage in sexual violence, then it is not true that this is an inevitable aspect of war, and thus... we have all the more reason to hold accountable those groups that do engage in sexual violence.

Understanding what drives some groups to commit these acts but not others can help to inform and build more effective prevention strategies. Professor Wood also noted that sexual violence occurs in a range of conflict settings, and that specific characteristics of the armed organization rather than cultural aspects of the setting are often more important for understanding patterns of sexual violence. For example, according to existing data, in 38% of civil conflicts where rape has been reported, a "sustained asymmetry" exists with respect to the perpetrators – meaning that research shows that one side in the conflict engages in high levels of sexual violence while the other side does not. This suggests that within the same country, two armed groups can behave very differently with respect the incidence of sexual violence in the armed conflict. So the gender relations within the armed organization sometimes matter more than gender relations in society generally – and may result in a significantly higher or lower incidence of sexual violence than in peace-time.

Professor Wood noted that whether rape, for example, is committed as a policy, as part of a strategic military objective, or whether it is committed as a practice, thus without a military objective but simply emerging from below and tolerated by commanders, can inform what type of prevention approach will be useful. In both cases, the legal obligations of the commanders remain the same, but these different motivations point to varied underlying causes, and can help inform prevention strategies.

All of the panelists emphasized the importance of developing an in-depth and multidisciplinary understanding of a conflict situation as a key basis for better responding to and preventing sexual violence. Siva Methil of the UN DPKO stated that various UN Missions have noted the value of deploying Joint Protection Teams of military, police and civilian personnel who analyse risks and threats against civilians. These teams work with communities from a gender sensitive lens to ensure the participation of women in their own protection, and develop protection plans including preventing incidents of conflict-related sexual violence, which are implemented by the peacekeeping operation, including the military component.


During ongoing situations of conflict, Mr. Methil noted a range of measures, tools and practices that have proven successful to help protect civilians. It has been observed in several contexts that the presence of UN peacekeepers (day and night) in areas identified to be at risk of attacks, can act as deterrent, particularly in places where vulnerable civilians including women and girls might be present. For example, military peacekeepers have been deployed in market and farming areas and to escort women and girls during livelihood activities such as collecting firewood, water and food.

Other examples of methods that can be used to reduce the opportunity for sexual violence to occur include, based on the experience of the UN, a system of hotspot mapping as well as the identification and monitoring of early warning indicators specific to conflict-related sexual violence. Hotspot mapping involves identifying areas in which there has previously been a high rate of a particular type of incident, and then working to deploy peacekeepers or take other measures that might help reduce the violence. Early warning indicators will vary according to the operational environment and context. Marie Coutin of Geneva Call noted that there may often be indicators in the early days of the conflict, particularly as part of the often polarizing rhetoric that accompanies the start of a conflict, which can signal a high likelihood of sexual violence. Attention to these factors could prove useful in determining prevention and response strategies.

Mr. Methil noted several additional strategies aimed at preventing sexual violence employed by the UN including pre-emptive deployment in threatened areas; proactive operational posture by the military peacekeepers; targeted community engagements, including with women and girls; and institutionalizing security oriented and gender-sensitive quick impact projects.

With respect to prevention in the longer term, for example by changing the behavior of the weapon bearers themselves, Mrs. Coutin-Lequin described some of the techniques employed by Geneva Call in their engagement with non-state armed groups. Geneva Call will accompany weapon bearers in the process of signing a deed of commitment, (in which they agree to uphold the standards of international law and which may have a particular focus for example on the prohibition of sexual violence depending on the context), on developing a plan to implement the deed, and also in initially monitoring the implementation. In particular, Mrs. Coutin-Lequin noted the importance of not only engaging in discussions when breeches were observed in the implementation phase, but also in highlighting periods of time without breech, and identifying best practices that led to success. Both the UN DPKO and Geneva Call representatives noted the utility of providing training for weapon bearers in international law, with Geneva Call noting particular success with the use of a mobile phone application as an entry point for discussion with younger groups.

Mr Methil also highlighted that peacekeeping operations promote prevention and accountability through advocacy and political dialogue with parties to the conflict, as well as by supporting judicial processes for accountability through for example Prosecution Support Cells. The UN will often provide training, mentoring and capacity building support to host State security and law enforcement agencies, which contributes to the development of strong institutions that can play an important role in prevention as well as in responding to the protection needs of civilians.

Addressing the needs of victims and survivors

Professor Cecile Aptel led the discussion on accountability, noting the importance of ensuring that the survivors are at the center of any discussion about how to properly address the problem of sexual violence. While Professor Aptel noted that there has been significant progress with respect to accountability from international and hybrid tribunals and courts, she also observed that:

It remains the unfortunate and very sad reality that concerning sexual violence… accountability remains the exception and impunity is the rule.

There are several factors that contribute to this ongoing challenge. Sexual violence, although we understand it more now than in the past, still remains a largely hidden crime. Survivors often fear stigmatization and being ostracized by their communities and so hesitate to come forward and report their experiences. In addition in some contexts, it can be difficult to investigate or prosecute suspects who are in position of high military or political authority. While international and hybrid tribunals have made significant progress, there remains a significant impunity gap, and Professor Aptel emphasized that it is essential that domestic courts, traditional justice systems, and transitional justice mechanisms also work to address these crimes, in full compliance with international human rights law.

Professor Aptel noted that accountability and systematically holding into account those responsible for these crimes can contribute to their prevention, and also that accountability is important in and of itself, including to meet the needs of victims and survivors, who tend to overwhelmingly seek guarantees of non-repetition.