Since the second world war, the use of rape as a weapon of
war has assumed strategic importance, and is now a deliberate military
strategy, argue researchers in an editorial published on bmj.com today.
The effects of rape and sexual violence during war also
extend beyond individual victims and are economically, physically,
psychologically, and culturally devastating for families and communities, say
authors Coleen Kivlahan, volunteer forensic physician for HealthRight
International, and Nate Ewigman from the University of Florida.
For example, in recent conflicts, rape has been used as a
reward for victory in battle, a boost to troop morale, as punishment and
humiliation for both men and women, to incite revenge in opposing troops, to
eliminate or "cleanse" religious or political groups, and to destabilise entire
communities by creating terror.
A study in the Democratic
Republic of the Congo found that 16,000 rapes occurred in
2008 alone, and in South Kivu province, health
centres estimate that 40 women were raped in the region daily. In the United Kingdom,
50-70% of female asylum applicants were raped, witnessed rape, or have a
credible fear of rape.
Geographical, cultural, religious, political, legal, and
behavioural conditions affect the likelihood of the systematic use of rape,
explain the authors. For instance, geographically remote locations allow
perpetrators to rape with impunity, while the likelihood that women will be
raped, shamed, and isolated is increased in cultures with strong traditions
regarding virginity, marital fidelity, and genital cleanliness.
Religions with strong beliefs about appropriate female
clothing and behaviour also increase the risk that women will be falsely
accused of adultery and raped as humiliation and punishment, they add.
The effects of rape and sexual torture on survivors are
economically, physically, psychologically, and culturally devastating. They
also extend to the family and community.
The international community has mounted a considerable
response to the use of rape as a weapon of war, but the authors argue that rape
during armed conflict is not simply about military personnel, police, or
For example, before 2004, rape assailants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
were primarily affiliated with the military; however, after 2004, civilian
rapes increased 17-fold while rapes by armed combatants decreased by 77%.
"This pattern suggests a disturbing acceptance of rape
among civilians," they conclude. "Rape is the result of the lack of dedicated
societal attention to the safety, respect, and prosperity of women in peace
time, as well as in war."