School of Politics and International Studies

Responsibility to Protect Student Journal

Why Is Sexual Violence Such an Effective Weapon of War?

Dawn Stevenson, University of Leeds, UK

Dawn Stevenson studied International Development and Spanish at the University of Leeds. After volunteering with a sustainable development NGO in Nepal for 9 months, Dawn is now working as a Policy Advisor in the Civil Service. Her main areas of interest are human rights, climate change and sustainable agriculture.



Sexual violence is one of many war crimes that is effectively and strategically committed to achieve war aims; it encompasses many forms of violence and is perpetrated against victims of all genders during both wartime and peacetime.This paper argues that rape is an extremely effective weapon of war because its multidimensional consequences give rape the powerful ability to destroy not only its victims, but to tear apart their families and communities. It will explore how rape becomes a strategic tool to inflict long-term, devastating and debilitating consequences for female victims, for the men socially connected to them, and equally for their communities and future generations. These consequences are facilitated by gendered structural violence and inequality entrenched in patriarchal (male-centred, structured in sexism) societies and their perceptions of female sexuality and male dominance. These pre-existing perceptions and attitudes facilitate the widespread use of sexual violence as both a deliberate strategy of war and as an outcome of economic grievances.



“We won’t waste bullets on you; we will rape you and that will be worse for you” (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 13)

Sexual violence is one of many war crimes that is effectively and strategically committed to achieve war aims in almost every armed conflict in recorded history (Jones, 2013, p. 1). Until the recent UN recognition of its systematic and deliberate employment as a strategic weapon of war in 2008 (UN, 2014), sexual violence had been perceived as merely a consequence or side effect of war (MSF, 2004). However, brutal and devastating forms of sexual violence are utilized to achieve the military and political objectives of warring factions, to terrorize, displace and destroy ‘enemy’ groups (UN, 2014; Baaz and Stern, 2009; Jones, 2013, p. 2). Sexual violence encompasses many forms of violence and is perpetrated against victims of all genders during both wartime and peacetime. For clarity and precision of focus this article will specifically analyse sexual violence in the form of rape of women and girls. As it is rape that is perpetrated en masse as an effective weapon of war (Farwell, 2004). Moreover, the preponderance of rape warfare is perpetrated against women and girls (UN, 2008).

This article will argue that rape is an extremely effective weapon of war because its multidimensional consequences give rape the powerful ability to destroy not only its victims, but to tear apart their families and communities. It will explore how rape becomes a strategic tool to inflict long-term, devastating and debilitating consequences for female victims, for the men socially connected to them, and equally for their communities and future generations. These consequences are facilitated by gendered structural violence and inequality entrenched in patriarchal (male-centred, structured in sexism) societies and their perceptions of female sexuality and male dominance (Boesten, 2012). Structural violence is defined as violence present not necessarily in direct, physical action but embedded into the political and economic structures of society (Farmer et al. 2006, p. 1686). Many forms of social injustice, including gender inequality and poverty form structural violence because they prevent individuals from realising their physical and mental potential (Galtung, 1969, p. 171). This article will conclude that these pre-existing perceptions and attitudes facilitate the widespread use of sexual violence as both a deliberate strategy of war and as an outcome of economic grievances.

To explore these issues, the article will principally analyse the case study of the Rwandan Genocide (1994), in which systematic, militarised rape was clearly used as a strategy of genocide to achieve ethnic cleansing and displacement of the Tutsi population. It will also draw from comparisons from the lengthy conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (1997-2003), which provides insight into the complex interplay of the strategic, militarily-commanded use of rape understood by the ‘Rape as a Weapon of War’ discourse (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013, p. 4), and the wartime exacerbation of ‘normal’ sexual violence born of soldiers’ socioeconomic grievances rooted in structural violence. It will explore how in both Rwanda and the DRC, rape warfare perpetrated with the economic goal of extorting personal assets and land by displacing women and communities, thus showcasing the political economy of rape (Turshen, 2001).


Sexual violence as a tool of genocide in Rwanda

We must first examine the use of sexual violence as a tool of genocide in Rwanda and explore why it was so effective in achieving the Hutu war objectives of destroying the Tutsi ethnic group and displacing them from land and assets in order to pillage. During the three months of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Rwandans died, eradicating three quarters of the Tutsi population (Jones, 2013, p. 2). The systematic rape of up to 500,000 Tutsi women perpetrated by the ‘Interahamwe’ Hutu militia groups, civilians, and soldiers of the national Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) (Human Rights Watch, 1996), was used as a weapon of war and an act of genocide with the intent to destroy the Tutsi ethnic group.

Understanding why rape was used as a weapon to further war objectives in Rwanda necessitates understanding the foundations of the genocide that created those objectives. The root of this genocide was the colonial assignment of distinct races to the previously fluid Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, creating “racialized political identities” that were later reproduced by nationalism during the post-colonial Rwandan revolution of 1959 (Mamdani, 2003, p. 144). Rwanda became a ‘Hutu nation’, in which the ‘alien’, non-Rwandan Tutsi aristocracy was seen to be holding a colonial, illegitimate claim to power. This language of political racialisation produced a radicalised Hutu social ideology which was inflamed by the military invasion of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) of exiled Tutsis from Uganda in 1990, which in turn triggered the civil war. The invasion was seen as an attempt to restore the colonial Tutsi monarchy, which justified brutal Hutu-Tutsi violence to wipe out the Tutsi population, all in pursuit of justice for the Hutu nation (Mamdani, 2003, p. 143, 147).

Genocide can be committed through various methods: by the mass murder and prevention of future reproduction of a victimized group, but also by destroying the cultural and social bonds of that group (Card, 1996, p. 8). In Rwanda, rape was used as a weapon for both strategies in the destruction of the Tutsi population. Firstly, rape was used to control reproduction, to end the Tutsi ‘race’ not only through murder and forced sterilization of Tutsi women by mutilation (Sai, 2012), but also by changing the race of the next generation through pregnancies resulting from Hutu rape of Tutsi women. During the genocide thousands of Tutsi women were gang-raped and raped with objects such as sharpened sticks and gun barrels, to cause life threatening injury and to forcibly sterilize them, to prevent the Tutsi population from bearing children (Human Rights Watch, 1996). In patriarchal societies such as the one in Rwanda, children adopt the father’s ethnicity; hence children of forced pregnancies take the ‘enemy’ group’s ethnicity (Sai, 2012). This ‘deliberate pollution’ of the “bloodlines of victimised populations” (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 341) is a frequent feature of genocidal warfare. It was also employed during the Bosnian war (1992-95), in which the systematic mass rape of an estimated 60,000 Bosnian women was used as a strategy for the genocidal ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian race through forced pregnancies, so that raped Bosnian women would give birth to a Serbian baby (MSF, 2004). The ability of rape to eliminate ethnic populations by changing the bloodlines of the next generation through forced pregnancy makes it a unique tool of genocidal warfare.

Rape warfare is extremely effective in decimating enemy communities because of its multidimensional, devastating and long-term consequences for raped women in the aftermath of their abuse. Many women raped in conflict are killed directly after or die from their injuries (Card, 1996, p. 8), whilst survivors can suffer life-threatening and long-term physical injuries from rape and/or mutilation (MSF, 2004). Many victims are also deliberately infected with HIV, which in fact led to an epidemic in Rwanda (Park, 2007, p. 15). Psychologically, sexual violence is used to intimidate, threaten and keep women in a state of fear (Brownmiller, 1986). In Rwanda, the Hutu population was encouraged to “use rape as a tactic of terror and spiritual annihilation” (Jones, 2013, p. 2), stripping Tutsi women of their dignity and identity (Sai, 2012) and causing long-lasting trauma (MSF, 2004).

Another factor that contributes to the efficacy of sexual violence as a weapon of war is that perpetrators of rape warfare have historically maintained impunity from retribution (Falcon, 2001). Despite its recent recognition by the UN and international community as a global security problem (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013), rape remains one of the most “under-reported and inadequately prosecuted of all war crimes” (Allen, 2007; Jones, 2013, p. 1). The stigma and socioeconomic consequences for sexual violence victims, rooted in patriarchal gender inequality, reinforce impunity. As the vast majority of women who suffered rape and other forms of sexual violence in both Rwanda and the DRC did not report or reveal the abuse they went through due to fear of rejection and ostracization from their community (Human Rights Watch, 1996). Moreover, sexual violence is not sufficiently addressed in post-conflict reconstruction and transitional justice programs. The impunity of sexual violence is important to consider because a lack of deterrence “only perpetuates its use and lessens the likelihood that perpetrators will face justice for their transgressions” (Jones, 2013, p. 2) as well as reinforcing the image of a soldier’s entitlement to rape as a spoil of war (Falcon, 2001).

The physical and psychological trauma of rape is exacerbated by its socioeconomic consequences that are underpinned by gender inequality and patriarchal perceptions of women and female sexuality. This gives sexual violence the ability to destroy not only its victims, but also their families and communities. The importance of women’s sexual virtue and the prizing of female virginity means that raped women suffer from great stigma and shame. Survivors are commonly ostracised by their families and communities (Nolen, 2009) and are vunable to reintegrate into society. The husbands of rape survivors are also considered shamed, thus raped women are often rejected by their husbands (2009), especially when left with pregnancies and children from rape Thereby they lose their access to land and economic sufficiency, thus being forced to live in isolation and poverty (MSF, 2004). In this way, because of the structural violence of gender inequality entrenched into patriarchal societies, rape can tear apart families and communities, and create a population of landless, ostracised women in extreme poverty, transforming rape into “a kind of slow murder” (UN, 2008). Therefore, underpinning the power and efficacy of sexual violence as a weapon to dominate, destroy and humiliate enemy groups and the choice to use this method, is the cultural emphasis on women’s sexual virtue and on controlling female sexuality, founded on normalized gendered violence and gender inequality (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013, p. 4).  The consequences of rape then reinforce the structural violence of gender inequality, as stigma, shame; social and economic ostracization and poverty exacerbate the already subordinated position of women in society, forming a continuity of violence against women, both structural and direct.


Women’s bodies as a battleground

Perpetrators exploit cultural conceptions of women’s sexual virtue and of men as protectors, to destroy individuals, families and communities through brutal forms of rape. In Rwanda, mass rape was used to tear apart communities and eliminate the cohesion of the Tutsi population. Frequent and brutal patterns of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide included rape in the presence of family members, and equally witnessing the torture and murder of relatives (Human Rights Watch, 1996). This method was also employed in the Rape of Nanking during World War II, where Japanese Imperial Army soldiers gang-raped tens of thousands of Chinese women and girls, including the frequent use of forced rape between family members upon threat of death and forcing victims to watch the rape of their relatives (Jones, 2013, p. 1). These patterns exhibit a “calculated employment of psychological warfare aimed at reducing the cohesion of family units and the community as a whole” (2013, p. 1). The fundamental function of rape is the assertion of a “cross-cultural language of male domination” (Card, 1996, p. 11) by which perpetrators dominate and humiliate not only their female victims but also the men who consider themselves protectors of those women – husbands, fathers and brothers: “you destroy communities. You punish the men, and you punish the women, doing it in front of the men” (UN, 2008). The way women and girls are raped to humiliate and dominate their male relatives reflects the entrenched, structural, gendered violence they suffer, as “their bodies become a battleground over which opposing forces struggle” (Park, 2007, p. 15). Built upon these foundations, the multi-dimensional destructive consequences of rape are particularly effective in damaging familial and community cohesion (Card, 1996, p. 11) and are strategically employed to achieve “genocide by cultural decimation”, rendering mass killing unnecessary (1996, p. 8).

The mutilation of breasts and genitals that was perpetrated en masse alongside rape during the genocide formed part of a campaign of terror and “intimidation in its most malevolent form” (Jones, 2013, p. 2) and showcased the efficacy of rape and other forms of sexual violence as a weapon of war. This pattern reflected the hate media propaganda that portrayed Tutsi women as overtly “sexual weapons that would be used by the Tutsi to weaken and ultimately destroy the Hutu men” (Sai, 2012). As well as mutilations that took away distinctly Tutsi, ‘Hamitic’ features, the breasts, vagina and pelvic areas of victims were sometimes mutilated with machetes, sticks and boiling water following rapes (Human Rights Watch, 1996). Moreover, during the war and genocide women were more often raped out in the open than in their homes, often killed directly after they were raped, and “left splayed on public roads… with mutilated genitalia” (Sai, 2012). The horrific brutality of these assaults displayed publicly enacts symbolic violence, in that it sends the clear message of terror that “this can happen to you” (2012), validating Brownmiller’s (1986) assertion that through rape, “all men keep all women in a state of fear”. The clear patterns of mutilation show and symbolize the extreme bodily (re-)assertion of male Hutu dominance over Tutsi women and their sexuality, and over the whole Tutsi population, again exemplifying a war being fought over women’s bodies, which become the battleground for the humiliation of the enemy (Réseau des Femmes pour un Développement Associatif, 2005) (Park, 2007, p. 15).

A further purpose for using rape as a weapon of war in Rwanda was to disperse or forcibly relocate Tutsi communities, not only for ethnic cleansing, but strategically for the extortion of land and assets (UN, 2008). This was rooted in underlying Hutu grievances caused by the structural violence of social inequality between Hutus and Tutsis, entrenched by the colonial legacy of Tutsi aristocracy, which justified the extortion or ‘taking back’ of land from Tutsi families. Furthermore, the civil war legacy led to mass displacement, with 15% of the Rwandan population living in camps by 1994 (Mamdani, 2003, p.147).  The “plight of the displaced spread fear”, with hate media propaganda playing a crucial role in creating the discourse that if the Tutsi returned to power, the ‘Hutu nation’ would “lose both their land and their freedom, in short, everything” (2003, p. 147). Therefore, during the genocide, soldiers seized the property of widows whose husbands they had killed, acquired land through forced marriage to their victims, and pillaged the houses and possessions of those they raped (Turshen, 2001, p. 7). Some village massacres and mass rapes were committed for the prospect of acquiring land and assets (2001, p. 7) by killing the inhabitants and/or terrorizing them into fleeing their homes.


Rape for the extortion of assets: the case of the DRC

The effectiveness of rape as extortion of assets has also been a major objective of its mass perpetration during the lengthy conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Sexual violence has been a ‘defining feature’ of the war, making it the clearest “example of brutality and [the] widespread nature of rape in modern-day conflict” (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 307), with currently approximately 1.8 million Congolese women having been raped in their lifetime (Hirsh and Wolf, 2012). Mass, brutal rape of civilian women was used to “destabilize, dominate and destroy entire communities” by up to 20 armed ‘warring parties’ in the Eastern DRC fought for control over the region’s vast reserves of gold, diamonds and other minerals (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 307) (Dettke, 2012). Clear patterns in the perpetration of rape show that it was committed systematically and strategically for the economic objectives such as wresting personal assets and land from women, creating the political economy of rape (Turshen, 2001, p. 1). Most rapes were perpetrated by armed combatants, and the livelihood of the majority of female victims was in agriculture, which gave them access to the valuable assets of land and livestock (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 332). The majority of rapes were committed inside the victims’ own home and in their fields, often in the presence of husbands and children (Hirsh and Wolf, 2012), and often with extreme brutality echoing those in Rwanda, including forced rape between victims, rape of the very young, old and pregnant, mutilation and murder (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 350). These patterns clearly showcase rape perpetrated to terrorize and displace women and communities, leaving abandoned settlements to the persecutors (Dettke, 2012), the power lies in the atrocity of rape which makes it an effective weapon of war.

However, analysis of rape warfare must consider that the causal factors of its perpetration are more complex than ‘simply’ as a deliberate tactic to achieve war aims. For Eriksson Baaz and Stern, the ‘rape as a weapon of war’ discourse can be problematic, because of its seemingly universal conception of rape warfare as a conscious military strategy, ordered and “enforced down the chain of command” (2013, p. 4). In some contexts, this very much is the case: in Rwanda both the killings and the mass, systematic use of sexual violence of the genocide are known to have been ordered or encouraged by military and political leaders at both national and local levels to further their political goal – the destruction of the Tutsi as a group (Human Rights Watch, 1996). However, the discourse can exclude the nuanced realities of different conflicts, in which a complex interplay of factors may lead to the perpetration of mass rape by soldiers without strategic orders necessarily being given (Boesten, 2010, p. 111).

In the DRC, the mass use of sexual violence in the conflict reflected the opposite: the breakdown of discipline and control in military structures, allowing soldiers to manifest their social and economic grievances into sexual violence (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013, p. 4). Ethnographic research with soldiers in the DRC has shown clearly that individual perpetration of rape is very often directly caused by economic grievances and frustrations. Many militias in Eastern DRC are unpaid, with soldiers having little or no access to resources, making their living from extorting the population when possible in order to survive. Militias are dysfunctional and undisciplined, with combatants poorly trained, therefore rape becomes an ‘ideal’ and effective tactic to facilitate soldiers’ pillaging of local villages, that soldiers rely upon to meet their material ‘needs’ (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 342), without being a necessarily mediated and ordered warfare strategy. Interviewed soldiers said they had never received specific orders to rape, rather they had the attitude that rape is unavoidable in conflict situations (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2010, p. 31), and that rape was tolerated (even if not ordered) by their commanders. Furthermore, many soldiers claimed that poverty was their main reason for perpetrating sexual violence as well as other forms of violence, both to facilitate pillaging, and in their resorting to force to fulfil their sexual ‘needs’, being unable to “get a woman the normal way” without money (2010, p. 31).

Therefore, it can be said that the structural violence of extreme poverty can produce opportunistic rape (Boesten, 2010) within a patriarchal society that normalizes violence against women. From their justifications for rape, it is clear that in reality, widespread perpetration of rape by soldiers in the DRC (as in all conflicts), is caused not only by an ordered strategy but also influenced by the interplay of many contributing causes. These include ideas of militarised male sexuality that make them feel entitled to rape, and justify sexual violence as a ‘normal’ and ‘unavoidable’ consequence when combatant men are deprived of sex (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2010, p. 32). Moreover, pre-existing patriarchal perceptions of women as sex objects and of rape as a legitimate ‘spoil’ of war (UN, 2014) justify perpetration of the mass rape of women, and are exploited during conflict, facilitating the targeting of women through sexual violence as a weapon for achieving war aims. The intersection of normalized, gendered violence, and extreme wartime violence can be seen here: research shows that sexual violence is perceived as normal by communities in Eastern DRC (Hirsh and Wolf, 2012), and wartime violence is the “magnification of existing institutionalized and normative violence against women” (Boesten, 2012, p. 7). Therefore, the efficacy of sexual violence to achieve war aims, as both a deliberate strategy of war and as the outcome of economic grievances, is facilitated by pre-existing perceptions and attitudes which embody gender inequality and normalized gender-based violence, for “what people tolerate in peace shapes what they will tolerate in war” (Nordstrom, 1997, p. 1).



Sexual violence becomes an inexpensive and readily available yet extremely effective tool to achieve war objectives (Nolen, 2009), because of its immense impact that destroys and displaces communities (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 352), eliminating the cohesion of opposition and providing opportunities for perpetrators to pillage assets and extort land from their victims (Dettke, 2012, p. 2). Though not the only war crime that is used as a weapon to achieve these purposes, sexual violence has a unique ability to destroy its victims physically, socially and economically and tear apart their families and communities, stripping the humanity not just from the victim but from the group she is part of (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013, p. 54). Held up by the structural gendered inequalities and perceptions of women in patriarchal societies, the consequences of rape devastate not only the victim but humiliate and destroy her family and community. The brutality and horror of rape perpetrated in warfare are so effective in terrorizing the population and preventing rehabilitation that they facilitate its use as a tool to achieve ethnic cleansing and displacement. The ability of rape to forcibly sterilize an enemy population and to ‘pollute their bloodline’ by changing the ethnicity of the next generation also make it a unique strategy of genocidal war. Moreover, whilst other war crimes face consequences in the post-conflict period, perpetrators of rape warfare commonly face no retribution. However, analysis of the complex interplay of contributing factors to the widespread use of rape in warfare, including the manifestation of economic grievances and brute poverty, and the exacerbation of pre-existing normalized sexual and gendered violence, shows that one cannot only conceptualize its use through the ‘weapon of war’ discourse, but must also consider these factors to gain a clearer understanding of the realities of rape in warfare.



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