The literature on sexual violence in armed conflict indicates that rape and violence against women and girls prior to, during and after conflict seem to be extensive in scope and magnitude throughout the world – with reported incidents in conflicts in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The forms of sexual violence most commonly documented are:
- sexual harassment (such as forced stripping or virginity tests)
- sexual abuse and exploitation (such as eliciting sexual services in return for food or protection)
- rape, gang-rape or attempted rape
- sexual slavery
- forced pregnancy, abortion, pregnancy, sterilisation or contraception
- trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation
- domestic violence.
Whilst there is limited comparative analysis and understanding about where sexual violence may be more or less prevalent and why, it is widely recognised that sexual violence against women in conflict is usually reflective of pre-existing patterns in society. Generally speaking, rape and violence against women is a good proxy indicator of rising tensions and incipient conflict. Much of the literature also emphasises the persistence of violence and exploitation in the ‘post’-conflict, reconstruction phase.
Whilst sexual violence in conflict environments can constitute ‘random’, ‘opportunistic’ acts, sexual violence cannot be seen merely as an inevitable ‘by-product’ of war and insecurity, but rather deserves specific attention as a strategy of war and form of insecurity in itself. Where sexual violence is systematic and used as a ‘weapon of war’, the motives and tactics can vary. They include:
- attack on a group/community and destabilising populations
- ethnic cleansing/genocide
- instilling fear
- punishment and torture
- affirming aggression.