A Weapon or a Consequence? Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict

“We know now, as we knew even before the passage of this resolution, that rape is a kind of slow murder.”

Slavenka Drakulic on the UN

Security Council’s Resolution 1820

Sexual violence is not merely an unfortunate side effect of war, but a deliberate tactic used to humiliate, dominate, disperse, and instill fear in women and their communities. This essay evaluates several key examples of sexual violence being used against women during wartime including the Bosnian War, ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and United Nations peacekeeping missions, with the goal of discussing the validity and consequences of the categorization of sexual violence as a “weapon of war.” While males and gender nonconforming people also suffer from sexual violence, and while men are not exclusively the perpetrators of rape during war, this paper focuses on sexual violence against women and girls since they are disproportionately targeted by the use of sexual violence. Although this paper incorporates evidence from scholars who believe sexual violence is only a consequence of war, or as I will refer to them, “Consequence Theorists,” it focuses on their challengers, “Weapon Theorists,” who believe sexual violence is a deliberately used weapon. This paper focuses on Weapon Theory since the passage of United Nations (UN) Resolution 1820 shifted the dominant paradigm in its favor in 2008. This paper does not consider conflict actors as homogeneous and recognizes that while sexual violence is, overall, a weapon of war used by most conflict actors (e.g., states and non-state groups), it may be an unfortunate side effect in other conflict actors’ operations (e.g., inter-governmental organizations and peacekeeping forces). I first review each theory by considering the validity and consequences of each, as perceived by differing scholarly opinions. I then test the theories against the historical record. I conclude by demonstrating that sexual violence is most appropriately and accurately categorized when it is defined as a weapon of war.

Weapon Theory

Weapons: guns, knives, swords. Weapons: emotion, gender, power. The way the international community—civilians and governments alike—has redefined what constitutes a “weapon” of war has dramatically changed since the turn of the twenty-first century. Today, many forms of sexual violence such as rape are considered war tactics that threaten international peace and security. This outlook was established for the first time in the UN Security Council’s 2008 Resolution 1820, which stated that sexual violence during conflict was an international threat. Weapon Theory scholars argue that sexual violence is a weapon of war due to its intentional use, its systematic nature, and its strategic execution. Hillary Margolis, leader of the International Rescue Committee’s sexual violence program in North Kivu, claims that rape is a deliberate (not a random) tactic. Dara Kay Cohen also attests that rape in wartime is intentional; however, she maintains that rape is not only used officially as a weapon against women, but is also used passively to promote bonding within a militia group. Wartime sexual violence is often systematic in nature, while side effects are not predictable. Weapon Theorists emphasize that male sexual desire fails to explain patterns of sexual violence because most men, given the opportunity, do not rape. Historian Antony Beevor says that rape during war has been used strategically to achieve political or military objectives by humiliating and terrorizing since ancient times. Even ancient academics believed wartime rape to be as old as war itself; Saint Augustine called it an “ancient and customary evil.” Elisabeth Wood shows that rape is used strategically, to terrorize people and force them to leave an area. She also says that militia leaders’ claims that they lack control over their troops are groundless, because a commander with enough power to direct military operations has enough power to stop his soldiers from raping.

Weapon Theory: Consequences

Anna Hedlund argues that the labeling of rape as a weapon of war is often inadequate, simplified, sensationalistic, and stereotypical. Kerry F. Crawford, Amelia Hoover Green, and Sarah E. Parkinson believe that classifying rape as a weapon causes inaccurate rape claims to be made out of hopes for case money, disincentivizes programming focused on other types of suffering during conflict, and makes other wartime crimes harder to prosecute. All four scholars believe that the selective media narratives that focus entirely on women, compounded with calling rape a “weapon,” create challenges for non-visible survivors. “Media narratives about Iraq and Syria are almost exclusively focused on women, concealing and marginalizing male and LGBT victims who may be equally in need of help,” write Crawford, Hoover Green, and Parkinson. They also write that calling rape a weapon of war gives outside states a disingenuous justification to intervene due to the “impulse to ‘save’ Syrian and Iraqi women from sexual violence.”

However, interventions in the name of “saving” women are not new phenomena. In 2001, Laura Bush advocated for the intervention of Afghanistan under a humanitarian front to fight “brutality against women and children” in the name of “our common humanity.” Categorizing rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war in 2008 did not give rise to this neo-imperialist façade. The goal of classifying rape and other forms of sexual violence during wartime as “weapons of war” is to bolster international accountability and eradicate the culture of impunity that supports sexual violence. Of course international policies could do more to help male and LGBTQ survivors of sexual violence. But this is beside the point; identifying rape as a weapon of war—and thereby creating legal mechanisms to hold military commanders accountable to the law—puts international law on a path to combat sexual violence that can be developed to include all victims. Having a system of accountability designed to affect deterrence is a better option than accepting the violence and allowing it to continue due to a lack of sufficient legal labeling. Furthermore, calling all forms of sexual violence—including rape, sexual slavery, and sexual humiliation—weapons of war legitimizes the suffering, pain, and damage that it inflicts on survivors and their communities. Associating traditional instruments of war and sexual violence with the use of the word “weapon” is an important shift in discourse that has helped to break stigmas and the silence attached to rape. Lastly, the weak argument that women might lie about rape in exchange for money is historically unsubstantiated and, frankly, the product of a patriarchal, victim-blaming mentality. These critiques do little to negate the importance and usefulness of recognizing sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Consequence Theory

Consequence Theory holds that sexual violence is not a weapon intentionally and strategically used during war, but rather an inevitable or unfortunate side effect of war due to a culture of rape that war often creates, the increased opportunities to execute sexual violence, soldiers’ sexual desires that cannot be satiated by consensual sex during wartime, and because poorly-trained soldiers do not realize sexual violence is wrong. Richard Malengule states that years of fighting have resulted in a culture of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where sexual violence is accepted as a by-product of the conflict. Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will, wrote, “War provides men with the perfect psychologic backdrop to give vent to their contempt for women.” This belief suggests that sexual violence is an inevitable result of war due to an increased opportunity for men to perpetrate violence against women. Consequence Theory holds that soldiers see sex by rape as a “spoil of war,” and when sexual violence occurs it is a randomized result of an individual’s sexual desires. Military leaders in Japan and the DRC have argued that rape is not a weapon, but a consequence of male desire and a substitute for consensual sex. As evidence, Japanese commanders instituted the system of “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual slavery, to satiate soldiers’ desires. Leaders in the DRC have said that an inability to pay sex workers during warfare is what leads to rape. Others hold that sexual violence is not a weapon but a result of young, ill-trained men who do not understand their wrongdoings. Dearbhla Glynn argues that perpetrators are oblivious to their actions’ harmfulness because they are often part of the cycle of violence that has normalized rape and sexual violence. Similarly, Antony Beevor claims that it is the “indisciplined soldiers,” free from religious and social constraints, who commit sexual violence.

However, Consequence Theory’s claims are widely disputed. First, wartime sexual violence is not inevitable. There is a high level of variation of sexual violence across countries, conflicts, and armed groups. Perpetration is also heterogeneous among groups within the same conflict, proving that many armed groups can and do limit their perpetration of rape when commanders choose to prevent it. In El Salvador’s civil war, insurgents rarely committed rape. Likewise, sexual violence was virtually absent from the strategy of the Sri Lankan Tamil secessionist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Since some groups do not engage in sexual violence in war because their leaders do not condone it, it is not inevitable. If it is not inevitable, there are therefore “stronger grounds for holding responsible those groups that do engage in sexual violence.” This also defeats the argument that rape in war is opportunistic. It is a misconception that given the opportunity, men will rape, and it is over-simplistic to believe that all perpetrators, as Brownmiller implies, do so out of “contempt for women.”

Margot Wallström, UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict said, “There are no rape cultures, only cultures of impunity.” Critics of the Weapon Theory claim that a rape culture is produced as a side effect of conflict because even when wars end, rape continues. However, wartime rape used as a weapon often goes unpunished, thus creating a culture of impunity that sanctifies its continued perpetration. Rape and sexual violence do continue after the guns are put down, but this further exemplifies rape as a weapon of war. A culture of rape is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sexual violence’s use as a weapon. In other words, sexual violence perpetrated with rape culture and with strategy is a weapon, while rape culture without strategy is merely a side effect of wartime rape impunity.

The myth of uncontrollable male sexual desire also fails to explain sexual violence as an unfortunate side effect of war. Oftentimes, widespread rape of civilians is committed where soldiers have full access to sex workers or sexual slaves. Furthermore, sexual temptations cannot explain the extreme brutality of gang rapes or sexual torture that many women and girls suffer. Instead, participation in rape is often a way to build internal ties when armed groups are not cohesive, as seen in The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone. When fighters have been forcibly recruited, they are more likely to commit rape, particularly gang rape. Soldiers are usually not lacking in women to appease whatever sexual desires do exist; therefore, Weapon Theory more accurately explains this violence due to its intentional, systematic nature, and the internal strategies behind these rapes.

Finally, the claim that sexual violence is only a side effect of war committed by poorly trained soldiers who do not understand the evil of their actions fails to account for (i) the ill-trained insurgent groups that do not perpetrate this violence, and (ii) the highly trained and educated groups that do commit sexual violence in wartime. Perhaps only child soldiers who are born and raised in violent conflict zones, and where rape is common, are immune from this critique. The prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib in 2003, in which Iraqi prisoners were sexually abused and humiliated by U.S. soldiers, is a key example of sexual violence being used as a weapon of war by a highly trained military. Many Iraqi prisoners were made to perform homosexual acts. While dehumanization is unacceptable in any culture, homosexual acts are against Islamic law and have been punished by execution in Iraq. In the case of Abu Ghraib, as in many others, the three tenants of Weapon Theory were clearly present: the use of sexual violence was intentional, systematic, and calculated, and was constructed based on cultural dynamics to humiliate, dominate, and instil fear in the prisoners.

As a Weapon of War: Bosnia and DRC

Several historic examples give credit to the Weapon Theory of sexual violence in war. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bosnia) from 1992 to 1995 was the first to gain international attention for the use of systematic rape as a weapon of ethnic cleansing during war. While numbers remain highly controversial, it is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped during this war. Women’s bodies were widely seen as another battlefield where violent, ethnic conflict could be fought. Rape by Bosnian Serb forces was ordered by head military figures, with the goal of wiping out particular ethnic groups. As in many conflict, sexual violence in Bosnia was used as a weapon against a particular people. The use of rape during the Bosnian War is considered genocidal because the objective of the perpetrators was to forcibly impregnate women to create “more babies with the perpetrator’s ethnicity and through this to destroy and erase the ethnic, religious and national identities of their female victims.” Sexual violence in the Bosnian War was a weapon of war due to its intentional, systematic, and strategic nature.

Wartime rape can also be used as a way to deliberately instil fear, displace communities, and spread sexually transmitted diseases. Raped women are often stigmatized by their communities or blamed for their rape. In eastern DRC, which has been called the rape capital of the world, brutal and systematic sexual violence has plagued the region for almost two decades, leaving tens of thousands of victims enduring some sort of sexual violence. Essentially all sides of the conflict perpetrate sexual violence, including civilians, militiamen, armed groups and members of the Congolese Armed Forces. During one of the largest instances of mass rape in eastern Congo, three armed groups raped at least 387 civilians in 13 villages between July and August 2010. The indiscriminate, widespread nature of these mass rapes support the Weapon Theory, which holds that sexual violence is systematically used to impart fear on the victims and their communities. Since rapes in DRC are carried out regularly from village to village, women, girls, and their families often feel afraid to leave their homes to obtain food and water, go to school, or work in the fields. In contrast, some families are so afraid of staying in place (or are directly threatened with rape) that they flee their homes. This forced displacement breaks up communities that are often grouped on ethnic lines, giving perpetrators and armed groups power, as well as the resources that villages leave behind. Carrying out mass rapes is a strategic weapon of this particular conflict because it allows military objectives to be met and provides perpetrators with terror-based power.

As a Consequence of War: Peacekeeping Missions

While the majority of reported sexual violence during wartime is used as a weapon by state militias or non-state armed actors, Consequence Theory holds weight in the context of UN peacekeeper perpetrators. These operations involve military personnel but do not have enforcement powers, and are based on the cooperation of the parties to the conflict. As UN peacekeeping operations increased, a major problem emerged: peacekeepers were found to be sexually abusing or otherwise sexually exploiting local populations during missions.

Peacekeepers have been found guilty of sex-trafficking, soliciting prostitutes, forcing children into prostitution, and having sex with minors. This has occurred among both military and civilian UN personnel across a wide range of countries. Sexual exploitation and abuse is not tolerated by the United Nations, and as former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan said, it “violates everything the United Nations stands for.” In 2001, allegations of sexual violence emerged, and after refugee communities in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone were monitored, confirmation of these crimes was reported. In 2004, the UN reported 121 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation. Forty-five percent of these reports involved sex with minors. In 2005, 340 cases were reported; in 2006, 357 cases. In a Côte d’Ivoire mission in 2007, 800 peacekeepers were suspended on allegations of having sex with minors.

Many scholars have speculated (like Consequence Theorists) that the conditions of the missions allow the exploitation of local girls and women. Peacekeepers are seen as powerful figures in the areas they inhabit during missions, and are likely to believe they can get away with sexual abuse. One UN employee on a peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo who admitted to having sexual relations with 24 girls said he committed these crimes because, “Over there, the colonial spirit persists. The white man gets what he wants.”

The imbalance of power—along ethnic, cultural, and institutional lines, and a culture of impunity provide increased opportunities to execute sexual exploitation. This gives weight to the Consequence Theory: peacekeepers perpetrate sexual violence without gaining strategic political or military power and without a systematic agenda. When governments and non-state armed groups commit sexual violence, it is a weapon. In peacekeeping missions, however, sexual violence is a consequence of war. Nevertheless, these instances are the exception to the international norm, not the rule.


Not every incidence of sexual violence during wartime is a weapon of war; in some instances, it is a consequence of war or conflict. Typically, however, the use of sexual violence in conflict zones is widespread. It is deliberate. It is systematic, strategic and calculated. In these cases and for these reasons, it is a weapon of war. Women and girls have endured physical and psychological trauma in conflicts across the world. The current culture of impunity needs to be eradicated and international support should be fervently thrown behind the sentiments in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1820. Sexual violence is as much a weapon against international peace and security as it is on the bodies and minds of the women and girls who have endured it.


All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The World Mind.

About Emily Dalgo

Emily Dalgo is a senior in the School of International Service pursuing a BA in international studies with a focus in justice, ethics, and human rights and a minor in philosophy. Dalgo was a 2016 AU Summer Scholars and Artists Fellow, where she conducted independent research on xenophobia in the 2016 presidential election. She is the 2016-17 Executive Editor of the World Mind.