Leading to Beijing +20: Rape as a Weapon of War

A WomanStats coder will read any number of appalling human rights violations in a day’s work. In the past, I have researched and written a lot about domestic violence, human trafficking, and the physical safety of women in refugee camps. However, as the world turns its attention more and more towards Syria and Iraq, the issue of rape as a weapon of war must be discussed. The subject is sometimes implicit in the news headlines and sometimes mentioned briefly, but it is a tragic reality for so many women around the world.

Rape as a weapon of war refers to the use of sexual violence as a deliberate tactic in a group’s military strategy. These acts of violence are not merely opportunistic acts, rather they are concentrated efforts to achieve an objective, such as to destabilize areas or to “control and redraw ethnic boundaries.” [i] It is a horrifying example of dehumanization where women are used for strategic gain and subjected to tortuous acts of violence.  The use of rape as a tactic is not new, but I do not think I fully appreciated how widespread it is today until I coded several articles on the violence in Syria and Iraq.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Women in Syria have been arbitrarily arrested and detained, physically abused, harassed, and tortured during Syria’s conflict by government forces, pro-government militias, and armed groups opposed to the government.”[ii]  Basically, every side of the conflict has used violence against women. Similarly, women in Iraq have been targeted by all sides. The United Nations reported that the terrorist group, ISIS, “has forced some 1,500 women, teenage girls, and boys into sexual slavery” while others report that this group systematically targeted women by raping door to door in Mosul. [iii] However, it seems that ISIS is not the only perpetrators; the government and bands of Shia militias have also been cited as perpetrating violence and possibly sexual violence.  Conflict in the region has caused thousands of deaths and forced many to flee their homes, which has made it difficult to verify exactly what is happening on the ground. [iv]

Unfortunately, rape as a weapon of war is not just a problem in the context of Syria and Iraq; it is worldwide. These acts have been reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Sudan, Bosnia, Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, and many other countries as well. A search of the WomanStats database for this variable further highlights the extent to which women are subjected to sexual violence in global conflicts.

Next March, representatives from numerous countries and NGOs will meet for the 20th anniversary of the 4th World Conference on Women, also known as “Beijing+20.” The original conference highlighted areas of concern for women and pledged to eliminate these problems. One of these areas was to “eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.” [v] While there has been progress on the issue of rape as a weapon of war in the past twenty years (such as the UN Security Council passing Resolution 1820 which demands and end to the practice and states that these acts can be potential war crimes),  the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria is just one example of how our actions are not enough. [vi]



[i] Smith-Spark, Laura. “How did rape become a weapon of war?” BBC News.http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/ 4078677.stm.

[ii] “Syria: War’s Toll on Women.” July 2, 2014. Human Rights Watch. http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/07/02/syria-war-s-toll-women.

[iii] Peritz, Aki and Tara Miller. “The Islamic State of Sexual Violence.” September 16, 2014. Foreign Policy Magazine. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/09/16/the_islamic_state_of_sexual_violence_women_ rape_iraq_syria and Antoine, Chagmion. “In Iraq, women ‘are the battlefield’.” August 12, 2014. The Women’s Media Center. http://www.womenundersiegeproject.org/blog/entry/in-iraq-women-are-the-battlefield#.U-pSFOqe4hU.twitter.

[iv]Chagmion Antoine. “In Iraq, women ‘are the battlefield’.”

[v] “Beijing Platform for Action:  Beijing Declaration.” September 15, 1995. UN Women. http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/pdf/BDPfA%20E.pdf.

[vi] Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights. “Rape: Weapon of war.” United Nations Human Rights. http://www.ohchr.org/en/newsevents/pages/rapeweaponwar.aspx.


3 thoughts on “Leading to Beijing +20: Rape as a Weapon of War

  1. LAE says:

    Wow! What a wonderful and informative post. As the world continues to monitor the Syrian civil war and the situation with ISIS, it’s so interesting, and even disappointing, how this continues to fly under the radar. Thank you for giving it the attention it deserves!

  2. Natalie says:

    Dear CP,

    Wow. Very well said. “Basically, every side of the conflict has used violence against women.” -Thanks for up that all factions of the war in Syria are perpetrators… What’s the purpose of rape here? Men targeting and attempting to shame the “property” of other men in an attempt to win an ideological battle. People don’t give in to an ideology this easily, and this tactic only destroys the fabric of all communities involved. Even in war, we need to think long-term…

  3. VLF says:

    Have you heard of the Women Under Siege project? I started reading some of the stories they’ve collected, and I couldn’t stop. It was horrifying, and all too common, for women to be used as a weapon in war. I once read an interview with a woman from Guatemala who, when asked about what life was like after the civil war, said that conditions were essentially the same for women—the only difference was in who was doing the raping. The same could be said for any number of conflicts. Women are far too often the battleground. Great post on an important issue.


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