By: Alina Glaubitz
“Papa Bemba sent us,” they said. Armed and clothed in uniforms, mimicking those of the Central African Republic army, the Banyamulengués entered witness P199’s compound in Bondoro. Shrill, heart-breaking screams tore across the compound. As witness P199 crouched, hiding behind a thicket of plants, she saw two rows of soldiers, as though waiting in line to pay for groceries. No — they were waiting in line to rape two little girls. The girls were only 12 and 13 years old.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, “Rape has been a dishonorable camp follower of war for as long as armies have marched into battle.” Now, however, rape is not only a strategic tool of war and a war crime; it has evolved into a ‘gendered’ weapon of war.
Rape as a war crime refers to the penetration of a body by a sexual organ, another body part, or by an object, in circumstances that indicate a lack of consent and take place in the context of an armed conflict. The International Criminal Court, tasked with investigating and prosecuting individuals charged with the gravest of crimes, recognizes rape as a war crime under Articles 8(2)(b)(xxii) and 8(2)(e)(vi) of its founding document the Rome Statute.
When used systematically, rape functions as a tool to achieve military or political objectives. Rape is often exploited in conflict because of the colossal impact it has on individuals, families and communities. As a weapon of terror, rape has the power to divide and displace entire districts, infringing upon human security (Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Tactically, rape is used to humiliate, weaken, dominate, destabilize, torment and dishonor victims.
Rape is also used as means of physically destroying an ethnic group. In ethnically motivated conflicts, rape can be used to deliberately infect women with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, impairing their ability to bear children. Consequently, women are unable to have children, leading to the eradication their ethnic heritage. If forcefully impregnated, women give birth to a child of enemy troops (e.g. troops from rebel groups, often of a different ethnicity). The women are often abandoned by their husbands and shamed by their communities. A raped woman is perceived as damaged, and consequently socially stigmatized and ostracised. This allows the perpetrators to “perpetuate their social control and redraw ethnic boundaries.” Thus, rape is used to acquire territory whilst catalyzing the deterioration of a local community.
When considering the “protector-protected” dogma in a victim community, sexual violence committed against women dishonors men for failing to preserve female sexual purity. In turn, this fragments a community by undermining its collective dignity.
Therefore, though often unacknowledged, rape serves as an “engine of war” and one of the driving forces of conflict.
Gender roles in conflict
Armed conflict occurs against a backdrop of gender roles and societal assumptions which facilitate strategic sexual violence.
It is important to distinguish ‘gender’ from ‘sex’: whilst sex is a purely biological reference, gender refers to a socially constructed set of attributes, responsibilities and relationships associated with being male or female.
From a reductionist perspective, women are merely a social category with the biological function of human reproduction. However, in war their purpose is multifaceted. As “culture carriers” of an ethnicity, women have the power to safeguard ethnic traditions, preserve the ideology of a group and carry forward collective knowledge and values. Women are the “border guards” of communal boundaries and the “symbolic bearers of national identity”.
War has always carried a masculine connotation. Women often do not partake in combat and are thus viewed as having an inferior status. Consequently, they are subject to exploitation and are used as a source of recreation, pleasure and entertainment. A woman feels “homeless in her own body.” Furthermore, in some communities, enduring rape is considered the female duty to serve her country, leading to an acceptance of sexual violence.
At the same time, the military is considered “the last male fortress” in a contemporary setting where gender equality takes center stage. Figuratively speaking, the “male military” must save the “damsel in distress”: the female nation. In armed conflict, male morality is corroded when rape is used to prove virility. This results in further obliteration of established gender roles and human values.
The role of gender identity in sexual crimes
The concept of “the eternal female victim” is prevalent and widely accepted. As such, the identity of a rape victim is predetermined, which consequently homogenizes victims of sexual violence with women being perceived as victims and men as perpetrators.
As a result, male victims of sexual violence have been silenced, and they become invisible. Their existence is masked by the statistics of female rape victims that dominate the media, shedding light on rape against one gender, whilst overshadowing the other. These gendered constructions surrounding rape and traditional societal stigmas often make male victims particularly reluctant to report incidences of rape or testify at trial, further complicating prosecutions. Publicly acknowledging the prevalence of male rape and prosecuting its perpetrators can shift this statistical imbalance.
The media has been crucial in making wartime rape visible to the international community, especially to humanitarian aid organizations. The KONY 2012 campaign, for example, highlighted the systematic rape of abducted young girls by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. At the same time, being a rape victim became incentivized, serving as a way of accessing certain services — health care, food packages, relocation to UN camps — available to those who were willing to conform to the rape victim stereotype and identity. This blurs the lines between genuine victims of sexual violence and others in need.
Challenges in prosecuting rape as a war crime
Proving that the rapes are systematic and tactical, and not just opportunistic and isolated conduct of individual soldiers, is one of the main challenges faced by the prosecution. The tendency to view rape as a “private crime,” rather than one integral to war, was a principal reason behind historical failures to prosecute it as a war crime. This remains an evidentiary challenge and often requires the prosecution to present contextual evidence demonstrating a pattern of crimes and their connection to political or military objectives.
Due to an absence of medical services and the societal stigmas identified earlier, victims of sexual violence frequently cannot or will not seek medical assistance at the time of the rape. Consequently, no record or forensic evidence of the crime can be collected. Even in cases where medical assistance was provided, the significant lapse of time between the alleged crimes and the conducted investigations present further difficulties. Records that may once have existed are often lost or destroyed as a result of the ongoing conflict.
In the absence of documentary or forensic evidence, investigations of rape must rely on victim and witness testimonies. However, rape victims often refuse to testify against their perpetrators because intrusive questioning forces victims to relive their traumatic experiences in order to recall details vital to prosecutions. Further, in war zones controlled by multiple militias, a victim may be unable to identify the group affiliation of a perpetrator with sufficient certainty.
Socially, survivors of sexual violence are at risk of being marginalized and thus do not feel safe within their own communities. Some would rather remain silent than be seen as damaged. As a result of these social stigmas, rape is often underreported. Should we lower the bar for evidentiary requirements? How could this compromise the authenticity of proceedings?
Rape has evolved into a strategic military weapon, underpinned by gender roles and identities. With the intent to humiliate, stigmatize and terrorize, rape is used to destroy ethnic communities.
The difficulties associated with prosecuting rape as a war crime include the legal onus to prove that the rape is systematic, the evidence that may have been compromised due to lapse of time, and the challenge of identifying witnesses due to psychological trauma, societal barriers, and subsequent underreporting.
Sexual violence in the entertainment industry has taken the media by storm, where raped Hollywood celebrities rightfully attract attention, sympathy and airtime. Meanwhile thousands of victims of wartime rape don’t have access to a #MeToo campaign, remaining forever invisible. With the increasing media coverage of sexual assault, hopefully the spotlight will lend some light to victims of wartime rape. By raising awareness on the prevalence of such crimes, international legal institutions such as the International Criminal Court are able to prosecute war criminals such as Jean-Pierre Bemba, achieve justice for human rights violations, and protect the most vulnerable members of society.
 P199 was a protected witness in the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo at the International Criminal Court, prosecuted for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the Central African Republic.
 International Criminal Court, “The Prosecutor versus Jean-Pierre Bemba,” International Criminal Court, last modified March 21, 2016, https://www.icc-cpi.int/CourtRecords/CR2016_02238.PDF, paragraph 467.
 OHCHR, “Rape: Weapon of war,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, last modified 2016, www.ohchr.org/en/newsevents/pages/rapeweaponwar.aspx.
 International Criminal Court, “Rome Statute”, International Criminal Court, last modified 2002, https://www.icc-cpi.int/nr/rdonlyres/ea9aeff7-5752-4f84-be94-0a655eb30e16/0/rome_statute_english.pdf.
 Laura Smith-Spark, “How Did Rape Become a Weapon of War?,” BBC News, last modified 2016, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/4078677.stm.
 Heli Askola, Rape in Armed Conflict: International Criminal Prohibitions and Their Enforcement (Turku: University of Turku, 2000), 52.
 Nicole Dombrowski, Women and War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted with or Without Consent (New York: Garland, 1999), 341.
 United Nations, “Gender Mainstreaming – Concepts and Definitions,” UN Women, last modified 2016, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/osagi/conceptsandefinitions.htm.
 Nira Yuval-Davis, Floya Anthias, and Jo Campling, eds., Woman-Nation-State (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), 9.
 Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender & Nation, (London: Sage Publications, 1997), 23.
 Claudia Card, “Rape as a Weapon of War,” Hypatia 11, no. 4 (October 2016): 7, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3810388.pdf.
 Dombrowski, Women and War in the Twentieth Century, 337.
 Askola, Rape in Armed Conflict, 46.
 Ibid., 47.
 Sara Sharratt, Gender, Shame and Sexual Violence: The Voices of Witnesses and Court Members at War Crimes Tribunals (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 29.
 Rebecca L. Haffajee, “Prosecuting Crimes of Rape and Sexual Violence at the ICTR: the Application of Joint Criminal Enterprise Theory,” Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, 2016, 204, http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlg/vol291/haffajee.pdf.
Alison Cole, “Making the perpetrators of mass sexual violence pay,” Osisa, 2016, http://www.osisa.org/sites/default/files/making_the_perpetrators_of_mass_sexual_violence_pay-alison_cole.pdf.
Claudia Card, “Rape as a Weapon of War,” Hypatia 11, no. 4 (October 2016), https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3810388.pdf.
David Smith, “Joseph Kony kidnapped 591 children in past three years, UN report reveals”, The Guardian, last modified 7 June 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jun/07/joseph-kony-united-nations-report.
Heli Askola, Rape in Armed Conflict: International Criminal Prohibitions and Their Enforcement (Turku: University of Turku, 2000)
International Criminal Court, “Elements of Crimes,” International Criminal Court, last modified 2011, https://www.icc-cpi.int/NR/rdonlyres/336923D8-A6AD-40EC-AD7B-45BF9DE73D56/0/ElementsOfCrimesEng.pdf.
International Criminal Court, “Policy Paper on Sexual and Gender Based Crimes,” ICC Office of the Prosecutor, last modified June 2014, https://www.icc-cpi.int/iccdocs/otp/OTP-Policy-Paper-on-Sexual-and-Gender-Based-Crimes–June-2014.pdf.
International Criminal Court, “The Prosecutor versus Jean-Pierre Bemba,” International Criminal Court, last modified March 21, 2016, https://www.icc-cpi.int/CourtRecords/CR2016_02238.PDF.
International Criminal Court, “Rome Statute”, International Criminal Court, last modified 2002, https://www.icc-cpi.int/nr/rdonlyres/ea9aeff7-5752-4f84-be94-0a655eb30e16/0/rome_statute_english.pdf.
Laura Smith-Spark, “How Did Rape Become a Weapon of War?,” BBC News, last modified 2016, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/4078677.stm.
Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern, Sexual Violence As a Weapon of War?: Perceptions, Prescriptions, Problems in the Congo and Beyond (London: Zed Books, 2013).
Nicole Dombrowski, Women and War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted with or Without Consent (New York: Garland, 1999).
Nira Yuval-Davis, Floya Anthias, and Jo Campling, eds., Woman-Nation-State (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989).
Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender & Nation, (London: Sage Publications, 1997).
OHCHR, “Rape: Weapon of war,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, last modified 2016, www.ohchr.org/en/newsevents/pages/rapeweaponwar.aspx.
Rebecca L. Haffajee, “Prosecuting Crimes of Rape and Sexual Violence at the ICTR: the Application of Joint Criminal Enterprise Theory,” Harvard Journal of Law & Gender, 2016, http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlg/vol291/haffajee.pdf.
Sara Sharratt, Gender, Shame and Sexual Violence: The Voices of Witnesses and Court Members at War Crimes Tribunals (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011).
United Nations, “Background Information on Sexual Violence Used As a Tool of War,” Outreach Programme on the Rwanda Genocide and the United Nations, last modified 2016, http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/rwanda/about/bgsexualviolence.shtml.
United Nations, “Gender
Mainstreaming – Concepts and Definitions,” UN Women, last modified 2016,