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Beyond Rape: Reconceptualizing Gender-Based Violence During Warfare

Abstract and Keywords

Gender-based violence is one of the oldest sustaining features of war but has received significant scholarly attention only in the past two decades. Much of this work, however, focuses selectively on sexual violence, specifically rape by men against women. Mirroring the focus of recent social science research, this essay reviews the treatment of gender-based violence during recent and ongoing conflicts, identifying three theoretical paradigms that offer explanations for this violence based on gender inequality theory, social control theory, and strategies of warfare. The essay recommends that future researchers employ a more expansive conception of gender-based violence, deconstruct the dichotomous understanding of victim and perpetrator, and afford greater attention to the role of intersectionality in explaining gender-based violence during war. Such a reconceptualization will advance our understanding of the multitude forms gender-based violence assumes during armed conflict and facilitate more adequate theoretical explanations for the phenomenon.

Keywords: gender-based violence during war, sexual violence during war, wartime rape, mass rape, systematic rape, genocide, crime against humanity, war crimes, forced sexual slavery, forced marriage

34.1. Introduction

The study of gender-based violence during wartime is a relatively new area of scholarship. The phenomenon itself, however, is one of the oldest sustaining features of war. For most of history rape, forced prostitution, and abduction of enemy women and girls as slaves or wives have been viewed as the just rewards of battle or as an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect of the violent context and men’s uncontrolled lust (Brownmiller 1975). In this context, Enloe (2000, p. 108) describes rape as an “indistinguishable part of a poisonous wartime stew called ‘lootpillageandrrape.’” Although Brownmiller’s 1975 monograph, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, sparked modest academic discussion of the hitherto avoided topic, the relative silence in academia broke only after media reports of mass rape emerged from the Balkans and Rwanda in the early 1990s (Seifert 1994; Skjelsbaek 2001).1 Since then, a wealth of scholarship has examined sexual violence committed during World War II (Chang 1997; Sancho 1997; Beevor 2002; Lilly 2007) and gender-based violence perpetrated during conflicts in the post–Cold War era, including genocide in the Balkans (Stiglmayer 1994; Allen 1996; Fisher 1996; Salzman 1998), Rwanda (Sharlach 1999; Mullins 2009a, 2009b), Darfur (Hagan, Rymond-Richmond, and Parker 2005; Hagan and Rymond-Richmond 2008), and other recent and ongoing civil conflicts (Cohen 2008; Leiby 2009; Wood 2009; Peterman, Palermo, and Bredenkamp 2011).

Over the past twenty years, scholars and activists have significantly advanced awareness of gender-based violence during warfare and its multitude of harms by, for instance, contributing on-the-ground reports of gender-based violence and theorizing explanations for the prevalence of wartime gender-based violence based on in-depth case studies. Much of this scholarship, however, focuses selectively on rape of women (p. 672) by men during various types of conflict (e.g., genocide, civil wars, and insurgencies). For instance, in an examination of sexual violence during the conflict in the Balkans, Nordstrom (1996, p. 7) argues that rape

is a fundamentally gendered phenomenon. Men, in the vast majority of cases, are rapists. This fact, however, has led to a tendency to restrict rape to analyses of men as perpetrators and women as victims. While there is no doubt that women bear the brunt of rape, an accurate understanding of rape has to expand out from an exclusive focus on women. Women and men are raped; adults and children are raped.

Although many studies focus exclusively on sexual violence against women, some research agendas have recently begun to incorporate a more expansive view of perpetrators and victims. There is now a small but growing body of research that aims to illuminate variation in rates and forms of sexual victimization within and across conflicts (Wood 2006, 2009, 2010) and that moves beyond a narrow conception of sexual violence during war by highlighting complexities in victimization (Mazurana et al. 2002; McKay and Mazurana 2004; Carpenter 2006; Lewis 2009) and perpetration patterns (Sjoberg and Gentry 2007; Sjoberg 2010).

Increased scholarly and legal attention to gender-based violence during war has ensured that the door remains open for research that can help minimize future incidents, address the needs of victims, help preventative efforts during future conflicts, and support legal claims (Hagan, Brooks, and Haugh 2010). Scholarship may also support victims’ entitlements to compensation and services to the extent that it documents the occurrence of these crimes and the various harms associated with them.

This essay proposes a reconceptualization of the term gender-based violence in the context of war. It then reviews literature that examines risk factors for gender-based violence perpetrated during recent and ongoing conflicts. Next, it identifies three theoretical paradigms that offer explanations for this violence, drawing from (a) a theory of gender inequality, (b) a theory of social control, and (c) conceptualizations of violence as a strategic weapon. The essay concludes with recommendations that propose three directions for future research.

34.2. Defining Gender-Based Violence

Rape, defined in international law as the “penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim or of the perpetrator with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body” (International Criminal Court 2000, Article 8(2)(e)(vi)(1)) is but one regularly occurring form of sexual violence perpetrated during war. Indeed, sexual violence involves an extensive range of both coerced physical and psychological behaviors, including acts of penetration—such as rape and gang rape—as well as sexual mutilation or culturally inappropriate actions that are intended to sexually harass and humiliate (Human Rights Watch 2003).

(p. 673) In turn, the term gender-based violence is inclusive of rape, other forms of sexual violence, as well as nonsexual acts perpetrated on the basis of gender. Although the term has gained currency in discussions of violence during warfare over the past decade, it remains illdefined: It lacks clarity regarding to whom and to which behaviors the definition applies. When first defined in 1992 by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the term applied solely to “violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately” (United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women 1992, General Recommendation 19). This definition thus excluded forms of violence perpetrated against men because of their gender.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) does not directly define the term gender-based violence, but its Rome Statute does include a definition of gender that has significant implications for its legal conceptualization and prosecution in international jurisprudence. Feminist legal scholars argued that the drafting of the definition of gender had the potential to be “transformative” (Charlesworth and Chinkin 2000), but a protracted battle during the drafting of the statute undermined this possibility (Steains 1999; Charlesworth and Chinkin 2000; Ooseterveld 2005). The resulting ICC definition of gender as “two sexes, male and female, within the context of society [that] does not indicate any meaning different from the above” (International Criminal Court 2000, Article 7, para. 3) is an awkward compromise that denies the potential strength of a socially constructed understanding of gender (Charlesworth and Chinkin 2000; Lehr-Lehnhardt 2002; Oosterveld 2005) and, more generally, gender-based violence, in international law. For example, a restriction on the interpretation of “gender” to the “context of society” may exclude sexual orientation from falling within the definition of gender and thereby prevent prosecution by the ICC for crimes against humanity that are perpetrated on this basis (Oosterveld 2005). More generally, feminist scholars have voiced critiques of the adequacy of criminal prosecutions to address gender-based violence (Engle 2005; Bumiller this volume).

The lack of a clear definition of gender-based violence has resulted in (a) a tendency by scholars to employ the terms rape, sexual violence, and gender-based violence interchangeably; (b) the frequent misinterpretation, in practice and in scholarship, of gender-based violence as acts committed against women or women and girls only, excluding the categories of men and boys; and (c) the failure to examine empirically the full range of behaviors that constitute gender-based violence. Consequently, there is only a handful of studies on gender-based violence that move beyond offenses perpetrated by men against women (Carpenter 2006; Sjoberg 2010; Sjoberg and Via 2010).

This essay argues for attention to the multitude of forms of gender-based violence committed during war, including sexual and nonsexual acts perpetrated by and against men, women, boys, and girls (Carpenter 2006). It advocates for refinement in the conceptualization and use of definitional terms to facilitate more adequate theoretical explanations for the phenomena and thus more effective responses to the harms inflicted in war.

(p. 674) Gender-based violence includes behaviors such as rape, sexual assault, genital mutilation, sexual harassment, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, forced sterilization, and forced marriage, as well as violent acts perpetrated on the basis of gender that do not include sexual contact (Sjoberg and Via 2010), such as sex-selective killings (Jones 2004; Carpenter 2006). Research shows that the forms of gender-based violence committed during warfare vary across and within conflicts (Wood 2006). For instance, abductions and forced prostitution and marriage occurred and continue to occur in the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo but are rare or nonexistent in other conflicts, such as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (Wood 2006). Gender-based violence also varies in the extent to which particular forms are present across conflicts and even across spatial or organizational units within conflicts (Wood 2006, 2009, 2010).

The ways in which “gender shapes war and war shapes gender” (Goldstein 2001, p. 1) are manifest in distinct patterns of wartime victimization and its collateral consequences. Too often though, researchers simplify these gendered patterns to a binary classification of women as victims and males as rapists. A binary and gendered victim/perpetrator conceptualization is not only inadequate (Engle 2005; Coulter 2008), it hinders the protection of noncombatant men and boys during war (Carpenter 2005). While women and girls comprise the greatest proportion of victims of gender-based violence, civilian and combatant men and boys also face gender-based violence (Carlson 2006; Carpenter 2006; Lewis 2009), and women, girls, and boys also commit and facilitate such gender-based violence (Bennett, Bexley, and Warnock 1995; Sharlach 1999; Goldstein 2001; McKay 2005; Sjoberg and Gentry 2007). Based on the approach used in most research, this essay treats victims and perpetrators as discrete categories. It is important to recognize, however, that this does not reflect the reality of wartime contexts. Accordingly, this essay suggests that researchers reconsider the use of such labels and recognize the dual statuses that individuals may hold during war.

34.3. Victims

The risks for and consequences of gender-based violence during war differ according to gender, age, and other factors. So, for example, women and girls are selectively targeted on the basis of age, virginity, reproductive capacity, and whether they have been displaced (Gerecke 2010). In most conflicts, women of all ages are at risk for multiple forms of gender-based violence, but young women and girls often face an increased risk of sexual victimization. The targeting of virgins has been attributed to specific cultural beliefs (Bastick, Grimm, and Kunz 2007), sexual desirability, and efforts to disrupt societal bonds and continuity (Allen 1996; Hagan, Rymond-Richmond, and Parker 2005). This is evident in Darfur (Gingerich and Leaning 2004; Hagan, Rymond-Richmond, and Parker 2005) and Sierra Leone (Human Rights Watch 2003), where some perpetrators select virgins for rape and abduction.

(p. 675) Reproductive capacity also places women at risk for gendered victimization because it can be a mechanism for altering the demographic composition of societies (Lentin 1997). Systematic attempts to impregnate women and girls are used to change racial, ethnic, or national demographics in many of the genocidal conflicts that involve cultures where identities are determined patrilineally, including those in the Balkans, Darfur, and Rwanda (Allen 1996; Hagan, Rymond-Richmond, and Parker 2005). Women were raped and selected for impregnation in the Balkans (Allen 1996; Fisher 1996; Carpenter 2007), in Darfur (Gingerich and Leaning 2004; Hagan, Rymond-Richmond, and Parker 2005), and in Rwanda, where Tutsi women, in particular, were targeted for rape and impregnation (Nowrojee 1996; Sharlach 1999). In each of these conflicts, women who were already pregnant were forced to undergo abortions or were killed (Nowrojee 1996; Sharlach 1999). Mutilation of sexual organs has also been used to prevent impregnation and to disrupt current pregnancies. Although ethnicity often figures in this form of gendered violence, Gerecke (2010) argues that gender-based violence during the civil war in Sierra Leone—a nonethnic conflict—was also aimed at harming women’s ability to reproduce.

Women are also at an increased risk of victimization when fleeing war-affected areas, when residing in internal displacement and refugee camps (Human Rights Watch 2002a; Farr 2009), and, as in Darfur, when isolated from communal or more populated areas (Médecins Sans Frontières 2005). According to a randomized survey of internally displaced women in Sierra Leone, 9 percent of respondents had been sexual assaulted during the eleven-year war (Amowitz et al. 2002). Thirty-four percent of these rape victims reported sexually transmitted infections; 20 percent described reproductive complications such as miscarriages; and 6 percent reported a pregnancy due to rape. In another random-sample survey of people displaced by the war in Sierra Leone, 52 percent of the interviewed women and girls said they had been sexually victimized and 47 percent reported they had been raped (Bastick, Grim, and Kunz 2007). In the conflict in Darfur, 90 percent of rape incidents reported to Médecins Sans Frontières (2005) occurred outside of a populated village area. Women were most likely to be raped (82 percent of victimizations) when pursuing daily activities outside of the village such as fetching water or firewood or traveling to the market.

Victimized women experience the direct trauma of the initial act as well as a range of collateral consequences. For example, in some societies, women who are sexually abused during warfare have far fewer economic options following the conflict (Sharlach 1999). After the genocide in Rwanda, women were tasked with caring for themselves, their own children, and often the children of lost loved ones without the financial resources or rights available to men, including the right to own or inherit land (Sharlach 1999). Formal legal remedies for gender-based violence are also context dependent. In Sierra Leone, women cannot report sexual assault to officials unless they have received the consent from a local chief (Kellah 2007). In other cases, legal remedies are unavailable because of the disruption of war. Alternatively, legal codes may not include rape or may consider rape a crime against the family’s honor rather than against the victimized individual. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “[m]‌any families (p. 676) headed by males...settle violent crimes against women and girls outside the courts. Some ‘resolve’ rape cases by accepting money from the perpetrator or his family or by arranging to have the perpetrator marry the victim” (Human Rights Watch 2002b, p.20). Collateral consequences associated with rape or other forms of gender-based violence are thus affected by socioeconomic and cultural factors.

Although men and boys constitute a smaller proportion of victims of gender-based violence during war than women, their victimization is not insignificant (Jones 2004; Carpenter 2006; Lewis 2009). Sexual torture and genital mutilation, such as genital beatings and full or partial castration, are frequently occurring forms of gender-based violence against men and boys (Rosenblatt 2007) and have been documented in a number of recent conflicts, including in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, El Salvador, Greece, Chile, and Sierra Leone (Oosterhoff, Zwanikken, and Ketting 2004; Médecins Sans Frontières 2009). Men and boys are also victimized when they are forced to rape or to watch the rape of others (Carpenter 2006; Sigsworth 2008; Médecins Sans Frontières 2009). Using a broad definition of gender-based violence, including acts such as scalping, Leiby (2009) reports that men accounted for 24 percent of victims during the Peruvian civil war (1980-200) and 7 percent of victims during the conflict in Guatemala (between 1962 and 1996). Stigma and a lack of designated services and resources function to reduce reporting of men’s and boy’s victimization.

Systematic data on the correlates of gender-based violence against men and boys are limited (Russell 2007), but age appears to be a risk factor. Whether or not they are in the military, men and boys of “military-age” often are perceived as “potential” combatants and are therefore treated by armed forces as legitimate targets (Carpenter 2006). Males may also be at greater risk when they are directly involved in combat. A study of former combatants in Liberia reports that 32 percent of men who fought in the war were sexually victimized (Johnson et al. 2008). Men may face particularly high risks when they are in custody because of the use of sexual torture as part of a process of “breaking down political prisoners” (Carlson 2006). An analysis of victimization over the course of the twenty-year civil war in Peru provides further insight into the conditions under which men and boys are victimized. Based on coding of reports from the Peru Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Leiby (2009) documents that men were most frequently sexually assaulted in detention centers and that rebel forces were victimized more often than were civilians. Men and boys also face collateral consequences from gender-based violence. A study of male ex-combatants in Liberia finds that victims exhibited higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder, social dysfunction, and suicidal ideation than former combatants who were not sexually victimized (Johnson et al. 2008).

Gender-based violence and its collateral consequences are not monolithically determined by gender but are patterned on the basis of intersecting identities. Indeed, a number of scholars hypothesize that gender-based violence is likely to be more prevalent and extreme during ethnic and genocidal conflicts (Bloom 1999; Sharlach 2000; Farr 2009). Consistent with this prediction, case studies of several recent conflicts find the risk of gender-based violence is influenced by ethnic, racial, religious, national, and political identities, as well as by gender (Carpenter 2006; Bastick, Grimm, and Kunz 2007; (p. 677) Gerecke 2010). Thus considering which particular men and women are victimized during conflict is essential to understanding the phenomenon.

Ethnicity and race have been well documented as a basis for selecting targets (Sharlach 1999; Carpenter 2006; Bastick, Grimm, and Kunz 2007, Gerecke 2010). In the Balkans, Croatian and Bosnian-Muslim women were disproportionately victimized because of their national and religious identities (MacKinnon 1994; Stiglmayer 1994; Allen 1996; Salzman 1998). Similarly, in Rwanda, Tutsi women were selectively targeted for gender-based violence (Askin 1999; Sharlach 1999; see also Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu 1998). In Darfur, racial epithets often accompanied killings and rapes, suggesting “that gender and race are both parts of the patriarchal practice of genocidal violence” (Hagan, Rymond-Richmond, and Parker 2005, p. 552). These findings suggest that ethnically targeted gender-based violence will be more likely during civil wars in societies with greater ethnic fractionalization. However, large-sample quantitative analyses that compare across civil wars find that ethnic fractionalization is significantly associated with gender-based violence during genocide only in nations where perpetration is committed by insurgent groups (Cohen 2011) and not in nations that lack such groups (Butler, Gluch, and Mitchell 2007; also see Wood 2006; Gerecke 2010).

Religious identity has also been associated with increased gender-based violence in several conflicts (e.g., in the Central African Republic region of Bangui; Gujarat, India; Bosnia and Herzegovina; and by American soldiers at Guantanamo Bay; see Bastick, Grimm, and Kunz 2007). Victimization along religious lines does not occur in all conflicts, however (Wood 2006, 2009). Although religion is an identity that demarcates in-group and out-group status during some conflicts, it is unclear when and in what contexts it is associated with gender-based violence during war.

Whether and how to disentangle the effects of intersecting identities on gender-based violence during war are complicated theoretical, methodological, and empirical tasks. Race, ethnicity, religion, national identity, and gender are all intersections of disadvantage that affect gender-based violence (Crenshaw 1991; Hill Collins 2000; Hooks 2000). Methodologically, introducing intersecting differences reduces sample size and limits statistical analyses (Bedolla, Tate, and Wong 2005). Research is further complicated when information on the ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation of victims and perpetrators of sexual violence is lacking (Wood 2010) because states do not collect it or because state actors are the perpetrators of the violence (Paxton, Kunovich, and Hughes 2007).

34.4. Perpetrators

Research on the perpetrators of gender-based violence during wartime tends to focus on offenses by male combatants and often fails to differentiate offenses based on perpetrator identity. However, young boys, women, and girls also perpetrate gender-based violence during warfare; indeed, the involvement of these groups in gender-based (p. 678) violence appears to be increasing, perhaps because their representation among combatant forces has grown. McKay and Mazurana (2004), for example, report that girls have participated in government, militia, paramilitary, and opposition forces in armed conflicts in thirty-eight countries. Yet combatant participation alone cannot account for the perpetration of gender-based violence. Although women’s and men’s participation in the Israeli Defense Force is almost equal, women appear to have been uninvolved in gender-based violence in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (Wood 2006). Furthermore, while combatant forces are responsible for most gender-based violence, peacekeepers also have committed gender-based violence during several recent conflicts (Human Rights Watch 2003).

The most recent shift in our understanding of gender-based violence during war is the consideration of how women and girls facilitate, aid, order, and, in a few circumstances, commit rape and sexual violence (Sharlach 1999; Askin 2003; Sjoberg and Gentry 2007; Gerecke 2010). Women’s involvement in gender-based violence is often described as “shocking” and incompatible with most conceptions of femininity, despite women’s active participation in many aspects of war (Enloe 2007; Sjoberg and Gentry 2007). Most media and scholarly attention addressing female perpetrators emphasizes high-profile women and sensational cases (e.g., Biljana Plavsic in the Balkans, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko in Rwanda, and Lynndie England at Abu Ghraib2) and often neglects no-less-harmful acts by ordinary women. For example, Hutu women and girls reportedly facilitated rape by revealing hiding locations of Tutsi women in Rwanda (African Rights 1995; Sharlach 1999), and women participated in “virginity checks” of young girls in Sierra Leone “prior to their ‘virgination’ by male rebels” (Human Rights Watch 2003, p. 41). Likewise, while the role of young people as perpetrators of gender-based violence during war has received some recent attention (McKay and Mazurana 2004; Annan et al. 2009), it is often overlooked. Identifying who is likely to commit gender-based violence during war is intimately related to the motivations to commit such crimes.

34.5. Explanations of Gender-Based Violence

This essay outlines three dominant theoretical paradigms that apply to patterns of gender-based violence during war. These broad approaches are based on gender inequality theory, social control theory, and the use of gender-based violence as a strategic tool of warfare. These are neither exclusive nor clearly defined, and advocates of each typically focus on sexual rather than gender-based violence; nonetheless, they represent a useful way to categorize general theoretical approaches.

Gender inequality theories attribute all gender-based violence, whether committed during recognized armed conflict or not, to unequal gender relations. Foregrounding gender and power, this approach is most famously summarized by Brownmiller’s (1975, (p. 679) p. 5) assertion that rape is “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” As such, sexual violence is understood primarily as an act of power rather than an act motivated by sexual desire (Seifert 1994). As Card (1996, p. 7) explains, rape is used during war and peace “[t]‌o display, communicate, and produce or maintain dominance.” According to this approach, preexisting gender inequalities are magnified during war and result in the increased prevalence of violence (MacKinnon 1994; Seifert 1994; Enloe 2000). In an analysis of civil conflicts between 1980 and 2009, however, Cohen (2011) finds no significant relationship between the relative political, social, and economic status of women in countries and the prevalence of rape during conflict. She posits that this could be due to a lack of variation in gender inequality across “war-prone” countries (Cohen 2011, p. 36). Wood (2006) similarly argues that the ubiquity of gender inequality cannot account for the variation in violence across conflicts and that it is possible that particular expressions of gender inequality manifest in particular forms of gender-based violence. Furthermore, as MacKinnon (1994, p. 188) notes regarding the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, “these rapes are being done by some men against certain women for specific reasons, here and now.” In other words, a conceptualization of sexual violence during war as only the result of patriarchal gender relations ignores the significance of intersecting inequalities based on characteristics other than gender.

In response to these critiques, some scholars emphasize the hypermasculinity of a militarized wartime context. They maintain that military structures cultivate an association between masculinity and soldiers’ willingness and ability to commit violence, including gender-based violence against women, girls, and boys (Enloe 2000, 2007; Goldstein 2001). Moreover, soldiers’ sexual attacks of other men may be a means to feminize their victims (Meznaric 1994; Hauge 2008). Some scholars argue that women’s voluntary participation in conflict, such as that by Lynndie England or Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, may be explained by women’s socialization into a heteronormative masculine culture dominant in militaries (Enloe 2007; Sjoberg 2007). In these contexts, women enact heteronormative masculinity in the same way as men, thus women’s perpetration of gender-based violence continues to serve as an expression of masculinity subordinating femininity (Enloe 2007; Sjoberg 2007). As a result, an understanding of militarized culture can shed light on the perpetration of gender-based violence by men and women against both men and women. However, the limited variation in masculinized military culture across armed groups suggests that this alone cannot explain different rates of gender-based violence (Wood 2006).

A second theoretical approach highlights the effect of changes in social control during war and offers several hypotheses regarding the causes of gender-based violence. A “spill-over” explanation points to the relaxation of social norms and the rule of law and to the normalization of violence to explain increased gender-based violence during war (Brownmiller 1975); in other words, gender-based violence is a by-product of daily routines of violence. Combatants become “morally disengaged” as violence continues or progresses (Kassimeris 2006; Horwood 2007). Fresard and Munoz-Rojas (2004) describe a gradual process of moral disengagement as a result of continually (p. 680) breaking cultural values and taboos. Spill-over theory predicts a strong correlation between gender-based violence and other forms of aggression during war, but this has not occurred in all conflicts, such as the ongoing one in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Cohen 2011).

Formal social controls may also change or break down during war, and the resulting ability to act with impunity may contribute to greater rates of gender-based violence. From this theoretical perspective, men take advantage of opportunities to exert power and force with minimal, if any, recourse during wartime, when social institutions such as the rule of law and norms against violence have deteriorated. As a result, gender-based violence may increase among civilians, as well as soldiers (Ertürk 2008). Indeed, Mullins (2009a, 2009b) argues that widespread rape in Rwanda emerged from a state of normlessness inherent in the genocidal context. A lack of formal controls should lead to an increase in all forms of violence in wartime, not just gender-based violence; however, as noted above, the two are not highly correlated.

Gotschall (2004) offers a biosocial explanation of rape in wartime that explicitly ties a lack of social regulation to men’s biological proclivity for sexual aggression. He argues that rape is primarily motivated by sexual desire (Thornhill and Palmer 2000) but is typically regulated by sociocultural factors. A biosocial theory like Gotschall’s would explain an increase in sexual violence during war by reference to men’s unchecked sexual desire in a context where the typical “regulators,” or social controls, are weak or lacking altogether. Both spill-over and opportunistic approaches share an underlying assumption that without proper social controls, rates of sexual violence will increase; however, they are less useful for explaining rates of other forms of gender-based violence or its variation across time and context.

Relatedly, some scholars argue that the level of hierarchical control within military structures affects whether or not soldiers take advantage of a wartime context (Butler et al. 2007; Wood 2009, 2010). According to Horwood (2007, p. 49), “in the absence of a particular military strategy, rape tends to be more common amongst armies/armed groups that lack discipline or operate in small groups with more independence and lower accountability to command structures.” Thus the level of accountability within a military structure may contribute to variation in sexual or gender-based violence across conflicts. Butler and colleagues (2007) report a negative correlation between close supervision and rape by state armed forces, although this analysis is limited by its cross-sectional approach. Wood (2009) analyzes variation in rates of sexual violence by comparing the strength of military hierarchy between state armed forces and insurgent forces in Sri Lanka. She argues that where the hierarchy is strong (top-down), leaders have the ability to control forces and either proscribe or prescribe the use of sexual or gender-based violence; where a strong hierarchy is lacking, a bottom-up explanation applies.

This account could explain the low rates of sexual violence perpetrated against civilians by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam; the Tigers are characterized by a strong military hierarchy that enforces a top-down “puritanical code of conduct.” This code appears to derive from “the leadership’s insistence that cadre commit themselves entirely (p. 681) to the organization and demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice everything, including a private life” (Wood 2009, p. 150). Wood notes, however, that social norms regarding the use of sexual or gender-based violence are not static and the discourse regarding the acceptability of such violence may change during a conflict. She further encourages analysis of smaller groups, noting that social norms can vary even within military units (Wood 2010).

A third approach emphasizes the strategic use of gender-based violence during armed conflict. Scholars subscribing to this approach maintain that gender-based violence is frequently a “weapon of war...used as part of a systematic political campaign which has strategic military purposes” (Skjelsbaek 2001, p. 213). For example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbian forces systematically used gender-based violence for a number of purposes, such as “intimidating and demoralizing the enemy, forced impregnation, tampering with the identity of the next generation, splintering families, and dispersing entire populations” (Card 2002, p. 119). MacKinnon (1994, p. 187) elaborates: “In this genocide through war, mass rape is a tool, a tactic, a policy, a plan, a strategy, as well as a practice.” Gingerich and Leaning (2004) argue that, during the conflict in Darfur, rape was used to instill fear with the aim of restricting movement and limiting economic activity, to humiliate and demoralize the population, and to reduce the will to resist. Rape has also been used to disrupt the social bonds of communities and to “pollute” or alter bloodlines through pregnancy (Gingerich and Leaning 2004; Hagan, Rymond-Richmond, and Parker 2005). According to Meger (2011), sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo was used as a method of population displacement in mineral-rich areas. Leiby (2009) points to reports citing the employment of sexualized interrogation techniques by American soldiers at detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Furthermore, Cohen (2008) links variation in the rates of rape, and gang rape in particular, to forced recruitment strategies during civil wars. Gang rape, Cohen argues, is used to socialize combatants and create unit cohesion within groups that rely heavily on forced recruitment.

Gender-based violence likely occurs for multiple reasons during a wartime context (Horwood 2007; Cohen 2008). Currently, most research acknowledges that rape and other forms of gender-based violence can be strategic weapons in military repertoires during war. Some forms of gender-based violence, such as forced abortions, directly advance certain military goals (e.g., preventing future reproduction of a particular group). Gender-based violence may also serve a performative function during war; for instance, particularly violent rape may be used to instill fear and encourage a civilian population to flee their homes. Alternatively, abstaining from gender-based violence against other combatants or civilian populations may also be a crucial strategic maneuver. For instance, the presence of gender victimization is likely to be low, regardless of gender inequalities, insofar as targeting civilians undermines the goals of the armed group. While military strategy best explains the occurrence of systematic offenses, factors such as military hierarchy, social controls, and social norms regarding the acceptability of sexual violence, often rooted in patriarchal beliefs of women’s subordinate role (p. 682) in society, also contribute to the presence or relative absence of gender-based violence during conflict.

34.6. Conclusions and Future Directions

This summary of recent scholarship on gender-based violence during war suggests three interrelated directions for future research: (a) undertaking scholarship that employs a more precise conceptualization of gender-based violence, (b) deconstructing the dichotomous understanding of victim and perpetrator as female or male, and (c) affording greater attention to the role of intersectionality in explaining gender-based violence during war. Comparative analyses, in addition to detailed case studies, are needed to examine these and related issues.

As this review illustrates, much of the scholarship that examines violence during war focuses exclusively on rape and a few acts of sexual violence. Gender-based violence, however, includes a wide range of sexual and nonsexual acts during war. Despite its increasingly common use, the concept of gender-based violence lacks clarity regarding to whom and to which behaviors the definition applies, resulting in empirical research that is, at times, notably imprecise and incomplete. We have identified three dominant theoretical approaches to the study of sexual violence during war that draw from theories of gender inequality, theories of social control, and theories that conceptualize violence as a strategic weapon of war. These approaches have been employed mostly to explain sexual violence, namely rape, rather than to examine a more expansive conceptualization of gender-based violence. As studies of gender-based violence broaden their empirical focus, greater opportunities for more nuanced and complete theoretical contributions will arise.

A more inclusive approach to the study of gender-based violence also requires scholarship that deconstructs the inadequate and inaccurate conceptions of victims and perpetrators. Victimization and perpetration of gender-based violence resist neat categorization by gender, age, or combatant status. Furthermore, future research must be attentive to a nuanced conception of victim and perpetrator as fluid categories and remain open to the possibilities that individuals may be both victims and perpetrators (Carpenter 2006; Coulter 2008; Sigsworth 2008). Researchers should therefore, devote further attention to the dyadic relationship between victim(s) and perpetrator(s). It is particularly important to document patterns of participation of women and youth during conflict. Not only should future research be more inclusive of perpetrator characteristics, but it must also identify which perpetrators are committing which offenses. Going forward, it is crucial to link the vast range of wartime violence experienced by women and men, girls and boys, to sociological explanations of these behaviors. Investigations that disaggregate data to illuminate the diversity of forms of violence, perpetrators, and (p. 683) victims will be better able to link victimization patterns with more theoretically refined explanations for gender-based violence.

Future studies must also more fully examine how intersecting identities pattern gender-based violence. Over the past two decades, research has shown that individuals are not always targeted for victimization solely based on their gender (MacKinnon 1994; Green 2002; Russell-Brown 2003). Although many case studies explicitly demonstrate that sexual and gender-based violence are at times used as a weapon of war against particular women (MacKinnon 1994), more research is needed that examines such violence across ethnic and nonethnic wars (Wood 2006; Gerecke 2010). Data that are disaggregated by the ethnicity, nationality, race, religion, and political affiliation of victims and offenders will be crucial for this task.

The study of gender-based violence in general, and during wartime in particular, also faces significant methodological challenges. For example, comparing victimization rates or forms of victimization within or across conflicts remains difficult due to (a) unknown reporting rates, (b) the limitations of social science research tools in the disruptive context of war, and (c) the challenges of measuring and analyzing intersectionality. Gender-based violence is systematically underreported due to structural and social barriers that deter victims and witnesses from reporting attacks to legal authorities (Farr 2009), as well as to researchers. Shame, fear of ostracism or reprisal, and the lack of an authority to whom to report (Farr 2009) may also contribute to serious underestimation of its prevalence. Documenting victimization at the community level rather than the individual level may minimize the stigma associated with reporting personal victimization and thus may offer more reliable estimates of community-level victimization (Amowitz et al. 2004).

Reporting also varies by gender, and men are particularly reluctant to report sexual assaults in most conflicts (Wood 2006, 2010). Accurately assessing men’s and boys’ victimization is complicated by cultural beliefs associating sexual victimization with homosexuality (Human Rights Watch 2003), as well as by institutional biases, such as a lack of training (Rosenblatt 2007), or exclusion from legal remedies (Médecins Sans Frontières 2009; Wood 2010). Furthermore, definitions of rape and sexual violence vary widely, even within stable states with sophisticated legal codes (Wood 2006). Each of these factors affects the rate at which incidents of gender-based violence are reported.

Social science research tools, such as representative household surveys, are also difficult to carry out in the disruptive context of war, especially in conflicts where displacement is a military aim (Hagan, Brooks, and Haugh 2010). While such surveys may be informative, they often systematically exclude people who have migrated, been displaced, or died as a result of the wartime context (Wood 2010; Peterman, Palermo, and Bredenkamp 2011). Hagan, Brooks, and Haugh (2010) suggest targeted samples of displaced and refugee populations to overcome the likelihood of underestimating victimization. The study of gender-based violence during war also exposes the particularly acute challenges of measuring intersectionality. Several recent studies have moved us closer to investigating how intersecting identities pattern sexual violence in cross-national comparative studies (Gerecke 2010; Cohen 2011), but more work (p. 684) is needed in order to determine the effects of intersecting identities both across, and within, conflicts.

There is now more information about gender-based violence than ever before. However, methodological concerns constitute perhaps the most significant challenge to the field. Moving forward with research that uses greater specificity in definitions and disaggregated data will not only illuminate the complexity of gender-based violence during war but also increase the comparability of research both within and across conflicts.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                        (1) . In 1992, Roy Gutman published a series of articles in Newsday focusing on rapes committed by Serbian armed forces.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        (2) . The International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia accused Biljana Plavsic, former acting president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, of planning the Serbian strategy of genocidal rape. These charges were later omitted when Plavsic accepted a plea agreement to crimes against humanity (Askin 2003). Pauline Nyiramsuhuko was Rwanda’s Minister of Family and Women’s Development in 1994. Nyiramsuhuko’s case in particular has been sensationalized in media reports (Miller 2003) and garnered significant scholarly attention (Russell-Brown 2003; Wood 2004; Sperling 2006). Lynndie England was one of three women featured in the photos at Abu Ghraib and who received disproportionate media coverage.