War's Overlook Victims
SHORTLY after the birth of her sixth child, Mathilde went with her baby into the fields to collect the harvest. She saw
two men approaching, wearing what she says was the uniform of the FDLR, a Rwandan militia. Fleeing them she ran
into another man, who beat her head with a metal bar. She fell to the ground with her baby and lay still. Perhaps
thinking he had murdered her, the man went away. The other two came and raped her, then they left her for dead.
Mathilde’s story is all too common. Rape in war is as old as war itself. After the sack of Rome 16 centuries ago Saint
Augustine called rape in wartime an “ancient and customary evil”. For soldiers, it has long been considered one of the
spoils of war. Antony Beevor, a historian who has written about rape during the Soviet conquest of Germany in 1945,
says that rape has occurred in war since ancient times, often perpetrated by indisciplined soldiers. But he argues that
there are also examples in history of rape being used strategically, to humiliate and to terrorise, such as the
Moroccan regulares in Spain’s civil war.
As the reporting of rape has improved, the scale of the crime has become more horrifyingly apparent (see table). And
with the Bosnian war of the 1990s came the widespread recognition that rape has been used systematically as a
weapon of war and that it must be punished as an egregious crime. In 2008 the UN Security Council officially
acknowledged that rape has been used as a tool of war. With these kinds of resolutions and global campaigns
against rape in war, the world has become more sensitive. At least in theory, the Geneva Conventions, governing the
treatment of civilians in war, are respected by politicians and generals in most decent states. Generals from rich
countries know that their treatment of civilians in the theatre of war comes under ever closer scrutiny. The laws and
customs of war are clear. But in many parts of the world, in the Hobbesian anarchy of irregular war, with illdisciplined
private armies or militias, these norms carry little weight. Take Congo; it highlights both how horribly common rape is, and how hard it is to document and measure, let alone
stop. The eastern part of the country has been a seething mess since the Rwandan genocide of 1994. In 2008 the
International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian group, estimated that 5.4m people had died in “Africa’s world
war”. Despite peace deals in 2003 and 2008, the tempest of violence has yet fully to subside. As Congo’s army and
myriad militias do battle, the civilians suffer most. Rape has become an ugly and defining feature of the conflict.
Plenty of figures on how many women have been raped are available but none is conclusive. In October Roger
Meece, the head of the United Nations in Congo, told the UN Security Council that 15,000 women had been raped
throughout the country in 2009 (men suffer too, but most victims are female). The UN Population Fund estimated
17,500 victims for the same period. The IRC says it treated 40,000 survivors in the eastern province of South Kivu
alone between 2003 and 2008.
“The data only tell you so much,” says Hillary Margolis, who runs the IRC’s sexualviolence programme in North Kivu.
These numbers are the bare minimum; the true figures may be much higher. Sofia Candeias, who coordinates the
UN Development Programme’s Access to Justice project in Congo, points out that more rapes are reported in places
with health services. In the areas where fighting is fiercest, women may have to walk hundreds of miles to find
anyone to tell that they have been attacked. Even if they can do so, it may be months or years after the assault. Many
victims are killed by their assailants. Others die of injuries. Many do not report rape because of the stigma.
Congo’s horrors are mindboggling. A recent study by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Oxfam examined rape
survivors at the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, a town in South Kivu province. Their ages ranged from three to 80. Some
were single, some married, some widows. They came from all ethnicities. They were raped in homes, fields and
forests. They were raped in front of husbands and children. Almost 60% were gangraped. Sons were forced to rape
mothers, and killed if they refused.
The attention paid to Congo reflects growing concern about rape in war. Historically the taboo surrounding rape has
been so strong that few cases were reported; evidence of wartime rape before the 20th century is scarce. With better
reporting, the world has woken up to the scale of the crime. The range of sexual violence in war has become
apparent: the abduction of women as sex slaves, sexualised torture and mutilation, rape in public or private. In some wars all parties engage in it. In others it is inflicted mainly by one side. Rape in wars in Africa has had a lot of
attention in recent years, but it is not just an African problem. Conflicts with high levels of rape between 1980 and
2009 were most numerous in subSaharan Africa, according to Dara Kay Cohen of the University of Minnesota (see
chart). But only a third of subSaharan Africa’s 28 civil wars saw the worst levels of rape—compared with half of
Eastern Europe’s nine. And no part of the world has escaped the scourge.
The anarchy and impunity of war goes some way to explaining the violence. The conditions of war are often
conducive to rape. Young, illtrained men, fighting far from home, are freed from social and religious constraints. The
costs of rape are lower, the potential rewards higher. And for illfed, underpaid combatants, rape can be a kind of
Widespread, but not inevitable
Then consider the type of wars fought today. Many recent conflicts have involved not organised armies but scrappy
militias fighting amid civilians. As wars have moved from battlefields to villages, women and girls have become more
vulnerable. For many, the home front no longer exists; every house is now on the front line.
But rape in war is not inevitable. In El Salvador’s civil war, it was rare. When it did occur it was almost always carried
out by state forces. The leftwing militias fighting against the government for years relied on civilians for information.
You can rape to terrorise people or force them to leave an area, says Elisabeth Wood, a professor at Yale University
and the Santa Fe Institute, but rape is not effective when you want longterm, reliable intelligence from them or to rule
them in the future.
Some groups commit all kinds of other atrocities, but abhor rape. The absence of sexual violence in the Tamil Tigers’
forced displacement of tens of thousands of Muslims from the Jaffna peninsula in 1990 is a case in point. Rape is
often part of ethnic cleansing but it was strikingly absent here. Tamil mores prohibit sex between people who are not married and sex across castes (though they are less bothered about marital rape). What is more, Ms Wood explains,
the organisation’s strict internal discipline meant commanders could enforce these judgments.
Some leaders, such as JeanPierre Bemba, a Congolese militia boss who is now on trial for warcrimes in The
Hague, say they lack full control over their troops. But a commander with enough control to direct soldiers in military
operations can probably stop them raping, says Ms Wood. A decision to turn a blind eye may have less to do with
lack of control, and more with a chilling assessment of rape’s use as a terror tactic.
Rape is a means of subduing foes and civilians without having to engage in the risky business of battle. Faced with
rape, civilians flee, leaving their land and property to their attackers. In August rebel militias raped around 240 people
over four days in the Walikale district of eastern Congo. The motives for the attack are unclear. The violence may
have been to intimidate the population into providing the militia with gold and tin from nearby mines. Or maybe one bit
of the army was colluding with the rebels to avoid being replaced by another bit and losing control of the area and its
resources. In Walikale, at least, rape seems to have been a deliberate tactic, not a random one, says Ms Margolis.
At worst, rape is a tool of ethnic cleansing and genocide, as in Bosnia, Darfur and Rwanda. Rape was first properly
recognised as a weapon of war after the conflict in Bosnia. Though all sides were guilty, most victims were Bosnian
Muslims assaulted by Serbs. Muslim women were herded into “rape camps” where they were raped repeatedly,
usually by groups of men. The full horrors of these camps emerged in hearings at the warcrimes tribunal on ex
Yugoslavia in The Hague; victims gave evidence in writing or an