One of the most appalling consequences of war is the increase in sexual violence. Sexual violence is used to torture, injure, extract information, degrade, intimidate, threaten or punish women and men for actual or alleged acts.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, sexual violence includes the following acts; rape, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, forced maternity, forced termination of pregnancy, enforced sterilization, indecent assault, trafficking, inappropriate medical examinations and strip searches.
Sexual violence against women
The large majority of sexual violence is used against women by men, as a result of unequal power relations between the genders.
Rape or other forms of sexual violence against women during war are often not only an act of aggression directed at the woman, but on the entire community, and especially their closest male family members. Rape against women is in fact often used as a deliberate strategy of warfare, the aim being to destabilize the enemy forces by threatening and humiliating men, women and children from the adverse community. Rape is often used as revenge against individuals, families and communities.
Rape is also used with an ethnic dimension, where women are raped merely as a punishment for belonging to the “wrong” ethnicity.
Prostitution and sexual slavery
War creates desperate situations for women, who often find themselves without income and protection when their spouses have either been killed, disappeared or joined the armed forces or other armed groups. Poverty and lack of resources often make women feel forced to engage in prostitution for their own and their family’s survival.
There are also historic and recent examples of how women are forced into prostitution and sexual slavery in order to serve military forces, with one of the most famous examples being the so called “Japanese comfort women".
The increased exposure to rape and other forms of sexual violence during war create immense physical and psychological harm to women. However, proper medical services, not least with regard to abortions and HIV/Aids treatment, are often scarce.
Women who have been raped often meet widespread discrimination and rejection from their communities. Many women are abandoned by their husbands and are left as the sole caretakers of the children. This rejection has severe economic consequences for the victims, who are deprived of their homes and their sources of livelihood.
Sexual violence against men
Men are not only perpetrators of crimes of sexual nature; they are also victims of sexual violence by other men, including rape.
Sexual violence against men is common not least during detention and interrogation of captured combatants or fighters, as seen in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003-2004, where both male and female members of the US military committed various crimes involving grave sexual abuses against Iraqi prisoners.
The vast majority of men who sexually assault other men identify themselves as heterosexual.
Due to the reluctance to speak out about their experiences the statistics of male victims of sexual violence remain unknown. The stigma attached to sexual violence against men is in general higher than that connected with women.
The aim of sexually humiliating the adversary is for the perpetrator to prove his strength and to strip the victim of masculinity. Sexual violence is sometimes used as a punishment on men who diverge from what is considered to be the “stereotypical man”, such as homosexuals or pacifists.
Unlike the reference to women and sexual violence in IHL, there is no express mention of a prohibition of sexual violence or other forms of sexual assaults against men as such.
The two additional protocols provide general guarantees against enforced prostitution and sexual assault in international and non-international armed conflicts (article 75 IAP, article 4 IIAP).
The indirect prohibition of sexual violence through the prohibitions of torture, outrages upon personal dignity or humiliating and degrading treatment, also affords men with protection against this crime.