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Sexual Violence

During many armed conflicts sexual violence is committed on an endemic scale, primarily against women and girls, but sexual violence is also committed against men and boys. International law sets out absolute prohibitions on such conduct.

Armed Conflict and Sexual Violence

Sexual violence is sadly a common occurrence in many modern conflicts.

The large majority of sexual violence is committed against women and girls by men, as a result of unequal power relations between the genders. Yet men are not only perpetrators of crimes of sexual nature; they are also victims of sexual violence by other men, including rape.

Sexual violence, including rape, is 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. 

Grave Humanitarian Impact

The increased occurrence of rape and other forms of sexual violence during war create immense physical and psychological harm. However, proper medical services, not least with regard to abortions and HIV/Aids treatment, are often scarce.

Those 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.

The stigma women face from society after having suffered rape adds to the psychological harm they already endured from the experience. Likewise, children born out of rape face severe problems, being ousted, together with their mothers, from the community.

Defining Sexual Violence

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 and IHL

International humanitarian law (IHL) expressly protects women against rape, enforced prostitution or any other form of indecent assault (article 27 GCIV, article 75(2)(b) API, article 76 API).

Many forms of sexual violence, such as rape, are implicitly prohibited through the prohibitions on  torture, other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, outrages against personal dignity as laid  down in, for example, the Convention against Torture (CAT), common article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions, article 75 (2) of the First Additional  Protocol and article 4(2) in the Second Additional  Protocol.

The prohibition against torture also forms part of  customary international law and a violation of the  prohibition constitutes a grave breach under Article 147 GCIV.

Sexual Violence: An IHL analysis

Sexual violence: an IHL analysis

International humanitarian law (IHL) expressly prohibits rape, enforced prostitution or any other form of indecent assault (article 27 IV GC, article 75(2)(b) IAP, article 76 IAP).

Sexual Violence: An IHL analysis

During the Second World War, the Japanese occupying power forced tens of thousands of women from Asian countries into a horrific organized system of prostitution and sexual slavery to serve the Japanese armed forces. In the more recent conflict in Kosovo, the UN peacekeeping forces’ engagement in prostitution was seen as a major contributing factor to the heavy increase of sexual slavery and trafficking of women and very young girls in the area.

“Gender-based violence is a consequence of the low status of women and girls in society. Women and girls are subordinated, devalued and discriminated against, to varying degrees, in all societies.
Armed conflicts exacerbate discrimination and violence directed at women and all recent internal and ethnic-based conflicts have illustrated this fact. Rape and other sexual violence against women and girls is used as a weapon of war. To end the cycle of violence, the equal rights of women to participate in the economic, social, political and cultural life of their societies must be promoted and protected.”


UN Special Rapporteur on Systematic Rape, Sexual Slavery and Slavery-Like Practices during Armed Conflict, 2000