Women as "spoils of war"
Women have always been regarded by men as as "obvious" "spoils of war": their bodies symbolise the supposed honour of the men and their "violation" demonstrates power over them as opponents and shows superiority. Rape and torture of women are used in a targeted manner: to demoralise the opponent, for the purpose of ethnically-motivated displacement and as a means of social oppression. Therefore, the term "sexual violence" can be misleading: Rape is not an aggressive expression of sexuality, but a sexual expression of aggression (Translated from Ruth Seifert, Vergewaltigung und Krieg, 1993). The violence is sexualised. Sexualised violence has nothing to do with sexuality – not from the perpetrator’s and certainly not from the victim’s perspective. It serves to exert power and to control and oppress the other(s). Sexualised violence is not a petty offence – it is a serious human rights crime.
Lack of security for women – even in post-war periods
Peace agreements are often not the end of the war for women: post-war regions are typically characterised by a permanent lack of security and recurrent acts of violence against women. During and after armed conflicts, for example, the general level of violence in society often rises, as does consequently the level of violence used by men against women, without there being places of refuge for women. Women and girls are often also sexually exploited by peacekeepers and civil helpers or fall victim to forced prostitution. The social and psychological consequences of sexualised violence in war and in post-war periods often last for years; trauma symptoms can sometimes even occur in the next generations.
Stigmatisation of survivors
Unlike any other crime, when a person is raped the disgrace of the crime shifts from the perpetrator to the victim. This often constitutes an unsolvable dilemma for women and girls. Remaining silent about the crime saves them from being stigmatised in their society but at the same time contributes to the fact that they are denied compensation, a little piece of justice and being able to see the perpetrator being excluded and punished. There are many reasons to remain silent about the crime: the fact that speaking about the crime is taboo, lack of support, exclusion or even threats from family and society. For that reason, women often have a lifelong cross to bear with their emotional and physical injuries. And this in a situation where social structures have been destroyed, poverty is prevalent and there is insufficient medical care.
Prosecution of sexualised violence
It is only in recent times that rapes in war have been recognised and punished as human rights violations and war crimes. The great extent of sexualised violence in World War II was completely disregarded in the Nuremberg Trials. Only in the early 1990s were the first attempts made to systematically prosecute sexualised violence in war by establishing the special tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. The courage of Bosnian women to publicly speak about the violence they experienced had contributed a great deal to this development. Rapes in connection with warlike action were first classified a serious violation of the Geneva Conventions and a crime against humanity at the Yugoslav Tribunal in The Hague in 2001. At international political level, UN Resolution 1325 of the Security Council in 2000 called upon all parties of armed conflicts to protect women and girls against gender-specific violence, and recently UN Resolution 1820 for the first time described the use of sexualised violence as a war tactic and declared that sexualised violence can be a threat to world peace and international security.
Please see Projects and Working Areas to read more details about how we support women and girls in war and crisis zones.