A new report by Canadian researchers challenges the widespread belief that rape is increasingly being used as a “weapon of war.”
The report released on Oct.10 by a research team from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver said there is no compelling evidence to support this belief or claims by senior U.N. officials, U.N. reports and others that sexual violence in wartime is increasing.
There is also no compelling evidence that the extreme level of sexual violence in a small number of war-affected countries including Congo, Liberia and Sudan is shared in other conflict zones, the report said.
But Sebastian Merz, associate director of the project that produced the 2012 Human Security Report report, told reporters at a news conference that there is evidence, which is largely overlooked, that the most common perpetrators of sexual violence in wartime are husbands, partners or other family members — not combatants.
While the majority of perpetrators in wartime sexual violence are men and the vast majority of victims are women and girls, he said recent studies have shown that both male victims and female perpetrators may be more numerous than is generally believed, which is almost never mentioned.
The report said there is a minimal amount of data on wartime sexual violence despite the huge increase in international attention in the past two decades.
As a result, it said, “highly misleading assumptions about the scope and intensity of sexual violence in war-affected countries have become widely accepted in the media, in the U.N. and other international agencies, and in the advocacy community.”
The researchers urged the international community to become more serious about collecting and using reliable data on sexual violence in conflicts.
Professor Andrew Mack, the project director, said it’s astonishing that 12 years after the U.N. Security Council passed a landmark resolution calling for increased protection of women and girls during war and prosecution of perpetrators responsible for rape and other crimes against women “the U.N. has no idea of how widespread sexual violence is in today’s wars — nor whether it is increasing or decreasing.”
Merz stressed that the report does not question the important of the issue or suggest that less attention or resources should be devoted to wartime sexual violence which he said “constitutes a very severe assault on human security and poses a grave threat to all those living in conflict-affected areas.”
“But we need a better understanding of the nature and extent of wartime sexual violence,” he said.
Nonetheless, Merz said, even the limited evidence available poses serious challenges to the widely accepted views on the problem.
While there is a huge amount of literature on the intentional use of rape as a weapon of war by governments and rebels to advance military and political goals, the report said, “no evidence has been produced to support assertions that it has increased.”
On the contrary, it said, “some evidence suggests that its incidence is less prevalent than claimed, and that it may have declined in recent years.”
The report cited the Serbian rape campaign in Bosnia in the early 1990s as “perhaps the most notorious recent case” but said overall “the evidence suggests that strategic rape is the exception rather than the rule in most conflicts.”
In Congo, for example, the report said there have been frequent assertions by high-ranking U.N. officials and others that rape is being used as a weapon of war. But it cited a 2010 study by Sweden’s Nordic Africa Institute where government soldiers and officers made clear that sexual violence wasn’t part of any military strategy.
The report said that in Congo “a major part of the reason for the high levels of sexual violence appears to be that the military command system is too dysfunctional, disorganized, fragmented, and corrupt to prevent undisciplined, and often unpaid, troops from indulging in opportunistic looting and rape on a large scale.”
The disproportionate attention on the small number of countries with high levels of sexual violence perpetrated by combatants has created the impression that these extraordinary high levels of rape are characteristic of all war-affected countries, but the report said they are not.
The majority of war-affected countries, with much lower levels of sexual violence, just aren’t discussed, it said.
As for reports that sexual violence is increasing worldwide, the researchers said, “hardly any evidence has been produced to support the claim.”
“However, some of the limited indirect evidence available suggests that the level of combatant-perpetrated sexual violence in war-affected countries has declined worldwide,” it said. “But to the best of our knowledge, no U.N. report or senior official has ever hinted that this is even a possibility.”
The report was funded by the governments of Britain, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland and the UBS Optimus Foundation.