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There is still a Choice: Understanding Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

Sexual violence is a “…cheap weapon of war…cheap because it is cost free. Very effective, because it does not only affect the victim, it affects whole families, the communities. It is biological warfare. It is psychological warfare”, declared Pramila Patten, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.1 World leaders echoed her words recently when they commented on claims of rape of Ukrainian women, girls, boys and men by Russian soldiers during the ongoing conflict. Within Ukraine itself, Iryna Venediktora, the Ukraine Prosecutor General declared rape was being used “as a tactic in its [Russian] brutal invasion [of Ukraine].”2 The story is not any different in other parts of the world. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been referred to as the “rape capital of the world”3 because of the untold levels and different forms of sexual violence associated with the intractable conflicts in the east of the country. In Rwanda, rape was widely linked to genocide – labelled a weapon of genocide, and of war for that matter. Similarly, in Middle Eastern countries like Iraq and Syria, rape and forced marriage targeting communities linked to opposing groups (e.g. Yazidis of Syria and Turkey) have also been judged as weapons of war.4 Perpetrators continually reimagine and repurpose sexual violence to target civilians, and to add to a most horrible chapter in human history. For example, in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, a perpetrator did not only rape a child, but went on to video record the act and share it for social media ‘likes’.5 Perpetrators make sure sexual violence continues to be a part of armed conflict across time and space, passed down generations of fighters and non-fighters associated with both state and non-state conflicts, regular military formations and irregular militias, regional armies and UN missions. The perpetrators have almost always been men; the victims are disproportionately women, boys and girls who are either randomly or systematically targeted, with many falling victim to both.

Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) amounts to a serious breach of bodily integrity by another and entails a continuum of harms including, “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage, and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict.”6 Irrespective of the forms in which these acts manifest − whether committed as a random act or systematically engineered − Pramila Patten’s declaration of CRSV transforming wars into biological, psychological warfare underscores the urgent need to find measures that can sustainably prevent the violence and address its legacies.

A weapon of war deployed randomly or systematically may not just target the victim at which the weapon is aimed, but can have implications on communities the victims associate with, leading to lifelong consequences for both the individual (if she/he survives), family and communities. Understanding the patterns of behaviour and the rationale of individuals and groups for targeting civilians with such harm is essential for any attempt to develop policies to stop such abuse.   

One may, for example, ask: why is sexual violence happening during the Ukraine-Russia conflict? Why has it continued to characterize most of the African-based conflicts? Why was it rampant in Europe during WWII? Why do well-trained combatants such as those that go on UN military missions commit sexual violence on populations they are charged with protecting? In other words, why would a combatant take time in the midst of a violent conflict to sexually harm civilians? What could be triggering or encouraging perpetrators?

Documented evidence across conflict zones suggests that acts of sexual violence happen in multiple subcontexts nuanced by different actors and factors at play − including personal and interpersonal factors as well as sociocultural contexts. Evidence further indicates that the violence can be spontaneous or organized, institutionalized or even acceptable within the membership of the offending group.7 There are reports of individuals violated by lone perpetrators and those violated by groups, publicly or privately or both. These subcontexts can be critical in determining agency and in understanding why some individuals engage in perpetrating sexual violence while others may choose not to do so.

In northern Uganda, a woman who was abducted in her early teens in 2004 by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) − a rebel group that operated between 1987 and 2008 in northern Uganda8 − recounted how one ‘sympathetic’ LRA soldier who had witnessed random soldiers take turns to abuse her instead used an opportune moment to help her escape. As the rest of them had done, she explained, the man ordered her to follow him to a nearby bush. However, when she arrived, he told her he would not abuse her, but instead escape with her because he disagreed with what the other men were doing to her. Days later, they arrived in her home district in northern Uganda, and surrendered to government soldiers. “The man never ever touched me, and yet he had all the means to. I had long given up [fighting] after weeks of abuse”, she added. As widely documented, to escape or aid a captive’s escape was a death sentence in the LRA.9 Her rescuer, no doubt, had ‘a code of honour’ as quoted in Christina Lambs book, and risked his life standing by it. By choosing not to harm the girl, he contested long-held ideas of military masculinities, which associate and normalize toughness, violence and conquering as part of war-time behaviour.10 

In the same conflict, another woman, abducted at the age of 13 from her school in 1997 writes in her memoir how she was given as a wife to an elderly LRA commander eventually giving birth to two children.11 These two stories illustrate how CRSV takes place in different subcontexts within a single conflict. One that is spontaneous, and the other systematic or institutionalized. There is the conduct of the individual man in situations where sexual violence is not ordered but tolerated or encouraged by the military command, or where it is committed without the knowledge of the military leadership. Until not long ago, this latter ‘spoils of warʼ and ‘men will be menʼ approach was the dominant understanding of why sexual violence in and after conflict was pervasive almost everywhere; towards the end of the 20th century this thinking, not least due to the changing nature of warfare, was replaced by the 'weapon of war' theories; and in the early 21st century, this was further analysed by taking into account of military masculinities.

Spontaneous or systematic: And, is there a choice?

Many conflicts contain situations where CRSV is not ordered but individuals choose to commit CRSV without the knowledge of the military leadership. In many other cases, perpetrators are tolerated or encouraged by the military command such as happened in the 1990s civil war in Sierra Leone, West Africa.12 In such cases, soldiers are left to their own devices to make choices about ‘right and wrong’. Often victims are seen and treated as spoils of war, left at the discretion of an individual soldier to treat as he (perpetrators disproportionately tend to be males) desires; feeding the old narrative of ‘men will be men’, as seen in the example of the rescued girl above. In most cases, therefore, the violence is taken for granted; it is taken as “an unavoidable consequence of warfare”13, a part of what is to be expected during conflict and a justified ‘reward’ for soldiers’ ‘risks and sacrifices’.14

In nearly all cases related to ‘spontaneous’ violence, actors have the option to choose to do right. As the LRA rescuer above did, an individual soldier can reach into the depth of his personal resources (e.g. spirituality, respect for non-combatants, kindness, sense of fairness, empathy), invoke his conscience to protect the would-be victim and contribute to ending the circle of CRSV, not only by refusing to take part in the violence, but further by influencing other combatants to restrain themselves. An individual soldier’s effort to end CRSV embodies ‘respect for humanity’, which is a constant that can only be regulated by common sense and the ideals that make a good soldier; to make judgement calls about right and wrong, especially in cases where there are no direct orders that are directly linked to the fighting.

In other cases, military commands of conflicting parties have ordered and systematically used rape and other forms of sexual violence on victim communities15 as experienced by the second girl who was abducted and forced to be ‘wife’. Many use CRSV to ‘defeat the enemy’ militarily (as a weapon of war) for example; by raping women and children to demoralize the men, and dominate and exercise power and authority over women, children and civilian communities associated with the opposing fighting groups.16 Perpetrators often commit CRSV in some form of public – where family members may be forced to watch or take part in the actual act of violence on the pain of death.17 Such acts aim at humiliating, not just the victim, but also their kinship groups and local communities as well, aiming at the disintegration of that community. This is the damage Pramila Patten speaks about – the damage done to the extended self; the desecration of both the self and the extended self. 

In contexts where conflicting parties share similar understanding of norms and values the significance of rape and sexual violence to the ‘extended self’ can be huge, and may directly and indirectly bear upon the entire sociocultural fabric of the victim group. We have seen this in the case of the 1995 Rwanda genocide18, Bosnia-Herzegovina19 and in northern Uganda during the war orchestrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that thrived on abduction of thousands of children, women and youth to incorporate and institutionalize rape through forced wife practices during its 20-year conflict (1987-2008).20 In such contexts, the targeting may be underpinned by what the aggressors know about the meanings victim communities associate with the norms, beliefs and practices defining sex and sexuality.

In many respects, therefore the rape bears other ‘non-conventional’ meanings, which the aggressor may exploit. For example, in northern Uganda targeted local ethnic groups generally saw sexual violence as amounting to the “transgression of the moral order”.21 The transgression was believed to contribute to collective trauma and to harm social relationships within families and communities that ordinarily lived in harmony, threatening the reproduction of community. In the northern Uganda case and indeed many other cases with comparable norms and practices across African societies, conflict-related sexual violence meant the aggressor group directly targeted the means by which such groups built and expanded their sense of collectivity.

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) case pushes the discourse further because its leadership institutionalized forced marriage primarily to enforce reproduction in order to create a new ‘Acholi’ (the local ethnic group from which LRA’s leadership hailed). The LRA leadership used abduction to recruit thousands of children and women, and then systematically affiliated the female recruits like Acan (cited above) as ‘wives’. They reasoned that their newborns would be socialized to form the new Acholi. In the words of elders in northern Uganda whose daughters were forced into ‘marriage’ by the LRA, the sexual violence amounted to a “hijack of wombs.”22 Both the LRA, which actually developed its own moral codes to regulate the forced marriage practice, and their former elders in northern Uganda understood the meaning and implication of this ‘hijack of wombs’. The violence amounted to a desecration of one, and a reproduction of the other; to a defeat of one, and a victory for the other. For the elders, the rape of a daughter during the war did not only amount to a ‘military defeat’ on the victim community, but targeted their way of life with varying implications on their economic, cultural, social and political life. Sexual violence can therefore be seen as a weapon of rupturing and disrupting the processes associated with targeted communities. Moreover, there are long-term, even transgenerational physical and psychosocial consequences that victims and their communities continue to bear such as infection with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, fistulas, birth of children and mental illnesses. This, and more, is the extent of damage that weaponized sexual violence could bear upon a victim community.

Of boundaries and discipline

Important to note is that sexual violence remains rampant in post-conflict communities – perpetrated by strangers, intimate partners, fathers, brothers and other people who may be known to victims. In peacetime, it is assumed that established societal norms, values and structures can help to create and regulate boundaries for bodily integrity, and that once caught, perpetrators are liable to be held to account by customary or other legal systems.

Societies at war also operate through a system or rules; there are international laws of war; and many countries, in many conflicts abide by them; there are rules about combatants, non-combatants, prisoners of war (PoWs); how to treat civilians, press, medical and humanitarian actors, etc. Increasingly the laws of war are no longer applied; neither the jus ante bellum (i.e. the laws guiding which wars are permissible self defence; but not the aggressive wars of annexation to alter internationally recognized borders) and the (often humanitarian) jus in bello (law in war which binds the parties to a conflict to international rules that they have signed up to).

But in whatever form, coerced or not, one may ask: do humans have the agency, the choice to not cross the line? To prevent their complicity or involvement in CRSV? At what point would this be possible? On his part, the LRA rescuer honoured himself by creating boundaries and projecting them to protect the abused girl. In other words, he refused to join other fighters in using this girl’s body as a site of contestation for what his supposed manliness entailed – and by aiding her to escape he denied others the opportunity to continue doing that. Men like him demonstrate how CRSV is constantly being contested even within groups associated with CRSV. There are individuals, who will not hesitate to harm civilians, and there are those like the LRA rescuer who will not wish to associate with the vice.

They won’t because to them sexual violence remains a ‘wrong’ irrespective of the spaces in which it is committed. These individuals will not fault mere changes in environment for their own choices. Instead, through their actions they demonstrate that soldiers themselves can (re)define contexts, and that combatants can actually shape the moral character of a conflict, either individually or systemically. Shaping the moral character of a conflict does not begin when a soldier is at the battlefield, and should not be left to chance. It doesn’t have to be merely spontaneous. Rather, it has to be deliberate and a soldier prepared for it in his (or her) formative years, during and after a conflict. Soldiers come from different backgrounds; have different upbringings, and therefore different perceptions about life, and living for that matter. These are issues that can be openly clarified as part of military trainings and mentorship to provide combatants with necessary tools and support networks to make the right choices and adapt to difficult situations during conflict.

To more comprehensively and sustainably address CRSV, local, national and international bodies having the mandates to regulate how warfare is conducted, including authorities directly in-charge of military groups need to enforce certain measures in both peace and wartime. These can include institutionalizing mechanisms for monitoring and reporting cases of CRSV, data collection and analysis on the conduct of soldiers; gender-sensitive and inclusive transitional justice mechanisms, and determined prosecution of perpetrators of CRSV. Moreover, military instruction should consider more stringent trainings of troops (including commanders) about the rights and wrongs.




1 Jewers, Chris (2022): Russian Soldiers are raping Ukranian men and boys as well as women, says UN war crimes investigator. Mailonline, 4 May. (accessed 25 May 2022).

2 Ibid.

3 BBC News (2010): UN official calls DR Congo ‘rape capital of the world.’ 28 April. (accessed 13 June 2022). On CRSV in the DRC, see also: Kristof, Nicholas D., and WuDunn, Sheryl (2009): Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York. 

4 Otten, Cathy (2017): Slaves of Isis: the long walk of the Yazidi Women. The Guardian, 25 July. (accessed 25 May 2022).

5 Varga, John (2002): Russian Soldier ‘raped baby in sick video’ then ‘shared clips of his vile child sex abuse’. Express11 April. (accessed 25 May 2022).

6 Conflict-Related Sexual Violence: Report of the UN Secretary General, 2019.

7 Wood, Elisabeth J. (2014): Conflict-related sexual violence and the policy implications of recent research. In: International Review of the Red Cross. 96 (894), pp. 457-478. https://doi:10.1017/S1816383115000077 (accessed 25 May 2022); Eriksson Baaz, Maria and Stern, Maria (2013): Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War? Perceptions, Prescription, Problems in the Congo and Beyond. London; Kirby, Paul (2013): How is Rape a Weapon of War? Feminist International Relations, Modes of Critical Explanation and the Study of Wartime Sexual Violence. In: European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 797-821.

8 E.g. Carlson, Khristopher and Mazurana, Dyan (2008): Forced Marriage within the Lord’s Resistance Army, Uganda. Tufts University Feinstein International Center, May.

9 Acan, Grace (2018): Not Yet Sunset: A Story of Survival and Perseverance in LRA Captivity. Kampala; Carlson, Khristopher and Mazurana, Dyan (2008).

10 E.g. Eriksson Baaz, Maria and Stern, Maria (2009): Why Do Soldiers Rape? Masculinity, Violence, and Sexuality in the Armed Forces in the Congo (DRC). In: International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 2, pp. 495-518.

11 Acan, Grace (2018).

12 Wood, Elisabeth J. (2014); Eriksson Baaz, Maria and Stern, Maria (2010): The Complexity of Violence: A Critical Analysis of Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Working Paper, The Nordic Africa Institute, Sida, May.

13 ICRC (2016): Q & A: sexual violence in armed conflict. (accessed 25 May 2022).

14 Wood, Elisabeth J. (2014).

15 E.g. Baines, Erin (2014): Forced Marriage as a political project: sexual rules and relations in the LRA. In: Journal of Peace Research 51 (3), pp. 405-417.

16 Card, Claudia (1996): Rape as a Weapon of War. In: Hypatia 11 (4), pp. 5–18. (accessed 25 May 2022); Stop Rape Now: UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict. (accessed 25 May 2022).

17 PLoS Medicine Editors (2009): Rape in war is common, devastating, and too often ignored. In: PLoS medicine, 6 (1), e21. (accessed 25 May 2022).

18 Card, Claudia (1996); Human Rights Watch (1996): Shattered lives: Sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath. (accessed 26 May 2022).

19 See: Notes. In: Heineman, Elizabeth D. (ed.) (2011): Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights. Philadelphia, pp. 257-320. (accessed: 26 May 2022);

20 See: Baines, Erin (2014): Forced Marriage as a Political Project: Sexual Rules and Relations in the Lordʼs Resistance Army. In: Journal of Peace Research 51(3), pp. 405-417. (accessed 11 May 2022); Owiny, Tobbias Jolly (2021): Ongwen appeals conviction. The Monitor, 18 June. (accessed 30 April 2022).

21 See: Liu Institute for Global Issues and the Gulu District NGO Forum. (2007): ‘Abomination’: Local belief systems and International Justice. Field Notes, 5 September.

22 See: Apio, Eunice Otuko (2016): Children born of war in northern Uganda: kinship, marriage, and the politics of post-conflict reintegration in Lango society. Diss. University of Birmingham.



Dr Eunice Otuko Apio is a Ugandan-based anthropologist, novelist and human rights activist. Her interests are on gender, conflict, children born of CRSV and post-conflict societies. Eunice is currently working as a research fellow at the University of Birmingham (UK) with Prof. Janine N. Clark on a five-year comparative study of resilience in people associated with CRSV, funded by the European Research Council (September 2017-August 2022).