Armed Conflict and Sexual Violence: A Look at Victims and Perpetrators

Maria Concepcion Badiola

Women are said to be more vulnerable and therefore are more likely to suffer sexual violence. For that reason, the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols specifically safeguards the rights and safety of them and this measure constitutes a positive way to protect those rights and avoid the perpetration of sexual crimes. However, and despite the legislation is clear on prohibiting sexual violence, a big problem related is the misconception on gender roles as well as the male protection within the law.

Wars involve a climate of violence, aggression, chaos, and large percentage of those participating in armed conflict are men, and as the images of virility are aggressiveness, control, and domination is associated to men, they feel inclined to show that they own those attributes. Indeed, the attack of the female body demonstrates a territorial invasion whilst, at the same time, it is humiliating, not only on the part of the women being attacked, but also on the men and the community as the attack incarnates the defeat of the male figure and the community at large.

The main problem is the failure of the state to give more value to women by taking the issue seriously and achieve better investigating procedures in the prosecution and in the prevention. Moreover, and has been true that states are sending an unmistakably bad message to the community by allowing inequality in protection and investigation, this lack of implication will be reflected in the implementation of international rules that sometimes can collide with the domestic legislation. For instance, the Congolese Family Code[1] recognizes the husband as the head of the household, and therefore the wife is relegated to the attention of the requirements of the husband. This national law reflects the lack of commitment of the state to understand both genders as equal. Moreover, this situation undoubtedly generates a reflection into the international scope, and the law value that some cultures and religions attribute to women. Therefore, a strong effort must be made at national level by creating better legislative protection in the laws to raise awareness of the equality of males and females.

On the other hand, and breaking away from the common thought of men as perpetrators of sexual violence and women as victims of such behaviours, it must be thought that women can be also the perpetrators of sexual violence and males as victims.

Whilst there is much more information related to women, the cases of male rape are not isolated, and research shows that around the 15, 2 % of people that had suffered rape are men.[2]

International organizations, governments, and the media have the power to publicise cases of rape against women and men to create awareness and thus to improve the investigations on how to prevent those criminal behaviours. However, it seems that this power is not exercised as it should. For example, despite the fact that 4,076 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) study sexual violence, only 3% of them address the topic of male as victims of such behaviour. In addition, in 2006 at a Wilton Park conference gathering governmental representatives and force commanders of peacekeeping missions to discuss ways to prevent sexual violence in armed conflict, the focus was still put on women as victims, despite the fact that it had been highlighted that men and children are also victims of sexual offences.

This silence has been widespread throughout history. For example, during the conflict in Yugoslavia there was little information on sexual assault upon men, and this was mainly since the media did not report it. While pictures of women being sexually abused filled the front pages of the international newspapers, men were denied such type of publicity. Indeed, just six articles about sexual violence upon men were published by the main Croatian newspaper during the Yugoslavia conflict.[3] What this shows is that the social impact of females is stronger than that of the males and the immediate consequence is the vulnerability of men regarding regulations.

Moreover, one of the big obstacles on the progress of sexual violence prevention is the lack of information on the understanding of men as victims rather than the perpetrator of a sexual attack. This can be due to a cultural problem, for example with the punishment of the homosexuality in many states with the death penalty, such as the Islamic Penal Code of Iran, on its articles 108 and 135. This is because when sexual violence against men is judged, and given the common role in all the societies of males as brave and strong, some cultures condemn the males on the grounds of homosexuality, rather than as a victim of rape.

A lack of information, not only in the media, but also in other professional spheres like, for example, the medical personnel, also presents another problem. They should be more prepared to identify the symptoms of a sexual violation, however, when the victim is a man, it seems that that recognition is not that straightforward. This an observer reporter[4] in 2011 noted in an article christened ‘The Rape of men’ that of all secrets of war, there is one that is so well kept that it exists often as a rumour. Neither the perpetrator nor the victim often accepts it exists but courageously someone keeps making it public. Those situations create by consonance a misunderstanding of the issue and therefore a lack of protection and prevention.

[1] Law 87-010 on the Family Code of Decomcratic Republic of Congo, Article 444

[2] Lara Stemple, ‘Male Rape and Human Rights’ [2009] 60 Hastings Law Journal 605, 606.

[3] Dubravka Zarkov, ‘The Body of the Other Man: Sexual Violence and the Construction of Masculinity, Sexuality and Ethnicity in Croatian Media’ in Caroline Moser and Fiona Clark, Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? Gender, Armed Conflict, and Political Violence (Zed Books, 2001) 71.

[4] Will Storr, ‘The rape of men: the darkest secret of war’ (The Guardian 2011) <> accessed 20 January 2017.