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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: July 2010

13 - Sexual violence during war: toward an understanding of variation


While sexual violence occurs in all wars, its extent varies dramatically. During the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the sexual abuse of Bosnian Muslim women by Bosnian Serb forces was so systematic and widespread that it comprised a crime against humanity under international law. In Rwanda, the widespread rape of Tutsi women comprised a form of genocide, according to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Yet sexual violence in some conflicts is remarkably limited despite other violence against civilians. Even in some cases of ethnic conflict, sexual violence is limited; the conflicts in Israel/Palestine and Sri Lanka are examples. Some armed groups, such as the Salvadoran and Sri Lankan insurgencies, appear to effectively prohibit their combatants engaging in sexual violence against civilians.

The form of sexual violence varies as well. In some conflicts, it takes the form of sexual slavery; in others, state agents engage in sexualized torture of persons suspected of collaborating with insurgents; in others, combatants target women of particular groups during ethnic or political cleansing; in still others, individuals engage in it opportunistically; and in some conflicts, all or nearly all forms occur. In some wars, women belonging to particular groups are targeted; in others, the attacks are much less discriminate. In some wars, only females are targeted; in others, males are as well. Some acts of wartime sexual violence are committed by individuals; many are committed by groups. Some acts occur in private settings; many are public, in front of family or community members.

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