The Human Security Report Project (HSR) recently released their 2012 Report. The first chapter on wartime sexual violence makes sweeping conclusions and provocative claims about the nature and rates of sexual violence. The overarching message, and certainly the one picked up by the media is that wartime sexual violence is on the decline. Before taking a closer look at the 5 Myths about sexual violence that HSR seeks to dispel, it is important to put this report in a bit of context.
In case you aren’t familiar with HSR, they have made a name out of making counter-factual hypotheses and offering provocative- if not always accurate- headlines. They revived the ‘war is declining’ headline in 2005- over a decade after most political scientists widely acknowledged that inter-state war was indeed declining (and being replaced with other forms of conflict and political violence). What’s precious about HSR is that their depiction of successful peacekeeping, a global decline in violence, and impending peace in international relations ignores the increase in intra-state violence, political violence, and terrorist activities, as well as research pointing to conflict and violence as the primary influence behind global poverty and evidence that the annual percentage of civilian fatalities perpetrated by non-state actors is on clear, upward trend. Most concerning is that HSR have used the tenuous ‘war decline’ hypothesis as the foundation for numerous other tenuous claims, including that the number of child soldiers has decreased and, now, that sexual violence is decreasing.
In fact, the war decline hypothesis is the absolute only basis upon which HSR lays this claim: “the absolute level of conflict-related sexual violence has decreased…primarily because there has been a global reduction in the number of large-scale armed conflicts. If the number and severity of conflicts decreases, we should—other things being equal—expect a decline in conflict-related sexual violence as well.” Because variables in war are generally pretty constant, comparable, and predictable right?
So let’s consider the misleading “mainstream narratives” and “key myths” about sexual violence according to HSR:
Myth #1: Conflicts with Extreme Sexual Violence are the Exception Rather than the Rule. HSR’s main point here is that there has been undue attention to ‘exceptional cases’ and not enough focus on the conflicts that don’t feature mass sexual violence.
The trouble here is that HSR identify the conflicts in Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Bosnia all as exceptional cases. That seems like a lot of exceptions in a world with decreasing conflicts. Let’s look at a few recent conflicts and see what the sexual violence situation is for a comparison:
The current war in Syria: News sources from CNN to local reports in Lebanon have reported that the Assad regime is using rape as a weapon of war and as a form of torture.
The ongoing violence in Somalia: Jezebel recently featured a report on the ‘soaring’ sexual violence here. The New York Times also noted that members of the Shabab militant group have been using forced marriage as a means to pay fighters (read rape as currency of militants).
Libya‘s civil war: The use of sexual violence as a tool of war was given international attention when Iman al-Obeidi, a Libyan law student, told journalists in Tripoli that she had been kidnapped and gang-raped by national soldiers. Later, Human Rights Watch confirmed cases of Gaddafi soldiers using rape to punish family members of rebels.
Iraq: In this war there we have cases of rape within the US forces as well as an increase in rape domestically. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, 30% of US military women are raped and 71% sexually assaulted, and 90% sexually harassed while serving in Iraq. In addition, journalist Anna Badkhen reported that rapes within Iraq began to “increase immediately after the fall of Hussein’s regime” and that there was “evidence that different factions were targeting women.”
So are these simply more exceptions? To what? I dare you to try to list 5 conflicts in the last 20 years that haven’t featured sexual violence. Does it need to be genocidal to matter?
Elisabeth Wood has conducted extensive research examining why some wars feature sexual violence and some don’t and though she does note that some conflicts- like the Palestinian-Israeli wars- have not featured mass rapes. One of her most significant conclusions is that we simply need to do more research in this area. We don’t know that Sierra Leone is the exception and we don’t fully understand why some conflicts (many would argue the minority) do not feature sexual violence.
Myth #2: Claims that Sexual Violence in Wartime is Increasing are Not Based on Evidence
I’m not sure HSR and I disagree here. What I don’t agree with is the idea that advocates are focused on whether rape is increasing or decreasing. Advocates are so busy trying to get ANY data on wartime sexual violence and its impacts that questions of incline and decline don’t matter, and are impossible to corroborate. What we do know is that sexual violence happens in almost every conflict and that there is not enough attention or resources dedicated to this issue. HSR’s report has induced multiple headlines that sexual violence is on the decline. This takes pressure off governments to dedicate resources to sexual violence in war at a time when we have just barely begun to gain positive momentum related to the issue (it has just started to gain attention within international law as a war crime).
Myth #3: Strategic Rape is Less Common than Claimed
This is interesting because we don’t know how common strategic rape was and, again, HSR has NO DATA to support their argument that strategic rape is declining. This is just another random claim they’ve based on their war decline hypothesis. Most extensive research on this topic shows that wartime rape is almost always strategic and rarely random. Chris Coulter’s anthropological analysis in Sierra Leone found that rape was used as a currency in war. My own work reiterated that rape was almost always used strategically by rebel forces. Painting rape as random is another means to detach it from politics. Random rape is viewed as a side-effect of war that is difficult to prevent. Further research on HOW rape is used strategically- not whether the strategy is increasing or declining- is needed in order to create effective measures to prevent it.
Myth #4: The Most Prevalent Form of Sexual Violence in Wartime is Ignored
Finally HSR we agree on something. Except that nothing is new here. IR scholars and the media have largely ignored the prevalence of domestic violence before, during, and after war. I don’t see the value in separating husband-wife rape from soldier-citizen rape. Both indicate an oppressive, unsafe environment and both deserve attention. Myth #5: We are Ignoring Male Victims of Sexual Violence
Another good point by HSR but most of us who do research in the area never believed women were the only victims. Thankfully they actually cite Maria Stern and Maria Batz, who are among the excellent scholars examining male victims of sexual violence.
HSR begins their report by chiding advocates and those who do research on sexual violence for drumming up unsubstantiated catchy headlines on sexual violence. This is both ironic and insulting. Insulting because it assumes that those who work on sexual violence- like me- those who have sat in a room of women, where over 75% of the women have experienced rape- as I have- listening to story after story of rape, forced marriage, and raising children born as a result of rape, it assumes that we are thinking about what would make the best headline, not what are the facts, and not what would help the survivors of sexual violence. This is ironic because those at HSR wrote a report that has garnered headlines, yet contains not a shred of data- I repeat no evidence- to indicate that sexual violence is declining. Next time you want to drum up some media attention, go to a warzone, hang out with men and women who have been hospitalized after rape, men who are traumatized from being forced to rape during their service, and hold children born as a result of rape. See if you still feel like hypothesizing about rape myths and inspiring decline headlines.