Being Honest About Sexual Violence in War, and Everywhere Else

By Gary Barker and Henny Slegh

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post.

In June, the UK government will organize the largest ever event on rape in war. Ending sexual violence in war has become a major global cause, for the UK government, other European governments and the US government, the UN and the Nobel Women’s Initiative, to name a few, and joined by the voices of women and men, and activists globally.

The cause is obvious, urgent and necessary. Still, we’re left with a haunting quote. A woman we interviewed in a refugee camp in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of a multi-country study told us this: “I cannot refuse to have sex, or he (my husband) will force me.” She was worried about combatants and their use of rape, which was an ongoing reality in eastern DRC. But the more immediate danger was in bed next to her. And her worry is shared by millions of women worldwide, in conflict settings and elsewhere.

Rape in war, as we know, is as old as war itself. It happens before, during and after most conflicts. In some countries it is a tactic ordered by commanders; in others it is carried out by individual soldiers or combatants as part of the unofficial spoils of war. It happens more frequently against women and girls, but also against boys and men. The list of the kinds and consequences of rape in war is tragic and the devastation unquestionable.

But in the midst of sexual violence in the twenty-some countries in the world in conflict or recovering from conflict, we often miss a larger truth. For all the sexual violence that happens in conflicts carried out by combatants or soldiers, it happens even more often in the world’s bedrooms or homes — in peace and in war — by men who are known. Everywhere data has been gathered, forced sex with women and girls is more common in the home than it is in the streets, whether in war or otherwise. There are often major differences, of course, between the brutality of much of the rape that happens during war, and forcing a partner to have sex. But the underlying and chronic violation of women’s rights and systematic lack of women’s autonomy over their bodies are the same.

A recent survey that Promundo and Sonke Gender Justice carried out with 1500 women and men in eastern DRC (as part of the multi-country study IMAGES) found that 27 percent of women were forced to have sex or were raped as part of the conflict by a combatant or another stranger. Nearly twice that number — more than 50 percent — reported being forced to have sex by their husband or male partner. We must keep this in mind: after conflict ends, some forms of sexual violence will end with it, but we won’t end sexual violence overall unless we get to the root causes.

In recent multi-country studies, we have seen the extent of men’s use of sexual violence against women, both in conflict and non-conflict settings. A six-country study in Asia (P4P/UN) found that one in four men have raped, most of that against a female partner. Overall, the P4P study found that 11 percent of men had carried out rape against a stranger versus 24 percent of men who had forced a wife or partner to have sex. The IMAGES study, of which the DRC study was part, gathered data from 10 countries and found that between 4 percent and 26 percent of men reported having used any kind of sexual violence against a partner or other woman or girl, the vast majority of that against wives, girlfriends or intimate partners.

Men must be held accountable for the violence they carry out against women and girls, and other men and boys. At the same time, if we want to prevent rape before it happens, we need to understand which men use sexual violence and why. Data from these two studies and others, both in conflict and non-conflict settings, find a consistent set of factors. Men who themselves have been abused sexually are more likely to rape or force their partners to have sex. Men who rape or force their wives to have sex consistently have a sense of entitlement over women’s bodies. They have often witnessed or experienced at least one form of violence in their homes as children.

They often report economic stress and many drink heavily. Men who rape or force partners to have sex generally also have grown up believing in highly inequitable ideas of what it means to be men. The overall conclusion we derive: men who rape are generally damaged and traumatized men, and are socialized into inequitable views about what it means to be men. In our DRC study, more than a third of men and women reported experiences of sexual violence from a teacher, classmate or someone in their home or community (apart from the conflict) when they were children. And one in 10 men had either been raped in the conflict or forced to watch a rape.

Again, this is not just during war. Nearly everywhere we have studied the issue, men’s lives are full of violence. Looking across more than 10 countries where we have carried out research, up to 85 percent of men experienced psychological violence growing up, up to 67 percent have experienced physical violence in the home, up to 79 percent have experienced bullying, up to 45 percent have witnessed violence against their mothers and up to a third have experienced some form of sexual violence from an adult or a peer. Taken together, approximately two-thirds of more than 12,000 men experienced or witnessed some kind of significant violence growing up.

It is overly facile to say that violence begets violence; many men experience violence and do not repeat it. Furthermore, men’s experiences of violence do not relieve them of responsibility for their actions. We must hold accountable individual men who use sexual violence, just as we must hold accountable those who allow sexual violence to happen in institutions they run, be that the military, schools, religious institutions, the workplace and other spaces. At the same time, we must also understand that men who use violence are often damaged men with harmful childhoods, just as we recognize all that must be done to hold perpetrators of violence, in all its forms, accountable.

What does it take to break this cycle of sexual violence? In peacetime and wartime, the responses are similar. In the first place, women and men survivors of violence need services where they are assisted and their needs and reports of violence are taken seriously. Healing their wounds is the first and most important step to break cycles of violence. The next step is accountability — systems, social networks, legal systems — to hold men responsible for their actions and to take women’s (and girl’s and boys’ and men’s) accounts of rape seriously and investigate them.

On the prevention side, ending sexual violence requires investing in training in non-violent parenting, for both mothers and fathers. We need educational programs for young people and adults in schools, communities, workplaces and militaries. This means taking on rape myths and having open discussions about what consent means. It means full empowerment for women and girls. It also means empowering boys and men who don’t believe in violence to speak up. Ending violence also entails psychosocial support for boys and girls who witness or otherwise experience violence at home and in schools. And given the linkages to economic stress as a driver of some men’s use of violence, and women’s recovery from it, it means providing for the basic life conditions — housing, sanitation, community safety, and employment opportunities.

The laser-narrow focus on rape in war, as laudatory as it is, often misses this big picture. We risk ignoring the sexual violence that happens long before and well after war. And we too often reduce women in places like DRC and Bosnia to being rape survivors or victims, while their other multiple needs for health, employment, and political participation are forgotten. And we too often focus on combatants and not the much more frequent violence that happens in the home.

If we truly want to end sexual violence, we must affirm this: sexual violence too often flourishes in conflict and is carried out by combatants, but it neither begins nor ends there. The woman we interviewed in DRC told us a truth that holds in conflict and peacetime settings: sexual violence is among us. It’s not restricted to combatants or to war. If we as a world care about truly ending sexual violence — and not just giving lip service — we must take seriously these root causes. The women we work with in DRC, and all the world’s men and women, are waiting.


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