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Sexual violence is an ancient and often unseen war crime. Is it inevitable?

Hanna Barczyk for NPR

The use of sexual violence as a weapon in conflict is as old as the Bible – Deuteronomy 21 states that a victor in battle who "hast a desire" for a "beautiful woman" among the captives can "bring her home to thine house."

And it is as timely as the current conflicts raging around the globe in 2024: In the Middle East, in Ukraine, in Ethiopia, in Haiti and in many other countries.

Yet despite its long history as part of conflicts, sexual violence is often not reported because of the trauma and shame it brings to survivors, their families and their wider communities.

There has also been reticence among various authorities to speak out. Only in modern times, in the 1990s when wars broke out in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, did the United Nations begin to recognize sexual violence as more than just an unfortunate byproduct of conflict but a category of war crime, leading to more prosecutions in international criminal tribunals for each war.

The specific term "conflict-related sexual violence," or CRSV, was first introduced in 2000 when the United Nations Security Council issued a resolution that launched the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.

The U.N. defined the term as "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."

Last week, a U.N. team arrived in Israel to investigate reports of widespread sexual violence during the Hamas led assault on southern Israel on Oct. 7, attacking people in the streets, in their homes and at an outdoor music festival. Some critics have cast doubt on these allegations.

NPR spoke about the issue of conflict-related sexual violence with Cochav Elkayam-Levy, an Israeli human rights lawyer who established and heads the Commission on Oct. 7 Crimes by Hamas Against Women and Children; Dr. Ranit Mishori, senior medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights, and Kathleen Kuehnast, director of women, peace and security at the United States Institute of Peace. Here are the key points they made in their interviews.

Conflict-related sexual violence is widespread and is used as a tactic of war to assert dominance and power.

CRSV is used to terrorize, intimidate and humiliate certain groups or populations.

"We've seen it as a means of displacing populations because of the fear and terror it instills," says Mishori. "We see it used as a way of stigmatizing certain populations in terms of the cultural acceptance of being survivors."

As a tactic meant to control and dominate, it's far from new.

"Sexual violence in conflict zones is very common," says Mishori. "When a new conflict arises, we know we'd better get our toolkit together because we're going to be seeing sexual and gender-based violence."

But that doesn't mean it's inevitable.

Those who study CRSV believe that leadership can either encourage it ... or stop it. Kuehnast points to the work of Elisabeth Jean Wood, a political scientist at Yale University and expert on CRSV. Her research has found that if the leader of a group condemns sexual violence and orders their armed actors not to carry out such crimes, they don't. It didn't matter whether it was an official government group or an outside force, like Sri Lanka's secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But if leaders approve of the use of sexual violence as a weapon or even turn a blind eye to what their troops are doing, that's when it becomes a widespread tactic of war.

"This is an intentional act," says Kuehnast. "It's not accidental. You might shoot somebody by mistake if a gun goes off, but this is not an accidental act. It takes some sort of premeditation."

Women and girls continue to be the majority of CRSV survivors and victims, but men, boys and LGBTQIA+ people are targeted too.

Women and girls are the survivors and victims of CRSV we most often hear about, but others, including men, boys and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, are also targeted.

Men in particular rarely speak out about the crimes committed against them, generally due to the societal stigmas these types of crimes carry for them.

"The level of incidents in wars against men is just beginning to come forward," says Kuehnast. "In many ways, to be a male victim of sexual violence is even more of a taboo than to be a female victim.

"Whether it be in Serbia, Croatia, Uganda, Chad or the DRC, many of the victims are also humiliated both during and after the violence. It's not that women don't have this same humiliation, but men's places in society can be dramatically diminished [following sexual violence]. These are often more traditional societies where gendered norms are defined by a binary — what males can do and what females can do. And so to be a victim of sexual violence, you're considered dead, basically. These are individuals who often keep what happened to them private, even with physical repercussions from the crime."

CRSV is underreported and many survivors don't realize what happened to them is a crime, making it unlikely for them to seek help.

Much of conflict-relate sexual violence is underreported because of the shame, humiliation and trauma that follows. But some CRSV, like forced nudity and forced witnessing, often goes unreported because the people it happened to don't realize it's a crime.

"It can be just as traumatizing to see your daughter, your sister or your parents being raped in front of you," says Mishori. "Or you're forced to strip naked in front of soldiers or in the city square. It's not rape, but it is sexual violence. People often carry this trauma without knowing it's an international crime and minimize what happened to them."

Bringing up this subject it in the media can help spread awareness about what is considered CRSV, the experts say — and in turn provide survivors with the information they need to understand a crime was committed against them.

"[Talking about conflict-related sexual violence] often makes some lightbulbs go off," says Mishori. "'Oh, that's what happened to me. That's CRSV.'

"It can lead people to seek care, to acknowledge what they thought only they had suffered and was nothing because nobody talks about it as a crime. In many cases it can help people with legal processes or seeking justice and accountability. In some situations it can also help people seeking reparations. Discussing it in general and also very specifically can be very reassuring to survivors. It gives a name to what happened to them."

Open discussions can also create pathways for collective healing.

"It's not something you can ignore because, as we see even today, Korea and Japan have a very icy relationship as a result of the "comfort women" the Japanese took during World War II," says Kuehnast. "I think we realize now that these forms of criminal activity last a generation, maybe two generations, but the memory is not forgotten." [These are women in Korea, the Philippines and other places who were forced to engage in sexual relations with soldiers from the invading army.]

But legal processes do not always provide closure. In 2016, the International Criminal Council issued its first conviction for sexual violence, sentencing former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo to 18 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape, during the war his country waged in the Central African Republic. He was acquitted two years later when the ICC ruled that he could not be held responsible for crimes committed by others, including his own fighters.

What happened in Israel happens in other conflict zones

While international organizations are still collecting evidence of the crimes committed in Israel on Oct. 7, what's already been unearthed shows similar patterns to CRSV in other conflict zones.

"What we see in one conflict we see in other conflicts," says Mishori. "The horrifying nature of these acts are not unique to one place or another. We see them in lots of places and lots of conflicts."

The collection of that evidence, Kuehnast notes, is another shared characteristic of CRSV across conflicts.

"A number of the victims' bodies [in Israel] were burned and disintegrated, so the evidence is difficult to collect," says Kuehnast, who cites the ongoing conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia, which started in 2020, as having similar difficulties with lost evidence. "That doesn't diminish what has been assumed to have happened on Oct. 7. It just takes time."

Involving women in conflict resolution and peace building is crucial for success.

For conflict resolution and peace building to be successful, survivors need to be included in the process.

Elkayam-Levy, who drafted the national report on Gender Mainstreaming During Emergencies for Israel's National Security Council following the COVID-19 pandemic, points out that women tend to lack representation in national conflicts. In turn, their needs are not met and there is a lack of understanding of the impacts of crises on women.

When she first heard about the attack on Oct. 7, she knew she wanted to make sure women were part of the response team.

"[I wanted] to make sure that, in the first weeks, women had a role in the emergency teams that were being formed," she says. "I sent a list of more than 50 prominent women in national security to the national security council to make sure women would be, this time, involved in solving this crisis."

For some countries this method has already started to work.

"[In Colombia], they have built women into the peace process," says Kuehnast. "And since the majority of the victims of CRSV are women, it's incredibly important to make sure that women are part of any kind of activities to settle a violent conflict.

"Colombia has been very dedicated. Women are from diverse regions. They have come together to really help bring up a next generation focused on peace versus violence as a way of solving problems. It's not perfect — no peace is perfect — but it is progressive and it is intentional, and that is important. Intentional peace building must be inclusive of survivors of this form of violence."

Jill Langlois is an independent journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. She has been freelancing from the largest city in the western hemisphere since 2010, writing and reporting for publications like National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian and Time. Her work focuses on human rights, the environment and the impact of socioeconomic issues on people's lives.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jill Langlois