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Can Sexual Violence in Conflict be Prevented?

Congolese counselor and rape victim in the HEAL Africa hospital in Goma, DRC. (File photo).

Challenging convention wisdoms about sexual violence in conflict is critical to understanding how we can prevent it.

Sexual violence, including rape, is often used by armed actors as a tactic of war, intentionally terrorizing and brutalizing men, women, and entire communities.

Many efforts focus on survivors and their communities by helping survivors access services and rebuild their lives, as well as bringing perpetrators to justice.

These are important issues to address, which is why the United States government has launched two initiatives: the Safe From the Start initiative, which aims to transform the way the humanitarian system addresses gender-based violence from the outset of a crisis; and the Accountability Initiative, a project to enhance prevention, bring justice to survivors and strengthen justice systems in post-conflict countries.

These and many other projects demonstrate how the international community is working to prevent sexual violence in humanitarian crises and to support justice after damage has been done. But is it possible to prevent sexual violence as a tactic of war in the first place?

Sexual violence can be used strategically in conflict or in crises to achieve specific ends, said Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Catherine Russell at a recent event on this issue. When this happens, it’s “a specific type of violence that’s used to punish and terrorize a population or to destroy communities by tearing the fabric that holds them together and trying to strip away their identity.”

So what can be done to prevent this scourge? Challenging convention wisdoms about sexual violence in conflict is critical to understanding how we can prevent it.

First, said Ambassador Russell, we must reject the assumption that the strategic use of sexual violence by armed groups is inevitable. Emerging research shows a variation of sexual violence used in wartime, suggesting that the motives and drivers of this violence in different contexts are distinct.

Second, we must realize that sexual violence victimizes not just women and girls, but also the elderly, boys, men, and detainees.

Third, data on gender can help predict conflict in the first place; places with high rates of gender inequality are more likely to experience conflict.

And we must come to the realization that this crime occurs everywhere in the world.

“By challenging our assumptions, and by broadening the conversation, we can have a better understanding of the conditions on the ground before conflict starts,” said Ambassador Russell.

And perhaps then we can begin to find ways to prevent sexual violence as a tactic in conflict.