Sexual violence accompanies warfare and armed conflict at almost every point in history. Yet it appears in historically and culturally specific ways.

Sexual violence is a form of violence that is highly subjective (experienced as something distinctly different by perpetrator and victim) and at the same time social – informed by gendered ideas of body and mind, cultural norms of sexuality and aggression as well as the forms of military organization and national politics within a particular period of history.

Much work on sexual violence in armed conflict has been published during the past years, yet we still know remarkably little about it:

  • How can we grasp the complexity of the phenomenon?
  • To which extent is sexual violence in armed conflict informed by gendered scripts at work in pre-war-societies?
  • How is this form of violence tied to other forms of wartime violence?
  • Which meanings can sexual violence acquire in the field of military strategy and tactics?
  • How do different actors—perpetrators, victims, bystanders, confidants—talk or remain (eloquently) silent about sexual violence?
  • How can we uncover different constellations and understand the dynamics that develop between perpetrators and victims? Does the capacity for action, the capacity to affect and/or to be affected, vary in specific constellations?
  • How do post-war societies deal with sexual violence, the victims and the perpetrators?

The International Research Group »Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict« (SVAC), founded in October 2010, addresses these and other questions. In a series of meetings and workshops interdisciplinary scholars and NGO-experts compare case studies from different theaters of war and conflict, including multifaceted theoretical approaches. The group thus promotes the systematic development of research questions and methods.

 

Sexual violence in armed conflicts became a public issue in the 1970s, particularly as a result of with discussions within women' s groups, who scandalized sexualized violence perpetrated by men against women in wartime as well as in times of peace. The war in former Yugoslavia and the genocide and war in Rwanda and neighboring states then sparked wider public interest. Acts of sexual violence perpetrated in these conflict regions against women—and sometimes men—posed questions about the relationships between sexuality, violence, and gender, which have since been addressed.

With the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, sexual violence was explicitly established as a crime against humanity, a war crime, or an act of genocide, depending on the specific circumstances of each case. This was a decisive development because it recognized sexual violence in armed conflicts as such and reflected a more appropriate understanding of the complex manifestations and circumstances of these crimes.

Recent empirical work indicates that sexual violence is a phenomenon that is not only prevalent and pervasive in times of armed conflict, but also polymorphic and heterogeneous. Acts of sexual violence can appear in various forms, including enforced disrobement, sexual torture, rape, sexual enslavement, forced prostitution or enforced pregnancy. The extent as well as the intensity, in which sexual violence is perpetrated, can vary. In some conflicts sexual violence is a widespread phenomenon, in others the rape-ratio appears to be remarkably low. War time sexual violence can furthermore carry different functions, for instance during actions of ethnic or political cleansing, collective punishment or as opportunistic acts of individual perpetrators. And while sexual violence during armed conflict is mostly directed against women and girls, men and boys can also become victims. A variety of cases furthermore document that sometimes women have incited or perpetrated acts of sexual violence.

These findings demonstrate just how untenable the notion is that sexual aggression constitutes a more or less unavoidable collateral effect of war or a (rare) transgression of accepted limits to wartime violence. They also point to further issues for research, among them the role of the military as an institution in comparison to other »total institutions«; the behavior of individual (male and female) actors in conflict situations shaped by specific cultural and historical contexts: the way in which acts of violence are addressed in civil society (in the media, in the politics of memory, in attributions pertaining to victims and perpetrators); and in national and international jurisprudence.

The emerging body of work on these and other issues indicates that a wide range of motives, military rationales, and dynamic processes appear to influence the occurrence of sexual violence. International and interdisciplinary exchange is vital if we are to further our understanding of the phenomenon.

SVAC is a collaborative research effort that aims to bring together empirical and theoretical studies focusing on sexual violence in different theaters of armed conflict. A series of workshops and conferences with representatives from a variety of disciplines is being planned. Historians, legal scholars, sociologists, philosophers, psychologists, experts in cultural studies, and human rights activists will develop common research questions and a framework for comparison, present and discuss their work, and explore opportunities for cooperation.