These Are the States and Armed Groups That Use Rape as a Weapon
The world's wars are contributing to an epidemic of sexual violence
In May 2017, the office of the U.N. Secretary General presented its annual report on conflict-related sexual violence. The report identifies 38 armed groups and eight government security forces in 19 countries the United Nations has documented as perpetrating systematic rape, sexual assault and coercion as part of their military activities.
War zones invariably have large numbers of young men with guns co-existing with a general absence of the rule of law. While it may seem predictable that civilians would be at high risk of sexual assault in such an environment, wartime rape is not always the act of lawless individuals but a deliberate tactic employed by armed groups.
The “strategic” nature of these barbarous acts is evident in the “selective targeting of victims from opposing ethnic, religious or political groups, mirroring the fault lines of the wider conflict or crisis,” the report stated. Sexual violence reported includes not only rape and sexual assault, but forced marriage, sex slavery, forced prostitution, and forced pregnancy or sterilization.
The report’s authors are quick to concede that statistics on verified sexual assaults likely represent only a fraction of the total number taking place, due to the limited resources available to document them and the reluctance of sexual assault survivors to report their experiences.
Nonetheless, the United Nations report offers a vital look at inhumane acts occurring in wars throughout the world. However, it focuses on weak or pariah states and non-state actors, while failing to investigate sexual violence perpetrated by stronger national governments.
War Is Boring has taken a look at who’s on the list for which reasons. Readers should be advised that the U.N. report and this article includes disturbing personal accounts of war atrocities.
Why do these monsters do it?
Armed groups may perceive forced sex to be a “a reward, an entitlement, a form of group bonding.” For some socially isolated rebel groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army or Boko Haram, forced marriage may serve as a means of acquiring a “wife.”
Groups such as Islamic State even profit from a sex-slave economy trafficking in the bodies of women and girls. Rape and forced unions may serve as means to attract recruits with the promise of sexual conquest. Armed groups may even use rape to recruit victims into their ranks by making it hard for survivors to return to traditional societies that perceive them as tainted by their experience.
Feelings of shame resulting from rape appears to have been used to recruit female suicide bombers in places such as Chechnya, Iraq and Nigeria. In 2009, Samira Jassem claimed she had organized the rape of 80 Iraqi women to manipulate them into performing suicide bombings.
Mass rapes are also used as a terror tactic to punish individuals or even entire communities perceived as opposing an armed group—thereby serving as examples to scare others into submission or avoiding confrontation.
Sexual abuse and rape are frequently used as a form of torture, or as means of extracting confessions. The victims may include female relatives of suspected opponent, or the combatants themselves. One famous example is T.E. Lawrence, who was raped in Turkish captivity during World War I.
In fact, almost any group that uses torture as an interrogation method is likely to slide into sexualized forms of torture.
Some appalling ideologies hold acts of rape as a genocidal means of eradicating an ethnic group by forcing women to give birth to children of mixed parentage, or by infecting victims with sexually transmitted diseases. Rape may also be perceived as affirming socially repressive ideologies that hold that girls, women and gay men need to be “punished” or “put in their place” if they do not adhere to traditional social roles.
One terrible aspect of weaponized rape is the lasting harm it inflicts on survivors. Not only might they suffer long-lasting physical and mental trauma, but sexual assault victims often become isolated from their own communities.
In short, victims of wartime sexual assault in may either be burdened by keeping their ordeal a secret—or face the cruel judgment of their community if their suffering becomes public knowledge.
Sexual violence in the modern age
It’s tempting to think of mass rape as being largely confined to the days of Genghis Khan—or perhaps the world’s poorest, most isolated corners. This is incorrect. Organized sexual violence has showed up again and again in the major conflicts of the 20th century. Generally, the perpetrators have gone unpunished.
During World War I, Turkish soldiers raped hundreds of thousands of Armenian women as part of a genocidal campaign. In World War II, German soldiers branded and raped Eastern European partisans before executing them, and at times staged mass rapes in public squares as a terror tactic. When Soviet troops rolled into Nazi Germany in 1945, they are estimated to have sexually assaulted at least 100,000 German women in Berlin alone by more conservative estimates.
In 1968, a company of U.S. soldiers gang raped Vietnamese women in the hamlet of My Lai before murdering them and their families. Despite multiple eyewitnesses and photographic evidence, only the commander of the unit was convicted of war crimes. He was pardoned by Pres. Richard Nixon.
In 1971 in Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, Pakistani soldiers raped tens of thousands of Bengalis, whom religious leaders stated could be claimed as “war booty.” When Bengalis staged a successful revolt with support from India, Bengali resistance fighters raped Biharis, who had sided with the Pakistani army.
During the civil war dividing the former state of Yugoslavia, Bosnian Serb paramilitaries imprisoned Croatian and Bosnian Muslim women in “rape camps”, torturing and repeatedly raping at least 20,000, according to the United Nations.
This list is far from comprehensive—and these sort of crimes continue into the 21st century.
A terrible new trend the U.N. report notes is the rise of multi-national terrorist groups that openly espouses rape, sex slavery and forced trafficking of religious and ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, women are frequently subject to assault by government forces at checkpoints or during housing searches in anti-terrorist operations.
A demonstration in Turkey raising awareness of the attempted Islamic State genocide of the Yezidi people. Photo via Wikimedia
The United Nations reports “sexual violence on a horrific scale” in Iraq, particularly in Mosul, Sinjar, Tal Afar and the Nineveh plains. The victims are chiefly women and girls of ethnic and religious minorities—particularly Yazidis—who have been abducted and made to serve as sex slaves by Islamic State.
These women and girls are sold and traded as commodities to attract further recruits—including from the West. Though 971 Yazidi females have been freed since 2014, the United Nations estimates nearly 1,900 are still enslaved.
A Human Rights Watch report describes the cruelty of the slave trade.
A 14-year-old girl who escaped in August, a year after ISIS fighters abducted her from her village and took her to Mosul, said she was held initially by a senior ISIS member named Abu Harid. But he was killed, and she was transferred to a man named Abu Saad, who then sold her to a man named Abu Umar al-Shishani, who later sold her to a man named Abu Abdallah. All four men raped her, she said. Abu Harid beat her with a piece of wood, and when she asked where her parents were, told her that he had cut them to pieces and fed their bodies to dogs … She described being kept in a locked room for months and “never seeing the sun.”
As Islamic State loses its remaining grip over Iraq, many of the enslaved women and girls have been transported to the group’s “capital” of Raqqa in Syria.
Curiously, the U.N. report does not investigate the possibility of sexual violence perpetrated by Iraqi government forces or allied militias. Certainly, reporting by embedded journalists made it clear that Iraqi military units routinely torture detainees. Iraqi soldiers even shared photographs of their torture victims, apparently oblivious that doing so would not be perceived favorably in the outside world.
On May 22, 2017, embedded Kurdish journalist Ali Arkady published an article in Der Spiegel in which he describes how troops in a unit of the Iraqi Emergency Response Division systematically targeted Iraqi Sunnis for detention, torture and murder. He describes one Sunni man being raped and murdered, and photographed a woman just after she may have been sexually assaulted by an ERD soldier.
The Syrian government, Islamic State and other Syrian rebels groups are all guilty of systematic use of sexual violence both as a terror tactic targeting opposing ethnic groups, and as method for interrogating both male and female detainees.
Government soldiers and rebel fighters frequently assault women and girls during house searches and at checkpoints or border crossings. One terror tactics involves raping the females in a household in front of their male family members.
Men, boys and women are frequently sexually tortured and raped in Syrian government detention facilities. Because Syrian government forces operate more detention facilities, some studies implicate its forces in the majority of assaults. Islamic State has systematically targeted Syrian Kurds for sexual assault, and its capital of Raqqa serves as a hub for forced sex trafficking.
Because of the prevailing conservatism in Syrian society, parents or husbands of sexual assault survivors are often rejected and cast out from their communities if they are exposed. Many join the nearly five million Syrians who have fled the war-torn country.
Contrary to the popular belief in the West, the majority of Syrian refugees reside in countries neighboring Syria, where they are frequently exploited by sex traffickers. Many families desperate for food have forced young girls and women into marriages or prostitution.
According to the United Nations, “not a single sexual violence crime committed by parties to the conflict has been prosecuted, either in Syria or abroad.”
Islamic State fighters in Sirte, Libya in a 2015 propaganda image. The terror group was expelled from the city in 2016.
Since 2014, Libya has been caught in a civil war pitting the Islamist-leaning GNA government based in Tripoli and the Libyan National Army faction led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar—with numerous third parties contributing to the chaos and misery.
Islamic State’s particular brand of sadism and cruelty was observed in its former enclave in the city of Sirte, where it has targeted migrants of African descent for sexual assault and slavery. GNA forces supported by U.S. air strikes kicked Islamic State out of Sirte by the end of 2016. However, many of the rescued women have since been crowded into the Jawiya prison in Misrata, where they have little or no access to medical treatment.
Other factions in Libya’s civil war appear to be perpetrators of sexual violence. A video recovered from the cell phone of the commander of the Al Awashir Brigade, an Islamist militia loosely associated with the GNA, shows his troops gang raping a pleading woman in front of her daughters.
A destroyed home south of Sanaa, Yemen. Ibrahem Qasim photo via Wikimedia
Yemen has been torn apart by a civil war chiefly pitting local Houthi rebels against a flailing Saudi Arabian-led coalition recently promised additional U.S.-made weapons. The U.N. report notes that civilians in Yemen are subject to widespread forced marriage and forced prostitution. This is due to civil war displacing women from their communities and male family members, making them easier to exploit and harm.
However, the United Nations did not have staff present to document any incidents and has declined to name any armed groups as perpetrators. It’s worth noting the United Nations recently backed away from allegations it made that Saudi forces in Yemen were one of the chief killers of children in the conflict, possibly due to Saudi participation on the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Thus, it seems possible that internal political pressure may be preventing a more thorough U.N. investigation of sexual violence in Yemen.
African-populated South Sudan won its independence from Arab-ruled Sudan in 2011. Just two years later, a civil war broke out between forces loyal to Pres. Salva Kiir and Vice Pres. Riek Machar, who represent the new state’s two largest tribes—the Dinka and the Nuer, respectively.
Troops from both sides have sought to terrorize the communities of opposing ethnic groups with mass rapes. Camps housing the more than two million South Sudanese citizens displaced from their homes are a common target. Often, local soldiers assigned to protect the camps were perpetrators of the attacks.
The U.N. report documented 577 cases of sexual violence in South Sudan during 2016, around 10 percent of which involved girls or even babies. Women and girls are frequently targeted while out gathering wood or foraging for food. Rape has been used to punish female relatives of suspected enemy combatants.
The United Nations has attempted to mitigate the problem by establishing weapons-free zones and early warning systems around the camps, exchanging military guards for police forces, and distributing rape kits to survivors.
However, the scale of the assaults appears to have increased in 2016.
U.N. forces assigned to protect refugees have suffered repeated setbacks. In one incident, soldiers of the Dinka-associated Sudanese People’s Liberation Army raped 28 Nuer women and girls at a checkpoint by a refugee camp just two kilometers away from a U.N. facility. Subsequently, a Nuer-occupied radio station transmitted a message calling for revenge rapes of Dinka women.
On Aug. 23, 2016, soldiers gang raped five foreign aid workers in the Terrain hotel in the South Sudanese capital of Juba and murdered a local journalist hiding with them. U.N. peacekeeping troops stationed a short distance away failed to respond to repeated calls for help.
A camp for Darfuri refugees in Chad. Photo via Wikimedia
In Eastern Sudan, the violence from the long-running conflict between the Arab Sudanese government and African Darfur separatists grinds on into its 13th year. This war has long been characterized by genocidal attacks by Janjaweed Arab militias targeting Africans with both lethal force and sexual assault.
The joint African Union/United Nations mission in Darfur documented more than 222 victims, the majority of whom were internally displaced African girls. This number is believed to be heavily under-reported. Government-backed Arab militias perpetrated 75 percent of the incidents. Sudan security forces committed the next 20 percent.
These crimes are committed in a “climate of impunity” in which the authorities intimidate rape survivors that make legal complaints and shield perpetrators from repercussions—of 63 cases reported to authorities in 2016, only two led to convictions.
The fledgling Somali government is involved in a protracted struggle with the Al Shabab extremist movement. Unfortunately, the U.N. report implicated government forces in 30 percent of the 201 verified cases of sexual violence, while clan militias accounted for a similar percentage.
Al Shabab insurgents accounted only for 10 percent. There have been cases connected to African Union peacekeepers, Puntland army soldiers and Somali National Police. Nearly a quarter of cases in Somalia could not be attributed to any faction.
Somali soldiers reportedly assaulted female relatives of suspected Al Shabab members as a form of collective punishment. However, the United Nations claims that both the Somali and Puntland governments have begun addressing these reports by establishing safe houses and a woman’s protection unit, and passing new sexual offence laws.
The U.N. document fails to note reports that emerged last year that Al Shabab has been recently implicated in a sex slavery and forced sex trafficking ring running through Somali refugee camps in in Kenya. A BBC interview with escaped survivors from the ring sheds further light on what’s going on.
The slavery ring typically lures both Muslim and Christian women with promises of high-paying jobs, in at least one case drugging them with doped bottled water while transporting them on a bus. The women were then brought to a rape camp in the Boni forest on the Kenya-Somalia border where Al Shabab fighters assault them daily over the course of years.
One escaped woman estimated the camp held 300 women like her. Al Shabab forced some women into marriages and to give birth to children in the camps. The terrorist group hopes children born in the camp will serve as a new generation of fighters.
Arguably, one of the most internationally infamous recent episodes of wartime sexual violence involves the roughly 276 Chibok girls of Nigeria abducted in 2014 by the Islamic fundamentalist group Boko Haram, which has since proclaimed allegiance to Islamic State.
Sadly, these are only the most famous of thousands of women and girls abducted and subject to sexual assault and forced marriage by the extremist group.
Recently, Boko Harm released 82 of the Chibok girls in exchange for five captured Boko Haram leaders. However, an 83rd kidnapping survivor refused to return to her family, claiming she preferred to stay with her husband, a militant.
Many other girls and women who survived assault and captivity with Boko Haram have been imprisoned by Nigerian security forces after their escape. Tragically, this suspicion may arise from Boko Haram’s frequent use of women and children to serve as suicide bombers.
The ravages of the terrorist group and the government campaign to crush it have dispersed hundreds of thousands of northern Nigerians to internal refugee camps—where camp guards have targeted refugees for sexual assault. There are many reports of women and girls forced into marriages or prostitution in order to obtain food.
Of 43 reports of sexual abuse by refugee camp guards documented by the United Nations, only nine have led to prosecution.
The United Nations claims there has been some progress in the attitude of the security forces toward sexual assault survivors, and that 100 female police have been disbursed to camps to make it easier for women to report cases of abuse. However, only two percent of sexual assault survivors are believed to have access to appropriate treatment.
Central African Republic
The Central African Republic, or the CAR for short, has been the scene of large-scale communal violence ever since Muslim Seleka rebels overthrew the country’s infamously corrupt government in 2012, giving rise to a violent counter-movement known as anti-Balaka.
The Lord’s Resistance Army—which rose to infamy for its kidnapping, sexual abuse and recruitment of children in Uganda—has exploited prevailing lawlessness in the CAR to ravage local communities. However the ranks of the LRA have shrunk dramatically in recent years.
French and African Union peacekeeping troops eventually restored a limited degree of order to the CAR, but the Seleka rebels and anti-Balaka militias continue to prey upon the communities of rival ethnic and religious groups, sometimes assaulting women while they are out collecting firewood or farming.
Although the United Nations verified 150 rapes, the actual total is believed to be far higher with nearly 1,700 allegations of sexual assault. There is only one medical examiner in the entire country to assist in investigating cases.
One obstacle to combating sexual assault in the CAR is that communities sometimes resolve the crime through informal reparations—which may involve the marriage of the victim to the perpetrator. This form of justice transfers resources between the affected communities, but obviously does not serve the interests of those most affected.
There have been nearly two dozen cases of sexual violence reported in Mali, particularly in the Muslim eastern half of the country at the center of the conflict. Malian security forces may be just as implicated as the Tuareg and Islamist rebels, with local security forces apparently intimidating victims into withdrawing their complaints.
One Malian soldier accused of assaulting 19 children was released from custody.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
The citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have suffered from mass rapes and forced marriages since civil war broke out in their country more than 20 years ago, to the point that several million Congolese are believed to have been subject to sexual assault. The proliferation of rebel movements and militias across its vast forested territory has made it difficult to bring a definitive end to the violence.
Many of the groups use rape, particularly of children, as a method of recruitment.
Tragically, according to a Harvard researcher, a large share of the rapes are committed by women who had been sexually assaulted and recruited into these armed groups while young, demonstrating the cyclical nature of this form of violence. Men and boys constitute a burgeoning minority of sexual violence survivors.
Male victims are often unwilling to seek emotional and medical assistance for fear that they will be ridiculed.
In one notorious incident in 2010, Mai Mai and FDLR rebels raped nearly 400 women and children in the village of Walikale. The FDLR is a Hutu group associated with the genocide in Rwanda.
In 2016, rebel groups such as the Mai Mai, Raia Mutomboki and the Patriotic Resistance Front of Ituri accounted for two-thirds of the 514 cases of sexual violence verified by the United Nations—just a fraction of the 2,600 reported.
However, Congolese government security forces—especially the army—account for the remaining one-third of the sexual assaults in the DRC.
While the scale of the problem remains daunting, the United Nations claims the DRC government has at least taken a few steps toward accountability in 2016, convicting more than 100 members of the armed forces for sexual assault as well as charging members of the M23 rebel group with rape. However, the government of South Kivu province appears to have intimidated witnesses testifying against soldiers there. At least one witness was assassinated post-trial.
The United Nations provided care for 1,410 victims of sexual violence in 2016, and MONCUSO peacekeepers “separated” 40 girls from armed groups in conditions of sexual slavery, forced marriage or ongoing assault.
Reporting on Asia is fairly sparse. The United Nations documented 11 cases in Afghanistan involving Afghan security forces and the Taliban—four of them relating to young boys sexually abused as concubines by older men, a custom known as Bacha bazi.
Given that Bacha bazi is a widespread and secretive practice in Afghanistan, this gives an idea as to the limited scope of the U.N. investigation there. Curiously, the U.N. report fails to note that Afghan Vice Pres. Abdul Dostum stands accused of attempting to rape a local politician before ordering his guards to sodomize the politician with an assault rifle. Dostum recently departed the country for asylum in Turkey.
According to the document, only two members of the Afghan security forces were prosecuted for sexual violence in 2016.
Police in a Rohingya area of Sittwe, Myanmar. Photo via Flickr
The army in Myanmar has a long history of perpetrating mass rapes targeting ethnic minorities in its conflicts with insurgents in Northern Myanmar. A recent transition to an elected civilian government does not appear to have altered this tendency.
Since the invasion of North Rakhine State in Oct. 9, 2016, the United Nations counted between 50 to 100 cases of rape involving Myanma soldiers and police targeting the Muslim Rohingya minority. The U.N. report states that rapes by government forces are “underreported” in Myanmar.
Myanma security forces apparently use rape to punish the female relatives of suspected male insurgents. Sexual assault survivors were unable to access treatment within Myanamar, and had to travel to neighboring Bangladesh to receive any care.
Interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch paint a devastating picture of what occurred.
“Noor,” in her 40s, said that 20 soldiers stormed her home and grabbed her and her husband: “They took me in the yard of the home. Another two put a rifle to my head, tore off my clothes, and raped me.… They slaughtered [my husband] in front of me with a machete. Then three more men raped me.… After some time, I had severe bleeding. I had severe pain in my lower abdomen and pain in my whole body.”
The same women testified that their ethnicity and religion were specifically stated to be the cause of their assault:
“We will kill you because you are Muslim,” one woman said soldiers threatened. Other women said that security forces asked if they were “harboring terrorists,” then proceeded to beat and rape them when they said no. A woman in her 20s who said soldiers attempted to rape her in her home, added that they told her, “You are just raising your kids to kill us, so we will kill your kids.”
Is anything being done?
The U.N. report details a variety of projects undertaken by the U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, and a team of experts have been active in 10 countries. Special advisers on sexual violence also deployed to Iraq and Mali, and there is funding for projects in the Middle East to care for Iraqi and Syrian refugees.
One goal of these projects, and similar programs in Africa, is to provide medical treatment and counseling for sexual assault survivors.
The United Nations has secured commitments from the governments of Cote d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and South Sudan to reform their policies on sexual assault and lower the frequency of perpetration by state security forces. These policies have been facilitated by international technical advisers deployed to those countries.
The United Nations has promoted the prosecution of perpetrators of sexual violence. Notable successes cited include the prosecution of high-ranking leaders for orchestrating sexual violence, including Jean-Pierre Bemba from the DRC and former Chadian Pres. Hissene Habre. The United Nations has assisted efforts at post-conflict justice in Colombia, where the FARC’s half-century long insurgency is finally coming to an end.
Unfortunately, the United Nations recorded 466 claims of conflict-related sexual violence in Colombia in 2016 despite the effective end of hostilities.
The U.N. report paints a grim portrait of the widespread and strategic nature of sexual violence in today’s wars. Not only do perpetrators of wartime sexual assault need to be stopped or redirected and their potential victims protected, but survivors of such ordeals need treatment to deal with their trauma—and their communities must learn to show them the compassion and understanding they deserve.