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Placard at demonstration about sexual violence in the Ukraine war ;

What does the use of rape in Ukraine tell us about sexual violence in wartime and in peace?

The war on Ukraine explained: Hear from our experts
Professor Jelke Boesten

Professor in Gender and Development, Department of International Development

26 May 2022

Conflict-related sexual violence is often portrayed as exceptional, as war-time atrocities, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The reporting from Ukraine suggests that Russian troops are raping women to terrorise the population. We also hear reports of rape of children and men.

These acts of violence fit a pattern of extreme violence perpetrated upon a population that has systematically been represented as an enemy to the Russian nation. They correspond to a military strategy that relies on the use of unbounded violence by soldiers trained to be angry. Rape is a cheap tool of terror, and a cheap way of implicating young men in atrocities, binding them to each other and to the protection of the military.

And still, despite such observations, ‘rape as a weapon of war’ is a problematic notion. To understand the use of rape in wartime we cannot limit our attention to war strategies. Addressing its use cannot be resolved by focusing alone on a demand for justice. In its 20 years of existence, the International Criminal Court has successfully convicted only one perpetrator of conflict-related sexual violence. The increased global attention to sexual violence in war as a crime against humanity has put rape in war on the agenda, but evidence suggests that this increased attention has not functioned as a deterrent.

What is often forgotten when rape is considered a weapon of war is that sexual violence is widespread in society and that it exists in a continuum between war and peace. In Russia, Ukraine, the UK, Europe, everywhere. For example, sex trafficking and forced prostitution are common. Ukrainian refugees are particularly vulnerable, of course, as are other young female refugees and indeed children to such illegal practices. Moreover, during times of crisis, as during wartime or pandemics, domestic and sexual violence often increases. And will surviving Russian soldiers who have perpetrated acts of sexual violence return home and build a peaceful life?

Focusing on demands for justice when, so far, prosecutions for both wartime and peacetime sexual violence have largely failed to bring about justice is perhaps not the most helpful strategy. First, the question should be, what do victim-survivors need? Emergency contraception, safe abortion, medical care for injuries, and mental health support should be a priority.

But we also need to shift the gaze of society from the victim-survivors and instead focus on the perpetrators, the war criminals, those who facilitate rape as terror, the traffickers, ‘punters’, wife-beaters, child-abusers, and harassers found in Russia, in Ukraine, and those living amongst us as well.

Read more from Professor Jelke Boesten in a recent article in the British Medical Journal on Sexual Violence as a weapon of war in Ukraine.

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Jelke  Boesten

Jelke Boesten

Professor in Gender and Development

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