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Defining conflict-related sexual violence

Définition juridique


For the Secretary General of the United Nations, "the term 'conflict-related sexual violence' covers acts such as rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilisation, forced marriage, and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity, perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys, and directly or indirectly related to conflict" [1].

While sexual violence is punishable as a constitutive element of international crimes under various texts, it is not clearly defined. WWoW took part in the work of civil society to draw up the Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice Declaration on Sexual Violence. The Declaration aims to define sexual violence, and to provide guidance on what makes an act "sexual" and when an act of a sexual nature can become an "act of sexual violence".

[Last update: January 2023]




Often referred to as "war rape", sexual violence in conflict is a military or political strategy in its own right.

  • They are defined, decided and ordered in high places in the same way as the bombing of a village, the extermination of a people or the gassing of a community. While rape in war has always existed, rape as a tool of war has become endemic and almost systematic in contemporary conflicts.

  • Rape then becomes a tool used to humiliate, destroy and oppress, used against women (DRC, Kenya, Bosnia, Rwanda), men (Libya, Uganda, Ukraine, Chechnya) and children (Syria, CAR, DRC). 

  • The modus operandi for these acts of violence differs depending on the context and the purpose for which they are used: rapes are often gang rapes, committed in public or in front of the victim's family, with or without the use of objects... 

It differs from sexual violence in peacetime in the following ways:

  • The context in which they take place: conflict, climate of crisis, collapse of the State, collapse of institutions, migration routes, etc. 

  • The profile of the perpetrator: often linked to an armed group, whether state-owned or not (e.g. FARC Wagner Boko Haram or Islamic State).

  • The profile of the victim: targeted for belonging to a political, ethnic or religious minority, sexual orientation or gender identity, etc. 


Conflict-related sexual violence is frequently used as a tool to instill fear among populations, disrupt family units and social cohesion, dismantle communities, and sometimes even eradicate the ethnic identity of a specific group of people. They can also be a deliberate means of transmitting sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV, and lead to sterility in women and men.

So, just like the organisation of a terrorist attack or an armed robbery, conflict-related sexual violence is thought out and planned to achieve specific objectives. Here are a few examples:


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Ethnic cleansing and purification in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Rwanda, against the Yezidis in Northern Iraq or against the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

Tool of Terror and Torture in  Ukraine, Iraq, Libya or Syria or in South Sudan. In the Sahel, sexual violence is used by armed groups (Mali, Burkina Faso etc.) and on migration routes where it has become systematic.   Moreover, sexual violence is used by gangs as tools of terror. Gang violence in Haiti or in certain Latin American countries is marked by extremely violent rapes, often against very young girls but also boys. This violence is almost systematic.

Tool of political repression aimed particularly at opponents such as in Guinea-Conakry, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe or Kenya as well as in Libya and Syria. 

Sexual violence is widely used in exile journeys. Migrants find themselves "hostages" of smugglers and must endure rape as a "price to pay". But sexual violence is also committed by the authorities (guards, police, military, gang leaders, etc.). While women represent 51% of migrants, 90% of them have suffered sexual violence. Human trafficking for forced prostitution is also an accentuated phenomenon and another reason for exile. People of the LGBTQI+ community are particularly targeted and often experience a "double penalty" due to stigmatization among migrants. Finally, the passage through Libya is often the object of innumerable violence, including sexual violence.

Political and economic strategy in the Democratic Republic of Congo and  Central African Republic. In these countries, rape is rampant in areas rich in diamond or precious mineral mines. The use of sexual violence aims to push people to exodus in order to take control of these resources.  

Recruitment guarantee by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or Boko Haram for example. Indeed, for these criminal organizations, the guarantee of having sexual relations is an important recruitment tool. More recently in Sudan, recruitment was done with the guarantee of having “women” often barely 10 years old.

Soldier indoctrination tool. In a letter written to his men in October 2015, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - Head of the Islamic State -  advocated for conversion to Islam through rape. The Islamic State has made war rape a supreme and integral weapon of its war strategy, like Boko Haram in Nigeria who are targeting young girls; kidnapping those on their way to school, repeatedly raping them and forcibly marrying them off to members of the terrorist organization. 

While it is clear that conflict-related sexual violence has always existed, whether as spoils of war, as in the case of the Sabine women, or as a means of revenge for the victors, as it was the case during the Second World War, what has been new for almost 30 years now is that it has become institutionalised.

Examples such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Sahel, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, show that the use of sexual violence has purely and simply been theorised. Manuals and guides on sexual slavery have been developed, and markets for women have been set up, with prices based on age, virginity and the victim's community of origin. These groups have made sexual violence an integral part of their terrorist strategy, well aware of the individual and collective impact of such crimes over the long term. Conflict-related sexual violence has therefore become a terrorist tool and weapon. It is now an integral part of counter-terrorism strategies. More recently, in 2022 in Ukraine, the aggressor state used sexual violence as a tool of terror. Non-governmental organisations such as Wagner use it almost systematically. Armed groups in the Sahel region, in particular, also use it.


The gradual recognition of conflict-related sexual violence


For centuries, sexual violence in times of conflict has been considered inevitable and a collateral damage of war. For a long time, rape was seen as a right granted by the victors over the vanquished, without the latter being punished. During the Second World War, the various parties to the conflict committed mass rapes (for opportunism, revenge or ethnic reasons as it was the case in Germany). However, the Tokyo and Nuremberg military tribunals, established to adjudicate wartime crimes, notably omitted addressing acts of sexual violence and failed to secure convictions for such offenses. Over time, sexual violence during armed conflicts was gradually criminalized and punished under international law. The initial milestone in this progression materialized with the adoption of the four Geneva Conventions on August 12, 1949, [2], which were further bolstered by the Additional Protocols of 1977 [3].

Image by Jonathan Ansel Moy de Vitry

It was really during the conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia at the end of the 1990s that sexual violence was taken into account as an issue in its own right by the international community and the United Nations. In 1992, the United Nations Security Council condemned the "massive, organised and systematic detention and rape of women, particularly Muslim women, in Bosnia-Herzegovina" [4]. This was followed by the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which, thanks to its extensive case law on sexual crimes, was the first to criminalise acts of sexual violence linked to conflicts. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda also contributed to the development of case law on this crime, before other international jurisdictions and national courts took it up.

Further information can be found at : Judicial responses to the crime of conflict-related sexual violence.

The United Nations Security Council finally took up the issue of conflict-related sexual violence in the early 2000s and developed a legal framework. Resolution 1325 (2000) [5], establishing the Women, Peace and Security agenda, requires parties to armed conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from acts of gender-based violence, in particular rape and other forms of sexual abuse. At the same time, in 2007 the UN also launched the United Nations Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict (UN Action), a network of 21 UN entities with the aim of coordinating inter-agency efforts to address the problem of conflict-related sexual violence [6]. 

Resolution 1820 (2008) is the first resolution devoted to conflict-related sexual violence. It states that such violence is an obstacle to the restoration of international peace and security, and declares that sexual violence is used in particular as a weapon of war. It also states that sexual violence in times of conflict "can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a constitutive act with respect to genocide" [7]. Another series of Resolutions was also adopted on this subject in subsequent years [8], including Resolution 2467 (2019). In addition, the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict was created in 2009. This office produces an updated report each year on conflict-related sexual violence (see the latest report for 2022). 

In recent years, crimes of conflict-related sexual violence have received increasing attention, as evidenced also by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to two important figures in the fight against conflict-related sexual violence. In 2018, the prize was awarded to Nadia Murad, a sex slave and survivor of the Yazidi genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State and a campaigner, and Denis Mukwege, a gynaecological surgeon and founder of the Panzi hospital treating victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

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© Haakon Mosvold Larsen/AP/SIPA


[1] United Nations Security Council, Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, Report of the Secretary-General, S/2021/312, 30 March 2021, §5.

[2] International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, 1949. The item 3 common to these conventions does not expressly cite rape and other forms of sexual violence, but prohibits"attacks on life and bodily integrity" as well as "attacks on human dignity". Geneva Convention (IV) of 1949,article 27 §2 : “Women shall be specially protected against any attack on their honour, and in particular againstrape, forced prostitution and any indecent assault”.

[3] International Committee of the Red Cross, Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, 1977. In particular Additional Protocol (I), 1977,section 76 : “Women must be the object of special respect and will be protected, in particular againstrape, forced prostitution and any other form of indecent assault.” Additional Protocol (II) 1977,article 4 §2 : prohibited “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, forced prostitution and any indecent assault”.

[4] United Nations Security Council, Resolvedtion 798 (1992), S/RES/798(1992), 18 December 1992.

[5] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1325 (2000), S/RES/1325(2000), October 31, 2000, §10.

[6] Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, UN Campaign against Sexual Violence in Conflict.

[7] United Nations Security Council,Resolution 1820 (2008), S/RES/1820(2008), 19 June 2008, §4.


[8] In particular: Resolution 1888 (2009),Resolution 1889 (2009),Resolution 1960 (2010),Resolution 2106 (2013),Resolution 2122 (2013),Resolution 2242  (2015)Resolution 2467 (2019).

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