There is not sufficient evidence on the use of sexual violence in conflict to determine whether it is increasing or decreasing in prevalence or institutionalization. However, evidence indicates it is widespread. Conflict-related gendered violence can range from a tool of economic exploitation, oppression and violence, especially during conflicts, disasters and their aftermath, to the systematic use of sexual violence as a strategy in armed conflict. Gender-based violence (GBV) is defined in humanitarian contexts as “an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will, and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between males and females.”
Many conflicts encompass different formsof GBV, the escalation of which is fueled by pre-existing gender inequalities, discrimination, abuse and lack of respect of human rights. Despite common assumptions, gendered violence in conflict is not limited to women and girls, but can also target men and boys, as well as persons of all ages. There is evidence of widespread use of sexual violence in contemporary conflicts, including in Somalia, Mali, Sudan, Syria, Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras, and including against men, for example in Syria and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Despite the prevalence of sexual violence in conflict today, we are no longer living in an era of silence and impunity. This changed definitively when the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) came into force in 2002. Building on previous international criminal tribunals, the ICC expands international law on war crimes and crimes against humanity to encompass forms of sexual violence such as rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy and enforced sterilization, and also to consider sexual violence as an element of genocide. These developments have challenged prevailing norms that treated sexual violence in warfare as a corollary to looting, in which the woman was seen as the property of another man, rather than in terms of her own bodily integrity and human dignity.