Human Rights and Global Activism

In Nanjing, in 1937, an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 Chinese girls and women were raped by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army. During World War II, Jewish girls and women were forced into prostitution and raped by German soldiers, and German gentile girls and women were raped by Soviet soldiers. Japanese soldiers, during and after World War II, kidnapped and held in sexual slavery hundreds of thousands of “comfort women,” many of them from Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines. Pakistani soldiers raped 200,000 to 400,000 girls and women in Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. American soldiers raped Vietnamese women during the war in that country; the numbers are unknown. In wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, 50,000 girls and women or more were raped as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing (the systematic, forced and often violent removal of unwanted ethnic or religious groups from a given territory, often by means such as murder, torture, rape, forcible displacement or threats of such acts). In Rwanda, in 1994, the number was 250,000 to 500,000 girls and women raped (Franco, 2007; Rittner, 2012; Sajjad, 2012). Some estimates of the number of victims of sexual violence in Congo’s current conflict top one million (Peterman, Palermo, & Bredenkamp, 2011). Hundreds more conflicts could be added to the list. A former commander of U.N. peacekeeping troops has said, “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict” (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2008).

It is not only women and girls, however, who are sexually violated in wartime. “Armed conflict and its aftermath also bring sexual danger for men and boys,” according to the Sexual Violence Research Initiative (2016). Although far fewer boys and men are apparently affected by sexual violence in conflict situations, the numbers are still significant. Such violence has been documented most recently in conflicts in places such as the former Yugoslavia, Congo, Liberia, Chechnya, Iraq, Sri Lanka, the Central African Republic, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Libya. One survey from Liberia found almost one-third of male combatants surveyed had experienced sexual violence. In Congo, during one period, between four and 10 percent of victims of sexual violence seeking medical treatment were male (Sandesh, 2010). United States soldiers were responsible for “sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses” against male prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq in 2003; much of the abuse was sexual in nature (the quotation comes from the Army’s own internal report) (Hersh, 2004). Researchers believe such violence is not new, but it has been documented only sporadically throughout history. Research suggests that in times of armed conflict, boys and men are most vulnerable in detention, whether as civilian internees or prisoners of war. Boys also seem to be particularly vulnerable to rape by their “own side” when they are conscripted or abducted into armed forces (Sandesh, 2010).

Making the Invisible Visible

Why is rape so widespread in war? The answer in large part seems to be because it is so effective a tool to destroy ethnic, religious, national, or racial groups (Rittner, 2012). Sexual violence disrupts, terrorizes, and stigmatizes. Females and males who are raped are often victimized on multiple levels, by the assault itself; by families and communities that may reject them afterward; by medical systems that are unable to deal with the injuries, unwanted pregnancies, and disease that can result; and by legal systems that are unequipped or unwilling to prosecute sexual violence in times of conflict.

The sexual violation of females and males in conflict seems to have many similarities: sexual mutilation often leads to impaired reproductive capacity; there is vast underreporting of violations; and both women and men who are raped have an increased likelihood of suicide. For women and men, sexual violation is often deeply stigmatizing. Female rape survivors are often considered polluted or impure by their families or communities. Female and male rape survivors may be humiliated in the eyes of their communities; where homosexuality is taboo, rape can also lead to intense shame for men. The rape of civilian men is often intended to emasculate, demonstrating the men’s powerlessness to protect their families (Sandesh, 2010). The humiliation is sometimes so severe that male rape victims refuse to seek medical attention even at the cost of death (Gettleman, 2009).

Despite the vast numbers of women and men affected by sexual violence in wartime, before the 1990’s, “sexual violence in war was, with rare exception, largely invisible. If not invisible, it was trivialized; if not trivialized, it was considered a private matter or justified as . . . the necessary reward for the fighting men,” asserted Rhonda Copelon (2000, p. 3). Historically, when rape in wartime was acknowledged at all, for example in the Hague and Geneva Conventions (which set out the international rules of conduct in wartime), it was most often characterized not as a violation of human rights, but as an attack on women’s honor (Maxwell, 2010). Such a characterization, wrote Copelon (2000), “reinforced the secondary importance [of rape] as well as the shame and stigma of the victimized women” (p. 3). The sexual violation of boys and men was largely invisible. Not until mass rape in Bosnia and Croatia in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990’s did rape in wartime receive the media and political attention needed to begin to bring about change. As a result of significant public pressure, rape was finally recognized as not simply a by-product of war, but rather a weapon of war, thus transforming rape from “private, off-duty, collateral, and inevitable” to “public” and “political” (Copelon, 2000, p. 5).

Recognizing Rape as a War Crime

While public recognition of sexual violence in wartime was an important first step, it was not an end in itself – and men, by and large, remained invisible as victims. Globally, women’s groups pressed special international tribunals established to prosecute war crimes related to the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda to recognize rape in wartime as a crime against humanity, the most serious level of offense. It was a struggle, but ultimately their efforts were successful. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) went so far as to call mass sexual violence a form of genocide and torture (Copelon, 2000). But legal recognition did not lead to prosecutions (Maxwell, 2010). Indeed, despite acknowledgement of the widespread and systematic nature of rape against Tutsi women in Rwanda, the first series of indictments of suspected war criminals in the ICTR brought no charges of sexual violence. According to Copelon (2000), the Tribunal’s prosecutorial staff failed to take rape seriously and the investigative staff lacked training to effectively investigate incidents of sexual violence. Numerous attempts to raise these issues by civil society groups were ignored. It was only when the first trial was already underway – and witnesses began to testify about sexual violence – that a female judge probed further. The judge’s actions, along with pressure from African and international women’s groups, finally forced prosecutors to amend the initial charges to include rape.

The ICTR recorded the first international conviction of rape and sexual violence as acts of genocide in September 1998. But there are still many challenges. Prosecuting individuals for sexual violence in war, as in peace, has proven complex. The number of convictions remains very low and the overwhelming majority of perpetrators go free (Rittner, 2012). Witnesses and survivors are often reluctant to testify, particularly when the stigma attached to sexual violation is great, as it often is. Prosecution of rape committed against men is even rarer than prosecutions of rape committed against women. Often sexual violence against boys and men is mischaracterized as torture or beatings, making the rape of males nearly invisible in the Tribunals’ proceedings.

While public recognition and legal remedies are positive steps in the struggle for human rights, the ultimate goal is prevention of human rights abuses. In the case of rape in conflict, prevention has proven extremely difficult. But the broader the condemnation and stigmatization of the perpetration of sexual violence the greater chance there is to affect meaningful change.


Copelon, R. (2000). Gender Crimes and War Crimes. McGill Law Journal, 46(1), 217-240. Franco, J. (2007). Rape: A Weapon of War. Social Text, 25(2), 23-37.

Gettleman, J. (2009, August 4). Symbol of Unhealed Congo: Male Rape Victims. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Hersh, S. (2004, May 10). Torture at Abu Ghraib. New Yorker. Retrieved from

Maxwell, C. (2010). Moving Beyond Rape as a “Weapon of War”: An Exploration of Militarized Masculinity and its Consequences. Canadian Woman Studies, 28(1), pp. 108-120.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2008). Rape: Weapon of War. Retrieved from

Peterman, A., Palermo, T., & Bredenkamp, C. (2011). Estimates and Determinants of Sexual Violence against Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. American Journal of Public Health,101(6), 1060-1067.

Rittner, C. (2012). Are Women Human? In C. Rittner, & J. K. Roth (Eds.), Rape: Weapon of War and Genocide (pp. 4-8). St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Sandesh, S. (2010). Lost in Translation: U.N. Responses to Sexual Violence against Men and Boys in Situations of Armed Conflict. International Review of the Red Cross, 92(877), 259-277.

Sajjad, T. (2012). Rape on Trial: Promises of International Jurisprudence, Perils of Retributive Justice, and the Realities of Impunity. In C. Rittner, & J. K. Roth (Eds.), Rape: Weapon of War and Genocide (pp. 60-81). St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Sexual Violence Research Initiative. (2016). Care and Support of Male Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. Retrieved from