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OPINION: Sexualized violence as a weapon of war

By Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Rape of females has been an aspect of war as long as war has existed, but only in recent years has rape in war been acknowledged as a weapon. The United Nations Human Rights Commission passed a resolution identifying rape as a war crime in 1993. 

Sexual assault in the United States armed forces continues to receive media coverage. The U.S. Army Study Guide states: “Sexual assault is a crime defined as intentional sexual contact, characterized by use of force, physical threat or abuse of authority or when the victim does not or cannot consent. Sexual Assault includes: Rape; Non consensual Sodomy (oral or anal sex); Indecent Assault (unwanted, inappropriate sexual contact or fondling); and Attempts to commit these acts.” 

The Invisible War by director Kirby Dick is an investigative documentary about “one of America’s most shameful and best kept secrets: the epidemic of rape within the U.S. military. Today, a female soldier in combat zones is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.”

“Many of these stories involved a culture of male soldiers attacking women in the desert by ganging up at an outhouse with other men, or by assaulting a woman when she had stepped into the field to relieve herself,” reported a 2016 article inThe Guardian.

There is a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program guided by Department of Defense. Active duty sexual assault survivors have access to health and mental health care within the military system.

War Rape                                                      

Courageous Nadia Murad. A story of terrorizing trauma. A story of demoralizing despair. A story of horrifying hell. A victim. A survivor. A thriver. 

In 2014, Murad along with thousands of young women and girls (from the Yazidi community in Iraq) was captured and forced into sexual slavery by ISIS. Three months later, she escaped. 

In 2016, Murad was named the U.N.’s first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.

In 2018, Murad became the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. By channeling her suffering into activism, she has become a voice for the captive females. 

The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State is Murad’s 2017 book. Islamic State militants massacred the people of her village, executing men who refused to convert to Islam and women too old to become sex slaves. Six of Nadia’s brothers were killed, and her mother soon after, their bodies swept into mass graves. 

Dr. Denis Mukwege fights against sex crimes. Congolese physician and recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, he stands for justice for victims of war-related rape and sexual violence. His plan is to sponsor retreats for women from 14 different countries who have survived war-related sex crimes. CBS’s 60 Minutes program, “War against Women,” aired on January 11, 2008, and interviewed Dr. Mukwege.

“Throughout history, rape has been used as a weapon of war on all continents. The problem is not limited to a certain time or region but has been employed in countries such as Bangladesh, North Korea, the Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sri-Lanka, Uganda, Vietnam and the former Yugoslavia. Sexual violence was also widespread during World War II in different parts of Europe and Asia.”

Why Do Men Commit War Rape?

The United Nations asserts that “Rape committed during war is often intended to terrorize the population, break up families, destroy communities, and, in some instances, change the ethnic makeup of the next generation. Sometimes it is also used to deliberately infect women with HIV or render women from the targeted community incapable of bearing children.”

Why is sexualized violence used as a tool of war? Power and dominance over women. It is physical and psychological torture. Rape is used to instill fear, humiliate, punish and destroy. 


Women Under Siege (WMC) shows how sexualized and other violence is being used to devastate women and tear apart communities around the world, conflict by conflict, from the Holocaust to Burma.

Rape is a global epidemic and laws are failing women and girls. Call on governments and policymakers to fix laws on sexual violence and to ensure justice for survivors of sexual violence. 

Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She lives in the US.


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