Q&A: Sexual violence being used 'as a weapon of war,' official says

Sexual violence, Sarah Sewall says, "is as old as conflict itself, dating back to a time where our nomadic ancestors spent millennia locked in brutal cycles of raiding and rape."

What's different today is that it is often being used "as a weapon of war" by groups that do not feel bound by international humanitarian law and have no official accountability to uphold international human rights, said Sewall, the U.S. undersecretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights.

The militant group Islamic State has enslaved about 3,000 women and girls from the Yazidi religious community; female refugees fleeing chaos in Iraq, Syria and other nations have been abused on the road and some have fallen victim to human trafficking and slavery. In Nigeria, Boko Haram extremists have abducted schoolgirls to become slaves and concubines, and women are being gang-raped in Burundi by security forces raiding the homes of political opponents.

These are just a few examples. According to Sewall, "no region is immune to this scourge." Here are excerpts from a recent interview with her:


Question: What is behind sexual violence in conflict? To what extent is it the result of an intentional or deliberate strategy?

Answer: It depends. There have been cases in which sexual violence has been traced to a policy promulgated by commanders to demoralize or to debilitate or to humiliate individuals and whole communities. There have been many researchers who have also described sexual violence as being opportunistic and random and not directed as a matter of command policy. It varies enormously.

Q. Can you explain the connection between sexual violence and the broader security challenges facing the world's nations?

A. One of the key things to understand about sexual violence in conflict is that it's not limited just to women. There have been many cases where sexual violence is perpetrated against men. The Democratic Republic of Congo is a really powerful example of where pervasive sexual violence has been used against both genders.

Nonetheless, one of the key noteworthy aspects of recent sexual violence is that it often occurs in societies in which the place of women is marginalized and preys on cultural stereotypes and normative differentiation about the role of women in society. And so sometimes you see sexual violence as being a function of the relative status of women in society and sometimes it's the backlash to the increasing status of women in society.

For example, the sexual violence perpetrated by Boko Haram in Nigeria aims so directly at girls in schools to prevent them from being educated and therefore powerful.

The use of sexual slavery in that context is really striking and really consciously a response to the empowerment of young women and girls.

Q. What are some of the challenges to ensuring that sexual violence in conflict is taken seriously, and is not simply viewed as a byproduct of instability, a consequence of war? What needs to be done?

A. There are many things that need to be done, and included in that list is a reaffirmation of the applicability of international human rights standards to all actors in conflict, regardless of whether they are state actors or not. Another important development is greater training of officials and security forces and finding a larger role for women in those security forces.

The U.N., which has recently experienced horrific scandals of sexual violence perpetrated by national forces serving as blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers, is seeking to integrate larger numbers of women into U.N. peacekeeping, in part to better respond to and prevent the likelihood of sexual violence.

Q. What is the role of the United States in terms of trying to combat sexual violence in conflict?

A. We have responsibilities as a member of the U.N. and certainly as a member of the U.N. Security Council to ensure that U.N. peacekeepers take on this difficult challenge and hold national forces accountable for any sexual violence. We certainly don't want the peacekeepers to become perpetrators of sexual violence, and we've taken a very active stand in that regard. As one of the leading global militaries, (we) have to continue to show a good example within our own armed forces and we do both in terms of the standards of behavior that we train and the military justice system.

Q. Are there any success stories in terms of combating sexual violence in conflict? Are there countries that have actually made progress?

A. I think that the U.N. is on a path to force countries to take greater responsibility when their forces commit acts of sexual violence. In cases of national forces these are responsibilities of national actors and the U.N., and partners like the U.S. can draw attention to the need for action and try to incentivize that action.

One of the trickier things is making sure that the international community can improve ways of holding non-state actors to account ... .

In many cases, the use of sexual violence continues to foster and empower these insurgents and these terrorist networks in a way that really demands a response. So we need to start thinking about preventing sexual violence and punishing sexual violence and being a key element of conflict prevention and resolving conflict.