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The End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit is a chance to stop the female body being a battleground

International humanitarian law needs to include serious redress for those using rape as a method of conflict.

The UN special envoy Angelina Jolie speaking at the summit. Photo: Getty
The UN special envoy Angelina Jolie speaking at the summit. Photo: Getty

Rape is one of the most destructive weapons of armed conflict. This is due, in part, to its capacity to demoralise a conquered group. Rape, or the threat of rape, can lead to population displacement, causing people to flee countries to avoid the sexual violence that military invasion can bring. Rape also generates shame and trauma, which can prevent marriages from occurring, bring about divorce, compel women to abandon or kill any children that are the products of rape, divide families and destroy the very foundations upon which human culture is based and maintained. Nor are such crimes confined to sexual offences: other forms of violence include feticide if the victim is pregnant, which can also result in death. 

Rape during war also serves as a form of social control that can suppress efforts to mobilise resistance among a conquered group. In such cases, rape is often committed in front of relatives and family members; the victims are abused, killed, and left on public display as a reminder to others to submit to and comply with invasion policies. It is evident that women are targeted in war because of their gender, because they are part of a particular racial/ethnic group or because they are perceived by the enemy as political conspirators or enemy combatants.

Within this context, it is clear that rape in war acts as a vehicle for deep-seated hatreds: racism, classism, and xenophobia are expressed towards the enemy group and actualised through the mass abuse of its women. In war the female body becomes the symbolic battleground upon which age-old cultural and geopolitical differences are acted out, and where new forms of hatred are implanted that fuel a desire for revenge in the future. The psychological, social, cultural, ethical and medical consequences of rape in war are devastating. Yet rape in war continues without any serious form of redress under international humanitarian law.

The End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit that I am attending this week in London this week highlights that recent innovative international jurisprudence decisions in relation to rape have important implications for how rape is conceptualised and treated within domestic and international law. The Global Summit is an opportunity for world leaders around the world to act - to go beyond talking the talk to eliminate this gendered form of violence. #TimetoAct!

Dr Aisha K Gill is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the University of Roehampton. She is on Twitter @DrAishaKGill