Is Rape Inevitable in War?

From ancient Rome to Libya today, armed conflict has been marked by sexual violence on a mass scale. But what links the two, and can it ever be stopped?


Libyan woman Eman el-Obeidy, moments after rushing into a Tripoli hotel, defends herself from government officials. Jerome Delay/AP

When Eman el-Obeidy materialized in the breakfast room of the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, Libya, the story she told shocked the world. The 29-year-old woman, a law graduate, claimed to have been held and raped by 15 members of leader Muammar Qaddafi's forces after being stopped at a checkpoint. The bruises on her face, the blood on her thighs, and the wails issuing from her throat made it clear that something bad had happened. Any doubt that remained was dispelled by the swift, vicious reaction of the security forces in the hotel (including many who had been posing as hotel waitstaff -- no, they were not just innocently pouring coffee and busing tables for the press corps each morning), who dragged her out of the reach of the stunned journalists and shoved her in a waiting car.

While el-Obeidy's courage was exceptional, her experience may not be. In the two months since her story broke, scattered reports have emerged of rape by Qaddafi's forces in Misrata and elsewhere around the country, often recounted by medical workers. Chilling details -- reports of condoms and sexual performance enhancers found in the pockets of captured soldiers, for example -- have prompted International Criminal Court Special Prosecutor Luis-Moreno Ocampo to liken Viagra to a "machete," that low-tech weapon used to such terrible effect during the Rwandan genocide. In April, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told a private gathering of diplomats that the U.S. believed Qaddafi's military was handing out Viagra pills to troops "so they go out and rape," as Rice reportedly put it. Last week, Ocampo told CNN that he plans to launch an investigation into these accounts.

Is anyone surprised? Since ancient times (think of Nicholas Poussin's painting, "The Rape of the Sabine Women," which depicts the fabled 8th-century BC episode in which Rome's first generation of men abducted women from the neighboring region), men locked in combat have often viewed the other side's women as part of the spoils: war booty, so to speak. A few examples, among many: the Rape of Nanking; World War II, during which American GIs, Germans, and Russians all took their liberties; the Bangladeshi War of Independence, in which an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 women were raped in nine months; Vietnam, where South Vietnamese and Americans were widely known to rape; Peru, Guatemala and El Salvador during the 1980s; the horrifying rape camps of Bosnia and Herzegovina; the nightmarish stories and statistics from conflicts all over Africa, and even American servicewomen's reports of assaults by their male colleagues. Again, is anyone surprised?

As the Nobel Women's Initiative notes, sexual violence in conflict "takes place in every region of the world ... reasons for [its] use vary from region to region and conflict to conflict." But that doesn't mean everyone's raping. In fact, a growing body of scholarly research on sexual violence in conflict suggests that it is decidedly not inevitable, making it all the more imperative to take action against it. (Incidentally, the raping of hotel staff by powerful, wealthy guests is not inevitable either.)

In Libya, for example, there have been few, if any, reports of rebel soldiers raping loyalist women, points out Michele Leiby, a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico, who has researched sexual violence in Central and South America.

"The fact that this particular subset of the population, which shares a particular social and political profile, is targeted more often than other groups, suggests that it is not the case that soldiers are randomly and opportunistically raping anyone they encounter," she said. "For this type of violence, they are targeting particular individuals whom they deem to be opponents of the state."

It's important to remember, she says, that across conflicts, there is "a huge variation" in who rapes, who is raped, and why. "All of that complexity suggests that this is not just an inevitable consequence of war."

In her work on sexual violence in civil wars over the past three decades, Dara Kay Cohen, Assistant Professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, has identified several factors that increase the likelihood that widespread rape will occur in a given conflict, including one unexpected one: the method of recruitment. Forcibly recruited men, she argues, meld into a cohesive unit through gang rape, a process she calls "combatant socialization." A risky, time-consuming, and inefficient practice (as opposed to swiftly lopping off someone's head), gang-rape, she writes, "creates loyalty and esteem from ... initial circumstances of fear and mistrust."

In other words, strange men thrown together in an impromptu fighting force use it as an unspoken means to build team spirit. The public, performative nature of gang rape carries a different message ("We're all in this together") than an individual rape perpetrated in private ("I'm doing this right now because a breakdown of law and order means I can get away with it.")

Examining data from all 86 civil conflicts from 1980 to 2009, Cohen found that the presence of two of the most commonly accepted explanations for mass rape -- a culture of gender inequality and ethnic tensions -- do not predict its occurrence. Instead, state collapse and the aforementioned need for bonding between combatants are more reliable indicators.

Her interpretation tracks with statements from captured pro-Qaddafi Libyan soldiers, who have claimed they were forced to rape by their commanding officers. "We felt scared, but when we refused to rape, they started to beat us," one 17-year-old soldier told the BBC. It was his first sexual encounter, he said. A Libyan soldier who was captured in Zintan as part of a group of loyalist fighters, which included men from Chad and Sudan, told Al Jazeera English that army troops "Were given orders no human being can accept. We were told that any house we entered was ours, any vehicle we wanted was ours, any girl we found, we could rape. Everything was for us." He also mentioned Viagra.

The international rights group Human Rights Watch says it has not yet been able to confirm these reports. But women's rights researcher Nadya Khalife, a specialist in the region with Human Rights Watch, said she "definitely believes there are cases out there." Indeed, el-Obeidy also told reporters that a 16-year-old girl suffered a similar assault alongside her. This lack of direct testimony, el-Obeidy excepted, is perhaps one reason why most American news outlets have been hesitant to report aggressively on this subject.

The process of documenting these attacks will be slow-moving and delicate, said Nadje Al-Ali, a professor of Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, who has researched sexual violence in Iraq. "I definitely think that the honour issue and the social stigma attached to rape is a big issue in terms of preventing women from coming forward," she said. "But then there is also the possibility that the soldiers are only boasting and are trying to hurt the rebel men this way."

As Leiby notes, the social stigma and the feelings of shame that come from being raped are not unique to Arab or Muslim societies, although attitudes about female purity are deeply rooted in Libya. But el-Obeidy's stunning bravery may have inspired some to discard the outdated views that hold women responsible for the honor of her family or tribe . Speaking from the safety of exile in Doha, Qatar, she told CNN that she has experienced an immense outpouring of support.

"In the past an Arab women that goes through what I gone through is something shameful but now our society has changed and now everyone feels with me and shows me love."