Burma’s ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims has been rife with sexual violence, according to recent news accounts. Among the more than 600,000 people who have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, many are survivors of rape, gang rape and sexual slavery.
How many? Pramila Patten, the United Nations special representative on sexual violence in conflict, reports that every woman she encountered during her November visit to Bangladesh had either witnessed or endured brutal sexual assault. Their stories are harrowing. One 15-year-old girl was ruthlessly dragged on the ground for over 50 feet, tied to a tree and then raped by 10 Burmese soldiers. Patten has urged the U.N. Security Council to take action.
To be sure, the rape of Rohingya women is a gross violation of human rights. But why should the Security Council — charged with maintaining international peace and security — address sexual violence?
Because sexual violence in conflict is not simply a human rights issue — it’s also a security challenge, according to a significant body of social science research, which we highlight in our recent Council on Foreign Relations report. What’s more, widespread rape in wartime can be prevented. Here are five key insights into how this works.
1. Sexual violence is often a symptom of military weakness.
Sexual violence committed by troops can signal weak command and troop discipline, which makes military units less effective in their mission. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a mass rape of more than 150 civilians in 2011 was attributed to local armed forces’ lax command and control structures. When state forces regularly commit sexual violence, the command hierarchy may simply be too weak to enforce a policy forbidding this crime — and therefore may be ineffective in maintaining peace once a conflict is resolved.
In other cases, armed groups that recruit through abduction command those troops to rape in order to build solidarity among them. These groups have lower levels of unit cohesion and effectiveness than groups that rely on volunteers. A review of 91 civil wars, for example, found that groups that recruit by force committed significantly higher levels of rape against civilians, in an attempt to build social bonds through rape.
While groups or individuals commit sexual violence in conflict for any number of reasons, when it happens there are strategic implications. Research shows that military units and law enforcement bodies that respect human rights and prevent sexual violence are more effective at promoting security.
2. Sexual violence can increase the flow of refugees.
When armed groups commit sexual violence, more people flee — making the region less stable. As we can see from the staggering number of Rohingya refugees, wartime rape forces people from their homes, depriving them and their families of their livelihoods, property and access to health services and education, destabilizing communities. Sexual violence has increased displacement around the world, from Guatemala to Iraq to Syria, where reports suggest that the danger of rape is a primary reason people flee cities under siege.
3. Unchecked sexual violence can undermine trust in the state.
Conflict-related sexual violence signals a government’s inability or unwillingness to protect its citizens. That’s particularly true when, as in South Sudan, the military commits this crime widely and with impunity. The lower citizens’ level of trust in the state, the more difficult it becomes for a government to undertake economic, social or political reforms, which undermines stability.
4. Countries with widespread sexual violence incur high financial costs.
Wartime rape is costly in ways that undermine national stability. Victims of sexual violence may suffer long-term physical and psychological aftereffects, which impose high costs of care, reduced economic productivity and lost income. In the DRC, for instance, agricultural output decreased partly because women were afraid to return to working in the fields.
Further, some evidence suggests that sexual violence during wartime continues as gender-based violence in peacetime, leaving behind still more costs long after the conflict has ceased. In Burma, neighboring governments are bearing the burden of these costs, with the support of humanitarian agencies that provide services to Rohingya refugees.
5. Sexual violence can undermine reconciliation efforts after ethnic conflicts.
Particularly when it’s ethnically driven, sexual violence used as a tactic of war can make reconciliation much harder — including any efforts the Burmese government may pledge to pursue if the Rohingya return. Women raped by opposing parties are often stigmatized, treated as guilty by association with their perpetrators. Children born of rape frequently suffer discrimination, fostering tension in a community long after the conflict.
Rape in wartime corrodes future stability — but it is not inevitable. It’s true that throughout history, many armies considered rape to be one of the legitimate spoils of war; this crime was tacitly accepted as unavoidable through the early 20th century.
But more recently, legal rulings have outlawed sexual violence and recognized it as a war crime. And research shows that while some conflicts include widespread sexual violence, not all do: One analysis of 177 armed groups in 21 African countries found that 59 percent were not reported to have committed sexual violence. Another analysis of 91 civil wars between 1980 and 2012 revealed that 17 percent did not include widespread sexual violence.
In other words, armed groups don’t always rape with impunity; levels of sexual violence vary from one conflict to another. That’s because while some leaders of armed organizations may order or tolerate rape by their soldiers, others prohibit it. That suggests that sexual violence in conflict can be prevented. Research has revealed best practices around the world, from community-based police reforms initiated in Nicaragua in the 1990s to innovative prosecutorial approaches recently instituted in the DRC.
It’s possible, therefore, to drive down sexual violence in conflict — and evidence suggests that doing so matters to security and stability.
Rachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Legal Challenges at Yale Law School.