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Prevention efforts


Much effort has been invested in recent years in improving our understanding of the causes of sexual violence.

While Elisabeth Jean Wood Elisabeth Jean Wood, Yale University Elisabeth Jean Woord is Professor of Political Science at Yale University, and a member of the External Faculty of the Santa Fe Institute. Elisabeth serves on the Board of Directors of the Peace Research Endowment and as Coordinator of the International Scientific Committee of the Observatory of Restitution and Regulation of Agrarian Property Rights. insists that not all armed organisations perpetrate sexual violence, research studies in this field identify some of the main reasons why weapon bearers may use sexual violence for strategic purposes: to exert power over territory or resources, for ethnic cleansing, to terrorize or humiliate enemy communities, to obtain information, or as retaliation. But sexual violence by armed organizations need not be ordered to be frequent. In her piece, Elisabeth Jean Wood refers to sexual violence “as a practice” to describe violence tolerated by commanders – encouraged, for example, by peer pressure. This is to be distinguished from sexual violence occurring opportunistically: not as a policy (e.g. as strategy) or a practice, but by taking advantage of the surrounding chaos, or of increased vulnerabilities of victims such as displacement or loss of means of subsistence. This variation in the forms of, and reasons for, sexual violence precludes any prospect of a “one size fits all” model of prevention.


The event took place on the occasion of the third session of CERAH's thematic seminar on "Sexual Violence in Conflict Settings and in Emergencies", and provided an opportunity to feature the recent publication of the International Review of the Red Cross on "Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict". The conference was also part of the third ICRC Conference Cycle on "Generating respect for the law", an ongoing reflection on how to better prevent violations of the law applicable in armed conflict.

But how can we translate what we know about the variation of the causes into contextualized prevention policies? Let us offer a few perspectives.

First, any prevention effort requires a solid understanding of the context, conflict dynamics, and the actors engaging in sexual violence. Second, one can expect that much is to be learnt from groups who do not commit sexual violence (in some cases, potentially because they are in search of political legitimacy). Third, the frameworks through which we look at causes of sexual violence could serve to inform prevention activities. So, for instance, if one can identify causes for the perpetration of sexual violence at different levels of an armed organization – at the level of the leadership of the armed organization, at unit level and at individual level – different prevention strategies adapted to each of these three levels can be put in place.

Prevention dialogue will significantly differ depending on what the attitude of the leadership is vis-à-vis sexual violence (in other words, if acts of sexual violence are encouraged, condoned or prohibited). At the unit level, prevention efforts could focus on better disciplinary mechanisms, and on addressing peer pressure to commit sexual violence, for example. At the individual level, depending on the specific reasons that led an individual to rape in violation of clear orders, prevention dialogue could follow different approaches, ranging from insisting on the prohibitive nature of sexual violence, and on sanctions, to explaining the devastating consequences for the victims and the perpetrators themselves.

Furthermore, a comprehensive prevention effort cannot fail to take into account the possibility that domestic sexual violence is exacerbated during armed conflict (due to the chaotic environment, proliferation of small arms, climate of impunity and so on). Thus, the battle against sexual violence cannot be fought only by looking at the problem through the prism of armed conflicts. In this respect, it can only be hoped that complementarity between different fields of expertise and action will result in a qualitative improvement in prevention efforts.

It is time to take stock of what research and practice have taught us in the past few decades and engage in a multidisciplinary reflection on how best to transfer this accumulated knowledge into concrete contextualized prevention activities. It is no longer tenable to claim that sexual violence is simply an ugly facet of our worst human inclinations and an unfortunate companion of war; today it is widely acknowledged that sexual violence is not an inevitable consequence of armed conflict. This makes prevention efforts critical, legitimate and urgently needed. Sexual violence must and can be stopped. Investing in the prevention of sexual violence is a demonstration of trust in the future of humanity.


  1. This e-briefing is based on the text of the Editorial by Vincent Bernard and Helen Durham for the issue of the International Review of the Red Cross on “Sexual violence in armed conflict”, IRRC, Vol. 96, No 894, Summer 2014, pp. 427-434.
  2. Produced by Ali Baykal and Előd Balázs-Engelsen.
  3. Additional contributions by Pascale Meige, Coline Rapneau, Mariya Chavdarova Nikolova, Elvina Pothelet, George Dvaladze, Katharine Anne Marshall, Jane Elizabeth Parry Munro, and Maria Holmblad.
  4. Cover photo, © Martine Perret.

© International Committee of the Red Cross, 2016. Feedback and suggestions may be sent to:

Last updated: June 2016.