Artemis Papakostouli

Public Diplomacy Officer

Part of Greek Blogyssey

18th December 2012 Athens, Greece

Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict – Guest Blog #3

Sexual violence in conflict situations is as much a terrifying crime as a brutal one, wherever it takes place; it has direct and indirect effects on human lives, leaving deep, indelible scars on the victims as well as society itself.

As part of the Preventing the Sexual Violence Initiative that the Foreign Secretary has launched, we host this series of blogs to describe the experiences of people who have examined and witnessed the horror of war. You may also see the first and the second post of this series.

Our third guest blogger is Mrs Despina Syrri, Political Consultant.


Considering victims of rape and war
Sexual violence and conflict, rapes and war, more particularly mass rapes, have been differently understood and interpreted by various actors in different times. While violence constitutes a physical act, it is simultaneously embedded into specific social and political practices that make it intelligible. The acts of violence are not isolated and distinct from the broader context within which they become possible. Furthermore, they affect all members of society, in all parts of the world.

Yet, policy making, legislating, implementing in practice, even talking and theorising about these issues, remains contentious and thorny. There are also diverse representations of some victims of violence as worthy of grief and others as ‘unrepresentable’. The contingent character of vulnerability to violence is lost in the universal declarations targeting gendered violence in the processes of conflict.

“Sexual violence is one of the most horrific weapons of war, an instrument of terror used against women. Yet huge numbers of men are also victims”, reported Will Storr in The Observer on Sunday 17 July 2011. In his revealing article he uncovers the findings of research undertaken by Lara Stemple at the University of California, which not only shows that male sexual violence is a component of wars all over the world, but also suggests that international aid organisations are failing male victims. Her study cites a review of 4,076 NGOs that have addressed wartime sexual violence, yet only 3% of them mentioned the experience of men in their literature. According to an interview in the same article with Chris Dolan, director of the Refugee Law Project in Uganda, “female rape is significantly underreported and male rape almost never”. When, as part of an effort to correct this, the RLP produced a documentary in 2010 called “Gender Against Men”, attempts were made to stop him, even though a hard to find 2010 survey, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 22% of men and 30% of women in Eastern Congo reported conflict-related sexual violence.

A further case to consider in analysing the complexity of the issue at hand is that of mass rapes in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1992-1995 war, when the issue of systematic war rape made a breakthrough in the international media and political affairs. Certain Western scholars took the ‘all sides did it’ stand and argued that rape was a tool of war used by men against women in the whole of former Yugoslavia. Failing to take into account all of the political and social specificities and complexities of this conflict, poses the threat of relativising the blame for the crimes. This, in turn, encouraged portraying people in the Balkans as ‘Oriental’, primordially backward and inherently aggressive and primitive. The process of homogenising women of a certain nationality as the only victims of rape and men of another nationality as the only perpetrators confuses the picture, because it perpetuates the logic by which only those rapes committed in the name of ethnic groups and only if they happened in ‘large’ numbers and were ‘systematic’ should be prosecuted and punished.  A further question to be examined is the ways masculinities were constructed during this war, and how they related to sexual violence committed against men. Although the evidence shows that men, too, were victims of sexual violence during the war in former Yugoslavia, male victims were persistently invisible. Patriarchal constructions of men represent them as holding power, thus they are unimaginable as victims and seen only as perpetrators. In this line of thinking a victimised man cannot be perceived to be a real man. Such an approach is contrary to the one adopted by several ‘anti-nationalist’ feminists, who focus on the gender identity of the victims, and not their nationality, arguing that these crimes carried a gendered dimension and were perpetrated by men against women regardless of their nationality. Precisely gender, according to them, gave meaning to these rapes and enabled the manipulation and usage of rape as a weapon of ethnic cleansing. Some experts though claim that the Croatian and Serbian media showed that none of the warring sides wanted to talk about ‘their’ men being raped, since a nation which aspires to become or be seen as powerful cannot show a powerless male body. Thus focusing on either the gender or ethnicity of the victims might play into the hands of nationalist political leaders of all warring sides, who use the perceptions of rape as a war strategy for their own causes.  Moreover, victimisation of women assigns them an exclusively passive role and gives them little space for agency, while, at the same time, it ignores their activities during and after the war.

In most debates about mass rapes in Bosnia, later on Congo and elsewhere during war, the victims’ stories are overlooked and their voices silenced. What should not be forgotten is that all these crimes happened to real people whose identities contain a number of various aspects and include much more than just their gender, or their membership of an ethnic or religious group.

About Artemis Papakostouli

I joined the British Embassy in July 2010, and ever since I have been working at the Policy Delivery team. I studied Classics and hold Masters in Electronic Publishing and…

I joined the British Embassy in July 2010, and ever since I have been working at the Policy Delivery team. I studied Classics and hold Masters in Electronic Publishing and Communications and Journalism. After completing my studies I worked in the Academic and Publishing sectors in London focusing on the digital communications angle. One of my special interests is theatre and literature. Even if working in the ‘digital storm’, I still enjoy exploring and deepening in the Classical world and knowledge.