Rape: A War Strategy

Rape and other forms of sexual violence have always existed as weapons of war. Documented evidence dating back to World War I shows use of sexual violence as a war strategy by Germany and other Axis powers. The Japanese Imperial Army was responsible for systematically forcing women from occupied territories, mainly Korea, into being sex slaves before and during World War II. Despite knowledge of these and many other examples, it was not until recently, in the late nineties, that it was internationally recognized as an official war crime following the Rwandan genocide.

What do we mean by Rape As A Weapon Of War?

While sexual violence is pervasive both in peaceful and conflict affected societies, it is important to distinguish sexual violence as a weapon of war. The term ‘rape as a weapon of war’ confronts the notion that rape and other instances of sexual violence are a mere by product of crisis situations, an inevitable consequence of war. Instead, it establishes that sexual violence is embedded in the design of war itself. It is intentional, coordinated and strategic. Rape as a weapon of war includes mass systemic rape, forced marriage and impregnation, genital mutilation, forced prostitution, sex trafficking.

Rape as a weapon of war is when rape or other forms of sexual violence is used as a strategic weapon to humiliate, demoralize and dehumanize the enemy.


The use of sexual violence as a weapon of war has served various purposes over time. In many cases, sexual violence as a weapon relies on the gender inequality and the culture of sexual violence that exists in societies including victim blaming, shunning and shaming of victims of sexual violence, and connecting familial and societal honor to women’s bodies.

First and foremost, rape as a weapon of war is meant to terrorize not only victims but their families and entire societies. Rape used as a weapon of war is cruel in nature — where mass rapes are carried out in public, weapons are used to rape and victims’ bodies are mutilated. Such acts are meant to terrorize populations into compliance and submission.

Rape of a society’s women were also meant to be an attack on the society itself, mainly it’s men — husbands, fathers, sons — whom these women “belonged” to. Rape of a daughter, mother or wife has also been used to pressurize men to surrender to enemy demands. Attackers understand and use the fact that this type of crime can turn victims into outcasts. Women raped by the enemy are often equated with the enemy itself, breaking apart families and in turn entire kinship ties that hold communities together. Survivors of war time rape therefore face double the stigma and are often shunned from their own communities. This ostracism is carried onto babies born out of war time rape as well.

According to this UN report on conflict related sexual violence, in some circumstances, women and girls are themselves treated as the “wages of war”, being gifted as a form of in-kind compensation or payment to fighters, who are then entitled to resell or exploit them as they wish.

In addition to being a scare tactic, rape has also been used for ethnic cleansing. Forced impregnation through rape has been used as a tactic to ensure that ethnic populations cease to exist over time. One example of this tactic is against the Rohingya in Myanmar.

For war strategists, sexual violence not only achieves objectives mentioned above but also helps incentivize new recruitment and generate revenue through sex trafficking, sexual slavery and forced prostitution. At the core, use of such tactics cements an ideology based on suppressing women’s rights and controlling their sexuality and reproduction.

History of sexual violence as a strategic weapon in Bangladesh:

  1. Bangladesh’s liberation war saw the use of rape as a weapon of war by the Pakistani Army. Conservative estimates show approximately 200,000 to 400,000 Bangladeshi women were brutally raped. True estimates are debated to be much higher. 1971 Bangladesh Genocide by Pakistani Army
  2. Bangladeshi Armed Forces and Bangladeshi settlers have also used this same tactic amongst indigenous communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Violence against indigenous women, particularly sexual violence, has been used to terrorize communities since around 1975.
    Violence against Indigenous Women In Bangladesh

Recent Trends

As women’s direct participation in political movements has increased, sexual violence has become a tool to directly suppress women’s public participation in politics. A report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) states that women around the world are facing unprecedented levels of targeted political violence. Data from the report shows that political violence towards women is currently at its highest level recorded since 2018. It also found that demonstrations featuring women faced disproportionate levels of excessive force.

Bangladesh: Digital Sexual Violence As A Weapon of Conflict

Such norms have seeped into strategies for smaller scale internal conflicts as well. The 2018 quota reform protests had massive participation from women. As a reaction, there was coordinated online violence perpetrated against women who took part in these protests. One Daily Star article that documented this type of violence states, “The organized approach used to demean and harass the female protestors online on a large scale during the quota reform movement in the last six months, is something that’s relatively new and quite concerning.”

War time sexual violence is never collateral damage— it is the result of targeted premeditated crimes. Learning about the use of sexual violence as an organized approach to strategically target marginalized groups pushes us to unpack our beliefs and understanding about sexual violence itself and how it relates to power, politics, class, race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender.

Resources: Global history of sexual violence as a weapon of war

  1. Rohingya Genocide in Myanmar
  2. Rwandan Genocide 1994
  3. Sudan
  4. Violence against Kashmiri women by Indian Armed Forces
  5. ‘Comfort Women’ recruited by the Japanese Imperial Army
    To learn more: http://www.womensmediacenter.com/women-under-siege/conflicts