Landmark summit tackles rape in wartime

Horrific tales: Jolie and Hague on a fact-finding visit last year to war-ravaged Congo © PA

This week Angelina Jolie and William Hague are hosting the world’s largest summit on war and sexual violence. They hope to inspire international action to end it. But is that possible?

The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended nearly 20 years ago, but for the 50,000 women who were raped in the conflict, every day is still a psychological battle. Virtually none of them will see justice for the crimes committed against them, and many are too traumatised even to speak about it.

Sadly, such things are a common feature in many conflicts. While gaining a reliable figure is difficult, certainly millions of men, women and children are raped each year. It can do just as much damage as cluster bombs and landmines, and can sometimes eclipse the brutality of the actual fighting.

This week in London Angelina Jolie and the UK’s foreign minister William Hague are hosting a four-day ‘End Sexual Violence in Conflict’ summit in a bid to raise awareness and develop an international consensus about how to deal with this harrowing and often taboo issue. The largest ever event of its kind, governments, international organisations and the media will be present.

It follows the momentum of last year when 141 countries endorsed the ‘Declaration to End Violence in Conflict’, which acknowledged that rape is regularly used as a weapon of war. The countries, which include Bosnia, Somalia and the currently war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, pledged to hold perpetrators to account, improve support for victims, and do more to prevent rape from taking place.

So why does rape happen in war zones? Explanations vary. In the Syrian conflict, some say fighters are using rape as a weapon of terror, to frighten would-be enemies. In the Congo, it has been suggested that the soldiers lack discipline and know nothing in life but violence and brutality. But in all cases, the lawlessness of a war zone allows these atrocities to be committed.

Human rights groups are pleased that this harrowing subject is in the spotlight, but some worry that the attention will prove transitory and nothing will change. What the world can do to prevent rape in war zones is a difficult question, but many hope the summit can help to find some answers.

Global responsibility

Some argue that the governments of the world are finally paying attention to a taboo subject that for too long has been seen simply as an inevitable aspect of war. While conflicts will always happen, every country has a duty to ensure that some lines are not crossed in the heat of battle.

But while the summit has good intentions, others wonder how much it can actually achieve. International prohibitions against rape are all very well, but often soldiers in wartime feel they are living in a moral vacuum. When there is no law and order, how can rapists be stopped? A better strategy would be to prevent conflict in the first place.

You Decide

  1. Will we ever be able to stop atrocities occurring in war zones?
  2. ‘While we may be shocked to hear about wartime rape, the problem feels too distant to hold our attention for long.’ Do you agree?


  1. Dealing with the issue of wartime rape is difficult. In groups, think of some ways in which world governments could help to give victims greater support. Discuss your ideas with the class.
  2. Research a conflict that is currently going on in the world. Create a table to display key facts about it. Include information on any war crimes, such as rape, that have been committed against innocent victims.

Some People Say...

“The use of rape as a weapon of war is one of the great injustices of our time.’Angelina Jolie”

What do you think?

Q & A

This is terrible. How often does rape occur in war?
Unfortunately, it has been a feature of many conflicts for thousands of years. Yet even within academic war studies, rape is frequently seen as just a by-product of conflict, not one of its main weapons. Raping victims is often a way for one side to degrade and demoralise its adversary.
Can anything be done to stop it?
The summit will call on each participating country to teach its soldiers about sexual warfare and to impose tighter punishments for those who attempt to sexually abuse people in times of conflict. A major issue is that in war zones, people often lack the DNA detecting equipment that proves someone has been raped. Perhaps the international community can do more to make such tools available.

Word Watch

This civil war raged between 1992 and 1995 after the break up of Yugoslavia. Ethnic Croats and Serbs fought principally over territory in a war that witnessed many atrocities.
Cluster bombs
This is a type of explosive that, when thrown or fired, splits into smaller separate bombs. They are highly controversial because they cause indiscriminate damage often to those who are not military targets. Over 190 countries have agreed not to use them.
Angelina Jolie
The actress and director is also a UN special envoy. In 2011, she directed the film ‘The Land of Blood and Honey’. Set in wartime Bosnia, it was widely praised for its accurate representation of events.
The Somali civil war has been continuing with varying intensity since 1991. Its government is currently fighting against the extreme Islamist movement, al-Shabaab.
Although Congo’s war officially ended in 2003, the violence continues and around five million lives have been lost. Despite the country’s huge natural resources, continued conflict has made it one of Africa’s poorest nations.

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