An Overview of Sexual Violence in War Contexts: Violence Against Women Within International Conflicts

“Women, over the centuries, had their stories subjugated by patriarchy for the mere satisfaction of the will of their husbands who, over the years, represented the roles of heads of households”.

In the context of war conflicts between nations, the use of sexual violence, characterized as a form of armament and consolidation of power as well as domination, by its agents, over a territory and everything in it has been observed since the dawn of humanity (PASSOS and LOSURDO, 2017).

Widely consolidated in conflict regions, sexual violence, characterized by the practice of rape, forced pregnancy, and forced marriages, has become a pertinent issue, and of paramount importance, to the study and development of Humanitarian Law.

Thus, it is essential to highlight, at first, the objectification of women’s bodies and the development of gender inequality parameters, especially in countries considered as underdeveloped, in which the rates of guaranteeing women’s human rights and equalization of fundamental rights remain derisory (UN, 2019).

According to the data from the Department of Population Dynamics of the United Nations (UN), especially in underdeveloped countries, more and more women are lacking basic humanitarian assistance, with basic health services being considered insufficient to meet population demand, resulting in significant data on the increase of misinformation and access to reproductive planning policies safely (UN, 2019).

Over the years, through the structural construction of societies, aimed at maintaining the representations of gender identities associated with the sexual and the social roles, and respective forms of behavior, the figure of the woman, in the face of social development, has been placed on a scale of secondary importance, inferior to the male figure. Women, over the centuries, had their stories subjugated by patriarchy for the mere satisfaction of the will of their husbands who, over the years, represented the roles of heads of households, who even today, in many regions, obtain control of the activities and bodies of their wives (MARTINS, 2019).

Thus, gender inequality and oppression, in the face of the international context of disputes and conflicts, the abuse, and the consequent violation of the sexual dignity and life of many women, has become increasingly commonplace as a way to manifest the perpetuation of power and sovereignty of their offenders over conquered populations, territories, and resources, subsequently surpassing the mere individual character of these violations (PASSOS and LOSURDO, 2017).

That said, it should be noted that these abusers, including the ones in the context of armed conflicts, are not characterized as carriers of any anomalies, pathologies, or psychological problems, being perceived, even, as being the very military with direct involvement in the conflict, acting in a manner tolerated and even encouraged by superiors and the hierarchical structure arising from the military sphere, according to MARTINS (2019).

Thus, in armed conflicts, the use and objectification of dominated women stand out, in order to promote the social destabilization of the enemy population, through the annihilation of the identity of the conquered people, forcing, in many cases, the achievement of pregnancies, from the acts of rape, as a way to promote an ethnic cleansing and a consequent “scar” pronounced by the dominant people (MARTINS, 2019).

Regarding sexual violence in circumstances of war, PASSOS and LOSURDO (2017) point to the Lieber Code – a famous regiment of military conduct of soldiers in the American Civil War – as one of the first regulations concerning the protection of women, considered part of the civilian population, bringing great influences to a later international codification, aimed at a systematisation of rights arising from armed conflicts. However, the express typification of rape as illicit conduct, in war circumstances, did not happen quickly and effectively. It was only after the effectiveness of the London Statute, through Law No. 10 of the Allied Occupation Control Council of the First World War, that sexual violence in armed conflicts had a significant provision (PASSOS and LOSURDO, 2017).

Thus, it was only in the face of the vast persistence of human rights violations resulting from the numerous ethnic conflicts waged between states that it became feasible to observe the growing demand, in the face of the International Courts, regarding a position and effective jurisdictional control for the trial and punishment of crimes committed in this sphere (PASSOS and LOSURDO, 2017).

It is important to point out, therefore, that war rape, even with the legal provision of typifying the conduct as criminal, still lacks effective penalties and effective forms of control for the reduction of sexual violence that, undoubtedly, still plagues the lives of countless women victims of structural gender oppression, accentuated by war conflicts (MARTINS, 2019).

When dealing with gender violence, especially in the context of armed conflicts, it is essential to point out the lack of effective protective measures for the many women who are victims of violence and sexual abuse.

Considered by many as a mere consequence of war, violent oppression materialized through the mass rape of the dominated people, is characterized as a recurring and neglected problem, since, in most cases, considering the high rates of extreme violence resulting from war, the attention ends up getting diverted from sexual violence and its many victims, as pointed out by SORG (2011). This perspective, in countries with high rates of poverty and underdevelopment, ends up becoming even more disregarded (SORG, 2011).

However, throughout history, it has become possible to observe several situations of sexual violence against the female gender, including when it comes to major milestones in world history, such as the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. In this context, due to the extensive cruelty consummated by the conducts of war, the history of many women, consequently, ended up being placed in the background, getting their first approaches, related to the perspective of violence against women, with the development of equality and gender justice movements (SORG, 2011).

Thus, the concretization of the due accountability of these numerous cases of sexual violence, uttered through the rape of women, under the circumstances of armed conflicts, was not always obtained, as pointed out by MARTINS (2019). It becomes possible to state, therefore, that, especially in the context of war, women continue to be the major victims of a structural and international gender inequality, which entails a false sense of freedom, by the dominant people, in relation to the use and objectification of the dominated female population (MARTINS, 2019).

That said, it is essential to point out the need for new developments of effective mechanisms for the effective protection of victims of sexual violence when it comes to armed conflicts.


PASSOS, K.R.M.; LOSURDO, F. Estupro de Guerra: o sentido da violação dos corpos para o Direito Penal Internacional. Maranhão: Revista de Gênero, Sexualidade e Direito, v. 3, p. 153-169, 2017.

MARTINS, A.L.D.A. Estupro de Guerra: a violação do corpo da mulher como arma contra o inimigo e a transgressão ao Direito de Desenvolvimento Feminino. Belém: Centro Universitário do Estado do Pará, 2019.

SORG, L. A mais covarde das armas de guerra. Época, 18 jul. 2011. Acessado em 21 set. 2020. Online. Disponível em:

SCHOLZ, F. Gênero e as Relações Internacionais: o uso da violência sexual como arma de guerra. Rio de Janeiro: Caderno de Relações Internacionais/PUCRio, 2018.

Nações Unidas Brasil. População mundial deve chegar a 9,7 bilhões de pessoas em 2050, diz relatório da ONU. Zero Hora Digital, Porto Alegre, 23 mar. 2000. Especiais. Acessado em 20 set. 2020. Online. Disponível em:

Law student at the Catholic University of Pelotas, with a double-bachelor degree in International Relations, at the International University Center, Brazil. Interested in Technology Law, International Law and Human Rights, being an alumni of the University of Coimbra’s Law School and the University of Porto’s Criminology Licentiate Program, Portugal.

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