Victims of sexual violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where the scale of sexual violence and its physical, emotional and economic consequences continue to pervade and reinforce instability and conflict. Photo by: Endre Vestvik / CC BY-NC-SA

This week, London is hosting the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Chaired by British Foreign Minister William Hague and Oscar-winning actress and UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie, the summit aims to tackle a savagery seemingly so entrenched in the human condition that it even forms the stuff of myth and legend.

For centuries, up to and including World War II, the sexual violation of civilians in times of conflict was considered an unfortunate — but unremarkable — consequence of men taking up arms. It took the wholesale obscenities witnessed in the early 1990s in Bosnia, where whole communities of women were raped by Serb troops, for the issue to take center stage within the international development community.

With an estimated 60,000 women violated during the conflict, the United Nations adopted a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, but the horror continued. In the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the U.N. estimates between 100,000 and 250,000 women were raped, in most cases just before being killed.

Legal mechanisms began to appear to bring perpetrators to account. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia played a historic role in the prosecution of wartime sexual violence, as it included rape as a crime against humanity, with the first conviction following in 2001. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda then declared rape and forced prostitution war crimes and crimes against humanity, before becoming in 1998 the first international court to find an accused person guilty of rape as a crime of genocide. And now the International Criminal Court included crimes of sexual and gender-based violence — such as rape or "any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity" when it is committed in a widespread or systematic way — as crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes that fall under its jurisdiction.

Today, however, a quick Internet search reveals the continued prevalence of sexual violence in conflict, with accounts of rape from the war in Syria, the Darfur conflict in Sudan, South Sudan, Colombia and beyond.

The conflict with which it is most frequently associated, however, is that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been dubbed the “rape capital of the world” due to the sheer number of reports emerging from the country’s eastern region.

In the DRC’s North and South Kivu provinces, the scale of sexual violence and its physical, emotional and economic consequences continue to pervade and reinforce instability and conflict. Reports from Christian Aid partners working there mention gang rape, abduction for purposes of sexual slavery, forced participation of family members in rape and the mutilation of genitalia.

But for every case of rape recorded in the DRC and elsewhere, countless more go undocumented. Data on the extent of sexual violence is incomplete because it is generally only based on the testimonies of survivors who have actively searched out assistance. The fear of stigmatization by family members and communities, coupled with the absence of support structures, means that many of those suffering such violence simply remain silent, making the effective planning of prevention and response programs very difficult.

It is important to recognize, too, that sexual violence doesn’t happen exclusively to women and girls; men and boys can also be targeted, a fact acknowledged by the United Nations for the first time two years ago in Security Council Resolution 2106.

Sexual violence against males is, if anything, even less reported than that against women due to shame, fear of stigmatization and the far more limited — and in some cases non-existent — support structures or medical help available.

In fact, a recent study by the Refugee Law Project in Uganda found that 63 countries, representing almost two-thirds of the world’s population, only recognize female victims of sexual violence, and 70 countries can criminalize men who report sexual abuse as they are assumed to be homosexual. The RLP’s systematic screening and documentation of male survivors from the eastern DRC, in partnership with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, even suggests that in some refugee populations, more than one in three men have experienced sexual violence.

Ascribing sexual violence simply to female victims and male perpetrators only covers part of the dynamic, while reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes.

Both sexes, meanwhile, have a role to play in combating the practice. Women can be proponents of change by forming support groups and taking their cases to court; men, even combatants, can help discourage, address and report sexual violence themselves.

The truth is that sexual violence can happen anywhere, from stable, developed economies to fragile, corrupt states, and it can happen to anyone regardless of their gender, ethnicity, race, class or religion.

In order to address it, awareness is key. Only then can prevention and response activities be developed.

Recognizing that there can never be too many support structures to assist survivors and that there is a clear need to develop assistance mechanisms for men who experience sexual violence, there is still a world to win on the prevention of abuses. One of the most important elements is addressing gender relations, how women relate to men and how men relate to women. Including men in prevention and response approaches is therefore of utmost importance.

Finally, any intervention must go hand in hand with state willingness and capacities, to complement the important work of local organizations, NGOs and the United Nations. This includes ensuring that countries such as the DRC have a well-functioning judicial sector and the necessary legislative frameworks and security mechanisms that will protect the population.

Therefore, while activities to prevent and respond to sexual violence are a start, addressing the broader issues is vital if this violence is to be addressed in a structural and durable manner.

Are you attending this week’s Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London — or are you working on issues that will be discussed there? Please share news and insights in the comments section below.

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About the authors

  • Emma Pomfret

    Emma Pomfret is the press officer for East, Central and South Africa at ChristianAid. She was a journalist at the Press Association for six years and spent 18 months working in Malawi with a children's HIV charity.
  • Chantal Daniels

    Chantal Daniels is an expert in the field of fragile state development, security sector intervention, gender, sexual violence and peace building, specializing in (post) conflict areas. She was a former Great Lakes policy officer at Christian Aid. Daniels has also worked as a policy advisor, advocacy officer and United Nations coordination officer working in, East and Central Africa, notably in Congo, Burundi, Sudan and Rwanda.