Sexual violence against civilians is not an inevitable by-product of war. Understanding the institutional contexts in which commanders tolerate conflict-related sexual violence should help policymakers address such violence by actors such as UN peacekeepers.

Scholars, advocates and policymakers now understand that sexual violence against civilians is not an inevitable by-product of war. Rather, it varies widely in form, frequency and targeting – not only across conflicts but also among armed actors within conflicts.1 Some armed actors effectively prohibit their members from engaging in sexual violence against civilians; some adopt rape or different forms of sexual violence as organisational policy (sometimes for military purposes); others simply tolerate its occurrence. 

This essay assesses recent research on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), defined here as sexual violence by armed actors during conflict.2 The first section focuses on the well-documented variation in its form (such as forced abortion, sexual slavery and forced marriage), frequency (including the near-absence of rape by some organisations) and targeting, which may include boys and men as well as women and girls, and is often based on ethnic or political identity. 

The second section of the essay discusses new approaches to understanding the complex variation in patterns of CRSV. There is evidence that some armed actors purposefully adopt rape or other forms of sexual violence for military purposes. But others adopt sexual slavery, forced marriage or forced abortion as a policy for other reasons – often to manage the sexual and reproductive lives of their members. When a form of sexual violence is adopted as organisational policy, it may be authorised under some conditions but not explicitly ordered. Moreover, sexual violence can be frequent without having been explicitly adopted by the organisation. 

The essay concludes by identifying some implications for policy both during and after conflict.

Elisabeth Jean Wood is Professor of Political Science, International and Area Studies at Yale University and a member of the External Faculty of the Santa Fe Institute. She is currently working on a book on sexual violence during war. More information can be found on her personal website at

Julia Bleckner is a PhD student in comparative politics at Yale University. Previously, she worked as a Senior Asia Research Associate at Human Rights Watch, where she focused on torture and sexual violence, and as a Fulbright Research Fellow in Bangladesh, where she studied the efficacy of all-female peacekeeping units in deterring sexual violence in UN missions.

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Armed Conflict Survey 2017