Press reports and punditry about sexual violence in Iraq and Syria continually employ the phrases “weapon of war” and “tool of terror.” Without a doubt, some wartime rape is a weapon of war: Some commanders use rape or the threat of rape strategically to punish enemy communities, induce compliance, or demoralize opponents. But the “weapon of war” narrative is disastrously incomplete.
Research suggests that rape has multiple causes, and is more closely associated with fighting forces’ internal practices (like forced recruitment, training practices, or the strength of the military hierarchy) than with strategic imperatives, ethnic hatred, or other “conventional wisdom” causes. In short, to assume that wartime rape is always “rape as a weapon of war” is to ignore the majority of cases.
Moreover, to the extent that wartime rape is a weapon of war, policymakers who invoke the “weapon of war” narrative may actually strengthen belligerents’ strategic positions. Commentary about the Islamic State’s sexual “brutality” – exemplified in a recent policy recommendation aimed at “shaming” the organization – risks reinforcing the Islamic State’s intimidating reputation (which is already well-known on the ground and in the refugee camps). Reputations and rumors matter in conflict; recent research in Lebanon has suggested that fear of rape has become an important reason for refugees to leave Syria. Playing into combatants’ rhetorical strategies could result in increased refugee flows, contribute to efforts to diminish women’s involvement in public life, or even increase the incidence of wartime rape.