Abuse of Women: A Weapon in Conflict

The use of abuse of women as a weapon in conflict is a deeply troubling and pervasive issue that has persisted throughout history. This dark practice involves deliberately targeting women and girls for physical, sexual, and psychological violence during times of armed conflict. Such abuse serves various strategic, social, and psychological purposes for the perpetrators. This article explores the historical origins of this phenomenon, provides examples of instances of abuse in different conflicts, and delves into the psychology behind this horrific tactic.

Historical Origins

The abuse of women as a weapon in conflict has deep-rooted historical origins. Throughout history, women have been seen as symbols of a community's honor, and the violation of women was to humiliate, shame, and demoralize the enemy. The following are some key historical factors that contributed to the emergence of this tactic:

Tribal and Ancient Societies

In ancient tribal societies, wars often involved capturing and enslaving women from rival communities. Women were viewed as spoils of war, and their abuse served to subjugate and exert dominance over the defeated group.

Conquest and Colonialism

During periods of conquest and colonialism, invading forces frequently used sexual violence against indigenous women as a means of asserting control and dominance over the conquered population.

Medieval Warfare

In medieval warfare, women were often victimized as part of the pillaging and looting that occurred during sieges and invasions.

Enslavement and Forced Labour

Throughout history, women captured during conflicts were often forced into sexual slavery and used for forced labor by victorious armies.

Instances of Abuse

1. World War II - Rape of Nanking (1937)

During the Japanese invasion of China, soldiers engaged in the brutal "Rape of Nanking," where an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 Chinese women were sexually assaulted. This horrific event marked one of the most infamous instances of mass sexual violence in history.

2. Rwandan Genocide (1994)

During the Rwandan genocide, thousands of women were subjected to sexual violence as a weapon of terror and control. Rape was used to destroy families, spread fear, and inflict lasting trauma on the targeted population.

3. Bosnia- Herzegovina Conflict (1992-1995)

The Bosnian War saw widespread use of sexual violence against Bosnian Muslim women by Serbian forces. Rape camps were established to systematically abuse and impregnate women, with the goal of ethnic cleansing.

4. ISIS's Reign of Terror (2014-2017)

The Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Iraq and Syria subjected thousands of Yazidi women to sexual slavery, forced marriages, and physical and psychological abuse. Women were held captive, bought, and sold as commodities.

There are thousands of such instances in the course of history which have remained undocumented. As I write this, the unforgivable incident of abuse of women in Manipur rages media channels. Time will tell if the perpetrator pay the price of this unforgivable crime.

The Psychology Behind the Use of Abuse

Power and Control

The abuse of women in conflict is a manifestation of the perpetrators' desire for power and control. Sexual violence is a tool to exert dominance over individuals and communities, instilling fear and ensuring submission.

Destruction of Social Fabric

Attacking women and girls is a deliberate strategy to destroy the social fabric of targeted communities. By inflicting harm on women, perpetrators aim to weaken the social bonds that hold communities together, leading to disintegration and disarray.

Humiliation and Shame

Perpetrators use sexual violence to humiliate and shame not only the individual victims but also their families and communities. This tactic seeks to undermine the sense of pride and honor within the affected community.

Fear and Intimidation

The use of sexual violence creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, dissuading communities from resisting or retaliating against the perpetrators. It is a tool to silence dissent and maintain control.

Ethno- Religious Animosity

In some conflicts, sexual violence is used to fuel ethno-religious animosities by targeting women from specific ethnic or religious groups. This further divides communities and exacerbates existing tensions.

Psychological Warfare

Sexual violence is a form of psychological warfare, leaving deep scars on victims and communities. Long-lasting trauma can disrupt the process of post-conflict recovery and reconciliation.

International Response and Accountability

The international community has increasingly recognized the seriousness of sexual violence in conflict and has taken steps to address it. Key developments include:

International Criminal Tribunals

International criminal tribunals, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), have prosecuted individuals for sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

UN Resolutions

The United Nations Security Council has adopted various resolutions condemning sexual violence in conflict and calling for accountability.

"Women, Peace, and Security" Agenda

The UN's "Women, Peace, and Security" agenda emphasizes the inclusion of women in peace processes and protection from sexual violence during armed conflicts.

Documentation and Reporting

Organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented instances of abuse and advocated for accountability.


The use of abuse of women as a weapon in conflict is a heinous practice with deep historical roots. It represents a complex interplay of power, control, humiliation, and psychological warfare. Instances of abuse have occurred across different periods and in various conflicts, leading to immense suffering and long-lasting trauma for victims and affected communities. The international community's response has improved over time, with greater recognition of sexual violence as a war crime, leading to prosecutions and attempts to address this grave issue. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done to prevent and address sexual violence in conflict, protect survivors, and hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. Ultimately, eradicating this horrific tactic requires a collective commitment to promoting peace, human rights, and gender equality on a global scale.

By Suresh Nair