Contextualizing Wartime Violence

Amanda H. Blair

Why is rape, in particular, used during armed conflict? What presumptions about gender and sexuality are necessary for rape to be efficacious during war? Focusing on the widespread use of rape, as was the case during the Sierra Leone civil war (1991-2002), my dissertation utilizes an urban-rural within case comparison that combines original archival research, life-history interviews, and conflict analysis to locate what it is about rape that makes it a useful form of violence during armed conflict. The project brings together comparative politics literature on wartime violence and feminist literature on rape to contribute to ongoing discussions about violence in armed conflict, as well as to produce a theory about how conflict-related rape is a form of gendered and sexualized violence that is distinct from rape perpetrated during peacetime and other forms of violence in general.

The SSD Summer Grant enabled me to review the materials I collected during my first round of field research. These materials contributed to the development of my dissertation project. During my first research trip, January-April 2014, I photographed and catalogued four types of newspaper articles that were printed during the civil war, materials related to: armed conflict, rape, gender and sexuality, and other identity issues (e.g. nationalism, tribalism, regionalism). I also fostered relationships for life-history interviews and developed a supplemental policy that would allow researchers access to restricted documents in the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission archives.

The materials I collected were used to ascertain which forms of violence were normative and the thresholds (in terms of acceptability) of those forms of violence. Without a general understanding of how violence was experienced and understood, the project would not be able to determine whether or not wartime rape is separable from perpetration of rape unrelated to the armed conflict. In other words, the materials help to identify and categorize violence perpetrated during the civil war from a perspective other than the researcher’s. Assessing patterns of rape, as well as contextualizing the violence within larger socio-cultural frameworks, addresses the aims of the project—to explain why rape is used during conflict, and why conflict-related rape is an efficacious form of violence.

My analysis found that accounts of conflict-related rape were usually limited to laundry lists of other crimes perpetrated during the war: arson, looting, violent killing, abduction, and so forth. Of the accounts that did provide information on wartime rape, most were revelatory. One newspaper recounted an interview that described rebels as “womanizers” and “sexual maniacs,” who “had no problem getting women. They just take women and make them their wives … all the girls in the area have become their sex slaves.” Another article stated, “No civilians owned a wife or girlfriend. The rebels could even go into your bed room and grab your wife or girlfriend from you.” These statements suggest that rebels treated women as property, who were used for their sexual labor. Phrases such as “pounce on”, “play with”, “keen nose for”, “love for”, “forced her into an affair”, “ravaging their prey”, “thrusting into her with gusto”, “deflower”, “tamper”, and “take turns making love to her”, were used to describe rapes. Only one article during the research time period casts the offense as objectively abhorrent, defining rape an “atrocious, vulnerable and vicious and anti-social act”. The language used to describe perpetrators, victims, and the violations themselves encompass a wealth of information on the variety of ways sex manifests and how these manifestations are interpreted. In addition to accounts of conflict-related rape, reports of molestation and cartoon imagery of young women seducing much older, wealthier men are regularly found in newspapers. These narratives of molestation and depictions of “sugar daddy” relationships are instantiations of sexual “exchange” that, like reports of conflict-related rape, allude to broader socio-cultural constructions of gender and sexuality, at least in the media.


UPDATE: Unfortunately due to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, I have been forced to suspend this project temporarily. My new dissertation project focuses on the development of the sexual economy in Northern Uganda during the LRA insurgency. I am particularly interested in women who were forced into prostitution during the war and remain in sex work today, and whether their experiences are indicative of broader shifts in the manifestation of sexual violence from conflict to post-conflict societies.