Tag: war rape

Guest Post: What’s Wrong with the Human Security Report and the “Global Decline Claim”

This is a guest post by Amelia Hoover Green (Drexel University), Dara Kay Cohen (Harvard Kennedy School) and Elisabeth Jean Wood (Yale University). See also Megan H. MacKenzie’s post and Andrew Mack’s reply. tl;dr notice: 3,608 words

The Human Security Report (HSR) released last week has attracted considerable attention in both the news media and the blogosphere (the debate is collected here), mostly related to its assertion that wartime sexual violence may be on the decline globally. It is an attention-grabbing claim that is no more supported by data (indeed, somewhat less supported by data) than claims about the rising incidence of wartime sexual violence.

As scholars who research conflict-related rape and sexual violence—two of us provided input to the HSR[1]—we are concerned about both the global decline claim (we’ll refer to it as the GDC throughout) and the disproportionate attention it has received. In particular, we are troubled that the debate over the GDC has overshadowed other findings that are both more important and more grounded in evidence.

In this response, we first briefly review several important points of agreement with the HSR.[2] We then discuss our disagreements with the GDC, and with the HSR’s use of data to support the GDC. We nonetheless argue that cross-national data on wartime sexual violence are essential to understanding patterns of perpetration. While acknowledging that cross-national data have inherent biases, we maintain that such data have advanced our knowledge about the phenomenon of wartime rape. Some key findings from these data include the following:

  • States, not rebel groups, are more frequently reported as perpetrators of wartime rape.
  • Wartime rape is not (only) an African issue: Civil wars with high levels of wartime rape, when considered as a proportion of all civil wars, were only slightly more common in sub-Saharan Africa than in Asia.
  • Despite the conventional wisdom, ethnic war is not a statistically significant predictor of wartime rape.

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War Rape is Not Declining

The Human Security Report Project (HSR) recently released their 2012 Report. The first chapter on wartime sexual violence makes sweeping conclusions and provocative claims about the nature and rates of sexual violence. The overarching message, and certainly the one picked up by the media is that wartime sexual violence is on the decline. Before taking a closer look at the 5 Myths about sexual violence that HSR seeks to dispel, it is important to put this report in a bit of context.

In case you aren’t familiar with HSR, they have made a name out of making counter-factual hypotheses and offering provocative- if not always accurate- headlines. They revived the ‘war is declining’ headline in 2005- over a decade after most political scientists widely acknowledged that inter-state war was indeed declining (and being replaced with other forms of conflict and political violence). What’s precious about HSR is that their depiction of successful peacekeeping, a global decline in violence, and impending peace in international relations ignores the increase in intra-state violence, political violence, and terrorist activities, as well as research pointing to conflict and violence as the primary influence behind global poverty and evidence that the annual percentage of civilian fatalities perpetrated by non-state actors is on clear, upward trend. Most concerning is that HSR have used the tenuous ‘war decline’ hypothesis as the foundation for numerous other tenuous claims, including that the number of child soldiers has decreased and, now, that sexual violence is decreasing. Continue reading


Representing Children of Genocide

This week I served on a panel discussion for Jonathan Torgovnik’s photo exhibit on the Rwandan genocide at the Woodrow Wilson School Bernstein Galley at Princeton University. The exhibit contained extraordinary photographs of female genocide survivors and their children born as a result of genocidal rape.

There is also a extremely evocative video available here.

I was asked to comment critically on the exhibit and the accompanying book, Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape. The review I presented was mixed.

On the one hand the exhibit is very much needed. Children like these are growing up in conflict zones wherever sexual violence has been endemic, and there is a dearth of attention to their needs by the international community. Torgovnik’s images and accompanying narratives urge us never to forget the horrific events of 1994, and never to under-estimate the intergenerational consequences of such violence.

On the other hand I worried that the photos and accompanying texts reproduce two narratives about children of genocidal rape that draw attention away from their own human rights – something I’ve written about recently in a Millennium article. Though references to the lives of the children are sprinkled through Torgovnik’s book, the majority of the testimonies are about the rapes themselves (situating children as products of genocide rather than as children who need help) and the struggles of the mothers in the aftermath (situating children as the source of these struggles rather than the victims of their mother’s neglect, abuse and stigma from the community).

The women’s needs and the earlier question of genocide prevention are extremely important and neglected topics in their own right. But conflating them with the topic of the children diverts our attention, I fear, from the child rights dimension of the issue. The book should perhaps have been titled “Intended Consequences: Rwandan Women Raising Children Born of Rape,” if the focus was to be on the mothers.

A child rights view of this issue would begin from a different starting point, I argued. It would:

1) Make the children’s present lives, not their mother’s traumas, the frame of reference. Rather than regurgitating the troubles from which they resulted, explore how the social stigma around their origins affects their everyday social, psychological and political worlds and what this means for their human rights and healthy development. As I spoke to Torgovnik afterward, it was obvious that his interviews with the mothers had allowed him to glean considerable data on precisely these factors; I would have liked to see them more front and center in the materials that resulted from his project – or to see other projects that do take this perspective.

2) Include children born of rape as a diverse category. This project focused only on children kept by their mothers, but research has shown that many of these kids end up with other caregivers facing a different range of issues. (Admittedly, following the larger category of children born of genocidal rape is a much taller order, and as Torgovnik rightly told me afterward, you must start somewhere.)

3) To the extent possible, allow children to tell their own stories. Of course this often isn’t possible for very small children, but these Rwandan kids are teenagers now and surely have thoughts about the genocide, about school, about bullying, about discrimination, about relationships with their parents and siblings that could be a basis for understanding how they are doing relative to other kids growing up after a genocide – even without raising sensitive questions about things they may or may not understand. I worry when I see adults speaking about children, with children’s voices absent. Admittedly it can be extremely difficult to secure access to interviews with such children. Still, finding a way to let these children have a voice is going to be very important to really assessing their needs and strengths as we gradually move beyond treating them as an invisible population.

4) Represent children only in ways consistent with their view of themselves and not in ways that will contribute to their marginalization, and protect them from the harms that can come from participation in research studies about sensitive topics. Here my view of Torgovnik’s work is mixed. His choice not to interview the children as such, while it prevented them from exercising participation rights, was meant as a form of protection. He also took efforts to make certain the photos would not be distributed in Africa, so the hope is that the images will do some good in drawing donor and humanitarian attention to the issue without contributing to further stigma within local communities. But I wonder about whether video disseminated on the Internet can be controlled in this way, and I worry about the psycho-social impacts on a Rwandan teenager who gains access to images of him or herself online, now or later in life, next to text of his mother’s disparaging comments. Torgovnik’s answer to this is a thoughtful one – you have to weigh the very small likelihood of that happening despite your best efforts against the good that can come to the children as a population from advocacy attention to the problem.

Which brings me to:

5) Projects such as these should serve the goal of improving protective measures for children. On this point, Torgovnik is to be strongly commended. He has used the publicity from his work to create an NGO, “Foundation Rwanda” which channels money from Northern donors to pay for school fees for these children, who otherwise cannot access free schooling through the Rwandan government’s survivors’ program. So his project has made a concrete positive difference in many children’s lives. The money for the initiative is a direct result of donations received after the publication of his photos in the British and German press. The program is implemented confidentially, so it doesn’t mark the kids as recipients of such aid in a way that might risk a backlash. As such, it also provides an example of “best practice” that bigger child protection organizations could use if they chose, to counter their claim that it’s impossible to do programming for this population without doing them harm. I have written more about this path-breaking initiative here.

Ultimately, I think this project raises an important question in human rights advocacy: how to balance the dignity and participation rights of vulnerable or stigmatized populations with the desire to generate resources with which to promote their betterment. Thoughts?


Where is the Global Attention to Children Born of War?

Went on BBC World for the first time yesterday to talk about protecting children born as a result of sexual violence in conflict zones like Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, East Timor, you name the conflict zone where rape has been endemic, you’ll find a host of children growing up in the aftermath.

The segment just before my interview focuses on children conceived during the Rwandan genocide.

As I describe in my interview and as the volume of essays I published last year details, these children are often (though not always) treated rather badly in the aftermath of wars, either by their states, local communities or sometimes their traumatized mothers.

The big puzzle for me as a scholar of global agenda-setting in the human rights area is that lack of attention to these children by the international community. 300,000 child soldiers galvanizes the Security Council, but half a million or so children at risk of infanticide, neglect, abuse, social exclusion or statelessness remain invisible.

I wrote about this before and talk about it a bit on the segment. Am continuing to collect thoughts on the matter from anyone who cares to ruminate on a grim and depressing topic. Your comments will help me refine an argument for my new book about how the human rights network exercises an agenda-denying as well as agenda-setting function.

Here’s one of my theses: nobody owns an issue like this. Child protection agencies think of stigma against children born of rape as a gender-based violence issue. So they assume that women’s groups are covering it. Gender-based violence experts tend to focus on the trauma to the direct victims of rape, not long-term inter-generational effects on their babies. They see the protection of those children as falling to the child protection agencies. So the babies fall through the cracks.

How many other issues or populations are out there that get missed by advocacy organizations because they don’t fit the ideational and organizational turf of the NGO sector?

What other factors explain this or other such cases?


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