Sexual Violence, War, and Reconciliation: Raising Awareness and Advocacy

Every five minutes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), four women are raped. During the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, an estimated 50,000– 60,000 rapes occurred. In Syria, the number of women and men being raped is not clear because the Syrian government, humanitarian organizations, or opposition forces are not collecting reliable data, and the government and opposition forces blame each other for perpetrating crimes when they are reported. Though it is often difficult to get accurate data on sexual violence cases, the numbers that can be verified are alarming. Governments, international organizations, and policy advocates exclaim “No more!” and “Never again!” with each new revelation of sexual violence perpetrated as a tool of conflict, yet survivors are repeatedly left voiceless and shunned and provided with little, if any, support or justice. 

In 2008 IDN partnered with The Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution Program to form a working group on gender-based violence in Liberia. Since then gender-based violence and sexual violence during conflict have been the focus of numerous IDN-supported research projects, workshops, and conferences. This fall IDN hosted a semester-long film and discussion series on sexual violence, war, and reconciliation. The series, supported by a Public Education for Peacebuilding Support award from the US Institute for Peace, provided a space for experts, students, and community members to talk about sexualized violence in both global and local contexts. “It was very important to us to make the point that sexualized violence does not only occur ‘over there’ in contexts where social and political structures are broken down,” said Dona Yarbrough, associate vice provost and director of the Center of Women. “We wanted to explore the connection between sexual violence that happens daily in every society and the extreme of rape during conflict.”

IDN Film Series

Award-winning journalist Lauren Wolfe discusses her work documenting sexual violence in Syria and other countries.

The series featured three films, followed by discussions that explored different facets of sexualized violence in the context of war. Fighting the Silence, the first film in the series, looked at sexualized violence in the DRC as well as the stigmas, stereotypes, and social pressures affecting survivors. The second film, Gender Against Men, focused on sexual violence by men against men in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa. Pamela Scully, professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexualities Studies, and African Studies, uses the film, produced by the Refugee Law Project in Uganda, in her class on Gender Violence and Gender Justice, which explores sexual violence and humanitarian interventions. “Gender Against Men argues that the notion that only women can be victims of rape actually helps bolster male dominance.” She says, “The film argues that patriarchy maintains the idea of men as strong individuals who are either offenders or protectors rather than also being victims and survivors of sexual violence.” I Came to Testify, the final film featured, shed light on the lives of a group of Bosnian women who testified against their perpetrators, ultimately advancing the capacity of international law to prosecute rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity. With the help of experts from the Emory Respect Program, the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexualities Studies, the Center for Women at Emory, and the Atlanta-based organization, Men Stopping Violence, the discussions following the film screenings helped to raise awareness, shatter stereotypes, and address what must be done moving forward.

To conclude the series, IDN hosted award-winning journalist Lauren Wolfe whose talk was titled “The Other Red Line: Sexualized Violence in Syria and Beyond.” As director of the Women Under Siege Project at the Women’s Media Center, Wolfe documents and verifies cases of sexual violence in conflicts around the world, including Syria, where a live, online crowd map provides information on more than 215 cases of sexual violence. Her work has documented numerous accounts of rape, as well as the after effects associated with rape and sexualized violence in Syrian communities—a husband telling his raped wife that he wished she were dead, untreated mental illness resulting from the attacks, and even suicide. These stories, Wolfe stated, must be documented to create a set of data that provides information and serves as a record for the international community, especially if the UN ever brings these cases to trial in the International Criminal Court.

This documentation is also important for advocacy. Wolfe said that she often finds herself trying to balance the role of a journalist with that of an advocate—for instance, when face to face with a female refugee seeking medical assistance for her young child afflicted with a contagious disease; for a rape survivor who wants to reveal her name and face to the world; and for the thousands of others who are suffering. For Wolfe, sharing these stories is integral to raising awareness about sexual violence in order to understand better the role it plays in conflict and ultimately to end it.

IDN Film Series

Students and community members await the screening of Fighting the Silence.

Though the films and Wolfe’s talk explored sexualized violence in international contexts, the discussions often focused on themes that were also applicable in the US and even Emory’s campus. The number of rapes documented in the US ranges from 130,000 to 1.3 million per year, showing that even in the US, there is a sharp discrepancy about what is being reported and what is not. Sexualized violence is not relegated to one particular war-ravaged area in some corner of the world, and the same struggles and stigmas faced by survivors are encountered everywhere. All over the world, survivors may receive little support from families and communities due to associated social stigmas, and often, limited funding restricts proper training of survivor advocates and mental health professionals. “Sexual assault is a pervasive global public health issue, but it also affects us where we live and work, on our own campus. Sexual violence affects all of us directly or indirectly, but we also all have a role in ending it,” says Lauren “LB” Bernstein, assistant director for the Respect Program, Office of Health Promotion at Emory.

Sexual violence used as a weapon has devastating consequences for survivors, families, communities, and countries long after conflicts officially end. Although progress is being made in terms of international law and increased awareness and resources for survivors, for now, sexual violence remains an integral part of conflict and survivors suffer. For those working to understand, address, and treat this scourge—researchers, journalists, humanitarian workers, health providers, advocates, and others—there are extremely limited resources and often great personal costs such as becoming victims of sexual violence themselves and PTSD. When asked about this, Wolfe responded, “It’s happening. It’s terrible, and I’m going to keep talking about it.”


The series on sexual violence, war, and reconciliation was cosponsored by the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexualities Studies; the Center for Women at Emory; and the Emory Respect Program.