Photo: Zute Lightfoot / War Child UK

The hidden victims of sexual violence in war

The UN estimates that in conflict zones, for every one rape that is reported, between 10 and 20 rapes are not.

In the next hour, 48 women will be raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

That shocking statistic is one reason why we're standing with the international community and survivors of sexual violence to call for an end to all sexual violence in conflict. 

Today is the International Day to Eliminate Sexual Violence in Conflict. 


A global problem that can affect anyone 

Sexual violence in war has catastrophic consequences for children and adults. 

It does not discriminate - people of every gender, age and ethnicity can be involved. 

A recent UN report found that 1,429 incidents of gender-based violence (GBV) were reported in DRC in one 12-month period. 

68% of survivors were children. 

Although women are disproportionately affected, men and boys are also targeted. 

The use of rape as a weapon of war against men and boys has been documented in Bosnia, Sri Lanka, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the DRC. 

Sexual violence in war is a global problem that affects people from all backgrounds. Credit: War Child UK
War Child UK

Whenever conflict erupts, sexual violence is present.

In Yemen there has been a 70% increase in reports of sexual violence, including rape. But no statistics or figures will ever depict the true scale of the problem. That's because conflict affects the work of police and legal authorities. Rape and sexual violence often go unreported as a result. Perpetrators can be military officers, militants, civilians or workers in displacement camps.

Forced at gunpoint 

Rape and sexual violence are often designed to humiliate victims and spread fear amongst communities. 

Girl victims can face immense stigma because of the cultural significance of losing one’s virginity. 

Then there’s the risk of sexually transmitted infections like HIV/Aids. 

In South Sudan, 2,300 cases of sexual violence including rape, gang rape and sexual slavery were reported by mid-2018; 21% were children. 

But each public health centre serves an average of 50,000 people and most survivors don't get appropriate treatment, counselling or justice.   

Many instances of sexual violence in conflict go unreported for a variety of reasons.
War Child UK

Children born of rape face multiple problems including stigmatisation, abandonment and rejection by their community. In Syria, orphanages are opening to care for children born of rapes perpetrated by ISIS fighters on Yazidi women. Around 6,000 Yazidi women and children were captured and sold into sexual slavery after an attack in 2014.

Hidden in the shadows

There are many reasons why victims of rape and sexual violence remain hidden. 

Children who are raped often don’t know who to speak to and refrain from doing so because of shame. 

  • In some countries there might be no trusted way to report a rape at all. 
  • Most mechanisms require victims to be literate – many children aren’t. 
  • Parents might suppress children who want to speak out to avoid stigma from others. 
  • Families can be ostracised from their community following the reporting of a rape. 
  • Fear of being seen as homosexual, feminine or carrying HIV/Aids make male victims of rape very unlikely to report their experiences. 

We must all challenge the stigma that survivors often face. This will not only help recovery but may also encourage others to report violence and abuse. 

Understanding gender and power is vital if we're to make progress on sexual violence.
Richard Pohle


We're working with children and communities affected by war to raise awareness of their rights and prevent sexual violence. We also work with children and adult survivors to increase access to specialist services, health care, psychosocial support and legal care. Survivors are also able to access the lifesaving interventions they need thanks to our cash-for-protection programming. It's also very important for us to highlight the work of the UN on the issue of sexual violence in conflict.

Over the last 10 years, we've seen a greater understanding of conflict-related sexual violence.  

We recognise it as a threat to international peace and security and its impact on survivors. 

We know that the response required needs to be focused on survivors and multi-faceted, including medical and psychosocial assistance, sexual and reproductive healthcare, justice for survivors and an end to impunity for perpetrators.


Mechanisms and masculinity 

The mechanisms for reporting rape in conflict must be made child-friendly. 

That means using simple language that’s relevant to children who might not be able to read. 

If individuals who have a duty to protect are found to have been involved in sexual violence, they must be held to account. 

Specialist training should be given to medical professionals in how to respond to child survivors too, ensuring that treatment is discrete, and accessible to all. 

Every survivor of sexual violence in war deserves support.
Marcia Chandra / War Child UK.

We know that gender inequality and power impalances are at the root of sexual violence. If both are allowed to continue to flourish, so too will the use of rape as a weapon of war. It's important to understand the gender dynamics of peacetime in order to understand the drivers of sexual violence in conflict. We need to engage with men and boys to move beyond the stereotype that men are always perpetrators and women always victims. That stereotype is a significant barrier to male survivors coming forward and it also reinforces the idea that women are passive sufferers; meek, mild, and always in need of protection. Just as men can be survivors, so women can be perpetrators.

We owe it to all survivors of sexual violence to end impunity and make progress on eliminating sexual violence in all forms.  

We owe it to child survivors to ensure that they are able to develop into adulthood without enduring further abuse, harm, or exploitation. 

We owe it to children to give them the opportunity to report abuse and get access to safe, appropriate and accessible services. 

No survivor of sexual violence should be left in the shadows. 


The images included in this article are library photos for illustrative purposes only. There is no suggestion that any of the individuals pictured are or have ever been involved in sexual violence in any way.