Supporting Refugees Who Have Survived Rape


SEATTLE — When refugees flee violent conflict, they bring with them heavy baggage: loss of family and identity, destruction of property and too frequently they are survivors of rape—a war crime since 2008.


In 2019, volunteers at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos estimated that 90 percent of clinic visitors said that they were survivors of rape—most escaping conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo, Cameroon or Syria. Refugees who have survived rape have additional needs. They experience unwanted pregnancies, ostracism from their communities, injuries (traumatic fistulas), HIV/AIDS and other STDs, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Yale professor Elisabeth Wood studies and advocates for policies that address conflict-related sexualized violence. Based on her work, the NGO, Women’s Media Center recommends a three-pronged policy approach: work to prevent rape during war, to protect and care for survivors and to prosecute perpetrators.

But rape has different implications across different cultures. The UNHRC’s 2003 report Sexual and Gender-based Violence Against Refugees, Returnees and Internally-Displaced Persons insists that cultural understanding of the supports, traditions, attitudes toward rape, causes and contributing factors is the first step:

The causes of sexual and gender-based violence are rooted in socio-cultural norms of gender inequality and discrimination.”

Women Under Siege has identified reasons why rape is used as a tool of war.  

  • To humiliate or silence
  • To retaliate or express anger
  • To protect soldiers or placate superiors
  • To terminate pregnancies and impact fertility
  • To control communities, territory, or natural resources or food access

Additionally, Dara Kay Cohen, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School asserts that rape can create “create unit cohesion.”

Toward understanding, careful study of the causes and impact of wartime rape offers insight into solutions. Of note, in Women Under Siege, Wood identified “conflict profiles” of rape: gang rapesexual slaveryrape in front of family membersrepeated assaults, forced sex between victims, use of inanimate objects or loss of a fetus. Refugees from the same area often came to the clinic with similar injuries, suggesting that different armies may have different patterns of violence and rape, depending upon cultural norms and the nature of the conflict. The UNHCR provides guides for the cultural context of many specific conflicts.

Prevention and Prosecution

“Wartime Rape is Neither Ubiquitous Nor Inevitable,” Professor Wood entitled her whitepaper. By studying armed conflicts that do not systematically engage in sexual violence, researchers learn how to predict and prevent them. For instance, in the conflict in El Salvador, although brutal in many ways, there was very little sexual violence. Also, of the almost 500 instances of rape reported in the South African Truth Commission, none were attributed to the insurgents. By better understanding conflict-related rape, the explanations and impacts, and conflicts where rape is not common, the best prevention practices to prevention emerge.  

In a 2014 report, the Council on Foreign Relations made four policy suggestions:

  1. Hold commanders accountable. One of the most potent disincentives is holding commanders of armed groups legally liable for patterns of sexual violence of their troops. State forces are more likely to be reported as perpetrators of sexual violence than rebels. While rape is not always a strategy of war, it is frequently tolerated rather than explicitly ordered. We do know it occurs in many types of conflicts and to geographic regions, to males and females, and perpetrated by both.  
  2. Assess risks for sexualized violence. Using data from 85 armed conflicts, Cohen determined that there is a greater likelihood of rape during conflict if the means of recruitment is by force, a weak state and insurgent contraband funding are also indicators. By knowing the risk for sexualized violence in a conflict all negotiations and aid should anticipate post-traumatic trends.
  3. Train security forces in conflict-related sexual violence prevention and treatment.
  4. Involve women in every aspect of policy-making and research.

Care for Refugee Rape-Survivors

Greece has more than 60,000 refugees, including about 14,000 on the islands. Often, survivors’ social framework unravels, and their communities are forever changed after rape. Society-wide, systemic wartime rape can deteriorate societal connections even after a conflict is resolved. According to a 2010 Oxfam report, while the conflict in the DRC wound down, the incidents of rape among civilians increased 1733 percent suggesting “the erosion of all constructive social mechanisms that ought to protect civilians from sexual violence.”  

Caring for refugees who have survived rape involves additional strategies. Refugee camps need to make sure survivors and aid workers are safe. In Bangladeshi refugee camps run by the U.N., certain areas are set aside and monitored to allow for juveniles to be safe, women and girls. Then, medical assistance that addresses physical needs like treating and testing for STD’s, addressing family planning and treatment—sometimes surgery for traumatic fistulas—is essential.

Overcrowded refugee facilities like those currently operating on Lesbos and Samos in Greece have too few resources to meet the basic medical needs of refugees, and mental health care is spotty. Most survivors of rape are emotionally overwrought. Depending upon their culture, rape may hold a social stigma—often against survivors. Therefore, finding cultural sources of strength is key.

In an interview with The Borgen Project, international grief counselor Pascale Vermont explained that she encourages refugee aid to include culturally-specific mental health aid to refugees in equal measure to medical care. The anomie she recorded from refugees—especially men—who have survived rape suggests that the internal battle to recreate social order and a sense of self after chaos may be as great as the physical one.

In their report, the UNHRC examines the root causes and factors contributing to sexual and gender-based violence and offers actions to be taken to help prevent and respond impactfully.

– Heather Hughes
Photo: Unsplash


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