Sexual Violence in African Conflicts

Ragnhild Nordås


This brief outlines findings from a pilot study of conflict-related sexual violence in 20 African countries. The study included 177 armed conflict actors (state armies, rebel groups and militias). Its findings suggest that, in Africa, sexual violence is mostly indiscriminate and is committed by only some conflict actors. Further, it is often committed by state armies, in years with low levels of killings, and post-conflict. More attention needs to be paid to preventing sexual violence in both conflict and post-conflict situations, and to improving reporting mechanisms.

Many African conflicts have been marked by a high level of sexual violence. Nevertheless, there is considerable variation in the incidence of such violence across armed groups and conflicts:

  • Not all armed actors in African conflicts engage in sexual violence. Even in conflicts with high reported levels of sexual violence, some groups seem to refrain from such acts.
  • Armed groups often change their sexual violence behaviour over time.
  • Patterns show a polarisation in sexual violence with groups committing either high levels of sexual violence or none at all.
  • Government forces, rebels and militias seemingly commit sexual violence without a clear purposeful selection of victims: the violence seems indiscriminate.
  • Many armed actors perpetrate sexual violence in periods when they are largely inactive on the regular battlefield.
  • Although rape is the most common, there is considerable variation in the types of sexual violence perpetrated.
  • Sexual violence often persists after the battle deaths have ended.

The UN as well as individual countries should explore how to integrate reporting of sexual violence with other activities. Further: It is critical that reporting happens without harm to the victims of sexual violence. More direct consultation and collaboration with women’s grassroots organisations in conflict countries could be useful.

  • The establishment of an effective early-warning system should be a priority for preventing future sexual violence. In order to create such a system, more data will be required, particularly on variations in exactly where and when sexual violence occurs.
  • Targeted interventions are needed, for example at actors committing massive sexual violence and state militaries. For the latter, more international pressure needs to be put on states to prosecute perpetrators at different levels.
  • The mandates of all peacekeeping missions should include explicit policies aimed at preventing sexual violence in post-conflict situations. Even if killings subside, mission size must be maintained at a level where peacekeepers can protect civilians against sexual violence.


Nordås R., 2011, 'Sexual Violence in African Conflicts', Centre for the Study of Civil War, PRIO, Oslo