The Balkan War Legacy: Rape As a Weapon of War


It has been twenty years since the war in the Balkans broke out. While war itself is not a new concept, what resulted from the break up of southeastern Europe was a new mandate on war, human rights and women’s rights. The conflict in the Balkan states put new focus on the treatment of women during conflict.

Still it took until 2008 for the UN Security Council to pass UN Security Council Resolution No. 1820 which declared rape and other forms of sexual violence a war crime, a crime against humanity, and a constitutive act with respect to genocide.

Sexual violence and crimes against women have been common factors of war for millennia. The adage of ‘rape and pillage’ was not invented from naught. During World War II, it is estimated that Soviet troops raped over 100,000 women, with some estimates as high as 2 million.

During the conflict in the Balkans, however, violating women became an overt weapon of war. This phenomenon has since carried over to other conflicts such as Rwanda where rape was widespread resulting in an estimated 500,000 rapes. Sexual violence against women is still rampant in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and in Darfur. In the latter, it mirrors the use in the Balkans and Rwanda as an attempted ethnic cleansing, aiming at forced impregnation of one ethnicity to birth children of another ethnicity.

According to a report by the Council of Europe, more than 20,000 women were raped during the Balkan conflict. Unfortunately, the horrors did not stop there. Of these women, most were gang-raped, some were forced into sexual slavery and forced impregnated often by armies and paramilitary groups.

Despite international recognition of rape being a war crime, a human right’s violation and a violation of women’s rights, it is estimated that more than 25,000 women are raped annually in the DRC, according to the Council of Europe report. In Liberia a Médecins Sans Frontières clinic sees more than 70 patients monthly who have been raped. Of these 80% are less than 18, and 40% of those are under the age of 12. The youngest survivor was 21 months old.

While the focus is primarily on women, men often suffer silently, as the taboo for male survivors makes it difficult to come forward, and fewer resources are available to counsel men through the healing process. Research on male rape has found incidents during war or political aggression in Chile, Croatia, Greece, Iran, Kuwait and other parts of Eastern Europe.

The Balkan war brought this issue to the forefront forcing international recognition of rape as a weapon of war and a violation on a multitude of levels. Despite this awareness the practice is not ceasing, in part because of weak prosecution. How can we as a global society change the discourse and take sexual violence out of conflict, or is that asking too much?