Pop Culture, Terror Warfare & Sexual Violence: The Case of Sierra Leone

By Alicia Luedke, Chloe Lewis, and Marisella Rodriguez


•                Recent attention to sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) on the part of military, police, and civilian personnel associated with UN peacekeeping operations and to conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) by state and nonstate armed groups reveals policy silos that obscure similarities between the two and result in ineffective prevention efforts.

•                Instead of being regarded as separate kinds of activities, SEA and CRSV are best seen as occurring on a behavior spectrum that ranges from strategically motivated to opportunistic.

•                Much of this behavior revolves around power and is rooted in structural factors, including gender inequality, displacement, poverty, and economic deprivation.

•                Policy responses need to go beyond an emphasis on accountability for CRSV, on the one hand, and the prevention of SEA through conduct and discipline on the other and address the underlying causes of sexual violence in conflict and postconflict situations, namely, gender inequality and the political, social, and economic vulnerabilities of civilian populations.

•                Efforts to address SEA and CRSV should emphasize both legal accountability and appropriate conduct and discipline, as well as the root causes of such behaviors.


Whether on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria or in the remote villages of South Sudan, sexual violence in the context of armed conflict, also known as conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), has drawn increasing attention from researchers, activists, and organizations concerned with protecting vulnerable populations during war. As a result of the efforts of feminist scholars and activists beginning in the 1990s, CRSV now informs an important part of

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international policy agendas. It is criminalized under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and is the subject of a number of significant UN Security Council Resolutions, collectively referred to as the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. UN Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000, drew attention to the gendered experiences of armed conflicts and emergencies and called for the protection of vulnerable populations against various forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Eight years later, in 2008, UN Security Council Resolution 1820 recognized CRSV as a “tactic of war” and a threat to “international peace and security,” stressing the significance of “ending impunity for such acts as part of a comprehensive approach to seeking sustainable peace.”1

Similar developments have also taken place in the realm of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by the military, police, and civilian personnel associated with UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs) and by humanitarian aid workers operating in conflict and emergency settings around the world. SEA occurring in the course of peace and humanitarian interventions has made headlines for more than a decade. In one of the better-known recent examples from 2016, UN and French peacekeepers found themselves at the center of allegations of child rape and sadistic sexual abuse in the Central African Republic, including reports of a French military commander tying up young girls and forcing them to have sex with a dog.2 In the first half of 2017 alone, there were forty-one allegations of SEA by UN mission personnel. In seven cases the victims were under the age of eighteen.3

In parallel with efforts to recognize and criminalize CSRV, there has been a strong effort to prevent and eliminate SEA, reflecting the wider emphasis on experiences of sexual violence in war since the development of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda in the early 2000s.4 In March 2016 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2272, aimed at curbing SEA committed by those operating under UN mandates. In 2017 UN Secretary-General António Guterres named SEA a top priority. Corresponding efforts have also occurred in the humanitarian sector. In 2016 the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the main coordination mechanism for humanitarian operations, reestablished the taskforce to support the implementation of measures to protect vulnerable populations from sexual exploitation and abuse on the part of humanitarian aid workers.

While progress in addressing both CRSV and SEA must be acknowledged, efforts to understand and mitigate sexual violence in conflict and emergency settings have been limited by the separation of the two in policy circles. CRSV has often been regarded as a “tactic of war” perpetrated by state and nonstate armed groups, requiring criminal accountability through prosecution. Conversely, SEA has usually been considered a matter of conduct and discipline to be addressed by and at the discretion of individual troop-contributing countries (TCCs) and humanitarian agencies.

The treatment of CRSV and SEA as separate issues has overlooked the similarities between the two and resulted in partial and ineffective policies for dealing with the problem of sexual violence in conflict and emergency settings. Patterns of CRSV by armed groups, on the one hand, and SEA by the military, police, and civilian personnel associated with UN PKOs and humanitarian organizations on the other have much in common and are best seen as existing on a spectrum ranging from ordered, strategic behavior to unordered, opportunistic behavior. Much of this behavior revolves around power and is rooted in structural factors, including gender inequality, displacement, poverty, and economic deprivation. Thus, policy responses for both CRSV and SEA need to go beyond an emphasis on accountability and prevention and address the underlying causes of gender inequality and the political, social, and economic vulnerability of civilian populations.5

This is critical, as failing to address both CSRV and SEA and the commonalities between them can lead to further insecurity, deepening the culture of impunity, undermining long-term

state stability, and exacerbating the fragility of conflict and disaster-ridden areas. Indeed, CRSV and SEA undermine peace and security and contribute to the breakdown in social and political order.6 Similar to state and nonstate armed groups, when peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers exploit the vulnerability of those they are meant to protect and serve, it undermines their credibility while at the same time signaling to would-be perpetrators that acts of sexual violence are permissible.7 In the same way that CRSV is recognized as a threat to “peace and security,” 8 so also should SEA, which also creates insecurity and undermines long-term stability, even if it is not acknowledged as doing so.

Moving beyond Stereotypes of Sexual Violence

CRSV is often identified based on two predominant patterns. The first is strategic sexual violence, or sexual violence used as a weapon of war. The second is opportunistic sexual violence. The strategic use of sexual violence as a weapon or tactic has frequently been conceptualized as the targeting of individuals, groups, or entire communities with rape and other sexual crimes to advance an armed group’s political or military objectives and to instill fear in the general populace.9 Researchers have long recognized the strategic deployment of systematic sexual violence across conflict and postconflict contexts, including as a strategy of ethnic cleansing10 for sexual humiliation and torture,11 and as a tactic of political repression to thwart women’s political participation.12 Opportunistic wartime sexual violence, by contrast, is often perceived as driven by individual motivations, such as sexual gratification, revenge, and status seeking, in which the chaos of war enables perpetrators to commit sexual crimes with impunity.

Recent research on CRSV, however, has looked beyond this binary interpretation of strategic and opportunistic violence and found that sexual violence in war exists on a spectrum. Elisabeth Wood, for example, has shown that CRSV reflects a mixture of both strategy and opportunity, a “practice” that is condoned but not directly ordered by commanders.13 For instance, commanders may permit certain acts of sexual violence, such as sexual slavery, as a form of compensation for participating in fighting.14 This has been said to be the case in South Sudan, where combatants are paid in the currency of “what they loot and the women they abduct.”15

Research on SEA is similarly moving away from simplistic understandings. Although SEA is regularly viewed as involving transactional and survival sex between peacekeeping and humanitarian interveners and the populations they serve, close to half of allegations of SEA encompass more serious offenses, including rape and sex with minors.16 While the United Nations documents and defines both acts of exploitation and abuse, prevention efforts must recognize and address the full range of behaviors. Instead of viewing SEA simply as sexual misconduct by individuals, Jasmine-Kim Westendorf and Louise Searle differentiate among four patterns of SEA perpetrated by peace interveners: opportunistic sexual abuse; planned, sadistic abuse; transactional sex; and networked abuse and exploitation.17 Viewed in this way, the motivations behind SEA, like those behind CRSV, exist on a spectrum that encompasses “related but distinct types of behavior” that thrive on and reinforce gender and material inequalities.18

As such, although SEA and CRSV are not always ordered by superiors in the chain of command, they have been widely tolerated forms of criminal behavior across conflict and emergency settings.19 Thus those in leadership positions—commanders of armed groups, heads of peacekeeping battalions, managers of humanitarian organizations—need to take responsibility for the actions of those working under them. In particular they need to create and adhere to effective complaint mechanisms, develop and implement codes of conduct, and investigate and hold to account perpetrators of sexual violence.

Root Causes of Sexual Violence in Conflicts and Emergencies

Over the past two decades, researchers have established connections among gender inequality, sexual violence, and armed conflict, which emphasizes that many of the elements that drive sexual violence in peacetime also drive sexual violence in wartime.20 Sexual violence in armed conflict does not occur in a vacuum; it is rooted in preexisting peacetime gender inequalities and violence, such as forced or early marriage, domestic violence, and marital rape.21 In South Sudan, for instance, research has shown that CRSV in the context of the ongoing civil war is rooted in the local political economy of bridewealth that commodifies women and girls and treats them as property.22

Material inequality, itself grounded in gender inequality, also contributes to CRSV by making civilians more vulnerable to attacks by armed groups as they seek to meet their basic needs, such as obtaining food and shelter. In another example from South Sudan, women living in the UN Protection of Civilians camps are sometimes forced to choose between staying inside the camps or leaving the camps in search of food and firewood to support their families, where they risk being raped outside the gates of UN bases by armed actors.23

Many of the root causes of SEA comparably lie in the gender and material inequalities that exist between peace and humanitarian interveners and local populations.24 The settings in which peacekeepers and humanitarians operate are largely unregulated, marked by economic collapse and nonexistent rule of law. These factors create an opportune environment for the exploitation of vulnerable civilians.25 Because of the inherently unequal relationship between interveners and the people they serve, sexual acts can be demanded in exchange for protection and material support, with peacekeepers and aid workers withholding food, shelter, and other services until their sexual demands are met.26

In this regard, it is worth noting that work on SEA has shown that higher levels of gender equality in TCCs for PKOs tend to be associated with lower levels of SEA allegations in the field.27 Such evidence points to the important role of gender inequality in influencing the prevalence of sexual abuse by peacekeepers abroad. Accordingly, in much the same way that gender inequality feeds into the use of CRSV by armed groups, gender inequality in UN TCCs can also influence the likelihood that peace and humanitarian interveners will sexually exploit and abuse communities in host countries. Promoting gender equality at home thus becomes a critical step toward promoting gender equality during mission-based interventions.

Lessons for Preventing and Responding to CRSV and SEA

Although CRSV and SEA share clear similarities, policy responses for the two differ significantly. Policies for combating and ending CRSV strongly underline accountability, focusing especially on promoting justice for survivors and restoring trust in rule of law institutions, with the aim of deterring future crimes. This has led to huge investments to support capacity building in domestic courts and tribunals in conflict settings, including the development of specialized mechanisms for investigating, documenting, and, ultimately, prosecuting CRSV.28 However, initiatives to prevent CRSV from occurring in the first instance, such as better training and rigorous vetting, remain relatively rare.

This stands in stark contrast to efforts to address SEA, which have emphasized prevention, stressing individual compliance through standards of conduct, recruitment, and training as the main vehicles for policy dissemination and enforcement. This has led to what Westendorf and Searle call the “individualization of responsibility.” 29 The approach along these lines largely foregrounds predeployment training based on the principles of the UN and humanitarian system.30 However, efforts to hold perpetrators of SEA to account have been difficult,

with complaint mechanisms rarely established or well understood among the people they are intended to protect.31 The lack of accountability for SEA is reinforced by the fact that, at least in the case of PKOs, the responsibility to investigate reports of SEA and hold peacekeeping personnel accountable rests in the hands of TCCs. In 2016, UN Security Council Resolution 2272 introduced new punitive measures applicable to TCCs, including the repatriation of troops. If consistently enforced, such a measure has the potential to generate greater levels of collective responsibility, and thus greater collective security, by TCCs in particular.32

Legal accountability needs to be accompanied by prevention in the form of conduct and training. Similarly, prevention in the form of conduct and training needs to be accompanied by legal accountability. What’s more, the disparate emphasis on accountability for CRSV and prevention for SEA, respectively, has in both cases failed to address the underlying causes and consequences of gender inequality and vulnerability, such as resource access for civilian populations.


A policy focus on CRSV as strategic and opportunistic sexual violence and on SEA as a matter of individual misconduct has obscured the root causes these behaviors have in common. Thus, in developing recommendations for reining in, dealing with, and ultimately eliminating sexual violence in conflict and emergency settings, it is necessary to address the sociocultural conditions, as well as leadership, training, and agency focus.

•                The root causes of sexual violence in conflict or postconflict situations are gender inequality, displacement, poverty, and economic deprivation. Many of these are structural factors that facilitate or devolve from unequal power relations. Promoting gender equality in PKOs and humanitarian interventions begins with greater gender equality in TCCs themselves. Once interveners are in the field, gender equality should be aided by increasing the number of women peacekeepers and officials in top-level decision-making positions across PKOs and humanitarian agencies. Supporting vulnerable civilian populations’ access to an adequate livelihood and to resources to help mitigate the causes of vulnerability is the third leg of the stool. Here, access to resources should be understood as including access to redress for sexual violence committed against civilians.

•                The emphasis on strategic and opportunistic sexual violence in the case of CRSV has lent itself to a focus on acts of sexual violence that are ordered by armed groups, ignoring sexual violence that is tolerated or condoned. Similarly, viewing SEA as an issue of individual misconduct primarily involving transactional and survival sex neglects the responsibility of leaders and managers for the range of SEA behaviors perpetrated by peace and humanitarian interveners. People in leadership positions (commanders of armed groups, heads of peacekeeping battalions, managers of humanitarian agencies) need to take responsibility for the actions of those in their charge. In particular, they need to build and adhere to effective complaint mechanisms, develop and implement codes of conduct, and investigate and hold to account those who resort to sexual violence. A zero-tolerance policy will only be effective if clear structures are in place to hold accountable those who perpetrate acts of sexual exploitation and abuse. Leaders and managers also need to make explicit statements in support of these processes to ensure others, especially in middle management, also take them seriously.

•                Speaking across silos should encourage disparate bodies and agencies—such as the UN Special Coordinator for Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, the Inter-Agency Standing Commitee’s Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

Task Force, and the UN Office of the Special Representative of the SecretaryGeneral for Sexual Violence in Conflict—to work more closely to find avenues where efforts to prevent and eliminate CRSV and SEA converge.


The similarities between CRSV and SEA should encourage policymakers to look more critically at the common issues and policy implications of these two streams of work. CRSV and SEA exist on a spectrum that encompasses related behaviors rooted in gender and material inequalities.33 Developing a common understanding of CRSV and SEA can help policymakers better respond to and mitigate the factors that make civilians vulnerable to sexual violence in conflict settings, specifically gender inequality, displacement, poverty, and economic deprivation.


1.              UN Security Council, Resolution 1820 (2008), S/RES/1820 (June 2008), 2–3.

2.              Al Jazeera, “‘Sickening’ Sex Abuse Alleged in CAR by UN Peacekeepers,” Al Jazeera, March 31,

2016, www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/03/sex-abuse-alleged-car-peacekeepers-160331183645566.html;

Jasmine-Kim Westendorf, “Discussion Paper: Mapping the Impact of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by

Interveners in Peace Operations. Pilot Project Findings, December 2016” (Melbourne: La Trobe University, Transforming Human Societies, Humanitarian Advisory Group, December 2016), http:// humanitarianadvisorygroup.org/wp-content /uploads/2016/06/HAG-La-Trobe__Mapping-the-impact.pdf.

3.              United Nations, “Conduct in UN Field Missions: Professionalism, Efficiency, Integrity, Dignity,” subsection “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse” (2017), https://conduct.unmissions.org/sea-victims.

4.              Jasmine-Kim Westendorf and Louise Searle, “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Peace Operations: Trends, Policy Responses and Future Directions,” International Affairs 93, no. 2 (2017): 365–87.

5.              See Westendorf, “Discussion Paper: Mapping the Impacts.”

6.              Nora Dudwick and Kathleen Kuehnast, “Gender and Fragility: Ensuring a Golden Hour,” Fragility Study Group Policy Brief 8 (November 2016): 1–8.

7.              Westendorf, “Discussion Paper: Mapping the Impact.”

8.              UN Security Council, Resolution 1820 (2008), 2–3.

9.              Megan Bastick, Karin Grimm, and Rahel Kunz, “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Global Overview and Implications for the Security Sector“ (Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, 2007).

10.            Inger Skjelsbaek, “Sexual Violence and War: Mapping out a Complex Relationship,” European Journal of International Relations 7, no. 2 (2001): 211–37.

11.            Michelle Leiby, “Digging in the Archives: The Promise and Perils of Primary Documents,” Politics & Society 37, no. 1 (2009): 75–99; Michelle Leiby, “Wartime Sexual Violence in Guatemala and Peru,” International Studies Quarterly 53 (2009): 445–68.

12.            Roudabeh Kishi, “Gender-Based Violence and Women’s Political Participation,” ACLED Crisis Blog, August 2, 2017, www.crisis.acleddata.com/gender-based-violence-and-womens-political-participation/.

13.            Elisabeth Jean Wood, “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and the Policy Implications of Recent Research,” International Review of the Red Cross 96, no. 894 (2014): 457–78.

14.            Ibid., 473.

15.            Hannah McNeish, “South Sudan: Women and Girls Raped as ‘Wages’ for Government-Allied Fighters,” Guardian, September 28, 2015, www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/sep/28/southsudan-women


16.            UN, “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse: A Summary of the Latest Policy Recommendations,” UN Women Policy Brief (February 2015), 1–6.

17.            Westendorf and Searle, “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Peace Operations.”

18.            Westendorf, “Discussion Paper: Mapping the Impact” 2.

19.            Ibid. See also Wood, “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and the Policy Implications of Recent Research.”

20.            Cynthia Cockburn, “The Continuum of Violence: A Gender Perspective on War and Peace,” in Sites of Violence: Gender and Conflict Zones, ed. Wenona Mary Giles and Jennifer Hyndman (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 24–44.

21.            See Valerie Hudson, Sex and World Peace (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

22.            Alicia Luedke and Hannah Logan, “‘That Thing of Human Rights’: Discourse, Emergency Assistance and Sexual Violence in South Sudan’s Current Civil War,” Disasters (forthcoming).

23.            See Alicia Luedke, “Congestion in the Malakal Protection of Civilian Site, South Sudan” (Danish Refugee Council, May 2017), https://drc.dk/media/3339916/malakal-congestion-report-final-pdf-03052017.pdf.

24.            Westendorf and Searle, “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Peace Operations.” See also Westendorf, “Discussion Paper: Mapping the Impact.”

25.            Jenna Stern, “Reducing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping: Ten Years after the Zeid Report,” Civilians in Conflict Policy Brief 1 (February 2015), 1–24.

26.            UNHCR, “Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA),” in UNHCR Emergency Handbook, https ://emergency.unhcr.org/entry/93723/protection-from-sexual-exploitation-and-abuse-psea.

27.            Sabrina Karim and Kyle Beardsley, “Explaining Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Peacekeeping Missions: The Role of Female Peacekeepers and Gender Equality in Contributing Countries,” Journal of Peace Research 53, no. 1 (2016): 100–15.

28.            Ketty Anyeko, Kim Thuy Seelinger, and Julie Freccero, “Improving Accountability for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Africa,” Peace Brief 206 (Washington, DC: USIP, June 14, 2016), www.usip.org /publications/2016/06/improving-accountability-conflict-related-sexual-violence-africa.

29.            Westendorf and Searle,  “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Peace Operations,” 383.

30.            Ibid.

31.            Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, “Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN, NGO and INGO Personnel: A Self-Assessment,” June 2012, http://odihpn.org /magazine/sexual-exploitation-and-abuse-by-un-ngo-and-ingo-personnel-a-self-assessment/.

32.            Jeni Whalan, “Dealing with Disgrace: Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping” (New York: International Peace Institute, August 2017), www.ipinst.org/2017/08/addressing-sexual-exploitation -and-abuse-in-un-peacekeeping.

33.            Westendorf, “Discussion Paper: Mapping the Impact” 2.

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Of Related Interest

•                What Works in Facilitated Dialogue Projects by Jack Froude and Michael Zanchelli (Special Report, July 2017)

•                Women in Nonviolent Movements by Marie A. Principe (Special Report, December 2016)

•                Ending Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in War and Peace: Recommendations for the Next US Administration by Amanda H. Blair, Nicole Gerring, and Sabrina Karim (Special Report, September 2016)

•                Atrocity Prevention through Dialogue: Challenges in Dealing with Violent Extremist Organizations by Sofía Sebastián and Jonas Claes (Special Report, August 2016) • UNSCR 1325 in the Middle East and North Africa: Women and Security by Paula M. Rayman, Seth Izen, and Emily Parker (Special Report, May 2016)

By Shannon Zimmerman, Luisa Ryan and David Duriesmith


In April 2018 Alek Minassian drove a van into a crowd of people in Toronto, killing ten people. A few minutes before, he had posted on Facebook, “The Incel rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all Chads and Stacys! All hail the supreme gentleman Elliot Rodger.”

Minassian was referring to Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old male who committed the Isla Vista, Calif., attack which killed six people in 2014. Before his rampage, Rodger had posted a ‘manifesto’ online – a lengthy tirade against the failures of modern society to provide him sexual access to women. Rodger is often portrayed in the media as the godfather of Incel ideology and is referred to as the “Supreme Gentleman” in online spaces such as Reddit and incel.me. He was the first individual to be labeled a terrorist of the alt-right by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks far-right activity. 1

Minassian’s Facebook post indicated that his act was linked to a broader political ideology rooted in a toxic combination of male supremacy and white supremacy. While lone-wolf attackers who invoke anti-feminist ideas- like Minassian- are often framed as mentally ill loners, this attack was terrorist in nature and should be considered as such. Like the response to Elliot Rodger’s earlier attack at Isla Vista, media reporting after the Toronto attack quickly emphasized Minassian’s struggles with mental health and cited claims from friends that he “wasn’t a terrorist.”2 This treatment fails to recognize the corrosive political ideology that underpinned Minassian’s attack and his desire to terrorize the public. These qualities should rightly define his actions as terrorism. 

Who are Incels?

Incel, shorthand for ‘involuntarily celibate,’ is a violent political ideology based on a new wave of misogyny and white supremacy.3 Incel ideology is predicated on the notion that feminism has ruined society, therefore there is a need for a ‘gender revolt’ in order to reclaim a particular type of manhood based on both male and white superiority.4 Incels believe that by defending women’s bodily autonomy, feminism has upset the natural order which organizes society around monogamous heterosexual couplings. As a result, physically attractive young women (labeled as ‘Stacys’) now choose to sleep with the most physically desirable men (labeled as ‘Chads’).5 Incels often frame this pattern of behavior as a form of theft, whereby their entitled access to women’s bodies is thwarted by women’s preference for more desirable ‘Chads.’ These (mostly) young men are frustrated at a world they see as denying them power and sexual control over women’s bodies. In their eyes, they are victims of oppressive feminism, an ideology which must be overthrown, often through violence.

The diagram on the next page (taken from the subreddit r/ braincell) reflects how this ideology views the world. Incel ideology presents a mythologized view that prior to the sexual revolution in the ‘60s, every man had access to a female partner; subsequent to the women’s empowerment movement, fewer and fewer men have access to a partner. They frame this shift as a profound injustice to men who cannot find a sexual partner, suggesting that society has failed to give men what they are entitled to (access to women’s bodies) and that the only recourse is violent insurrection.

Drawing the link between incels and other forms of violent extremism

There has been some debate as to whether incel attacks count as terrorism. Media reporting has often been reticent to classify these attacks as terror and some officials, including the Canadian police, refused to call the Toronto attack an act of terrorism.6 However, the nature of incel violence meets the requirement of the U.S. State Department’s description, which defines the term ‘terrorism’ as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”7 While incels have not yet formed organized violent groups or cells, the existing attacks have been premeditated, politically motivated and perpetrated violence against civilians. These factors clearly designate incel attacks as a form of terrorism and require incel ideology to be explored as a form of violent extremism.

At the heart of this ideology are hardened misogynistic notions of traditional gender roles. Rather than focusing on a particular religious or ethnic group, these attacks are motivated by shared beliefs about sexuality, male supremacy and the need to violently reestablish ‘traditional’ gender norms. The substantial online communities, previously congregating on the now defunct subreddit r/incel and more recently on incel.me and r/braincells subreddit, validate this world view and encourage direct action in pursuit of their goals.

Incel ideology is just one of many forms of misogynistic violence. Addressing this misogyny and the violence it produces is the most effective way to prevent some of the conditions which lead to domestic terrorist attacks. Early action will also go a long way towards addressing the core tenets of far-right ideologies, which are increasingly impacting and unsettling the American public at large.

There is an undeniable link between misogyny and violence. Experts say that domestic violence is a way for a male abuser to impose and enforce ‘traditional’ gender roles, which are based on ideas of men having control over women.8 The important factor here is that it is violence or threats of violence that are used to exert that control. This link starts with domestic violence but may extend far beyond the privacy of the home to include mass shootings or terrorist attacks. Recent research shows that more than 50% of the mass shootings executed in the United States between 2009 and 2016 were preceded by the shooter’s murder of a partner, ex-partner or family member.9 For example, James Hodgkinson, who opened fire at a GOP baseball practice, allegedly assaulted his daughter and was accused of abuse by two of his three ex-wives.10

Researchers such as Cynthia Cockburn, Rachel Pain and Sara Meger have shown the deep links between men’s sexual violence and their use of armed violence in public. In the case of incel terrorism, the links to violence are overt.11 Incel discussions often explicitly connect women’s non-provision of sexual access to the need for sexually marginalized men to deploy brutal violence in the public sphere in order to defend this ‘entitlement’. While not all incels are white supremacists or terrorists, affiliates are connected to these more extreme violent expressions by a toxic view of gender relations, which provides the “linking thread, a kind of fuse, along which violence runs.”12 Incel discussions often draw explicitly on white supremacist calls for armed insurrection to overthrow the prevailing order and restore an order based on men’s supremacy over women. The parallels between Minassian’s call for “Incel Rebellion” and white supremacists’ calls for ethno-nationalist insurrection are not coincidental.13 Incels who argue for an armed insurrection often use similar terminology to white supremacists in relation to the need for men to overthrow the prevailing system. Frustration with the current system, and adherence to an ideology that promotes violent solutions, not only makes incels dangerous actors in and of themselves, but also increases the probability that they will be amenable to broader extremist recruitment tactics.

The Islamic State advertises its treatment of women as a recruitment tool, showing men- particularly men from western countries- that the caliphate will allow them to restore ‘traditional’ gender norms of male dominance.14 This ideology appeals to individuals who desire to control the women in their own lives. Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter who killed 49 people in the second deadliest mass shooting in recent American history, was loosely affiliated with ISIS. He mentally and physically abused his wife.15 This pattern fits a number of other so-called ‘lone wolf’ attacker profiles, such as Khalid Masood, the Westminster attacker; Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who committed the van attack in Nice; Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, and Man Haron Monis, who carried out the Sydney Lindt café siege and has been charged with

22 counts of aggravated sexual assault.16 According to Nimmi Gowrinathan, the restrictive gender roles promoted by terrorist organizations often act as a “pull” factor for potential recruits who have pre-existing attitudes or desires in that direction. Addressing misogynistic attitudes is one of the best ways to prevent an escalation to violence.

The risk of misogyny-linked terror groups is particularly pertinent to the United States today. A 2017 survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that the United States is now among the top 10 most dangerous nations for women when assessed on healthcare, discrimination, cultural traditions, sexual violence, non-sexual violence and human trafficking.17 The U.S. ranked third, tying with Syria, in regard to the danger of sexual violence including rape, sexual harassment, coerced sex and lack of justice in rape cases. The U.S. ranked sixth for non-sexual violence against women and was the only Western country to show up on the list. The other countries, in order of danger to women, were listed as India, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen and Nigeria.

It may be easy to believe that incels are an extreme fringe group that do not pose a threat to national or international security. However, Incels represent just one end of a spectrum of extremist groups spanning a vast range of political ideologies, all united by militant misogyny. These groups range from white-supremacists and neo-Nazis to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Incels are just one aspect of a violent ideological masculinity, an ideology that is growing. Misogynist online groups, from men’s rights activists, to ‘pick up artist’ communities and Incels, have increased in number and size over recent years.18 The subreddit r/incels had roughly 40,000 members when it was shut down in 2017 for inciting violence against women.19 But incels are not confined to “one tiny bit of Reddit” rather “it’s a movement that has tens of thousands of people who visit these boards, these subreddits, which are safe places for them.”20

There are arguments both for and against banning websites that promote violence against women, such as the subreddit r/incel. Some argue that these groups should be allowed to remain, as they gather promoters of violent ideology together where they might be monitored rather than forcing them to scatter, only to grow and proliferate. However, if allowed to remain, these online communities permit both violent content and norms to flourish and possibly be enacted in the real world.21 Reddit, the site which hosted then banned the subreddit r/incel, has recently established policies that prohibit content that “encourages, glorifies, incites or calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or group of people.” The platform has also been clamping down on pages which are dedicated to far-right groups, banning two such groups for sharing personal information without permission as a form of harassment, also known as ‘doxing.’22 The incel Reddit thread was just one of countless online forums, blogs and networks collectively called the ‘Manosphere,’ which focus on issues of men’s rights and male supremacy where incels, and those with similar ideologies, gather. These forums act as an echo chamber reifying and amplifying extremist beliefs. It should be noted that since the closing of r/incel the community has moved to other subreddits, such as r/braincells, or to dedicated sites like https://incels.me/.

Ideologies based on ideas of domination through fear facilitate violent acts and should be considered as a form of terrorism. Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center added male supremacy to the list of ideologies it tracks on its ‘hate map’, placing it alongside white nationalist, racist skinhead, neo-Nazi, neo-nationalist and other hate groups.23 Just as white supremacist violence is now well-recognized as a form of terrorism, it is important that male supremacist attacks be similarly acknowledged.

Policy implications

Crafting and supporting policies that provide alternatives to violent white supremacist and misogynistic rhetoric/ actions is an effective method to increase both domestic and international security. Understanding the complex interactions between domestic violence, misogyny, alt-right ideology, and terrorism opens up several new avenues for preventative policy responses.

Address the ideology

  • Address misogynistic ideology with the same seriousness as other forms of violent extremism. There has been a tendency both in media reporting and government responses to treat incel attacks as purely a result of mental illness or random acts of violence. Incel ideology must be treated as the form of violent extremist thought that it is, and relevant existing laws and policies should be applied. The role of incel ideology in promoting ‘lone-wolf’ attacks means that it requires a similar response to the promotion of jihadi or neo-Nazi ideology online.
  • Encourage and support policies that identify and sanction speech that is intended to incite violence or harm against an individual or group of people, including that which is based on gender. Such policies, where they already exist, need to be enforced. Gender-based threats need to be taken as seriously as threats based on religion and ethnicity.

Act on early warning signs

The speed at which people radicalize makes radicalization difficult to track. However, those that engage in terrorist attacks often have long histories of violence, particularly domestic violence. If mass shootings and terrorist attacks are connected to domestic or family violence, there are warning signs that, if acknowledged, can be used to help prevent future violence.

  • Strengthen domestic violence laws to prevent abusers from accessing weapons, including mechanisms to remove guns from individuals who have exhibited dangerous behavior. This would include closing background check loopholes which allow individuals prohibited from buying guns to purchase them.
  • Ensure the application of domestic violence laws and facilitate the creation of laws which prohibit violence based on gender.
  • Craft policies which identify and address violent behaviors rather than profiling individuals based on race or religion, tactics which only further alienate individuals. Policies can acknowledge domestic violence as an important precursor to larger violent acts.
  • Acts of domestic violence need to be understood as a security threat rather than a ‘personal’ matter, and thus treated accordingly. This includes supporting domestic violence survivors and prosecuting perpetrators before they can harm others.

Extremist ideologies advocating violence of any kind are a domestic security concern. Holistically addressing these ideologies and the environments in which they thrive is an effective approach to preventing both large and small scale violence targeted at specific groups, be those groups identified by race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or other.


  1. ‘The alternative right (alt-right) is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a right-wing political movement whose members reject mainstream conservative politics and instead promote extremist beliefs and policies based on ideas of white nationalism. While there is no single ideology of the alt-right, it is commonly employed to describe figures such as Richard Spencer who support extremist ideology without adopting the traditional trappings of neo-Nazism or conventional conservatism. The alt-right movement is closely associated with online forums such as 4chan which were integral to the emergence of the incel movement. 
  2. Stewart Bell, “He Wasn’t a Terrorist’: Those Who Knew Alek Minassian Struggle to Explain the Toronto Van Attack,” https:// globalnews.ca/news/4168222/he-wasnt-terrorist-toronto-attack/, [10 Sept. 2018].
  3. The term ‘incel’ was originally coined by a Canadian College student who started a website entitled ‘Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project’ in order to discuss her sexual inactivity with others. The site was intended to foster an inclusive community to help people struggling to form relationship but was co-opted by the current incel movement.
  4. Smaller groups of “Ricels” and “Currycels” representing East and South Asian incels exist, and explicitly tie their celibacy to preference for whiteness in society. 
  5. Debbie Ging, “Alphas, betas, and incels: Theorizing the Masculinities of the Manosphere,” in Men and Masculinities (Dublin City University, Glasnevin, 2017).
  6. Rich Barlow, “Call it What you Want – The ‘Incel rebellion’ Is Terrorism,” http://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2018/04/30/call-it-whatyou-want-the-incel-rebellion-is-terrorism, [10 Sept. 2018].
  7. United States State Department, “Legislative Requirements and Key Terms,” https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/65464.pdf, [10 Sept. 2018].
  8. Amanda Taub, “Control and Fear: What Mass Killings and Domestic Violence Have in Common,” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/16/ world/americas/control-and-fear-what-mass-killings-and-domesticviolence-have-in-common.html, [10 Sept. 2018)].
  9. Everytown for Gun Safety, “Mass Shootings in the United States: 2009-2016,” https://everytownresearch.org/reports/mass-shootingsanalysis/ [10 Sept. 2018].
  10. Charlotte Alter, “Why So Many Mass Shooters Have Domestic Violence in Their Past.” http://time.com/4818506/james-hodgkinsonvirginia-shooting-steve-scalise/ [10 Sept. 2018]; Petula Dvorak, “‘Tormented and traumatized’: Rage toward women fuels mass shooters,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/tormented-and-traumatizedrage-toward-women-fuels-mass-shooters/2018/07/02/205263aa-7dea11e8-bb6b-c1cb691f1402_story.html?utm_term=.3ca80bc6ede5 [10 Sept. 2018].
  11. For work on the continuum of violence, see R. Pain, “Intimate War,” in Political Geography, 44, pp.64-73; Sara Meger, Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, (Oxford University Press).
  12. C Cockburn, “Gender relations as causal in militarization and war: A feminist standpoint,” in International Feminist Journal of Politics 12(2) (2010).
  13. Aja Romano, “How the alt-right’s sexism lures men into white supremacy,” https://www.vox.com/culture/2016/12/14/13576192/altright-sexism-recruitment [10 Sept. 2018].
  14. Amanda Taub, “Control and Fear: What Mass Killings and Domestic Violence Have in Common,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes. com/2016/06/16/world/americas/control-and-fear-what-mass-killingsand-domestic-violence-have-in-common.html [10 Sept. 2018].
  15. Jack Healy, “Sitora Yusufiy, Ex-Wife of Orlando Suspect, Describes Abusive Marriage,” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/14/us/sitorayusufiy-omar-mateen-orlando-shooting.html?_r=0 [10 Sept. 2018].
  16. Australia Associated Press, “Sydney siege inquest: Man Haron Monis was a ‘psychopathic lone wolf terrorist,’” https://www.theguardian.com/ australia-news/2016/may/02/sydney-siege-inquest-man-haron-moniswas-a-psychopathic-lone-wolf-terrorist  [10 Sept. 2018].
  17. The Thomson Reuters Foundation, “The World’s most dangerous countries for women 2018,”  http://poll2018.trust.org/country/?id=usa [10 Sept. 2018].
  18. Trends noted most visibly in the Global North, including the United States (Peter Finocchiaro, “Is the men’s rights movement growing?” https://www.salon.com/2011/03/29/scott_adams_mens_rights_ movement/ [10 Sept. 2018]) and Australia (Greg Callaghan, “Cassie Jaye’s film on the men’s rights movement shocked Australia. Why?” https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/cassie-jayes-film-on-the-mensrights-movement-shocked-australia-why-20170726-gxj34p.html [10 Sept. 2018]) However, the trend is a global one, including nations such as India (Suman Naishadham, “Why India’s Men’s Rights Movement is Thriving,” https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/9b8akp/why-indiasmens-rights-movement-is-thriving [10 Sept. 2018].)
  1. Christine Hauser, “Reddit Bans ‘Incel’ Group for Inciting Violence Against Women,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes. com/2017/11/09/technology/incels-reddit-banned.html [25 Sept. 2018]
  2. Zoe Williams, “’Raw hatred’: why the ‘incel’ movement targets and terrorizes women,” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/25/ raw-hatred-why-incel-movement-targets-terrorises-women  [10 Sept. 2018]. 
  3. Perrie Samotin and Lilly Dancyger, “Incels: Breaking Down the Disturbing, Thriving Online Community of Celibate Men,” https://www. glamour.com/story/what-is-incel-breaking-down-online-communitycelibate-men [10 Sept. 2018].
  4. Alex Hern, “Reddit bans far-right groups alt-right and alternative right,” https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/02/redditbans-far-right-groups-altright-alternativeright [10 Sept. 2018].
  5. Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “Male Supremacy: Male supremacy is a hateful ideology advocating for the subjugation of women,” https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/male-supremacy  [10 Sept. 2018].

By Pearl Karuhanga Atuhaire and Grace Ndirangu

The international community has taken a strong stance against conflict-related sexual violence, deeming it a war crime. However, international actors are paying scant attention to sexual- and

gender-based violence (SGBV) in refugee settings. Urban refugee women and girls and those in refugee camps often grapple with SGBV in their countries of asylum, long after they have fled their homes and communities. Our research among refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo currently in Kenya and Uganda has unearthed a high incidence of SGBV against refugee women and girls. Research by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) indicates that one in five refugee and displaced women experience sexual violence.1 Many of the survivors often have no one to turn to for protection and resort to sex work and other risky means to survive.

In this policy brief, we examine the extent of the problem, identify obstacles to progress, and recommend actions governments and humanitarian organizations can take to better protect refugees. In short, we argue that refugee settlements are not safe spaces for refugee women. Humanitarian officials, governments, and the international community must do more to address this problem.

Extent of the Problem

In Kenya, refugees are mainly settled in camps, while in Uganda, refugees are placed in settlements where they live temporarily as they await integration, resettlement, or settled in the southwest in Kyaka I and II, Rwamwanja, and Nakivale settlements.  As of 2016, Kyaka II had 28,364 refugees, with Congolese accounting for 88 percent and Rwandese 12 percent of the population.5

Most of these refugees, both urban and rural, experienced SGBV at the hands of rebel and militia groups in their country of origin and they continue to be at risk after flight. Female refugees are particularly vulnerable when they are separated from their husbands. The extra burden they carry as single mothers and family heads taking care of children and elderly relatives often leads them into dangerous, exploitative situations as they struggle to earn a living. Their children assume adult responsibilities. Many children are forced into dangerous means of survival, such as transactional sex work, early marriages, and trading sex for favors. Others may have temporary jobs, such as washing clothes, performing domestic chores, working in shops and construction sites, and selling produce and other wares in the market. However, these jobs earn them meager wages and still expose them to frequent abuse.

Among urban refugees in Kenya, some of the young women told us stories, such as this one:

repatriation.2 Kenya has about 24,063 Congolese refugees who have settled in urban areas around Nairobi.3 Most of these urban refugees have temporary or part-time jobs to support their families.4 Congolese refugees in Uganda are mainly

[H]e would pass by my work station when I was cooking and he could rub himself against my body or even touch my breasts. When I told him to stop, he would laugh and say that there is nothing I can do to him. If I left the job, it would be difficult for me to get another one and then my kids would suffer.      

Another young woman reported:

I worked in a beauty parlor as a masseuse. Some of the clients were male. Some of them would request a massage, and when it was over they would then ask me to perform sexual favors. If I refused, they would threaten to tell my boss that I was being rude. I refused to give in, and after being reported so many times, my boss was threatening to fire me, so I quit. I now do casual jobs.  

Most women and girls who work as domestic help have reported being sexually abused by their male employers or by male members of the households where they work. If these women and girls are in the country illegally, they are vulnerable to blackmail, with people threatening to report them to the authorities. Often, these women and girls work without pay, and most do not report these incidents for fear of reprisal and ostracism by other community members.

Women in refugee camps and settlements are also often abused by their husbands or other male family members or providers. These men often control the family resources and are the sole decision makers in their families. In Kyaka II in 2016, most perpetrators of SGBV were known to their victims. They were uncles, fathers, foster fathers, or even perpetrators from their country of origin who ended up in the same settlement.

One refugee woman told us this in an interview: When I first came to this settlement as a young orphan refugee girl, I was assigned a foster father, but this foster father took advantage of me and defiled me.… [B]y then, I was fourteen years old. He came from the bar late one night when I was already asleep, and he forced himself on me and defiled me. I could not tell anyone about it because he told me the next morning not to report this, otherwise he would throw me out of his house. Since I had no other place to go, I just kept silent about the whole issue.

Adolescent girls are married off by their parents, who negotiate the price with prospective husbands.6 High levels of poverty and the practice of bride prices contribute to high child marriage rates among the Congolese, as does family debt, which encourages families to include girls as part of financial settlements.7 In Kyaka II, most girls are married off when they are as young as 14 years old. During a focus group discussion with refugee women, some women from the Hema

Clan in Congo argued,

Among us, the Hema, most families marry off their daughters when they are as young as 14 years. It is a cultural norm that we cannot change. If a woman opposed the practice, the community would reject her, and she could even be killed…. So much as the settlement officials say it is wrong, in our culture it is done silently, and as mothers of these children, we don’t have much say about it because we fear rejection from our husbands and families.

SGBV survivors may have been mutilated during the abuse, suffered other physical injuries, or contracted sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. In some instances, women develop incontinence and uncontrolled bleeding, which affect relationships with their immediate family and the community. The women suffer psychologically as well, from post-traumatic stress disorder, stress, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, inability to form healthy relationships, insomnia, and somatic symptoms of headaches. SGBV thus often leaves women incapacitated and unable to care for themselves and their families.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), local authorities, and international actors are aware of these problems, and they have attempted to put mechanisms and measures in place to address SGBV among refugee women. But they cannot do it alone. Without the commitment of local authorities, host governments, and host-country organizations little progress will be made. Refugee women face high levels of discrimination in the host community, difficulties in getting jobs that pay a sufficient wage, and an inability to actively participate in leadership positions. These obstacles lead refugee women to distrust the system and lack confidence in efforts to help them. Host-country authorities, local agencies, and policymakers need to develop and implement policies that address the needs of refugee women and enhance their integration into the host community.

Obstacles to Progress

Governments and humanitarian organizations face seven main obstacles to protecting women from SGBV:insufficient legal frameworks, lack of political will, inept law enforcement and court processes, limited awareness among women that they have rights, economic barriers, cultural norms, and inadequate data.

Insufficient legal framework

Existing legal frameworks in Kenya and Uganda can be said to cover SGBV. The Penal Code Act of Kenya (revised edition 2014) and Uganda (Amendment Act of 2007) prohibit all acts of violence. However, they do not directly address SGBV, despite its prevalence. In Kenya, for example, SGBV can only be inferred to be an assault under sections 250 and 251 of the code. There is no specific offense such as wife or husband battery, nor are their provisions for marital rape or domestic violence. The inadequacies of the law make it difficult to address SGBV, whether experienced by Kenyan citizens or refugees in Kenya.

In Kenya, the Sexual Offences Act was enacted in 2006 to curb SGBV. It defines sexual offenses and makes provisions for prevention and protection from harm arising from unlawful sexual acts. However, enactment has not been accompanied by training and dissemination of information on its provisions to police and agents of the justice system. Civil society organizations undertook most of the awareness raising that has occurred. Consequently, most Kenyans are unaware of the law’s existence. Poor investigation of cases means that convictions are rare and survivors of violence are thus denied justice.8

While Uganda’s penal code addresses rape and defilement (rape of a minor below 18 years old), it falls short when it comes to addressing issues of marital rape which is common during conflict. Ugandan law criminalizes SGBV, but the relevant laws are rarely applied. Relevant laws include the Domestic Violence Act of 2010, the Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2009, the Prevention of Trafficking of Persons Act of 2009, the National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325, and the Penal Code Act of 2007, among others. Ugandan communities are not familiar with these laws, which puts refugee women and girls at greater risk from SGBV while in Uganda. While humanitarian agencies have been redoubling their efforts to raise awareness on SGBV and women’s rights, these efforts are likely to yield little in the absence of robust enforcement of the law.

Poor law enforcement and slow court systems

In most refugee settlements as well as outside them, police are slow to respond to reports of SGBV and in other areas, there is inadequate police. Most police stations are reluctant to send officers to settlements to arrest perpetrators, primarily because SGBV is still widely considered a private matter. In a few cases where they are willing, police tend to lack investigative skill and capacity for handling these cases. Police stations lack examination rooms and kits to collect evidence from survivors. Moreover, in cases where evidence is collected, stations lack storage space, and in most cases evidence goes missing or is tampered with, becoming inadmissible in court. Court processes are lengthy, and refugee victims are often subject to perpetrator intimidation and prosecutorial bias.

Especially at risk are asylum seekers who hold Refugee Status Determination (RSD) appointment slips, which they get when they register for asylum and which serve as a form of identification. Most law enforcement officers are not aware that the slips confirm the legal status of these refugees as they await the outcome of the RSD process. Survivors who bear the slips are hesitant to approach police stations for fear of police harassment and sometimes extortion or illegal detention. Survivors have also reported that their abusers taunt them and threaten to report that they are in the country illegally.

Aggravated by gaps in law and policy, the reluctant enforcement and implementation of existing policies and laws on SGBV conspire to keep survivors’ needs from being adequately addressed. In most cases, police officers accuse survivors of bringing their problems upon themselves. In cases of sexual violence, the police accuse women and girls of dressing inappropriately and thereby inviting violence. When women are beaten, police accuse them of disrespecting their husbands, which they imply deserves ‘a slap or two.’ The gender-insensitive handling of such cases increases the trauma to women and girls.

Lack of political will

Lack of political will and poor or nonexistent accountability mechanisms keep perpetrators from being held accountable for SGBV crimes. There is a paradoxical relationship between national law and cultural belief, which international law does not touch. Where cultural beliefs do not take the national legal framework into account, corrupt leaders are free to advance and justify abuses in their communities. Consequently, law becomes silent and does not protect victims.

Without political will, all efforts to fight SGBV are constrained. With inadequate operational and logistical support, survivors’ immediate needs go unmet, and there is no capacity to prevent SGBV. Refugee women who report SGBV return to communities where perpetrators are living, since there are no safe housing facilities where they can stay while investigations and legal processes are ongoing. In addition, survivors are only offered counselling and some small financial stipend. There is no sustainable support to enable them to be self-reliant, so they return to the same jobs where they were abused.

Limited awareness of rights

Refugee women’s rights are human rights. Women’s rights have received greater recognition today, as evidenced by the various international tools relating to women: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Beijing Platform for Action (1995), UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) and subsequent resolutions, the International Criminal Court, and the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993). Yet refugee women’s rights are still negated, despite significant steps to address the challenges they face.9 Most refugee women themselves do not understand these rights, which serves as a further obstacle to redress of SGBV.

Economic barriers

Refugee women and girls often take on roles as heads of households in their host countries, usually because they became separated from spouses or traditional male support during flight. As heads of households with a responsibility for children, they are more enmeshed in family networks than are male refugees. Because they may not be self-reliant, their vulnerability to male providers increases. Refugee women’s needs for economic resources make them vulnerable to SGBV, and these economic needs are often underestimated. Consequently, some refugee women continue working in abusive environments because leaving these jobs threatens their ability to care for their families.

While the 1951 Refugee Convention recognizes the right to freedom of movement and to seek paid employment, among others, refugees do not see these rights fully recognized in protracted exile.10 Freedom of movement is a precondition for the enjoyment of other rights; denying it undermines refugees’ socioeconomic well-being and increases their vulnerability. Women are particularly vulnerable, as they become reliant on scant humanitarian assistance.

In Kenya, refugees cannot get formal employment without Class M work permits. Although the Ministry of Immigration issues them freely, the process for acquiring them is lengthy and slow—as long as two years. Refugees thus resort to odd jobs and informal sector work.

Uganda requires refugees to get exit permits before leaving their settlements. This impinges on refugee women’s selfreliance and economic well-being. Families of SGBV survivors cannot relocate or hire lawyers, and they often rely on legal aid services, where service is slow, the case backlog large, and staffing inadequate. Due to restrictions on movement from within the settlement system and from husbands, most women end up compromising their bodies through transactional sex, which makes them vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases.

Cultural norms

Predominant cultural and social norms perpetuate unequal power relations between women and men, exposing women and girls to vulnerable situations that often lead to SGBV. Unmarried women are often ostracized by both men and women, particularly if they have been violated sexually. Married women risk their spouses divorcing them when they report they have been a victim of SGBV.

Some of the Congolese refugee women become pregnant as a result of rape in the country of asylum. Such women (in most cases who end up being single mothers) are often treated as pariahs, and many opt to live away from members of their communities. This is because they fear the ridicule that women who have conceived out of wedlock or out of rape often encounter in the community once the information is out. Others who have given birth to children conceived out of rape by rebels or men in host countries are expelled from their communities. One Congolese community member stated “once the men in the community know that a certain was woman was raped, they label her as damaged. Such a woman is unlikely to get married as no man wants her.” Gender stereotypes also foster discrimination against women in public spheres. Such stereotypes emerge from socially constructed roles of men and women in society. Stereotypes such as “women are weak, men are strong” make physical and sexual violence against women more likely. A social worker in Kyaka II, for example, noted the cultural normalization of male violence among the Hema tribe living there, saying, “Beating a woman is normal.”

Inadequate data

Data collection on SGBV among women and girls remains a challenge since it primarily relies on self-reporting by survivors. In refugee settings and among the Congolese, the stigma and ostracism survivors face after coming forward impede such reporting. Most data is collected from health facilities, but not all victims of SGBV report to health facilities for medical assistance. Fear of ostracism leads many women refugees to avoid reporting abuses when the perpetrators are also refugees. In some instances, the community resolves SGBV cases itself. Indeed, community leaders fear that if SGBV cases are brought to the authorities’ attention, perpetrators’ resettlement process and status determination will be compromised. Given these obstacles, creation of gender-based violence information management systems cannot adequately address the data collection problem.


Governments, UNHCR, and other humanitarian organizations do provide invaluable humanitarian support to refugees. However, a shift at all levels is required if pervasive SGBV is to be relegated to the past in refugee settings.

  • Law enforcement. Humanitarian actors and host governments should work together to implement reforms in the host countries’ justice systems. The law must be tougher on perpetrators of SGBV—for example, by denying refugee registration to asylum seekers with records of committing SGBV offenses. There ought to be screening during RSD interviews to deregister refugees who are found to have committed SGBV offenses. Denial of RSD status to past perpetrators will help deter would-be perpetrators. This will also help ensure that perpetrators do not continue to live in the same community as their victims and continue threatening them, especially as their cases go to court. Increased funding and partnerships with local legal partners could help refugee survivors access legal services. Police officers need to be trained on how to screen and record cases of SGBV. Better training and equipping of police will also enable them to collect and store evidence. Host governments and local partners can together strengthen witness protection systems and set up safe houses to host survivors of SGBV. Taking such steps to better protect women who have undergone SGBV will restore the confidence of other survivors and encourage them to report their own cases.
  • Political will. Host-country governments and local authorities should together formulate and implement reforms in all parts of the legal system. The police must be trained to handle SGBV cases in a gender-sensitive manner and be given logistical support to follow up on cases. Corrupt leaders and officials should be prosecuted for failure to enforce the law, whether from reticence or ignorance. Although police stations in Kenya and Uganda are required to have a gender desk, they often do not. Where there is one, it often has no female officer assigned to it.
  • Refugee women’s rights. Host countries, humanitarian agencies, and local organizations need to educate refugee women (and community leaders) on their rights. Women and girls should be fully aware of what constitutes SGBV, where to report cases, and how to protect evidence so law enforcement officers can collect it. Refugee women and girls also need to know their rights as refugees and what protection their legal documentation affords them. Knowledge is power. If women are made to believe their asylum certificates do not entitle them to protection, they will be less likely to report crimes perpetrated against them. Local and nationwide awareness raising and advocacy can also help prevent sexual violence, abuse, and exploitation of refugee women.
  • Economic barriers. The government, UNHCR, and other humanitarian agencies working in refugee settings need to help survivors find long-term solutions to secure their livelihoods. This could include providing market information, access to loans from financial institutions and grants to start businesses. The government should remove restrictions on refugees’ movement so they can more readily find much-needed employment and earn supplementary income. The prime minister’s office should review laws regarding refugees’ permission to exit their settlements to seek work. They should speed the issuance of exit permits and let refugees move freely within and outside settlements without questioning.
  • Cultural norms. The host government and other humanitarian actors should engage with local community leaders so they understand the national laws that protect refugee women. These leaders should learn of the adverse effects of early marriages on girls, the need for educating girls as well as boys, and the need for women to be represented at all levels of leadership. Refugee communities should hear how gender stereotypes promote SGBV. All humanitarian actors and leaders in local communities should be trained in use of gender-sensitive language. Male engagement is fundamental. Because the ethos of patriarchy has permitted men to perpetrate SGBV, men must be involved in preventing further violence. International and local agencies serving refugees should incorporate men in programming on raising awareness, becoming peer educators in the fight against SGBV, and engaging them in resolving family conflicts. Such programs go hand in hand with the need for programs for empowering women and girls to find safe means of sustaining themselves.
  • Data collection. All humanitarian actors and host governments should stress the urgency of reporting SGBV. They should urge refugee communities to end stigmatization of survivors and to encourage women to report their cases to the police, crime scene investigators, and health officials. When SGBV occurs, survivors should know where to go first.

Finally, the governments of Uganda and Kenya should consider local integration as a more permanent solution for long-term refugees. Both should review previous research work on the benefits of such integration for the host countries and educate host communities of these benefits and encourage refugee communities to embrace resettlement solutions.


The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women affirms that violence against women constitutes a violation of women’s rights and fundamental freedoms. Further, Article 4 of the African Union’s Maputo Protocol is devoted entirely to the topic of violence against women, calling for a range of state measures: punishment of perpetrators, identification of causes of violence against women, and provision of services for survivors.

Yet, SGBV in refugee settings continues. Host governments must take seriously the mandate to protect all women within their boundaries. Failure to protect refugee women and girls seeking asylum constitutes a failure on the part of the host government. International actors, local actors, and the African Union must work closely with host governments to help them meet the obligations to which they committed when they ratified these protocols and other conventions that seek to end SGBV.


  1. IRC, Clinical care for survivors of gender-based violence, (New York: International Rescue Committee, 2016).
  2. A refugee settlement is a type of refugee encampment encompassing a certain geographical area allocated by the government or community in the country of asylum.
  3. The urban areas around Nairobi include Kasarani, Kayole, Kitengela, and Rongai, with a few living in the Kabiria area of Kawangware. See also UNHCR, Figures at a Glance, (UNHCR Kenya, December 31,
  • Sara Pavanello, Hidden and exposed: Urban Refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2010).
  • UNHCR, Kyaka II Fact Sheet, (Kampala: UNHCR Uganda, 2016).
  • United Nations Population Fund, Marrying Too Young; End Child Marriage, (New York: UNFPA, 2012).
  • Free the Slaves, Wives in Slavery; Forced Marriage in the Congo, (Washington: Free the Slaves, 2013).
  • Dr. Ruth Aura, Situational Analysis and the Legal Framework on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Kenya: Challenges and Opportunities, (Nairobi: National Council for Law Reporting, 2012).
  • Mulki Al-Sharmani, “Navigating Refugee Life,” UN Chronicle XLVII, no.1 (February 2010).
  • J. Milner and G. Loescher, Responding to Protracted Refugee Situations: Lessons from a Decade of Discussion, (Oxford, UK: Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, 2011).