Picture by Rev John Weeks, ‘Native tally of the killed and wounded’. It shows pieces of plantain stalk threaded on a string, each stalk representing a life taken. The large pieces symbolised the chiefs and ordinary men who had been killed, the shorter ones represented the murdered women and children. Source: London School of Economics, Morel Archives.

By Charlotte Mertens

In the wake of accusations of mass rape and sexual torture of Israeli women by Hamas and the ongoing sexual (and other) violence in the conflict of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it is crucial to foreground the silences and erasures that stem from the category of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) and the rape-as-weapon-of-war framework. In the DRC, sexual violence remains an enormous problem even though the conflict varies in intensity. In recent years, the re-emergence of the armed group Mouvement du 23 Mars (M23), supported by the Rwandan Defence Force (RDF), has caused a humanitarian crisis with a record high displacement at nearly 7 million. Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps and areas controlled by M23 have seen sharp increases in sexual violence, accompanied by a rise in xenophobia, hate speech and vilification of Rwandophone populations.

While sexual violence in the protracted conflict of Eastern Congo has long been represented as a weapon of war used by armed groups to access and control resource-rich areas, I want to point here to the harms and erasures that result from this label. Much scholarship has critiqued the fixation on rape as weapon of war as it ‘perpetuates a certain narrow interpretation of gender violence – as exceptional, extreme and largely conflict-specific’ and creates a hierarchy of harms. To be sure, rape is and has been used by armed groups and state forces as a tactic of war and terror. When sexual violence in conflict settings is framed as a weapon of war, however, it does specific political work: it erases histories of conflict and colonialism, it obscures states’ complicity in enabling sexual violence and it perpetuates racialized victim-savage-saviour tropes.

The category of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence or Sexual Violence in Conflict (SVC) emerged in the 1990s in the aftermath of the Bosnian conflict and the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Within the CRSV category, the weapon-of-war framework is by far the most dominant. It has become hegemonic in policy discourses and elicits strong global condemnation. In response to Israel’s allegations of Hamas using sexual violence as a weapon of war during the Oct 7 attack, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated: “As a global community we must respond to weaponized sexual violence, wherever it happens, with absolute condemnation. There can be no justification and no excuses. Rape as a weapon of war is a crime against humanity.”

In short, CRSV requires urgent interventions with a focus on investigation and prosecution of CRSV perpetrators. During a day-long meeting at the UN Security Council titled ‘Promoting Implementation of Security Council Resolutions on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence’ in July 2023, UK Minister of State Tariq Ahmad stated: “Sexual violence in conflict is not inevitable. It is reprehensible.” Strengthening the rule of law and ending impunity is presented as the solution to CRSV which firmly places the responsibility of the rape on the commanders/armed groups who ordered the rapes and the state that fails to prosecute them.

The category of CRSV reproduces highly gendered and racialized knowledge hierarchies which is evident when you examine the yearly reports on CRSV published by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Of the 22 reports published since 1999, not one report mentions colonialism, colonial histories or the role of race and empire in the production of sexual violence in conflict. The most recent report mentions the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, DRC, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. Other situations of concern are Haiti, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

This problematic focus of UN policy reports on CRSV in the Global South (with the exception of Ukraine) ignores the intersecting structures of oppression that produce sexual violence. The violence described in these reports is restricted to 1) a particular temporality: the urgent present, 2) to particular spaces: mainly African and Middle Eastern countries and 3) to specific bodies (Black/Brown non-state actors raping Black/Brown women). This means that the histories and ongoing impact of colonialism and other forms of structural violence are conveniently left out.

This is not unique to the UN of course. Media, humanitarian actors, scholars, activists and policymakers across the globe focus on the urgent ‘present’ of sexual violence and do so selectively. This is evident in the New York Times’ weaponization of rape in service of Israeli propaganda where, according to scholar Randa Abdel-Fattah, unverified sensationalized claims of rape against Israeli women by Hamas went viral whereas the long history of everyday sexual violence against Palestinians by Israel have not. Or in media and humanitarian reporting on rape in Eastern DRC where an emphasis on the ‘weapon’ of rape has created a hypervisible and powerful agenda that masks the complexity of sexual violence and its historical and social dimensions.

Importantly, this framework presents sexual violence as a distinct linear event with a clear beginning and end: the act and the fall-out. Yet sexual violence does not begin or end with the violent act. It enacts a continuum and takes place within a range of violent gestures and practices that obtain to colonial patriarchal gender regimes. To truly understand and address sexual harm then, it needs to be situated within histories of conflict, dispossession, and long-term colonial and racial violence. Centring the role of colonialism and colonial histories in analyses of contemporary sexual violence illuminates the interrelated systems of oppression and the embeddedness of sexual violence within a continuum of violence.

Drawing on extensive archival research, my recently published paper on sexual violence in the Congo Free State (CFS), the Belgian King Leopold II’s private domain from 1885-1908, shows that sexual violence in the colony is not a deviation or side-effect of colonialism but is innate to it. Sexual abuse is key to the workings of colonial power. Seeking to satiate their racialized sexual desires, the colonisers constructed racial boundaries while also violently transgressing those boundaries to establish and maintain colonial power. Achille Mbembe argues that colonial violence requires direct, intimate contact with its subjects to maintain a bond of subjection. The colony was a place where domination and violent pleasure merged.

Using firsthand testimonies collected from the African Archives in Brussels, my research reveals that colonials and their auxiliaries used a wide variety of sexual violence as punishment, display of colonial power, and an expression of sexual desire/pleasure. Pawning, trafficking, hostage taking and stealing of women, rape, forced incest and sexual torture were commonly used. Whilst in captivity, sexual abuse was very common, even though there is no evidence that sentries or colonial officials sexually violated women to enforce food levies or rubber quotas. On the contrary, sexual violence seemed to be mainly about lust, establishing control and submission, fusing pleasure and terror.

When taking hostages, for example, sentries would ‘select the best-looking women in the village for their pleasure’. The ‘extraordinary’ war-related context of hostage taking of women in the CFS combined with endemic ‘ordinary’ male entitlement to sex shows domination and desire interacting within a gendered colonial system of oppression and profit. Analysis of incidents of forced incest illustrates sadistic pleasure and terror fusing in a toxic mix of excessive violence. A memory of a Congolese man named Bolakofo recounts the brutal sexual violence committed by the sentries:

This grotesque display of forced incest illustrates that the desire for colonial domination is expressed and enacted sexually and violently. When the sentry tells the child to come closer so they can watch, there is evidence of voyeuristic, sadistic pleasure through violent domination. It is hard to fully grasp the meaning from this excerpt, but it is very likely this performance was acted out as spectacle and in doing so, sentries ‘created and consumed extremely violent pornography,’ not unlike what other scholars have described in more recent conflicts.

This regime of sexual terror is not specific to the Congo Free State. All colonial regimes regulated women’s sexuality and reproductivity, instituted hierarchical gender binaries, racialized citizenship and race-based discrimination and dismantled kin networks. In her work on the Dutch East Indies and French Indochina, Ann Laura Stoler conceptualizes colonial authority and racial distinctions as fundamentally structured in gendered terms. Matters of domesticity, sexuality and gender dominated colonial politics. From India to Kenya, sexual violence was used to police racial and sexual boundaries, and to instil domination and fear. Colonial rule established a rigid sex/gender binary through imposing a heteronormative Christian monogamous way of life that relegated women to the private/domestic realm, which is still the dominant form of social ordering in current Eastern Congo (especially in urban areas).

A ‘dual sex/gender system’ took over African understandings of gender which were generally considered more fluid and flexible. Civilization then occurred through regulating and reforming Congolese sexualities: promoting traditional monogamous marriage and criminalizing polygamy. As Gertrude Mianda has shown for the Belgian Congo, the nuclear family, with the man as head of household and sole breadwinner, often replaced extended kin relationships that were fundamental in many African societies.

Imperialism perpetuated a patriarchal gender regime in Africa, which is visible in the legacy of these practices on contemporary law and policy. In Belgian Congo, colonial rule excluded women from education and employment and changed women’s precolonial entitlement to land, which continues today. The European norm of husband as head of household who must protect his wife while she must obey her husband is enshrined in Article 444 of Congo’s Family Code. And even though the Congolese law criminalizes all forms of sexual violence and rape, impunity for sexual and gender-based violence persists.

As in most colonies, rape laws in Congo hardly ever penalized sexual abuse of Black women by white men nor was it officially classified as rape. In relation to chattel slavery, Saidiya Hartman points out that the criminality imputed to Black people disavowed white violence as a necessary response to the threatening agency of blackness. The agency of the slave, or the colonized for that matter, could only ever assume the form of criminality. Such gendered structures and inequalities emerge directly out of slavery and colonial rule, are legitimated over time, and reproduced in people’s everyday realities. Rearticulated at the local level as sexual and domestic violence, and further exacerbated during war and conflicts, the problem becomes localized (and individualized) while the global and structural dynamics are invisibilized.

There are other key elements of colonial rule that reverberate in present DRC, such as the colonial legacy of resource accumulation, ethnic territorialization, and the concentration of authority which has left a fragmented political order conducive to conflict and violence. Specific gendered structures can also be seen in the ‘preying’ and ‘roving’ form of military governance established during the Congo Free State in the Force Publique through forced labour, taxation and (sexual) violence, which continues today in the scattered and decentralized command chain of the FARDC (Forces Armées de la Republique Démocratique du Congo) and the proliferation of armed groups. As Amina Mama has shown, colonial militarized governance, characterized by sexual violence, left the former colony with a systemic vulnerability to militarism.

In the settler colonies of South Africa, Australia, the United States, Canada and Israel, the persistence of these colonial logics is even more evident since the official laws, governance and societal norms are fundamentally colonial in nature. Settler colonial theories have long conceptualized ties between sovereignty over the land and over the body. Indigenous scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson argues that colonialism rests on a specific imaginary of the nation state as ‘white possession.’ This imaginary is gendered and racialized, contends Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson, since settlers equate Indigenous women to the land in ways that make them inherently ‘rapable’. She connects this to the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada and suggests their so called ‘disappearances’ are consistent with this ongoing project of dispossession.[1] In the context of Australia, Indigenous scholar Amy McQuire, with Sisters Inside and the Institute for Collaborative Race Research, goes further and argues that Indigenous women and girls are never actually ‘missing’. Rather, they are violently disappeared by the police, individual perpetrators, media, courts, academic research, inquiries and many other colonial institutions.

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s work, meanwhile, gives us exceptional insights into the intimate and everyday forms of gendered state violence endured by Palestinian schoolgirls and boys but made invisible by dominant frameworks of CRSV. In their descriptions of the weapons used to terrorize them on their way to school, the schoolchildren’s bodies can be understood as ‘penetrable territories of dispossession.’ The daily harassment and policing of schoolgirls, she claims, are forms of ‘state-imposed gender-based violence’. These are not recent phenomena since rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence against Palestinians have always been an inherent part of Israel’s settler colonial project of dispossession, and have been widespread since the Nakba in 1948.

The intergenerational reach of colonialism in relation to contemporary sexual violence is also examined in a recent study. The research reveals that formerly colonized countries are 50 times more likely to have a high prevalence of intimate-partner violence against women: when a patriarchal society is combined with a history of colonialism, the risk of domestic violence (which includes sexual violence) increases. The dominant notion that sexual violence during colonial rule and conflict is separate and profoundly different thus needs to be challenged. While every conflict comes with context-specific dynamics, distinctive forms of violence and new political transformations that need to be considered, colonial gendered structures of power remain to this day.

Seeing and knowing the colonial nature of sexual violence is therefore essential to understanding and reconceptualizing sexual violence in conflict. This is not to say that colonialism invented sexual violence. On the contrary, sexual harm predates colonialism. But the idea and the belief that some people are inferior to the European race, are unworthy, deviant and ‘polluted with sexual sin’ – a form of state racism – began to emerge in the process of colonization. The historical exploitation (especially sexual) of ‘othered’/racialized bodies is crucial to understanding the contemporary moment. Reading CRSV and weapon-of-war frameworks through history underlines that it is not limited to ‘greedy’ rebels or so-called terrorists but grounded in specific historical and structural conditions. It is important to keep in mind then that sexual violence can rarely be reduced to a mere weapon of war. Like pain, it ‘must be recognized in its historicity and the articulation of a social condition of brutal constraint, extreme need and constant violence.’

[1] While Canada recently finalised its truth-gathering process with the final report on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released in 2023, Australia is still in the process of conducting public hearings, although the inquiry has lacked public prominence (see McQuire et al, 2023).


Dr Charlotte Mertens is an interdisciplinary scholar who teaches in Criminology and Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her scholarship, drawing on ethnographic and archival research, focuses on the politics and ethics of knowledge and representation of sexual violence (in conflict settings and elsewhere), colonialism and decolonisation, humanitarianism and the sexual politics of empire.