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The rape of women has for centuries been an endemic feature of war, yet perpetrators largely go unpunished. Women were sanctioned as the spoils of war in biblical times and more recently it has been claimed that it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflict. Nevertheless, until the establishment of the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia – there was very little concern regarding the need to address the rape of women in conflict.
This paper briefly maps historical attitudes towards rape in war, outlines some analyses and explanations of why rape in war occurs and finally turns more substantively to recent efforts by the international community to prosecute rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity. We argue, that while commendable in some ways, contemporary approaches to rape in war risk reinforcing aspects of women’s status which contribute to the targeting of women for rape and continue to displace women from the centre to the margins in debates and practices surrounding rape in both war and peace time. We conclude by arguing that criminal prosecutions alone are insufficient and that, if we are to end the rape of women and girls in war (and peace) we need a radical restructuring of gender relations across every sphere of social and political life.
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