Can Angelina Jolie help end rape in conflict zones?

It's up to all of us to make a difference.

Internet Culture

Published Aug 18, 2014   Updated Jun 17, 2020, 12:04 pm CDT


Celebrity activism usually makes me feel queasy. But when it comes to Angelina Jolie, I’ve always admired the way she goes about it. She has a kind of grace, an authenticity, that goes well beyond self-serving, supercharged, cynical Hollywood PR. She comes across as if she genuinely cares about the women, men and children who have been sexually assaulted during war. Her recent campaign to end sexual violence in conflict filled me with questions. Can you really end rape, when conflict zones are such brutal situations? And why stop there? Why not oppose war entirely?

I have no doubt that Angelina Jolie used her celebrity to brilliant effect, bringing an issue that no one likes to talk or think about into newspapers and magazines all over the world. Part of her power is in coming across as if she’s on the same level as the other campaigners—she stands alongside them, rather than talking down to them—and she seems like she listens and wants to learn. When I first saw the posters on the London underground for the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, I thought it was a great idea but it left me wondering: Can a bunch of people talking in a room ever really stop sexual violence in war zones? Can signing Statements of Action, drafting Protocols and agreeing a construction of words do enough to really end war rape? I’m asking these questions, despite admiring the #TimeToAct campaign, because rape has been so embedded in many wars for many, many years.

Susan Brownmiller, a  journalist and the author of Against Our Will, argued that rape is an act of a conqueror aimed at “the bodies of the defeated enemy’s women” to highlight his success. Anyone who has ever been sexually assaulted knows that it isn’t a one-time thing. It has the power to play back in a million different ways later on in life. Like a stuttering super-8 film, flickering stills from half-forgotten scenes and fractured shards of memory, sexual assault can be re-lived at some of the most inconvenient times. From Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to forced impregnation, and from the risk of sexually transmitted diseases to being ostracised, sexual violence can leave victims with a whole load of scars in addition to physical wounds. Using the trauma of sexual violence as a means to destabilise a society, shake up families and fracture the bonds that tie people together, leaves a legacy of shame, secrets and lies for future generations to grapple with.

The United Nations (UN) says that sexual violence is sometimes used systematically, as a tactic of war, and highlights the sky high numbers of rapes that have taken place during conflict. It makes for horrific reading. They estimate that at least 200 thousand people have been raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1998, while other reports suggest that more than 400 thousand women and girls were raped in the country from 2006 to 2007. The U.N. claims that 100 thousand to 250 thousand women were raped during the genocide in Rwanda, over 60 thousand women were raped during the civil war in Sierra Leone, more than 40 thousand people were raped in Liberia from 1989-2003, and up to 60 thousand people were raped in the former Yugoslavia from 1992-1995.

This list is by no means exhaustive and, from the Soviet armies advancing into East Prussia in 1945 to the Roman abduction of the Sabine Women in 750 B.C., our history is littered with abuse of one form or another.

There are other examples of rape in war that are also really tough to face. The author Nick Turse documented how some U.S. troops raped and sexually assaulted people during the Vietnam war. Photos showing the sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners in a U.S.-run prison outside Baghdad shocked the world in 2004, and Wikileaks has claimed to have found evidence that US soldiers gang raped a 14 year old Iraqi girl before murdering her and her family back in 2006.

It’s grim. And it gets worse, the more you read.

Even those who are meant to keep the world safe have been alleged to have been involved in rape. Over in Haiti, it was alleged that U.N. Peacekeepers raped an 18-year-old man in 2011, and the U.N. has also faced allegations of sexual misconduct in Burundi, Liberia, and elsewhere.

Some researchers, like those at The Missing Peace Young Scholars Network, stress that sexual violence doesn’t take place in every war and that it isn’t inevitable. In fact, they claim that more than 40 percent of conflicts from 1989 to 2010 had no reports of sexual violence by any group. But this just leaves me reeling with the knowledge that 60 percent of these conflicts involved sexual violence. 60 percent. Plus, if we know one thing about sexual violence, it’s that not every case gets reported.

With sexual violence so deeply embedded in war culture, and so many groups—including those we’re meant to trust—involved in sexual violence, it’s really hard to see how any campaign could successfully tackle this issue.

But here’s the thing: times are changing. A friend of mine who protested against the Vietnam war told me that, back then, she never really heard people talking about rape during the conflict. They marched, they were outraged, and they talked about the mass killing of civilians, but sexual violence wasn’t totally on their radar. Now Angelina Jolie, and her fellow campaigners, have put this issue smack-bang right at the centre of the agenda. I hope that this is the first step that leads to major a cultural shift. I hope that whatever institutional, military or Government changes could help to tackle sexual violence will be sorted out super quick. I hope that generations to come won’t have to suffer what their parents and grandparents went through.

The #TimeToAct campaign also got me thinking about red lines—about what we think is acceptable, and what isn’t acceptable, in war. As one friend put it, “What’s the point of campaigning against people being penetrated by c**ks if you’re doing nothing to stop them being penetrated by bullets?” Other people I’ve spoken to have been critical of what they believe is a ‘poverty of ambition’ in the campaign, as it doesn’t go as far as opposing war. And by that, they mean all war.

Having grown up with hippie, pacifist, CND badge toting parents near a military air base, I’m well aware that people draw their red lines in very different places. One person’s just war is another person’s dirty war, just as one person’s war hero can be another person’s enemy of the state.

All this got me thinking: If we still haven’t worked out how to totally tackle sexual abuse in our own armed services, what hope have we got of tackling rape in war? If we still haven’t figured out the perfect system to deal with civilian rape back home, how can we hope to tackle sexual abuse in war zones overseas? And what’s the point of campaigning against systematic sexual violence in conflict, if you’re not campaigning against war?

I definitely don’t have all the answers. I wish I did. One thing I’m clear on is that no one—wherever they live—should have to suffer sexual violence and it’s time we became far more zero tolerance on this.

This campaign avoids some of the more complex questions and pisive debates, and unites liberals, conservatives, hawks and doves. The fact that the platform was home to a liberal Hollywood campaigner alongside the Conservative British politician William Hague shows just how successful this campaign was in uniting unlikely combinations of people from different parts of the political spectrum. I mean, who doesn’t oppose sexual violence in conflict?

The first step this campaign has made might not please everyone, it might not be the perfect answer to all the questions I have, or the perfect answer to all the world’s problems. But it is already a giant leap for humankind, uniting a coalition of campaigners from around the world, shining a light on an issue that has been shaded in shame and contributing to what I hope will be a major culture shift. I hope that this campaign will make it easier for women, men and children to seek and access help, to tackling the legacy of shame, secrets and lies left by sexual violence. I hope that, by getting people talking, this culture shift could maybe result in a zero tolerance approach to rape in conflict, overseas and back home.

Hats off to Angelina Jolie for putting her reputation on the line to draw a red line on sexual violence in conflict. Now it’s up to all of us, all over the world, to keep this issue on the agenda.

Fran O’Leary lives in London and write about politics and international current affairs for

Photo via Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Aug 18, 2014, 12:30 pm CDT