Sexual violence against women in armed conflicts
: Towards a transitional justice perspective

  • Estelle Zinsstag

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


“The soldiers raped every woman there while their men were forced to watch. Then the women were held as the men were shot and bayoneted. Rape was being used quite deliberately as a weapon of subjection. As the women were being raped so were the Highlands. These women weren’t mothers and sisters like their own. They were savages, unworthy of Christian mercy.”

Scottish Highlands (1745)

[Craig, M (1997) Damn’ Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ’45, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, p 109.]

“A man banged on the door and said, “God damn you, open the door or I will set fire to the house.” The women asked who was out there. The voice replied, “A Yankee, God damn you… I want to fuck you.” Then their visitor broke down the door, jerked Mrs Sloan out of bed, and choked, kicked, and beat her. Mrs Hendrick, who was hiding under the bed, testified “he got her chocked down and just went to ravishing her.””

American Civil War (1864)

Lowry, TP (1994) The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War, Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, p 128.]

“Once she was naked, her captor gave her a thorough inspection and pronounced her fit to provide ample comfort to the men of his unit. He then proceeded to break her in with an initiation lasting four hours. He forced her into endless variations as she wept with grief, pain and shame. The same sort of treatment was repeated over the following three days, the girls being rotated among the men.”

Kim Chun Ja, Korean Comfort woman (1940s)

[Hicks, G (1995) The Comfort Women: Sex Slaves for the Imperial Japanese Forces, Singapore: Heinemann Asia, p 43.]

“He then spread my legs and raped me. He was very strong – you cannot defend yourself. When he was done, he inserted his hand inside me and began pinching me with his fingers, as if he wanted to pull everything out. I screamed and he grabbed my right breast and twisted it so hard that I screamed again; long afterwards my entire breast was blackened. He thrust the knife to my throat and said that, if I screamed one more time, he would slaughter me. He inserted his fingers inside me again – it hurt tremendously – and then he thrust his hand at my face and I had to lick his fingers clean, one by one. He repeated the whole thing once more.”

KS, Former Yugoslavia (1993)

[Human Rights Watch (1993) War Crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina (vol II), p 167.]

“There were not many of us left in the church by then – four women, three older women, and me – and some children. The soldiers raped all four of us. They hit me with a stick twice. They said we were stupid for obeying the RCD and said they would save the Congolese people. They were in the church for about thirty minutes and then took off.

The other women who were raped were old, and they can’t speak of it. I have no one to help me, and I have nothing left. There is no health facility in Massanga, so I couldn’t get medical help. I still have a lot of pain, but I am menstruating [indicating that she does not believe she is pregnant].”

Natalie R, Eastern Congo (2002)

[Human Rights Watch (2002) The War Within the War: Sexual Violence Against Women and Girls in Eastern Congo, p 42.]

Sexual violence against women has been a recurrent feature of armed conflicts throughout history, as the above quotes demonstrate, and still occurs daily in on-going conflicts. This is evidenced in the alarming reports of the scale of sexual violence being committed against women in areas such as Darfur,6 the Democratic Republic of Congo,7 Afghanistan8 or Iraq.9 The attacks against women may include crimes such as sexual assaults, rape, sexual mutilations, forced prostitution and forced impregnation.10 The thesis will explore comprehensively sexual violence against women in armed conflicts. It will then examine some of transitional justice’s responses by considering some of the ‘retributive’ and ‘restorative’ approaches to this crime. In conclusion a more coordinated approach to transitional justice will be suggested in order to improve the available response to sexual violence against women. Before I offer a more detailed account of the way the argument will proceed, I would like to use the introduction to first attempt to situate the entire work within some of the key theoretical debates in the field and second to clarify some terminological questions.

Date of AwardDec 2008
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsQueen's University Belfast
SupervisorKieran McEvoy (Supervisor) & Ruth Jamieson (Supervisor)

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