Twenty years after the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, conflict-related sexual violence remains a persistent problem. In this paper, I survey the literature on causes of conflict-related sexual violence in order to identify avenues for policymaking. I then compare the national action plans of two states – Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire – to evaluate which causes from the literature they seek to address. I argue that the Liberian plan has been more effective than the Ivorian plan because it focuses on building strong institutions with the specific mandate to deliver accountability for sexual violence. The Liberian government has also demonstrated a greater commitment to adapting and improving their policies as new research on their effectiveness becomes available. While accountability for sexual violence in Liberia is still difficult to achieve, women in the country report relatively high levels of optimism toward formal systems of justice. This suggests that the Liberian model of addressing sexual violence has the potential to serve as an example for policy programs elsewhere.
Addressing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence: Efficacy of National Action Plans in Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire
“You can’t cure trauma when violence is ongoing, so the primary effort must be working for peace. You can’t negotiate a lasting peace without bringing women into the effort, but women can’t become peacemakers without releasing the pain that keeps them from feeling their own strength.”
― Leymah Gbowee, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War
The year 2020 marked the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, which recognizes the gendered impacts of conflict and encourages the full and equal participation of women in efforts to end violence and build peace. While advocates and academics have made immense strides in promoting gender justice in situations of armed conflict, many of the focal problems set out in the resolution persist around the world. As Leymah Gbowee, Liberian peacemaker and Nobel laureate, discusses in her memoir, the gendered effects of conflict are often left untreated, which hinders peace processes and leaves a society with massive unaddressed trauma. Conflict-related sexual violence is one such problem, which the UN Secretary-General António Guterres described in a 2019 report as “a cruel tactic of war, torture, terror and political repression, and a brutally effective tool of displacement and dehumanization.” Despite widespread, much-deserved attention to the problem of sexual violence in armed conflict, many states still struggle to hold perpetrators accountable after the conflict has ended. This problem has led a number of scholars in the field of Women, Peace, and Security Studies to try and understand the factors driving conflict-related sexual violence in order to develop policy options that would better address them.
In this paper, I first survey the literature on the root causes of conflict-related sexual violence. I then turn to the national action plans of two states, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, which seek to reduce sexual violence in their societies and hold perpetrators accountable. I analyze whether the national action plans promise policy changes that would address each of the root causes identified in the literature, and then I compare the two different approaches based on their effectiveness. I argue that Liberia’s national action plan is more effective than the Ivorian plan because it provides for the establishment of new institutions with the specific focus of holding perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence accountable. Furthermore, the Liberian government has demonstrated a more sustained commitment to improving its efforts to combat sexual violence, as evidenced by a new national action plan in 2019 and increased resource allocation in 2020. Finally, I discuss the potential implications of my research for policymakers and academics looking to build more effective strategies for addressing conflict-related sexual violence.
While scholars in the ancient world wrote extensively about the phenomenon of rape in wartime, much of the modern scholarship on the subject has been written since the turn of the twenty-first century. Throughout the modern era, and certainly during the twentieth century, the common understanding was that sexual violence in situations of armed conflict was ubiquitous and inevitable. The prevailing hypothesis suggested that rape in wartime resulted from the opportunism of combatants and was a normal kind of violence against civilians, and as such, that it could not be effectively prevented. The literature on civilian protection at the time supported this hypothesis. Scholars of civil war, such as Jeremy Weinstein, argued that widespread violence against civilians happened when rebel groups lacked incentives to cultivate civilian buy-in. Rebel groups with funding from external patrons or control over rich natural resources had no strategic need for civilian support in finances or membership, so they had no problem carrying out mass violence. While Weinstein does not directly address conflict-related sexual violence, his theory of violence against civilians explains and influences the common perception of rape as a natural side effect of armed conflict concerning civilians.
Advocates for the Women, Peace, and Security agenda at the United Nations were dissatisfied with this understanding of conflict-related sexual violence and the lack of priority that accompanied it. They, following rulings at the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, argued that rape was used as a tool for civilian terror and strategic targeting of certain groups, thereby constituting a weapon of war. In the 2008 Security Council Resolution 1820, the United Nations validated this framework for dealing with conflict-related sexual violence, formally classifying the phenomenon as a tactic of war and requesting that member states develop and implement policies to address it. Since then, scholars have debated the merits of the “weapon of war” framework. Kerry Crawford discusses the debate in her 2017 book, Wartime Sexual Violence: From Silence to Condemnation of a Weapon of War. She says that considering sexual violence a weapon of war limits our collective understanding of the problem. It centers on the dichotomy of a male perpetrator and a female victim, obscuring the reality of sexual violence perpetrated by women or against men and LGBTQ+ people, who are often attacked for reasons specific to their sexual and gender identities. Furthermore, the weapon of war framework minimizes the gendered social context that, according to some scholars, underpins conflict-related sexual violence. However, while it has its flaws, Crawford suggests that ultimately the classification of sexual violence as a weapon of war has enabled feminist advocates to make realist arguments to policymakers, citing security concerns and placing the problem within the interests of states. The “weapon of war” framework continues to be the prevailing way of thinking about conflict-related sexual violence today, with some scholars suggesting that proponents of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda should capitalize on their overlapping interests with advocates of the Responsibility to Protect protocol. As such, the scholarship on conflict-related sexual violence since 2008 seeks to respond to the “weapon of war” framework, both to affirm and critique it.
Realist arguments about conflict-related sexual violence like those that use militaristic language hinge on the premise that it is a kind of political violence, generally directed at a group of people for strategic purposes in the context of violent conflict. The belief in this framework is that gendered violence can serve as a tool of political terror and degrade the social fabric of enemy society. This perspective is exemplified in the 2012 study, Sex and World Peace, wherein the authors argue that the use of sexual violence against women in cases of armed conflict reflects and builds upon the everyday violence against women before conflict. They discuss various kinds of systemic, institutional, and legal violence against women that are common across different societies, and they state that conflict-related sexual violence is, at its core, a kind of gendered political violence. The authors argue, as do many proponents of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, that efforts to build peaceful societies and rebuild after conflict cannot succeed without a critical evaluation of the status of women.
Elisabeth Wood argues to the contrary, suggesting that the prevalence of sexual violence in conflict scenarios is not because it is strategically useful, but because it is a practice that some commanders do not care to forbid. Wood discusses at length the degree to which conflict-related sexual violence varies vastly in its motivations and incidence.She maintains that there are plenty of cases where factors like ethnic conflict, low status of women, and rebel group ideology would predict high levels of sexual violence, but in practice it does not happen. This refutes the argument made throughout the twentieth century that rape in war is inevitable. In fact, Wood tells her audience that some commanders are very effective in prohibiting the practice for their troops, meaning that commanders and recruits that allow or perpetrate sexual violence can and should be held accountable for their actions. Wood argues that the state of gender relations in a particular country does not have a strong influence on whether or not sexual violence occurs during conflict, which separates her from scholars who point to violent constructions of masculinity and oppression of women as contributing factors.
Wood’s research demonstrates the immense variation in conflict-related sexual violence, which pushed other scholars to try and use more quantitative methods to evaluate the root of the problem. One such scholar is Dara Cohen, who is co-creator of the Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict (SVAC) dataset. The dataset sought to capture key information about 625 combatant groups in 129 conflicts between 1989 and 2009 to identify patterns in situations where sexual violence does and does not occur. In her research using the dataset, Cohen echoes Wood’s observation that conflict-related sexual violence is intensely varied, and she also argues that gender relations in society have minimal impacts, if any, on incidence. Cohen argues for a combatant socialization explanation for sexual violence, suggesting that sexual violence is most likely to happen when combatants are forcibly recruited. Commanders in these circumstances allow sexual violence to occur and even encourage it because it helps build fraternity and internal cohesion amongst recruits. Her data-driven approach has received critiques from feminist scholars who argue that, even if the purpose of sexual violence is to build group cohesion in recruits, the effect of creating fraternity relies on a context in which women lack equality of human rights.
Scholars have also critiqued the methodological shift toward primarily quantitative methods for evaluating situations of sexual violence. These techniques are useful to the extent that having “hard data” appeals to policymakers and enables the relevant people to hold perpetrators accountable, but some scholars have argued that data-driven approaches “exceptionalize” the problem of conflict-related sexual violence. By this, they mean that quantitative approaches remove the problem from its sociopolitical context, which makes it difficult to formulate effective policy solutions. Drawing from earlier literature, Jacqui True and Sara Davies argue that, while it may be true that sexual violence functions more as a practice than a strategy and facilitates the building of fraternity among recruits, these functions are underscored by the construction of gender in society and the normalization of violence against women.They also point out that an overreliance on quantitative methods when discussing conflict-related sexual violence is unhelpful because of the problems associated with procuring data. Due to the social stigma associated with being a survivor of sexual violence, compounded by logistical challenges many survivors face in reporting their experiences including weak or nonexistent justice systems and lack of accessible medical care, data on sexual violence in conflict is not always reliable. Their study finds that it is most difficult to get accurate reporting in areas where sexual violence is a prominent feature of a conflict. True and Davies argue that these shortcomings do not make the SVAC dataset and others like it useless, but they do create a vital need for qualitative analysis of the social context to understand the full picture of conflict-related sexual violence.
Seeking to build this more nuanced picture, scholars in recent years have sought to bring gender analysis back into the study of sexual violence. Maike Messerschmidt wrote in 2018 about the relationship between masculinity and violence. Citing research on men in the prison system, he argues that sexual violence and hypermasculinity exist in a mutually-reinforcing relationship. He says that the embeddedness of violence in men’s understandings of themselves can make it very difficult to reintegrate them into society after conflict. The emphasis on critically examining masculinity, as opposed to focusing on the demographics of victims, is a relatively recent shift in the literature, but one that could be promising. Nicola Henry wrote similarly about the need for a more intersectional lens in identifying root causes of conflict-related sexual violence. She says that, while individuals perpetrate sexual violence, they act within and reinforce a violent construction of masculinity that pervades society. Henry suggests that a framework that incorporates analysis of gender, sexuality, and violence in a social and political context, examining society before, during and after conflict, would be most useful in understanding the precise confluence of factors that result in conflict-related sexual violence.
As evidenced by this discussion, scholars do not agree on the contributing factors that underlie conflict-related sexual violence. Some scholars argue that sexual violence in conflict situations is a practice that commanders have to decide to actively forbid. Others argue that sexual violence is encouraged by certain commanders to build group cohesion. Many scholars point to gender inequality in society as the root cause of sexual violence, either because it promotes violent constructions of masculinity or because policymakers fail to appreciate the intersection of gender with other identities that lead certain groups to be targeted. Drawing from this disagreement, I will use the different theories to evaluate the National Action Plans of Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, identifying which factors they address and discussing what their relative effectiveness can tell us about programs to hold perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict accountable.
Terms of Analysis
In this paper, I evaluate the national action plans (NAPs) of two countries seeking to address conflict-related sexual violence in their societies. I work backward from the policies they propose in the NAPs to determine which root causes, as proposed in the literature, they seek to address. I then compare the two cases to see whether one approach is more effective in practice than the other. I measure efficacy in terms of formal justice, like trials and convictions, and confidence in justice systems.
For the purposes of this paper, I define conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) using the standard definition set out by the United Nations, which says:
The term “conflict-related sexual violence” refers to rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage, and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls, or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict. That link may be evident in the profile of the perpetrator, who is often affiliated with a State or non-State armed group, which includes terrorist entities; the profile of the victim, who is frequently an actual or perceived member of a political, ethnic, or religious minority group or targeted on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity; the climate of impunity, which is generally associated with State collapse, cross-border consequences such as displacement or trafficking, and/or violations of a ceasefire agreement. The term also encompasses trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual violence or exploitation, when committed in situations of conflict.
This definition is useful for a few reasons. First, it recognizes the phenomenon of conflict-related sexual violence as more nuanced than just rape in wartime. Much of the scholarship on the subject focuses specifically on cases of widespread rape, but sexual and gender-based violence in conflict scenarios can take many forms, including all those enumerated in the UN definition. Secondly, the UN definition is not limited to the male perpetrator, female victim/survivor dichotomy. It states that perpetrators and victims can be male or female, and that sexual orientation and gender identity can be driving factors in incidences of conflict-related sexual violence. Lastly, the definition is broad enough to encompass not just sexual violence used strategically during a conflict, but also sexual violence perpetrated in the lead up to and after conflict that may be related.
To study different approaches to addressing conflict-related sexual violence, I selected two cases, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, to study based on a set of criteria that allow me to control for as many intervening variables as possible. First, I looked only at cases of classic civil war, as defined by James Fearon and David Laitin in 2003. They define civil wars as conflicts that meet three criteria. First, civil wars are conflicts between state groups and organized non-state actors with aspirations to take over the government, mobilize state forces for violence, or control the region. Second, civil war must have a particular magnitude, having killed at least 1000 people and an average of 100 a year. Lastly, civil wars must not be entirely asymmetrical; all parties to a conflict must have at least 100 losses. I also chose not to study cases that ended in state collapse, as I can reasonably assume that states with intact institutions will be most capable of holding perpetrators of sexual violence accountable after conflict. I did not study cases where international actors like peacekeepers were the primary perpetrators of sexual violence, because it may be more challenging for domestic institutions to hold foreign nationals accountable, especially when they operate under the auspices of an international organization like the UN. Both Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire received peacekeeping missions, but in neither case were peacekeepers a main perpetrating group of sexual violence. Lastly, both Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire had strong women’s movements calling for accountability, meaning that public demand for government action in response to conflict-related sexual violence existed in both of the post-war political contexts.
In this study, I examine and discuss the national action plans (NAPs) of Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire regarding reducing conflict-related sexual violence. The creation of NAPs arose out of Security Council Resolution 1325 (SC 1325) and, later, Resolution 1820. SC 1325 was adopted in 2000 and serves as the landmark resolution establishing the Women, Peace, and Security agenda at the United Nations. It seeks to address the disparities in representation of women in peace processes, UN operations, and peace and security efforts, and it asks member states to incorporate these policy initiatives into their domestic laws. As part of the implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, the Security Council also took up a series of other resolutions addressing particular subtopics within SC 1325. Security Council Resolution 1820 is one of these resolutions, adopted in 2008. It identifies sexual violence as a weapon of war that can, depending on the situation, constitute a war crime, crime against humanity, or an act of genocide. SC 1820 also asks member states to develop plans to implement prevention and accountability measures through their domestic political systems. The NAPs I will study in this paper are the responses of the Liberian and Ivoirian governments to these Security Council resolutions. They seek to develop solutions to implement the policy objectives set out by the United Nations. In evaluating their effectiveness, I draw from the literature to identify causal arguments made by scholars and determine whether addressing some and not others lead to varying levels of success. I study the plan released by Côte d’Ivoire in 2008 after their first civil war from 2002-2007 and the two Liberian plans, released in 2009 and 2019, addressing accountability after their two civil wars, which took place from 1989-1996 and 1997-2003. Because of the recent nature of the 2019 Liberian NAP and the COVID-19 crisis in the intervening period, very little information exists on its effectiveness. As a result, I focus primarily on the 2008 Ivorian and 2009 Liberian plans.
The criteria I use to analyze the NAPs derive from my prior discussion of the literature, which presents competing theories about the factors that lead to the incidence of conflict-related sexual assault. As previously mentioned, the prevailing thought in the twentieth century, echoed by Elisabeth Wood in the twenty-first century, is that CRSV is primarily a practice, which combatants are likely to undertake unless their commanders specifically forbid it. If, as Wood suggests, some commanders are effective in forbidding their troops from committing sexual violence, national action plans that seek to hold both perpetrators and their commanders accountable could be effective in addressing CRSV. If, on the other hand, commanders allow and encourage sexual violence for the sake of promoting the development of group cohesion, as is argued by Dara Cohen, effective national action plans may seek to reduce forced recruitment and undertake security sector reform to retrain former combatants in a way that discourages gendered violence. If conflict-related sexual violence is related to gender dynamics in society, national action plans may seek to address the problem in a few different ways, depending on what logic they think is problematic. The authors of Sex and World Peace argue that sexual violence is political violence against women, rooted in the normalization of their oppression before conflict ever breaks out. National action plans that consider this approach may be effective if they seek to uplift the status of women in society by remaking the institutions that contribute to their oppression. Maike Messerschmidt links sexual violence with violent constructions of hypermasculinity. If this hypothesis is useful, states whose plans include critical examinations of the way masculinity functions in society and violent conflict will likely be most effective. Finally, if, as Nicola Henry argues, the only effective way to address conflict-related sexual violence is using an intersectional analytical approach, national action plans that consider the intersections of gender with other identities related to class, ethnicity, sexuality, and religion will be best-suited to mitigate the problem.
To evaluate the relevance of each of these theories to the three NAPs, I work backward from their policy proposals. The concrete commitments states make to certain kinds of solutions and not others allow me to understand which root causes of conflict-related sexual violence they attempt to take on. I then compare the two cases in the context of their respective levels of success to determine which approach is more effective in delivering accountability and promoting confidence in formal justice systems.
Each of these factors, or perhaps a combination thereof, could predict the success of national action plans to address conflict-related sexual violence. In turning to the case of Côte d’Ivoire, and later Liberia, I determine which, if any, of these factors are addressed by the plans to conclude what makes some more effective than others.
The first case study I turn to is Côte d’Ivoire. Côte d’Ivoire’s NAP from 2008 includes policies that aim to address some of the causes of conflict-related sexual violence proposed in the literature. I argue that its policy promises are vague and weak in comparison to other states.
Côte d’Ivoire suffered a civil war, known as the Crisis, from 2002 to 2007 as the nationalism and xenophobia of the Gbagbo regime caused a boiling-over of ethnic conflict. The civil war ended with a negotiated peace deal, facilitated by both UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Côte d’Ivoire national soccer team and guaranteed by Burkina Faso, that mandated sharing of power between government and opposition forces. Between 2010 and 2011, a disputed election between the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, and the president-elect, Alassane Ouattara, who had the backing of the international community, spurred a resurgence of violence. Ultimately, when Gbagbo refused to transfer power, Ouattara’s forces invaded his home with the assistance of the United Nations and France and arrested him. In response to the violence undertaken during the disputed election, Gbagbo was tried at the International Criminal Court for charges of crimes against humanity. He was acquitted in 2019 and the Appeals Chamber of the ICC upheld the acquittal in March 2021. Another spurt of violence took place in 2017 as government soldiers attempted to apply pressure on the government for higher wages, but the violence was sporadic and did not constitute a true civil conflict.
Combatants perpetrated sexual violence during and between each of these periods, and the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire received specific reports throughout the Crisis of conflict-related sexual violence including rape. Both the rebel New Forces and the Ivorian government perpetrated sexual violence against civilians, sometimes targeting specific demographic groups based on ethnic identity and sometimes attacking members of the general population indiscriminately. The National Action Plan released in 2008, just one year after the Crisis ended, sought to decrease the incidence of conflict-related sexual violence, especially against women and children. As evidenced by the persistence of CRSV after the adoption of the National Action Plan, it is not entirely effective. While the plan addresses some of the underlying causes of conflict-related sexual violence, it entirely neglects others.
Analysis of the Ivorian National Action Plan
The Côte d’Ivoire National Action Plan for the Implementation of Resolution 1325 of the Security Council is sparse compared to those of other states. It outlines four priority areas in which the government hopes to intervene, though the actual policy proposals under each are brief and nonspecific. The four priority areas are the protection of women against sexual violence, the mainstreaming of gender analysis in development projects, greater participation of women in post-conflict reconstruction, and the increased role of women in national decision-making. The intended budget for the implementation of the policies contained in the NAP is 3,694,400,000 Central African Francs, or around 6.7 million U.S. Dollars.
Côte d’Ivoire’s NAP does not directly address the hypothesis of Elisabeth Wood, that rape in conflict is a practice more than a strategy, though it does discuss the need for accountability broadly. On pages 12 and 13, the authors of the plan discuss the sense of frustration that Ivorian victims of sexual assault feel due to the poor performance of the justice system in bringing about accountability for perpetrators, combined with the stigma associated with reporting. In response, the plan suggests that the government should undertake capacity building projects for all of the groups that respond to sexual assault, like police and gendarmerie, and “amendment of laws relating to sexual offenses.” One of Wood’s main arguments is that the variation in whether or not sexual violence takes place in conflict settings tells us that perpetrators and commanders can and should be held accountable for their actions. While the stipulations in the NAP are vague and make no specific commitments to prosecuting certain kinds of people, reform in the response to sexual assault and subsequent legal action could raise the costs of committing conflict-related sexual violence in terms of accountability. This would dissuade commanders from allowing the practice in their troops, potentially decreasing the amount of perpetration.
The NAP also does not make any recommendations for policies that might address Dara Cohen’s hypothesis that CRSV promotes group cohesion among combatants. It does not refer to altering patterns of recruitment or trying to prevent conscription by force, and while it discusses establishing a special police force for sexual violence, it does not address the retraining of former combatants. According to Cohen, the style of recruitment is what leads commanders to encourage CRSV, so the NAP may be less effective because it doesn’t interrogate the function that sexual violence serves for combatants and their leaders.
The Ivorian plan addresses the gendered elements of conflict-related sexual violence multiple times. In both the Background and Situation Analysis sections, the authors refer to the multifaceted inequality of women in Ivorian society and the degree to which it has been exacerbated by conflict. In the policy sections, the government promises to “(integrate) the gender approach in the peace policy with a view to a better legal, social, and economic protection of women and men.” It also provides for the establishment of a scholarship fund for girls’ education and a fund for women to develop “income-generating activities.” These promises are interesting for a few reasons. First, they touch on Nicola Henry’s argument that the missing piece in addressing conflict-related sexual violence is intersectionality.The provision that the government will try to remedy not just women’s social status, but also their legal and economic standing, reflects an appreciation of the compounding effect of class-based inequality on gender inequality. Importantly, the policy recommendations do not acknowledge the compounding effect of ethnic marginalization on gender inequality, which is a vital consideration in the Ivorian context, as the Crisis centered on ethnic conflict and, in some circumstances, groups of civilians were targeted as a result of their ethnicity.
These policy promises are also interesting because they allude to the negative impact of gender inequality on both women and men. In unequal societies, oppressive gender norms harm both men and women, as women are marginalized and suppressed, and men are forced to perform hypermasculinity to prove their worth. The NAP promises, “Communication for social behavioral change aimed at preventing sexual violence and fighting against the stigmatization of victims.” The effort to bring about “social behavioral change” requires a critical analysis of all members of society and their relationships with harmful social constructions of gender. As Messerschmidt suggests, violent constructions of hypermasculinity, which result from toxic embedded assumptions about gender in a particular society, can make it difficult to reintegrate men into society after conflict. It seems that the Ivorian government is attempting to incorporate this school of thought into their policy response, addressing not just the oppression of women in society, but also the negative impacts of a hypermasculine construction closely tied to violence.
Effectiveness of the Ivorian National Action Plan
While the Ivorian NAP takes a fairly comprehensive approach to address the gendered underpinnings of conflict-related sexual violence, its provisions for addressing CRSV as a practice are weak and nonspecific. Furthermore, the NAP fails to adequately address the hypotheses of Elisabeth Wood and Dara Cohen, who argue that the practice of sexual violence serves an internal function for combatant groups. These holes in the policy prescriptions may contribute to the limited results achieved by the plan. During the outbreak of violence in 2010-2011, after the adoption of the NAP, both rebel and pro-government forces committed acts of conflict-related sexual violence in the towns of Man, Abidjan, and Yamoussoukro. In place of formal institutions for holding perpetrators accountable, most survivors have only been able to settle their cases informally through community-based channels like religious leaders and chiefs. For the sake of maintaining harmony between families and throughout the community, survivors of sexual violence are pressured not to report their experiences to authorities. Instead, they are generally given compensation for their medical expenses from their attacker, and then the matter is considered settled. International and domestic courts have attempted to hold high-ranking political officers like Laurent Gbagbo accountable for crimes including rape, but they generally fall short. Gbagbo was tried in the Hague, but he was acquitted in 2019. These efforts are also problematic because they are asymmetrical – rebel forces that backed the current president, Alassane Ouattara, have been largely untouched by efforts for accountability. The persistence of sexual violence in Côte d’Ivoire and the reported dissatisfaction of Ivorian women with the state of justice create what the United Nations describes as “prevailing impunity.” There has been little to no progress in prosecutions for conflict-related sexual violence that took place between 2010-2011. According to the most recent report from the UN Secretary-General, there have been no formal trials for cases of conflict-related sexual violence in Côte d’Ivoire and no survivors have received reparations.
There are additional considerations that may have contributed to the relative lack of success of the NAP in Côte d’Ivoire. As Alex Bellamy and Paul Williams argue, the civilian protection mandate issued to UN peacekeepers in Côte d’Ivoire lacked teeth and failed to provide them with the resources necessary to assist in addressing conflict-related sexual violence. While UN peacekeepers are certainly responsible for civilian protection in their missions, this does not absolve the Ivorian government of their responsibility to protect their own citizens and hold perpetrators of violence accountable. Due to the high degree of variation and context-specific nature of conflict-related sexual violence, local governance structures must serve as the first line of defense and accountability. Regardless of the ineffectiveness of the peacekeeping mission in preventing CRSV, the Ivorian government also fell short. In advance of their 2017 exit from Côte d’Ivoire, a report from UN peacekeepers implied that one other challenge for effectively addressing conflict-related sexual violence is the lack of “adequate resources for the implementation of all ongoing initiatives and various commitments taken by Côte d’Ivoire in the fight against sexual violence.” Budgetary constraints can certainly limit the effectiveness of policy programs, but if the Ivorian government is overcommitting and underperforming as a result of their budget, they do a real disservice to survivors. Giving adequate funding to a few effective programs would be more impactful than distributing inadequate funding to a whole swath of programs — though the problem may be a lack of political will. As is the case in any state, government officials will devote resources to policy initiatives they think are worthwhile, both in terms of benefit to society and benefit to their political career. If the problem in Côte d’Ivoire is a lack of funding for programs aiming to address conflict-related sexual violence, they will only be successful with a combination of redistribution of the budget and strengthened political will.
In any case, the responsibility to protect civilians from conflict-related sexual violence falls, at least in large part, on the Ivorian government. They have worked with the United Nations to put together a national action plan that incorporates a gendered analysis of the problem and its policy solutions. They fail to address, however, sexual violence as a practice that must be actively forbidden by commanders and the potential role of the psychology of group cohesion. Given the observed weakness of the Ivorian attempt to curb conflict-related sexual violence, these holes in their plan may contribute to their lack of effectiveness.
The Liberian NAP from 2009 is much more comprehensive than that of Côte d’Ivoire. It addresses all of the root causes of sexual violence identified in the literature with specific, actionable policy promises. While there are persistent logistical and social challenges that prevent Liberia’s plan from being as effective as possible, it succeeds in building legitimacy for new institutions that seek to deliver accountability and justice for survivors. The most recent NAP from 2019 demonstrates a continued commitment to trying to implement best practices in response to the shortcomings of the 2009 plan.
Like Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia experienced two consecutive civil wars. The first, which took place between 1989 and 1997, began when Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) invaded from Côte d’Ivoire with the ambition to overthrow Samuel Doe’s incumbent government. The NPFL clashed with Prince Yormie Johnson’s Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) for control of the capital, Monrovia. President Doe was brutally captured and executed by the INPFL, which, coupled with international pressure, triggered a round of elections where Charles Taylor was elected to be the new President. A new civil war broke out shortly thereafter, in 1999, as two rebel groups – the Guinea-backed Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) – challenged the Taylor government. A women’s movement organized by Leymah Gbowee, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, consolidated pro-peace sentiment of women from different ethnic, class, and religious groups, effectively pressuring the warring parties to participate in the UN-sponsored peace process and ultimately sign the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The Peace Agreement required another round of elections in 2005, wherein the first female president of an African state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was elected.
The massive influence of the Liberian women’s movement in building peace, coupled with the election of President Sirleaf, meant that the specifically gendered impacts of conflict received more attention in post-conflict Liberia than would be likely under different circumstances. Studies have shown that sexual violence was used widely by all sides of the conflicts, and Liberian women advocated for accountability and reform throughout the post-conflict reconstruction years. One significant survey taken in Liberia after the first civil war documented that 49% of women surveyed reported having experienced gendered physical or sexual violence at the hands of either rebel combatants or a soldier in the Liberian military between 1989 and 1994, and the practice remained as prevalent during the second civil war. The precise statistics are debated, as some scholars and international organizations place it as high as 60-70%, while other scholars argue it is closer to 10-20%. This discrepancy is due to the challenges, both logistical and social, of collecting data on sexual violence in conflict zones, coupled with a lack of standardization across survey groups and methodologies. While it is important and would be helpful to have a widely agreed-upon number to characterize the magnitude of conflict-related sexual violence in Liberia, for the purposes of this paper it is sufficient to say that substantial numbers of civilians were victimized by combatants who perpetrated sexual violence, resulting in attention and a subsequent response from both the UN and the Liberian government.
Analysis of the Liberian National Action Plan
The Liberia National Action Plan for Implementation of United Nations Resolution 1325 from 2009 reflects and summarizes the government’s effort to curb sexual violence and improve the status of women after the two civil wars. The plan is fairly robust, covering all four pillars laid out in SC 1325 with ten strategic issues. Each strategic issue is translated into actionable policy promises, which are paired with measures that will allow the government to track progress. The policy changes promised in the NAP touch on all of the key contributing factors identified in the literature as drivers of conflict-related sexual violence.
The NAP takes an institutional approach to combat sexual violence as a practice, as was proposed by Elisabeth Wood. It provides for robust changes to the judiciary including a sexual and gender-based violent crimes division, a legal aid clinic for survivors, and a “victim service liaison” who will be responsible for the protection of survivors who choose to file with the formal legal institutions. In practice, these changes were manifested in a new police force called the Women and Children’s Protection Service (WACPS), which handles crimes like sexual violence with specific training on gender sensitivity and collection of evidence for gendered crimes. It is widely regarded as more approachable than the rest of the Liberian police force and includes a higher percentage of female officers. Liberia has also established a specialized court to prosecute sexual violence, called Criminal Court E. Criminal Court E takes a victim-centered approach to prosecution and employs both prosecutors and support staff who can help ensure survivors who report their cases are safe and secure in doing so. It has become somewhat famous for victim protection provisions including, most notably, a system wherein those testifying can sit in a private room at the back of the courtroom, watch the trial as it transpires, and give their testimony on-camera without the defendant seeing them. The Liberian government’s effort to create a specific police force and create a judicial pathway for the prosecution of sexual violence reflects an effort to address sexual violence, including that perpetrated in the context of the conflict, as a practice by holding perpetrators and commanders accountable.
Liberia’s NAP also works to combat sexual violence as a tool of group cohesion, which Dara Cohen proposes. It provides for “Rehabilitation centres built and standardized programmes in place to address perpetrators of all forms of violence against women and girls.” It also promises to overhaul security sector institutions with a focus on increasing gender sensitivity and promote the recruitment, training, and promotion of women working in the security sector.These efforts to reform major security bodies and increase oversight for mainstreaming gender protections in policy would hopefully result in increased effectiveness in reintegrating and retraining former combatants. They also aim to change the culture surrounding sexual violence within the security sector to prevent its use if there were another outbreak of violence, be it sporadic or in the context of a full-blown conflict.
Uplifting women and shifting gender dynamics in society is also a key focus of the national action plan. This likely reflects both the domestic political pressure applied by Liberian women at all levels of power and the influence of international organizations during the peace process. The plan provides for the adoption of robust legislation criminalizing violence against women of all kinds, with a specific goal of ending legal impunity for sexual violence. It also promises the appointment of individuals serving as Gender Focal Points for Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, who would help educate students in schools about the unacceptability of sexual violence and the need for more equal gender norms in the next generation. The plan calls on parents, religious leaders, and community elders to educate themselves on the issue of violence against women and assist in the attempt to shift the beliefs and practices of the younger generation. The Liberian efforts to combat gender inequality incorporate a critical analysis of the role of men. It proposes the designation of certain people as “1325 Champions,” including individuals of all ages and genders, who would lobby for the improvement of policies against sexual violence. Furthermore, the plan promises the development of a civic education radio program that aims to educate the population on the role each individual can play in preventing violence against women and achieving gender equality. There is a section in the NAP devoted to increasing women’s access to housing and profitable natural resources, which indicates the intersectional analysis of the gendered barriers to equal participation, both political and economic, in Liberia. Taken together, these policy proposals reflect a comprehensive commitment to the creation of healthier gender relations as a way to decrease gendered violence.
Effectiveness of the 2009 Liberian National Action Plan
In terms of the deliverables international organizations would like to see in Liberia, including prosecution, conviction, and punishment for sexual violence, the national action plan from Liberia is not drastically more effective than the one from Côte d’Ivoire. The government has expressed a specific commitment to combatting impunity for sexual violence, but due to challenges in training first responders, lack of prosecutions, and intense backlogs in the courts, the vast majority of survivors never see formal justice. Persistent social stigma and a norm of victim-blaming make it difficult and unpleasant for women to access formal systems of justice, and many find the social costs are lower if they instead report to informal and community-based justice structures. As in Côte d’Ivoire, community leaders often resolve issues of sexual violence with priority given to maintaining social cohesion over justice and protection for survivors. When survivors do choose to come forward in formal justice systems, perpetrators are arrested in many cases, but as a result of logistical and institutional barriers, prosecutions are rare. One United Nations report found that in 2015, out of all of the cases of sexual and gender-based violence reported to the designated forums for justice, only two percent ended with a conviction. Low rates of convictions are certainly progress from no convictions at all, and the UN Mission in Liberia points out that the government is working hard and receptive to feedback pertaining to addressing sexual violence, but it is clear that the systems in place are not as effective as they were intended to be.
The 2019 Liberian National Action Plan
In response to reports outlining the shortcomings of the 2009 NAP, the Liberian government updated its plan, releasing the new version in 2019.
Liberia’s Second Phase National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, adopted in 2019, directly address UN reports that women in Liberia still suffer discrimination and a lack of respect for human rights, and specifically identifies persistent impunity for sexual violence as a problem. It promises infrastructure and benchmarks for monitoring and evaluating the NAP periodically to understand areas of strength and weakness, which should ensure policymakers have an incentive to work toward both short and long-term goals. The new national action plan reinforces and scales up many of the promising policies from the 2009 plan, and it seeks to improve Liberia’s approach even further. In terms of addressing logistical challenges to accountability, it promises the construction of additional healthcare clinics, transitional housing, and legal assistance offices for survivors. Additionally, the plan aims to increase the number of Criminal Court Es outside Monrovia to improve survivors’ ability to physically access justice and increase training of government officials, law enforcement officers, and security forces in responding to gendered violence. It seeks to address social limitations on reporting by attempting to engage more civil society leaders in advocating to change social attitudes around sexual violence. The plan also promises the creation of a new curriculum for primary and secondary school students to provide comprehensive sexuality education, including discussions of reproductive health and human rights. Perhaps most importantly, the new national action plan promises to provide all “necessary supporting resources” to fund and staff programs implementing the new policies. It is too soon to know whether this new national action plan achieves its objectives, especially because an ongoing financial crisis coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched the Liberian budget very thin. In August and September 2020, a group of Liberian activists protested the significant increase in rapes reported during the pandemic, prompting President George Weah to declare rape a national emergency and recommit the Liberian government to combatting sexual violence with an additional $2 million of funding. Liberian NGOs warn that while the commitment is a welcome step toward addressing the problem, whether or not it is carried out remains to be seen. It is clear from the new plan and the President’s promises that the Liberian government takes international critiques seriously and intends to continue making an effort to build strong, effective institutions to combat sexual violence and end impunity, though challenges persist.
It is impossible to know yet whether the 2019 NAP succeeds in solving the persistent shortcomings of the 2009 plan. Nevertheless, studies have demonstrated that Liberian women have faith in the potential of formal justice systems to eventually meet their need for justice. While settling sexual violence cases informally through the community is currently more prevalent, Liberian women report a widespread belief that the formal system offers, at least in theory, a much more robust opportunity for justice. They all mention the high cost of accessing formal justice, but nevertheless express a strong preference for formal justice over community-based solutions. Furthermore, Liberian women generally believe that the courts are more effective in adhering to and upholding the standards laid out by the United Nations with regard to universal human rights. These interview results indicate that the Liberian government seems to be on the right track to building institutions for justice that will meet the needs of survivors. There are undoubtedly institutional factors that make implementation and delivery of results difficult to achieve, as evidenced by the low rates of convictions, but the national action plan does present a comprehensive vision that combats sexual violence holistically, accounting for all of the contributing factors identified by scholars in the literature. Furthermore, the updated plan from 2019 reflects a commitment on the part of the government to continue adapting and improving their approach as more information about best practices for effectiveness becomes available. With increased resource allocation, further change in social norms and attitudes, and reform of institutions to improve their accessibility, the Liberian effort could certainly be a strong example for holding perpetrators of sexual violence to account.
The comparison of the Liberian and Ivorian national action plans shows the effects of two different approaches to combatting conflict-related sexual violence. In both cases, the arguments made by scholars about the need for an intersectional gender lens seem to be well-addressed. This is likely due to a combination of different factors, the first being pressure from international organizations for states to undertake gender mainstreaming, or the analysis of the gendered impacts of new policies. In both Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, UN peacekeeping missions were involved in the drawdown of conflict and helped shape policies thereafter. Especially as it applies to the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325, the international consensus regarding the need to work toward gender equality is reflected in the commitments and language of member states. It is also likely that the strength of the national action plans in considering gender dynamics results from the kinds of opportunities available after conflict. In the unstable period after a civil conflict, there tend to be increased openings for new political actors. In many cases, this provides women with a unique chance to emerge as political leaders and build influence to shape policy. The Liberian case provides strong evidence for this argument, as women who contributed to facilitating the peace found prominent positions in Liberian society after the war. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as the first female president of an African state, and Leymah Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize for her role in ending the conflict, cementing her place as an internationally recognized feminist thought leader.
Despite their success in attempting to address gender inequality via their national action plans, both Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire still struggle with logistical and social barriers to ending impunity for conflict-related sexual violence. As discussed in the case studies, it can be difficult for women to travel to places where they might receive assistance in accessing justice, such as hospitals and legal clinics. These institutions tend to exist only in urban centers, and are sparse even there, which leaves rural women largely excluded from the justice system. The difficulty of accessing these services compounds the already difficult task of collecting evidence of sexual violence, as survivors may not be healthy enough or fast enough to travel long distances and provide sufficient evidence. Many women in both countries fear social retaliation and increased violence if they publicly report their experiences. These challenges are intensified by the pressure in both contexts to settle cases through informal, community-based systems for justice. While these mechanisms are beneficial in preserving community cohesion and minimizing backlash against survivors, they often leave survivors feeling dissatisfied. In many cases, survivors of sexual violence must continue to see their attackers in public spaces like religious centers, markets, and community gatherings, which can be retraumatizing. All of these challenges persist since the adoption of the 2008 Ivorian national action plan and the 2009 national action plan and will require scholarly attention if attempts to reduce sexual violence are to be successful.
Against these circumstantial barriers to accountability for perpetrators of sexual violence, Liberia has succeeded in generating some confidence among survivors that the mechanisms in place to bring about accountability have the potential to function effectively. Where survivors in Côte d’Ivoire have to try and make use of their weak, generalized justice system to address sexual violence or settle through informal channels, women in Liberia, at least theoretically, have the option to access formal systems for justice specifically mandated to handle cases of gendered violence. The specialized police force and Criminal Court E, coupled with a system that aims to protect survivors who choose to come forward from social backlash, provide strong institutional potential for accountability. Furthermore, the Liberian government has attempted to combat some of the aforementioned social and logistical barriers in their follow-up to the 2009 national action plan, released in 2019. While it is too soon to know if this latest national action plan will successfully decrease impunity for sexual violence, it reflects a strong commitment to consider the results of studies evaluating Liberian policies and try to improve them. To date, Côte d’Ivoire has not released any follow-up to their original 2008 national action plan.
Comparing the Ivorian and Liberian national action plans and their relative effectiveness enables us to better understand how to move forward in developing strong policies to end impunity for sexual violence. The first takeaway from this comparison is that conventional justice systems, both in Sub-Saharan Africa and around the world, are not built to deal with cases of sexual violence. The social stigma associated with reporting, difficulty collecting and submitting evidence, and general lack of accountability are pervasive issues that are worthy of scholarly attention in many different contexts. In Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, social and logistical barriers to reporting prevent survivors from accessing justice, regardless of the presence or absence of formal institutions for that purpose. The second key conclusion, which is related to the first, is that while there may be barriers to effectively delivering accountability for sexual violence, establishing new institutions with that specific mandate of accountability builds survivors’ confidence that the structures will eventually function effectively. The establishment of a designated police force, Criminal Court E, and government programs to protect survivors who come forward in Liberia created an environment wherein women reported having faith in the potential of formal mechanisms to hold perpetrators accountable, even if rates of conviction were negligible. Strong institutions with narrower mandates are advantageous in the case of sexual violence because the nature of how and when survivors report and what evidence is available is unique. Specific institutions dealing with gendered violence can train personnel to work with these different kinds of information to be more effective. Public confidence is vitally important in building legitimacy for new government institutions, so the relative optimism of Liberian women bodes well for success in the future. Finally, a continued commitment by the government to improve their approach to combatting sexual violence is necessary if they are to be successful. Where Liberia released an updated national action plan in 2019 seeking to address the persistent barriers to accountability pointed out by independent researchers, Côte d’Ivoire has not updated their plan since 2008. Ivorians experienced a resurgence of violence in 2010-2011, but the government has not made any moves to reinforce its commitment to curbing sexual violence. For states to meaningfully reduce sexual violence, they must establish strong institutions with specific mandates to decrease impunity and commit to long-term monitoring and modification to improve their effectiveness.
Sexual violence, both conflict-related and otherwise, remains a dire problem in many parts of the world. Conventional justice systems are often poorly equipped to deal with the specific nature of reporting and evidence in sexual violence cases, so they frequently fail to deliver justice to survivors. Recognizing this reality, the United Nations asked member states to develop plans to combat sexual violence in their societies as part of the initiative outlined in Security Council Resolution 1325. Some of these plans take a more comprehensive approach than others, and understanding what makes a policy program effective is vitally important to develop best practices that can be exported elsewhere.
In this paper, I surveyed the literature on combatting conflict-related sexual violence and identified the factors scholars believe may drive the phenomenon. These include its nature as a practice that commanders have to choose to actively forbid, its role as a tool to build group cohesion, and its relationship to gender inequality and normalized violence against women in society throughout the continuum of conflict. Each of these contributing factors could be addressed using specific policy tools, so I turned to two case studies to determine what kind of policy approach is more effective. I chose to study Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire because they had comparable civil wars and women’s movements calling for improved accountability. I argue that the Liberian policy program is more effective because it has succeeded in building public confidence in new institutions that are specifically mandated to combat sexual violence. Its approach is more comprehensive than the Ivorian plan and includes both policies that address sexual violence as a practice and tool of group cohesion and those that seek to improve gender equality in society more broadly. Furthermore, the Liberian government has shown a consistent commitment to adapt and improve their attempts to combat sexual violence as new information about best practices becomes available. Public pressure to improve their policies persists, as evidenced by the Stop Rape Now protests of 2020, but the government remains receptive. In contrast, Côte d’Ivoire has made little progress and has not released an updated plan since 2008.
The Liberian case provides a strong example for future national action plans. States should focus on creating specific pathways for survivors of sexual violence to access justice, as Liberia did with Criminal Court E and their specialized police force. They should include specific provisions for witness protection including safe houses, improved access to physical and mental healthcare, and protected testimony. As more efficacy studies and scholarly research are released, states should remain receptive to the ways they can continue to improve their approaches over time. A long-term commitment to adapting and improving policy is necessary to meet survivors’ needs and deliver justice. Another lesson to be learned from a comparison of the Liberian and Ivorian cases is that in both situations, and indeed in many contexts around the world, there are significant social and logistical barriers that prevent survivors from reporting their experiences and seeking justice. Social challenges include social stigma, prioritization of community cohesion over accountability, and damaging ideas about rape and victimhood. Logistical barriers like difficulty traveling, lack of access to medical professionals, and lack of funding are also persistent problems. Any successful plan to address sexual violence must overcome these difficulties to ensure that anyone affected can document their experiences and pursue justice if they wish.
Future research is needed to develop solutions to these persistent logistical and social challenges. NGOs can play a vital role in addressing the logistical barriers to reporting, but state apparatuses are ultimately responsible for building social and institutional structures that enable survivors to seek justice. Further research is also necessary to innovate policies that maximize protection for survivors who choose to come forward to prevent backlash and ensure their safety. Lessons may be learned from the Liberian Criminal Court E, but the solution is imperfect and requires more attention. Finally, it is also important for future scholarship to study the ways the different contributing factors I identified in the literature intersect in various contexts to predict the incidence of conflict-related sexual violence. A better understanding of when and why parties to a conflict perpetrate sexual violence may improve policymakers’ ability to prevent its occurrence.
Sexual and gender-based violence anywhere is an unacceptable assault on human rights. It is the business of the international community, states, and individuals to prevent its occurrence and improve mechanisms to deliver justice to survivors. There is no perfect case where perpetrators are always held accountable, but we can nevertheless study the plans states are trying to implement to understand what kinds of policies succeed where others fail. Strong, innovative institutions with specific mandates have succeeded in building public confidence in Liberia, indicating their substantial potential to meet survivors’ needs and serve as an example for other states.
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