Understanding sexual violence in armed conflict: Cutting ourselves with Occam's razor

R.M. Anholt

Research output: Contribution to JournalComment / Letter to the editorAcademic


Sexual violence has been firmly put on the internal agenda of the humanitarian community. Despite commendable advances in both policy and practice, there continues to be a gap between what is recommended and the reality in the field. In this paper, I argue that, notwithstanding the profound challenges of working in humanitarian emergencies, our understanding of sexual violence in conflict is watered down to such an extent that it impedes effective humanitarian action. First, humanitarians’ reductionist approach to sexual violence not only disregards victims/survivors other than the stereotypical but also exempts perpetrators from scrutiny—including the international humanitarian community itself, through whose extensive depoliticisation of sexual violence has erased the link between gender inequality and violence. Second, the international humanitarian community has positioned itself as the white, western, heroic protector of vulnerable women and girls (and not men and boys)—a narrative that not only escalates power differences between humanitarian and beneficiary but also reproduces the subordination of women. Third, an exposé of silences in international discourses about sexual violence in armed conflict shows the humanitarian community’s complicity in reproducing systems of gender inequality that allow for sexual violence to occur and remain unaddressed, by refusing to transform the restrictive political environment that ultimately impedes effective humanitarian action. This analysis of humanitarian sexual violence discourses indicates a mismatch between the nature of the issue and the way in which it is understood, leading to ineffective programmes on the ground. Humanitarians’ engagement with critical research, as well as researchers’ engagement with feminism, may recreate meanings that benefit
our understanding rather than impede it.
Original languageEnglish
Article number6
Pages (from-to)6-16
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of International Humanitarian Action
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2016


  • Sexual violence
  • Armed conflict
  • Humanitarian action


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