The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize award to Dr Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad underlines “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”. It draws attention to an understudied issue with devastating impacts on the hundreds of thousands of victims and their communities (United Nations 2013).
In 2016, 12% of the world population lived in a conflict zone (Bahgat et al. 2018). However, conflict zones do not systematically record sexual violence, raising the question of what the drivers of this unilateral violence against civilians are.
In new research (Fourati et al. 2021), we show that armed groups’ economic motives contribute to the perpetration of sexual violence against civilians in conflict times. In particular, a rise in the value of gold increases sexual violence against civilians in areas suitable for artisanal gold mining. By contrast, there is no consistent effect of resource price shocks in areas that host industrial mining or agricultural activities.
We argue that if armed groups use violence to tax local civilians, the perpetration of violence will depend on the resource to be taxed. Following case studies, we postulate that sexual violence is a non-lethal form of violence that is exceptionally effective in instilling fear and submission among local populations. Consequently, sexual violence is a tool that lowers civilians’ ability to avoid taxation while mostly preserving the labour force.
In this framework, and in line with our empirical results, sexual violence increases more in the vicinity of labour-intensive and easy-to-conceal resources (artisanal mines) than around capital-intensive resources (industrial mines) or outputs difficult to conceal (agricultural goods).
An empirical analysis of conflict-time sexual violence
We assemble novel data to analyse the relation between local economic resources and sexual violence on the African continent. We rely on a yearly panel of cells of size 0.5 × 0.5 degrees latitude and longitude (55 km × 55 km at the equator) over the period 1997 to 2018.
Figure 1 shows the spatial variation in the yearly incidence of sexual violence against civilians. We exploit the Armed Conflict Location Events Database (ACLED 2019) in which sexual violence is defined largely as:
"any action that inflicts harm of a sexual nature. This means that it is not limited to solely penetrative rape, but would also include actions like public stripping, sexual torture of men, etc."
Figure 1 Number of events of sexual violence, 1997–2018
We consider three local economic resources, spread over the continent, which vary in their labour intensity and concealability from taxation:
- Artisanal gold mining suitability, a labour-intensive and easily concealable resource (Figure 2(a), based on Girard et al. 2022). Artisanal and small-scale gold mining employs about 63% of workers in the artisanal mining sector in Africa.
- Industrial mining activities, a capital-intensive and easily concealable resource (Figure 2(b)).
- Agriculture, a less easily concealable resource than mining (Figure 2(c)).
The value of the resources present in each cell varies with international commodity prices, which affect the probability of battles or civil conflicts (Atalay 2022, Berman et al. 2017, Burke and McGuirk 2022).
Figure 2 Presence of natural resources
The importance of economic drivers
We find that the value of local economic resources impacts the perpetration of sexual violence, and, importantly, the effect depends on the characteristics of resources. Figure 3(a) shows that the growth in the incidence of sexual violence is highly concentrated in artisanal-mining cells. In a regression framework, we estimate that an increase of one standard deviation in the gold price increases sexual violence in mining areas by two-thirds of the sample mean.
In contrast, Figure 3(b) reveals no clear pattern between the price of industrial minerals and the incidence of sexual violence in cells that either host industrial mines or do not. Lastly, in Figure 3(c), we see that the growth in the incidence of sexual violence in both the agricultural and the non-agricultural cells loosely follows the crop prices.
These findings suggest that armed groups perpetrate sexual violence strategically for resource taxation. The relation is magnified when armed groups are more likely to be dependent on the taxation of local resources to finance themselves.
We also document that economic rationales complement cultural and institutional explanations of sexual violence. The existing literature argues that sexual violence is used to alter ethnic identities and to bond armed groups together, or that it results from the gender norms or a lack of internal sanctions in the armed group (Cohen 2013). We show that the relation between the value of artisanal mines and sexual violence is magnified in countries with high levels of ethnolinguistic fragmentation and relatively low levels of rule of law. We find no systematic interaction with gender norms.
Figure 3 Average incidence of sexual violence, by type of local economic resources and resource price levels
Our results show that economic motives are important in explaining the perpetration of sexual violence. We provide continent-wide quantitative evidence that, in the words of Nobel laureate Dr Mukwege:
"In fact rape and sexual violence constitute a formidable weapon of war .... It is obvious that the rapes are not motivated by sexual impulses but constitute a means of debilitating, if not annihilating, a population. In other words, the attackers can take over these places as absolute masters. These places are often mining areas rich in coltan or in gold" (UNESCO 2018)
To the extent that sexual violence is driven by economic calculations, it may be (in part) avoidable. As such, our results draw attention to initiatives to trace the mineral supply chain, such as the OECD Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals standards. Our results also highlight that non-governmental organisations and external observers may want to devote extra attention to regions with a high presence of artisanal mining when the value of a local mineral increases sharply.
ACLED (2019), Armed conflict location and event data project (ACLED) codebook.
Atalay, K, J V Hastings and D Ubileva (2022), “Higher cereal prices can fuel political violence linked with a harvest season in the croplands of Africa”, VoxEU.org, 22 May.
Bahgat, K, K Dupuy, G Østby, S A Rustad, H Strand and T Wig (2018), “Children and armed conflict: what existing data can tell us”, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).
Berman, N, M Couttenier, D Rohner and M Thoenig (2017), “Countering the mining curse”, VoxEU.org, 9 June.
Burke, M, and E McGuirk (2022), “War in Ukraine, world food prices, and conflict in Africa”, VoxEU.org, 26 May.
Cohen, D K (2013), “Explaining rape during civil war: Cross-national evidence (1980–2009)”, American Political Science Review 107(3): 461–77.
Fourati, M, V Girard and J Laurent-Lucchetti (2021), “Sexual violence as a weapon of war”, working paper, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Nova School of Business and Economics, NOVAFRICA.
Girard, V, T Molina-Millan and G Vic (2022), “Artisanal gold mining in Africa”, working paper, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Nova School of Business and Economics, NOVAFRICA.
Guarnieri, E and A Tur-Prats (2020), "Cultural distance and conflict-related sexual violence", mimeo
UNESCO (2018), “Interview with 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Denis Mukwege: a life dedicated to victims of sexual assault”, UNESCO Courier.
United Nations (2013), “Sexual violence: A tool of war”, United Nations background note.