Legacy of war: ‘Hyper-masculinity’ drives sexual violence harming teenage girls, warns think tank

12 June 2014

As world experts gather in London for the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, the UK’s leading development think-tank warns that mothers raped during conflicts now face the trauma of seeing their daughters also become victims of sexual assault, as the ‘hyper-masculinity’ sparked by war persists into peacetime. 


Researchers from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) interviewed survivors in Liberia, where the civil war ended in 2003. During the war, it is estimated that up to 77% of women experienced sexual violence, but today Liberia continues to have one of the highest incidences of sexual assault in the world, and most of the survivors are teenage girls. 

ODI experts say that aid donors at the London summit must take the unusual step of committing to long-term approaches - perhaps as long as 20 years – if sexual violence with impunity normalised during war-time is to be reversed.

Amongst the cases highlighted by ODI researchers are: 

  • A thirteen year old girl from Bomi County, “My mother and this lady used to be close friends. But that evening she was not at home and her husband forced me to have sex – when I tried to scream he threatened to kill me. After it had happened I managed to run home. …. I’ve been to the hospital and had the tests but I’m too scared to complain to the police…. At school now I’m aware other children are talking about it. I look away and only talk to my mother about my feelings.
  • "A Liberian welfare officer, “A woman recently came to our unit with a heart-breaking story – her two year-old had been raped by a male acquaintance.... When she got back home her daughter was screaming and screaming when she went to change the infant’s diaper she discovered that the baby had blood all over her legs and private parts.” 

ODI’s research released today, ‘The Fall-out of Rape as a Weapon of War’, highlights how mothers - and now daughters - are living through the nightmare of sexual violence as Liberian society struggles to re-adjust to peace.

Dr Nicola Jones, a Research Fellow at ODI, said: “War can lead to an environment in which sexual violence is normalised. After the war, men are often aggressive, ‘hyper-masculine’ and struggle to adapt to peacetime; the legacy of sexual violence can have devastating impacts not only on individuals and families but also on whole communities.”

Dr Janice Cooper of the Carter Centre Liberia which works with survivors of sexual violence in its mental health programming said “During the war men faced the daily threat of death, but women had to go out into the fields, to work, to fetch water, to keep families fed, and they endured horrific sexual violence. Over a decade on, men no longer face the threat of being killed, but women and girls still face the risk of rape and sexual assault; for them, the war continues.”

Rape and sexual assault have long-lasting physical, psychological, social and economic consequences, many of which persist for decades says ODI. “Fistula, infertility, risk of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts are commonplace amongst survivors. Some survivors also face stigma that forces them out of families, leaving individuals abandoned - branded as ‘damaged goods’ - and left to deal with the effects of rape on their own,” said Dr Jones. 

According to ODI, findings in Liberia mirror those from other post-conflict settings around the world, such as Sri Lanka and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Whilst there are no quick-fix solutions, the report highlights some promising initiatives: 

  • Tackling hyper-masculinity with initiatives helping men to adjust to their new roles in peacetime society and developing community programmes so rape isn’t seen as the fault of the victim
  • Provision of adequate mental health services, such as those run by the Liberia government with support from the Carter Centre in Liberia. “These are not a western luxury”, say ODI’s authors.
  • Development of justice systems which support the reporting, and prosecution of sexual violence: often the stigma around rape is such that women and girls feel unable to seek justice.