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Women sing and dance in celebration.
Women sing and dance in celebration of International Women's Day in a neighbuorhood near Monrovia, Liberia, March 8th, 2024.

Unexpected findings about survivors of sexual violence

Many of those who survive conflict-related sexual violence become more engaged in their local community afterwards.

When countries are affected by war and conflict, sexual violence is often part of the picture. 

While men are more likely to die on the battlefield, women and children are very likely to experience some type of sexual violence, which in turn tends to lead to stigma in their communities.

"They are perceived as unclean or spoiled and gossiped about. Their spouses sometimes leave them, and the social norms in traditional, more patriarchal societies often make it very hard for survivors to remain a part of their community," says Carlo Koos.

"We found that people who experience sexual violence on average are more engaged in their communities," says Carlo Koos.

He is an associate professor at the University of Bergen. He and Richard Traunmüller, professor at the University of Mannheim, recently published an article based on more than 10,000 interviews in the Amercian Journal of Political Science.

Sexual violence is usually perpetrated by armed groups or security forces.

"It very often has an objective of sending a signal of terror. It's common for sexual violence to be public and have multiple perpetrators. It's often very brutal, with objects, and can become very gruesome. Some of the victims die," Koos says.

He adds that this behaviour aims to show domination, not only over the actual victim, but also over the other men in the community, who were unable to protect their spouses or community members.

More engaged

Most research concludes that survivors of sexual violence are socially marginalised and excluded, but Koos and Traunmüller have found an opposite effect.

Their research shows that survivors seek to counteract the stigma attached to conflict-related sexual violence by contributing to and embedding themselves in their community in the form of civic engagement.

"We found that people who experience sexual violence on average are more engaged in their communities. They are more likely to be members of local associations,» Koos explains.

In many countries, these types of organisations are replacing the government at the local level. 

"They're producing essential public goods. For instance, the farmer’s association makes sure that farmers have access to fertilisers and seeds, and health committees will try to organise vaccination campaigns," he says.

The importance of community

Koos and Traunmüller’s interpretation of the results is that to avoid being stigmatised and socially excluded, households and individual survivors will try to compensate for the stigma.

"There's a lot of literature in social psychology that shows that when people are stigmatised, they try very hard to reconnect with their social environment and social group. Because they have an incentive to remain integrated," Koos says.

He says that this mechanism may be even stronger in countries where the state does not provide security, public services, or has a functioning justice system.

"People really need to be a part of a community. Otherwise, they don’t have anyone to turn to in case of need. The need to mobilise is probably less strong in countries with a proper safety net where people can turn to the state institutions," Koos says.

An innovative method

Koos and Traunmüller were very surprised that they found the same results in all the three countries they compared: The Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, and Sri Lanka.

They had travelled there and trained local survey interviewers to interview people using an unusual method called ‘list experiment’ – that gives respondents anonymity. 

It turned out that a change of method, from a more traditional survey, with direct questions like ‘have you ever been raped?’, meant that the share of people who experienced sexual violence, at least doubled.

"People do not always want to tell the truth about a sensitive experience or attitude to a person that interviews them, that they do not know. This often leads to nondisclosure. This is a well-known phenomenon, but it has not been dealt with effectively before," he says.

Koos adds that they expected the increased anonymity to give more people an opportunity to share. 

"I think that this is a very important methodological innovation, which has a lot of implications for rape statistics, statistics on domestic violence, and bullying, not only in the global south and in conflict contexts," he says. 


Koos, C.& Traunmüller, R. The gendered costs of stigma: How experiences of conflict-related sexual violence affect civic engagement for women and men, American Journal of Political Science, 2024. DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12863

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