With the release of its new sub-event type categorization ACLED now includes a ‘Sexual violence’ sub-event type under the larger ‘Violence against civilians’ event type. This sub-event type includes all political/public violence of a sexual nature. Sexual violence events captured within the ACLED dataset include “sexual violence in conflict” or “conflict-related sexual violence”, such was war-time rape in addition to other sexual crimes perpetrated by an armed, organized actor. Events are recorded during ‘war time’ or in periods of political instability more broadly, where the use of sexual violence as a strategy to reinforce power structures is not unusual. The category includes events targeting women, men, and children.

It does not include sexual violence stemming from domestic, interpersonal, or intimate partner violence occurring outside of the political/public sphere; these events are outside of ACLED’s mandate and such violence (sexual or not) is not captured within the ACLED dataset.

ACLED is an event-based dataset, meaning that each entry in the dataset is an ‘event’; events are denoted by the involvement of designated actors, occurring in a specific named location and on a specific day (for further information regarding ACLED’s unit of observation, see the ACLED codebook). When recording sexual violence, an event can involve one to many victims: one person sexually assaulted by a soldier in a specific town on a certain day would be coded as a single event. An episode of mass rape by an armed militia reported in a specific town on a certain day would be recorded in the same way. The number of sexual violence events should therefore not be conflated with the number of sexual violence victims – in the same way that the number of violent events in the ACLED dataset should not be conflated with the number of fatalities.

Collecting accurate data on violence events is difficult due to a lack of detailed, verified reporting during active violence. Further, the count of victims of violent events – whether counting fatalities or casualties, or the number of sexual violence victims specifically – is often the most biased and poorly reported component of data around political violence. These numbers can vary widely, especially as there can be incentive to overstate or underreport these numbers by both those engaged in the violence.

Counting sexual violence by number of victims alone results in making areas where this type of violence is more readily reported – as a result of structural or social restrictions – appear more susceptible to sexual violence, with areas with fewer victims reporting such violence appearing less dangerous. Coding such violence by event as opposed to by the number of victims is therefore a step towards minimizing this implication. Those reporting also have intended and unintended biases to inflate numbers so as to misrepresent the size of groups, to illicit support and move international bodies to action, to minimize international backlash, etc. When the number of victims is noted in reporting, this information is noted in the ‘Notes’ section of the event within the ACLED dataset; users can choose to use this information if they wish while understanding the caveats above.

In the context of sexual violence specifically, underreporting by victims is common due to backlash or normative concerns. Events involving a single victim who does not report sexual violence they experience would not appear in the dataset at all as a sexual violence event. Given the nature of such events, events with a single victim are more likely to go underreported than events with mass victims. Coverage within the ACLED dataset, as in all datasets, is limited to what has been reported in some capacity. ACLED tries to capture an accurate picture of political violence through the use of various sources of reporting: traditional media,[1] new media,[2] reports by international organizations, or information gathered by local partners. However, sexual violence specifically, perhaps even more so than other forms of violence, can suffer from underreporting as a result of, though not limited to: fear of repercussions, legal restrictions, and psychological trauma. This should be considered when drawing conclusions from the data.

Key Data Points

ACLED collects data on sexual violence regardless of the gender of the victim. In some reporting, the gender of victim(s) is not explicitly stated (e.g. “mass rapes were reported”). In cases when the gender of victims is explicitly reported, over 95% of cases reported have women or girls as the victims; less than 5% of events in which the gender of victims is explicitly reported specifically note men or boys as the victims.[3] While the number of events in which men are the victim(s) of sexual violence may be underreported, the overall numbers confirm that women and girls are the primary victims of sexual violence.

Since January 2018 across Africa, South & Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe,[4] well over three-quarters (84%) of all recorded sexual violence events are reported in Africa. By far the largest number of events since the start of 2018 are reported in DR-Congo, with a spike in events in early 2019 – nearly twice as many events as in South Sudan, which is second on the list. Most violence occurs at the hands of unidentified armed groups. While it seems that DR-Congo is living up to its unfortunate moniker, “the rape capital of the world”, the increase in reported events may also be a result of the strides women in the nation have taken towards speaking out and making this violence more visible. In South Sudan, sexual violence events are on the rise, with a spike in the number of events occurring in late 2018.

About half of all reported sexual violence events occur at the hands of political militias – armed ‘gangs’ or wings of political parties, often doing the bidding of elites – or are carried out by unidentified armed groups – groups which may remain unidentified strategically, capitalizing on their anonymity to carry out violence. Nearly one-third of events occur at the hands of state forces – with the remainder of events perpetrated by rebel groups, communal militias, external forces, and mobs. This perpetrator composition is true for both attacks on men and boys as well as women and girls.[5]

Looking specifically at reported sexual violence events since 2018 in which men or boys are the victims, the largest proportion of events occurs in Yemen, DR-Congo, and Burundi. While some of these countries, such as Yemen or DR-Congo, may be categorized as active conflict zones, others are not. This highlights how political or public sexual violence is not limited to ‘war time’ alone. In Yemen and Burundi, the majority of these events are at the hands of political militias or are carried out by unidentified armed groups, while in DR-Congo, state forces are responsible for the majority of these events.

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[1] ACLED researchers review thousands of traditional media sources in over 20 languages ranging from national newspapers to local radio.

[2] New media refers specifically to sources such as trusted Twitter accounts (such as those of journalists) and vetted Telegram channels.

[3] ACLED will be releasing new associated actors in the data to capture gender when it is a salient identity, such as within sexual violence events. This will be available for users following release in May 2019.

[4] The snapshot of the data looks specifically at trends since the start of 2018; this is because this is the time period for which coverage across regions of the ACLED dataset is constant, making comparisons of the number of events across regions meaningful.

[5] The gender of victims is discussed as binary here given the nature of reporting; reports of such violence often describe victims either as women/girls or as men/boys – or do not denote the gender at all. In a small number of cases, the victim may be described as ‘transgender’, with no other delineation of gender identity; in such cases, the gender of the victim would be coded as such. This information will be released alongside the new associated actors noted above.

© 2019 Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). All rights reserved.

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Sexual Violence in the ACLED Dataset
Roudabeh Kishi
Roudabeh Kishi
Research Director
Roudabeh Kishi is the Research Director of ACLED. She oversees the quality, production, and coverage of all ACLED data across the globe; leads research and analysis across regional teams; aids in new partnerships with local sources and users; and supports the capacity building of NGOs and conflict observatories around the world. Dr. Kishi holds a Ph.D. in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland with specializations in international relations and quantitative methodology. She is fluent in English, Farsi, and basic French.
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