Rape and sexual assault | ActionAid UK

Rape and sexual assault

It is estimated that, worldwide, one in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.1

Learn the definition of rape and sexual assault, common contexts of sexual violence – such as humanitarian emergencies – and how ActionAid supports rape survivors to get access to justice.

Rape as a form of violence of women and girls

Rape, like all forms of violence against women and girls, is a gross violation of human rights, is a result of deep gender inequality, and also perpetuates that inequality.

Due to its invasive sexual nature, rape is especially traumatising; it can cause deep physical, emotional and psychological trauma for years to come, it increases the risk of women and girls being infected with HIV, and it can have devastating effects on their family and community too.

Rape and sexual assault is an expression of some men and boys perceiving women’s bodies as objects that they can dominate and use. This perception is influenced and reinforced by the way that the female body and femininity is constucted by society and the law.

Patriarchal attitudes mean that women’s and girls’ bodies are less likely to be presented as being human. This denies women and girls their right to bodily integrity and means they are more vulnerable to abuse by those who benefit from patriarchy. The female body acts as a site where power is played out.

ActionAid provides rape survivors with counselling and practical support, and prepares communities with information on what to do to when someone is raped in order to seek justice. We also support communities in campaigning to end all forms of violence against women and girls.

Rape definition

Rape is the non-consensual penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth with a penis or other body part – or non-consensual penetration of the vagina or anus with an object.

Sexual assault is any form of non-consensual sexual contact that does not result in or include penetration. Examples include: attempted rape, as well as unwanted kissing, fondling, or touching of genitalia and buttocks.2

Rape statistics

150 million
The World Health Organisation estimates that 150 million girls are sexually assaulted every year.3

One in 10
One in 10 girls under 20 (120 million) have been subjected to forced sexual intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives.4

10 million
An estimated 10 million children are involved in child prostitution around the world.5

Survivors of child sexual abuse

UNICEF estimates that around 120 million girls worldwide (slightly more than 1 in 10) have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives.6

Boys experience sexual violence too, but to a far lesser extent than girls, UNICEF studies show.7

By far the most common perpetrators of sexual violence against girls are intimate partners. In many countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, this is normalised and legitimised by child marriage – a socially accepted form of sexual violence, exploitation and abuse against girls. If the perpetrator had had sex with the girl prior to the ‘marriage’ taking place, it would be regarded as rape.

Experiences of sexual violence in childhood hinder all aspects of development: physical, psychological/emotional and social.

Apart from the physical injuries that can result, sexual abuse of children is associated with a wide array of mental health consequences and adverse behavioural outcomes in adulthood.8 The psychological impact can be severe due to the intense shame, secrecy and stigma that tend to accompany it.

It can lead to early pregnancy (in cases of rape) as well as greater risks of experiencing domestic violence by intimate partners.9

Rape and sexual assault of women and girls by non-intimate partners is also rife – such as by an uncle, neighbour, or stranger. In some areas where ActionAid works in Kenya, for example, girls as young as two years old have been raped, often by family members, with devastating consequences.

ActionAid supports local community groups to raise awareness about rape and sexual violence and prepare family members to know what to do.

Sexual violence in humanitarian crises

Violence against women and girls increases during all emergencies. Throughout all humanitarian crises, whether an earthquake, a drought or a conflict, many forms of violence against women and girls take place at an increased rate.

Displacement causes disruption and movement, and former systems which would have protected women may have broken down.

In the early phases of an emergency, sexual violence is the most common form of violence recorded. As the crises moves on, other forms of violence – such as domestic violence and child marriage – may also increase.  

Rape as a weapon of war

In 2008, General Patrick Cammaert, a former deputy Force Commander of the United Nations Organisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) stated that:

“It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in contemporary conflicts.”11

He said that the sexual violence he witnessed in Eastern Congo was among the worst atrocities he had ever seen in over thirty years of military service. Since 2008, humanitarian practitioners have started to understand that these human rights atrocities go beyond women – and affect the entire population.

Throughout history, women and girls have been targeted with rape and sexual violence at the hands of military and rebel forces as a weapon of war – from the 1994 Rwandan genocide where between 250,000 and 500,000 women were raped12 to the current Rohingya refugee crisis where widespread rape of women and girls, and other atrocities, have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee Myanmar.

Rape is used as a weapon of war to either wipe out, disperse or forcibly relocate people from a particular community or ethnic group. When used to forcibly impregnate women, it is akin to ethnic cleansing.

ActionAid helps survivors of sexual violence through setting up women’s safe spaces where women can share their experiences and access vital information, psychosocial support, and medical referrals if needed.

We train women in leadership skills so that they are better equipped to lead their communities — in times of crisis and beyond, and support them in their vital role in peace movements at grassroots levels.

You may also be interested in…

Donate to our Not This Girl appeal to keep girls safe from sexual abuse.

Learn more about our work supporting women and girls in times of conflict.

Read our latest blogs on women's and girls' rights around the world.


Page updated 29 August 2018