The Neglected Victims: PMSC, Sexual Abuse and Physical Violence Against Girls and Women

Leticia Barrios Trullols and Cristina Hernández Lázaro


There is a significant lack of specialized literature on the involvement of private military and security companies (PMSCs) in sexual abuses and sexual violence against women and girls. Despite a growing number of authors focused in the analysis of the gender dimension of PMSCs and the specific underrepresentation of women within the sector, the partaking of PMSC employees in violations of women’s rights is currently a subject insufficiently documented and studied in academia.

The partaking of PMSC in Women’s Rights Violations is insufficiently documented

After some years of experience observing and compiling impacts to Human Rights committed by PMSCs all over the world, Shock Monitor wants to raise awareness about the vitality of the issue and promote more attention to this very specific phenomenon. Due to its characteristics, sexual abuse, sexual violence and all attacks against the physical integrity of women remains under-reported­— victims are afraid of being re-victimized, socially exposed and openly questioned, leaving sexual abuse a subject to be preserved in the private sphere and therefore, societies do not always demand its accurate reporting and prosecution. In some countries, victims are even accused of teasing or vilifying the alleged abuser and even incarcerated for their claims which are considered libel and defamation.

Multinational PMSCs are playing an increasingly crucial role in a wide array of security scenarios, not only in conflict zones in affected countries. Violations and Human Rights abuses are increasing dramatically in correspondence to the geographical and sectorial expansion of those companies in diverse sectors on behalf of diverse contracting actors.


Having said, the reliability and subjectivity of data on PMSCs and women remains challenging and prone to speculative controversy, provoking notions that a larger role and increased effort should be taken on by civil society organizations in creating databases containing disaggregated data, with variables on gender, age and even race of victims of human rights abuses. Only with an accurate documentation of cases, organizations working in the protection and promotion of Human Rights can rightfully qualify to lobby for the creation of effective structures and legal frameworks to make PMSCs accountable for their actions, abuses and violations.


Besides some outstanding advances, the current scenario around the implementation of new regulatory measures to increase PMSC accountability over their actions and activities remains diffident, and even more uncertain regarding specific notions of sexual abuse or sexual violence.

These notions are also acknowledged by academic researchers in existing literature. Eichler, for instance, mentions that “existing regulatory regimes covering PMSCs have serious limitations in regards to gender-based violence and discrimination, and the privatization of security allows for a de-politicization of gender equality issues”. Diverse authors and organizations, such as Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) have pointed out the lack of accountability of PMSCs and their increasingly greater impact on gender related issues, policy and relations.

A demonstrative example of the culture of impunity that surrounds PMSCs, particularly in the case of sexual abuses, is the infamous case of DynCorp. In 1999 in the context of the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (UNMIBH), DynCorp was hired by the United Nations to provide police monitors to observe public security efforts. In this context, some of its employees were involved in trafficking of women and girls from Eastern Europe. The allegations of exploitation and abuse of women did not receive an adequate response since none of the contractors involved in alleged trafficking scheme were brought to trial. The lack of accountability mechanisms provoked new sexual abuses by Dyncorp, in this occasion in Colombia.

Dyncorp maintained its preferred status with the UN as a security contractor and was hired to train the Iraqi police force in 2004, increasing their efforts and scope of responsibilities on behalf of the UN.

PMSC can be prosecuted if they take direct part in the hostilities

There is no specific legal framework under International Criminal Law that regulates the activity of PMSCs. Nonetheless, PMSC employees are obliged to comply with International Humanitarian Law when operating in armed conflict scenarios. Although considered civilians by nature (and not “combatants”), PMSC personnel can be criminally prosecuted by any state or, if applicable, the International Criminal Court, in the case that they are considered to be taking direct part in hostilities.  This includes the possibility of being prosecuted for gender-based war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as rape and other forms of sexual violence. However, prosecution of these crimes often requires the involvement of a State, and in most cases, as mentioned by Schultz and Yeung, “state intervention is conspicuous by its absence”. Moreover, International Humanitarian Law applies only in armed conflict and post-conflict zones, and not in fragile failed or failing state scenarios, where PMSCs often operate.

Another international agreement applicable to PMSCs in cases of violence against women and girls is the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified by 185 countries in 1979. The CEDAW holds states responsible for the protection of women and girls from violence and all forms of discrimination within their jurisdiction.


The United Nations Resolution 1325 is also important to mention, since its aim is to mainstream the gender perspective in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction operations. However, the 1325 does not mention the private sector specifically, which render the activities of the PMSC as outside the scope of its coverage.

Lastly, a step forward towards the regulation of the PMSC activities has been the flagship component within the Montreaux Document of 2008 and the International Code of Conduct of 2010. Although both documents are non-binding, together they aim to promote the respect of International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law by PMSCs. The Montreaux Document makes specific mention to gender issues in the areas of training and selection, stipulating that states should take into account the record of sexual offences committed by PMSCs and its employees when allocating military and security contracts to the private sector. However, as aforementioned, the Montreux Document and International Code of Conduct are not currently binding, leaving its capacity to render accountability limited and undeveloped.


On the contrary, a greater effort should be put forth in order to improve the current situation and increase the accountability of PMSCs at a local and international level, in particular for the violation of the physical integrity of women and girls. In recent history, there have been outstanding advances under International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law to prosecute rape and sexual abuse, categorizing offenses for the first time in history as crimes of war and crimes against humanity. International Law should keep up with the reshaping of the world order and the resulting emergence of new, third party actors in sectors such as military and security provision, extending the framework of UN Resolution 1325 to include specific clauses addressing PMSCs and their personnel, which could be an exceptional first step.

Civil society organizations working to promote Human Rights and denouncing all types of violations should be capable of getting closer to the victims, granting them a voice and guide them through the harmful path of asking for justice and reparation. The existing synergies between organizations, both national and international, should be strengthened in order to consolidate efforts in tracking gender-specific types of violations, reporting and denouncing them either in national or international courts of law.

Despite a long process to make those crimes visible and to stop neglecting women and girls as victims of crimes by PMSCs, there should be a reinforcement and deliberate commitment to work untiringly towards achieving full respect and recognition of Human Rights by private sector specialists, especially in the provision of military and security efforts on behalf of state and other private actors.


Eichler, M. (2015). ‘The gendered effects of private security’, in Rita Abrahamsen and Anna Leander, eds. Routledge handbook of private security studies. Routledge.
Schultz, S. and Yeung, C. (2008). ‘Género y empresas militares y de seguridad privadas. Caja de herramientas sobre el género y la reforma del sector de la seguridad’. DCAF, OSCE/OIDDH e INSTRAW, now ONU Mujeres.
Perrin, B. (2012) ‘Mind the Gap. Lacunae in the International Legal Framework Governing Private Military and Security Companies’ Criminal Justice Ethics.
Vrdoljak, A. (2009) ‘Women’s Rights: The Possible Impact of Private Military and Security Companies’ EUI Working Paper AEL 2009/22. Academy of European Law. European University Institute, Florence.
WILPF (2013), Statement by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom accountability of private military and security companies. Retrieved from: [06/03/2018]
Simm, G. (2013) Sex in Peace Operations. Cambridge University Press
Eichler, M. (2015) Gender and private security in global politics. Oxford.
Case 98COL registered in SHOCK MONITOR (
PMSCs employees do not fall under the definition of mercenary, according to: ICRC. International humanitarian law and private military/security companies – FAQ (2013). Retrieved from: [05/03/2018]
ICRC. International humanitarian law and private military/security companies – FAQ.
Rape and other forms of sexual violence were, for the first time considered as war crimes and crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) included them as crimes in their governing statutes. Moreover, the jurisprudence of these tribunals included the notion of rape and sexual violence within the definition of prosecution, torture and genocide. In this regard, the trial of Jean Pierre Bemba Gombo, the Bemba Case, meant a crucial step forward in the prosecution of rape and other forms of sexual violence as a war crime and crime against humanity: it was the first time the ICC considered rape as a weapon of war. As stated by the LSE, “Bemba’s conviction for war crimes and the crime against humanity of rape is a step towards ending impunity for sexual violence committed during conflict.” (LSE. Jean Pierre Bemba Gombo Case / Tackling Violence Against Women. Retrieved from: [12/03/2018]). For more information on Rule 93 of Customary IHL, Rape and other forms of Sexual Violence, see: [06/03/2017].
FDFA. (2015) Regulating Private Military and Security Companies. Confédération Suisse. Retrieved from: [06/03/2018]