Women and conflict: why we should not separate rape in war from the everyday reality of violence

By Jelke Boesten

Since the late 1990s, the international community has developed treaties and tools to address conflict-related sexual violence. Most recently, the UK government has been promoting the Foreign Secretary’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PVSI), and has organised a Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, scheduled for June. These are positive developments that send out strong messages on the unacceptability of sexual violence in conflict. But they overlook the everyday sexual and physical violence that blights the lives of millions of women and girls.

When it comes to destroying communities, sexual violence is a very effective and even strategic weapon, given the role of sexuality and violence in shaping everyday life. Interpretations and understandings of what ‘proper’ sexual and gendered behaviour mean that sexual violence is not only an individual experience. It is an experience that undermines community resilience, with social and political connotations and consequences that reverberate into the future.

Importantly, sexual violence precedes and survives conflict, in homes, between intimate partners, on the streets, in schools and in health centres. We should ask whether sexual violence during war is extra-ordinary and to what extent sexual violence that is not related to conflict is, quite simply, ‘ordinary’. Indeed, ‘ordinary’ violence, in the shape of everyday threats and realities, terrorises, subordinates and diminishes women and girls, and some boys and men. Sexual violence, we should recognise, is not only used as a weapon of war. It is part of gender relations in peacetime, and feeds into the escalation of such violence in war.

Research around the world shows that violence against women often persists, or even increases, after conflict. In addition to heightened physical violence against women in the private and public spheres, armed conflict often causes life-changing suffering, such as unwanted pregnancies, HIV infection, the loss of male breadwinner(s), displacement, and physical and socio-economic insecurity that, in turn, increases women’s vulnerability to sexual violence and exploitation.

But sexual violence is as opportunistic as it is strategic. A recent study by Holly Porter of women who had been raped during the conflict in Gulu, northern Uganda, found that most had been raped by husbands and boyfriends, rather than soldiers or rebels. My own work in Peru, where the military used rape systematically against the local Andean population, shows how conflict-related rape built on and reproduced existing hierarchies of race, class and gender.

We have to address both the high rates of peacetime sexual violence, perpetrated largely by boyfriends and husbands, and the escalation of such violence in war if we are to have any chance of tackling war-related rape.

The transitional justice mechanisms that have followed conflicts in recent years, such as truth commissions, reparation programmes, and national and international criminal prosecutions have not been very effective in dealing with war-related sexual violence.  National and international criminal prosecutions are long, expensive and difficult processes that rarely lead to convictions for sexual violence – a result of the difficulty in gathering evidence and the bias in judicial systems. Nevertheless, national and international experts are fighting continuously to improve prosecution and conviction rates, and to sharpen the gender perspective in other post-conflict mechanisms.

While a top-down message against gender-based violence is a good thing, it cannot, by itself, transform the structures of society that allow such violence to persist. That requires concrete interventions that protect women and that raise awareness among both women and men about the need to address everyday violence and gender stereotypes.

A good example is HarassMap, a civil society initiative that aims to end ‘the social acceptability of sexual harassment and assault in Egypt’, by documenting and publicising harassment, using local networks and social media. Another example is the Brazilian organisation Promundo, which works for and with men in post-conflict Latin America and Africa to change attitudes and gender stereotypes, thereby aiming to reduce violence against women. Well-designed programmes that empower women politically, socially, and economically may also help to reduce violence. It is clear that strengthening women’s position in society does, in general, reduce their vulnerability to violence.

Researchers, policy-makers and activists are focusing increasingly on transformative justice mechanisms that combine legal and non-legal measures to challenge and transform damaging gender relations. Transformative justice advocates argue for the explicit incorporation of women’s economic, social and political rights in the pursuit of strategies that aim to transform the structures of societies by empowering women in post-conflict societies or in societies suffering from chronic violence.

The most innovative and transformative interventions are those that allow and encourage women and girls to speak up and to establish alliances with others – men and women. Such interventions can, ultimately, lift the shame and stigma from the victim-survivor and allow the world to see that the perpetrators, and not the victim, should be blamed and punished for sexual violence, regardless of the circumstances – whether in war or in peace.


Originally posted on Development Progress