HOW CAN WE PREVENT SEXUAL AND GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE IN ARMED CONFLICTS?
By Vivian Cassina
INTA 689, Special Topics on Women, Peace and Security
In order to prevent sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in armed conflicts, we
must employ sustainable solutions that consider broader societal issues causing the environment of the conflict to intensify the occurrence of SGBV. In this essay, I classify sustainable solutions as those which are not based on a narrow foundation of understanding sexual violence (SV) as solely a perpetrator-victim relationship to be targeted by international policy based on simple narratives. I argue that a sustainable solution is one that is instead built with consideration for three main dimensions: (1) it should be based on feminist perspectives of international relations (IR) that highlight qualitative characteristics of a culture, (2) it prioritizes domestic accountability measures of enforcement and protection of survivors, and (3) it takes action outside of the relevant conflict timeframe that highlights SV as a complex issue of gendered relations. To understand this further, I will first provide context to the non-sustainable solution–namely, the simple narrative approach to SGBV. Then, I will frame the relationship between gender equality and armed conflict as structural and systemic qualms in society to describe how the three dimensions are essential to SGBV prevention mechanisms. Finally, I will discuss why a sustainable solution therefore requires cooperation between local NGOs and governments to prevent SGBV long-term.
The Baseline for a Non-Sustainable Solution–Simple Narratives of SGBV
Half the Sky: An Excluded Narrative
The survival story of two siblings, Vivek and Naina, is one that is both chilling and revealing
of the sex trafficking industry. Recalled from Half the Sky (Kristof & WuDunn, 2009), the
siblings describe their mental and physical abuse experienced at the Indian brothel at which they were left behind by their mother, Meena. Their mother’s role in their experience at the brothel is complex; she herself was a victim of sexual slavery by the same brothel. Meena was kidnapped as a young girl from a rural village in an environment of armed conflict and would be sexually abused since shortly after her first period. As a young adult, Meena had no alternative to prostitution as a source of income nor did she have support from others as a result of social stigma towards those of low caste who are enslaved. Meena eventually gave birth to her two children, her son Vivek and daughter Naina, at the brothel in which she grew up. The brothel welcomed pregnancies, after all, it was a chance to breed a new generation of victims. Soon after, Meena would escape the severe conditions–desperate to save her life from a situation she knew would end in her murder. Her circumstances for a successful escape required leaving her two children behind, who would also grow up bound by the restrictions of social stigma as children from the brothel. As a man, Vivek would become a servant of the brothel, a sex-based coercion into slavery that came with sexual humiliation, while Naina would be forced into her unique form of sex-based violence–sexual slavery. Fortunately, the siblings would reunite with their mother as teenagers, and escape the generational cycle of abuse with the help of a local NGO targeting trafficked victims.
The story of these survivors reflects the story of many others who are continuously
exploited years after armed conflict occurs; it also reveals deeper societal issues contributing to SGBV that affect both men and women a full generation post-conflict. However, the
international narrative that simplifies SV into one key issue–“rape as a weapon of war”–will
overlook the form of SGBV experienced by victims like Meena and Naina, and will likely
exclude Vivek’s sexual humiliation from the narrative entirely. This is because international
focus remains primarily on violence against women, specifically the incidence of their rape, due to over-reliance on foundational studies that position rape of women as the premier mode of SGBV. However, these foundational studies contain severe measurement issues in reports of SV that significantly decontextualize the complex nature of SGBV; for example, lack of access to marginalized groups results in underreporting of SV among those most vulnerable (notably civilian men), potential over-reporting of rape skews data from an inability to distinguish “real” versus “fake” reports, and lack of a standard definition of SV influencing academic and state sponsor rhetoric (Davies & True, 2015, 2017; Carpenter, 2006; Traunmueller et al., 2019). Despite this decontextualization, the studies are applied to international policy prescriptions in an effort to effectively address the public’s call for urgent action against a rape-centric narrative. These calls to action, however, are typically derived from the unintended consequences of journalists and NGOs producing highly consumable narratives by dramatizing the truth of the matter as a “dire emergency” (Cohen & Hoover Green, 2012). Consequently, in an attempt to ensure the sexual security of women, this international rhetoric has reinforced the essentialist understanding of gender hierarchies that maintain the status quo of victimized women that must be ‘protected’ from men labeled ‘perpetrators’ by default.
Thus, a non-sustainable solution to the broader SGBV issue becomes empowered by IGOs, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), who cannot respond domestically to a decontextualized, consumable “fetishization” of rape as a weapon of war (Meger, 2016). Moreover, the ICC’s policies for prosecution of perpetrators are a premier example of a
benevolent, yet highly non-sustainable solution; to be clear, accountability is an important step towards progress, but again these policies highlight the perpetrator-victim relationship based on simplified narratives of SGBV. A non-sustainable solution is therefore one that fails to fully narrate or address other forms of SGBV affecting invisible men and women, like Vivek and Naina, who fall outside the range of “relevant targets” for international aid post-conflict. With this in mind, it becomes clear that the removal of a single perpetrator does not consider the other broader problems of the gender index that are structurally and systemically evident in a given society. Further, when international policy is developed without concern for how structural and systemic relationships between gender and armed conflict apply, it does not successfully empower the three dimensions of a sustainable solution, recalling them as: (1) Consideration for Feminist Perspectives of IR, (2) Consideration for Domestic Accountability, (3) Consideration for Action Outside of Timing Constraints. The next section will discuss how and why these dimensions are crucial to a sustainable solution, followed by an analysis of the more effective approach to preventing SGBV in armed conflicts–namely, by increasing local NGO and
governmental cooperation for long-term aid efforts.
The How–Understanding Crucial Structural and Systemic Gender Relationships
A multitude of previous feminist literature exists to explore the relationship between
gender roles and cultural norms as a result of dichotomous social hierarchies. Historically,
various feminist scholars argue the origins of such hierarchical relationships may have come
from several factors such as Hunter Gatherer relationships (Gibbons, 2020), natural vs.
productive labor distinctions (Chen, 1983), and political strategic agendas in favor of the
institution of patriarchy (Statista, 2021). More recently, adverse consequences of the male/female power dichotomy have been assessed for its “militarization of masculinity” that mechanizes its structural relationship to armed conflict (Cohen & Karim, 2022). As described by Caprioli (2005), the enforcement of gender roles in a given society is created and sustained by cultural norms; when such norms promote gender inequity through subjugation and domination by use of force, the culture is more likely to be tolerant of violence. Once this tolerance for violence at the micro-level becomes the norm for solving disputes, the use of force at a larger scale–an armed conflict, for example–is justifiable among society, and the mechanism of violence becomes structural. As this tolerance evolves, the structural mechanism legitimizes unequal power dynamics that paint a picture of submissive women who need ‘protection’ from said violence, and defaults women to the forefront of concern for policy solutions seeking to protect their centerpieces of nationalism (Galtung, 1990; Cohen & Karim, 2022; Hudson, 2009). The systemic mechanism of gender-based oppression, rooted in historic imperialism and class exploitation, positions armed conflict and gender inequity as interdependent qualms to society (Cockburn, 2010). Maintaining gender-based divisions in hegemonic-masculine economies represent financial stability for a nation, causing a culture to enforce compliance of gender roles which are either labeled “productive” or “reproductive” (2010). Gender equality is therefore perceived as a major threat to ‘normal’ standards of prosperity, so rigid male/female dichotomies take the form of cultural customs that inadvertently legitimize violence.
In response to how do these structural and systemic relationships apply to prevention of
SGBV in armed conflict, I argue that we must pre-emptively consider the source of gender-based conflict at the micro-level that perpetuates a macro-level response to disputes, rather than addressing SGBV with only reactionary solution prescriptions. For example, reactionary
solutions to preventing SGBV flawed with simple narrative bias may seek to directly address
wartime SV with monetary aid efforts which inadvertently promote the commodification of rape. Meger (2016) points to the aid for rape victims’ post-conflict as a bargaining tool for women who may falsely report being raped after recognizing it as an urgent issue to the international community; rape then becomes a commodity to a marginalized woman post-conflict because it offers her access to services she may otherwise rarely, if ever receive (i.e., healthcare, education, micro-credit, etc). Meanwhile, pre-emptive solutions may shift the attention to issues less obviously correlated to SGBV in armed conflict that impact society before and after the actual conflict occurred. In doing so, we pre-emptively build resilience against the occurrence of SGBV, now that the target of the solution is the cultural environment that sustained the conflict itself through structural and systemic mechanisms. Most importantly, victims who lacked the ability to report their SGBV–due to fear of legal consequences, cultural sensitivity or psychological barriers–are more likely to fall under the umbrella of broader preventative solutions that simultaneously consider the three dimensions of a sustainability. To effectively do so, it is imperative that we understand why these dimensions are important to any sustainable solution.
The Why–Three Dimensions of Sustainable Solutions
Below I will provide an overview of the three dimensions and their significance to
implementing a sustainable solution. These dimensions are founded on the aforementioned
understanding of structural and systemic inequity as it relates to armed conflict but go further by applying the theory to tangible recommendations for preventing SGBV.
Consideration for Feminist Perspectives of IR
Feminist perspectives of IR seek to not only strategize effective responses to armed
conflict, but also to point to the root of the problems that intervene with peace and security
among nations (Reiter, 2015). Making feminist sense of IR reveals the role of diverse women as agents of politics who are otherwise rendered invisible for their participation in “domestic,
private [or], trivial” spaces (Enloe, 2014). Employing feminist IR perspectives on the continuum of armed conflict can provide qualitative insight on those who exist outside of the ‘perpetrator’ group in a rebellion, and answer questions related to a woman’s participation in conflict situations that may indicate who “wields the power,” how that power is reinforced, and why it was successful in controlling power dynamics (2014; Tomas & Bond, 2015). Viterna (2013) exemplifies the importance of this dimension through her case study of micro-processes of mobilization in El Salvador; the success of the FMLN’s rebellion can be largely attributed to the narrative that their mission protected the people against the Armed Forces’ attack on the “sanctity of motherhood.” This narrative exploited cultural beliefs that those who are “good” have a responsibility to protect mothering women, their sexuality, and their children. Their guerrilla identity would be expanded by skilled women who acted on its behalf as recruitment agents, which stimulated civilian men to take up arms and prove their masculinities–essentially a forced coercion due to a culture that perceived the FMLN’s rebellion as benevolent cause (2013). Viterna’s (2013) study demonstrates the importance of consideration for qualitative assessments of a country through the feminist lens; it revealed fake reports of SGBV as a form of propaganda, the purpose and function of women as agents of armed conflict, and how cultural dynamics of gender roles can be exploited for political gain. While quantitative approaches are an important part of triangulation, over-reliance on reported statistics of SGBV as the method to developing a solution can easily become ineffective without a qualitative feminist perspective to understanding the success or failure of warring groups.
Consideration for Domestic Accountability
Recalling the issue with the ICC’s inability to address the full scope of SGBV, the focus
on prosecution of criminals does not address societal upheaval, it cannot domestically enforce domestic punishment, nor can it ensure proper reparations/compensation to victims of SGBV (Lake, 2014). For this reason, domestic accountability by way of adopting the Court’s statutes is crucial to making real progress against impunity and SGBV’s future occurrence (2014). A much larger capacity of manpower is inherent to a governing body which permits the implementation of specialized SBGV courts (Seelinger, 2014). These courts facilitate a more victim-centric form of justice, and if the Court’s work is being done domestically, the possibility for civil suits with NGO pressure on the government can lead to more adequate reparations to victims (2014). That being said, this dimension cannot stand alone as a sustainable solution; legislative attempts to adopt human rights laws are not always genuine, especially in the case of right-violating regimes, as a government may stop short of further action beyond prosecution of low-level military perpetrators (Loken et al., 2018). It is best to remain skeptical of such regimes feinting domestic accountability who attempt to convey a moral compass that earns the approval of other hegemonic-militarized economies or attempt to appear legitimate among international audiences (Loken et al., 2018; Lee, 2023). For this reason, this dimension is a crucial yet not exclusive part of a genuinely preventative measure long-term.
Consideration for Action Outside of Timing Constraints
The final dimension can be described in plain terms–if actions are meant to prevent a
fuller scope of repercussions from SGBV, such as generational trauma or social stigma (thinking back on Meena and her children), the timing constraints for victims to come forward post-conflict must reflect the complex nature of SGBV. A sustainable solution must consider long- term interventions outside of the relevant conflict timeframe that highlights SV as a complex issue of gendered relations. Without this consideration, we exclude the possibility of addressing cultural customs that reproduce the set of problems which enabled the environment of armed conflict. Actions outside of the timing constraint must be facilitated primarily by formal laws against SGBV, but they also require outreach mechanisms that do the ‘heavy lifting’ of changing customary laws where marginalized groups remain invisible (Hudson, 2014).
A Sustainable Solution–Cooperation Long-Term
Considering the previous dimensions, a sustainable solution to preventing SGBV in
armed conflict is the improved coordination and cooperation between local NGOs and
governments long-term. Where armed conflict has occurred, the occurrence of SGBV is more likely to intensify when the affected society perceives their government as unreliable in holding aggressors accountable (Boesten & Fisher, 2012). Institutional reform is therefore a necessity to fixing issues of impunity, specifically, through improving women’s participation in politics and judicial systems by promoting their feelings of efficacy towards progress (Lake, 2014). Accordingly, this is where the efforts of local NGOs are most necessary–not only for the purposes of increasing the public’s trust by ensuring victims will be protected, but by providing resources that invest in women and men who are marginalized. With this solution, NGOs would contribute their capacity to work on development initiatives that improve the cultural standards which dictate customary laws that promote violence. Governments that coordinate formal laws and programs with NGOs providing long-term aid initiatives and support networks will be more effective in preventing SGBV in future armed conflicts (Lake, 2018); this is because the limitations of legislation would become less detrimental to the cause when more women act as enforcement mechanisms (Lake, 2014). In addition, this long-term cooperation alters the necessity for commodification of rape among marginalized women, who would receive increased access to government programs or services in addition to the resources of local NGOs with their cooperation. A sustainable solution to preventing SGBV such as this cooperation does not have one clear pathway to success. However, if it considers the three dimensions as it relates to armed conflict, genuine progress can be made towards the security of even the most vulnerable men and women.
In this essay, I argued that a sustainable solution to preventing SGBV is one that is built
with consideration for three main dimensions: (1) it should be based on feminist perspectives of international relations (IR) that highlight qualitative characteristics of a culture, (2) it prioritizes domestic accountability measures of enforcement and protection of survivors, and (3) it takes action outside of the relevant conflict timeframe that highlights SV as a complex issue of gendered relations. To understand the significance of these dimensions, I provided context to non-sustainable solutions–specifically, those which are founded on the simple narrative of SV which fails to address the complexity of SGBV. I then framed the relationship between gender equality and armed conflict as structural and systemic qualms in society to describe how and why the three dimensions I favored are essential to SGBV prevention. Finally, I discussed a sustainable solution as one that requires cooperation between local NGOs and governments to effectively prevent SGBV in armed conflicts long-term.
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