BLOG:Militarism And Sexualized Violence Against Women– Making Sense Of What We Do And Don't Know

Feminist Peace Network
Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - 20:00
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Initiative Type: 
Online Dialogues & Blogs

When it comes to sexual violence during armed conflict, there is much we still don't know, which, as the 2012 Human Security Report points out, has important implications for how we address that violence. The authors of the report state that they believe that the way we frame and perceive the problem is flawed in several ways:

First, it exaggerates the worldwide prevalence and intensity of wartime sexual violence by inappropriately generalizing from shocking victim accounts and statistics drawn from a relatively small number of the worst-affected countries.

Second, it systematically neglects domestic sexual violence in war-affected countries, despite the fact that its impact is far more pervasive than that of conflict-related sexual violence. It also largely ignores sexual violence against males in wartime.

In addition,

We make a distinction between the two major types of sexual violence that occur during wartime. First, there is conflict-related sexual violence, by which we mean that perpetrated by combatants—rebels, militia fighters, and government forces. Second, there is domestic sexual violence, which includes not only that perpetrated by intimate partners but also by other household or family members. The evidence we have indicates that the large majority of noncombatant sexual violence in wartime is made up of domestic sexual violence.

I think the insistence of the authors in making the distinction between “domestic” violence against women and “conflict-related” sexual violence is a critical fault in their analysis. To begin with, as Gloria Steinem points out in an interview with Lauren Wolfe about why she spearheaded the Women Under Siege project (of which Wolfe is the Director) with the Women's Media Center, “sexualized violence” is a far better descriptor than “sexual violence”,

Because there's nothing sexual about violence. Sex is about pleasure. Violence is about pain. Nature tells us what's good for us by making it pleasurable, and what's bad for us by making it painful. To get those things mixed up usually requires a childhood in which people we loved and depended on inflicted pain, and we came to believe we couldn't get one without the other.

What we also need to be cognizant of however is that all violence is an attempt to gain power over an ‘other'. That is true whether it is a U.S. drone attack over Pakistan, or the shooting of a young girl who dared to speak out against the Taliban. It is true if it is fighting on the streets of Syria, or a street fight in New York or an honor killing in Iraq (a form of violence which reportedly increased after the U.S.invasion of Iraq). It is true whether it is a rape by a U.S. serviceman in Japan or a murder behind closed doors in Omaha.

The point is this–the root cause of sexualized violence is an attempt to gain power over by the assailant, regardless of whether it is directly related to armed conflict or not and insisting that they are separate issues indicates a systemic lack of understanding that has very damaging implications.

It is also important to note that the common thread of the attempt to assert power over that is at the root of all sexualized violence makes it indeed quite difficult to separate the issues of conflict related sexualized violence and sexualized violence behind closed doors because all too frequently, military unrest itself leads civilians to feel powerless and vulnerable which leads to the use of “domestic” violence in an attempt to feel empowered–so where precisely would one draw the line between these realms? It is, I think, necessary to make that connection (which the report does not do) and more useful to see it as varying manifestations of the root problem of the assertion of power over rather than as two separate problems.

The reports also makes a distinction regarding “strategic” rape that is deeply disturbing:

If mass rape is strategic—e.g., if it has been initiated as part of a top-down policy intended to terrorize civilians, or as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing—the international community may have some immediate leverage that can be used to pressure the leaders of the government or rebel forces to stop. These may include threats to withhold aid to governments, to impose sanctions, or to push for indictments in the International Criminal Court.
If, as studies suggest, rape perpetrated by soldiers and rebels is not part of a top-down strategic plan, but is due to the fact that the military command system is simply too weak to stop the abuse, there is relatively little that the international community can do in the short term. In the longer term, however, bringing perpetrators of rape to justice may provide a measure of deterrence against sexual violence in future wars.

We have argued that some of the claims that sexual violence is deployed as a “weapon of war”are based on little more than anecdotal accounts. Pushing for policy initiatives on the basis of false assumptions is clearly a recipe for bad policy. It underlines yet again the need for reliable data—the sine qua non of evidence-based policy.

With respect, sexualized violence is ALWAYS strategic, regardless of who perpetrates it. As regards military conflict, granted, there aren't too many examples of explicit top-down orders to commit such acts, but I would be hard pressed to come up with an example of military action or conquest that did not involve sexualized violence. It has been a systemic part of of the violent quest for power over since the dawn of patriarchy.

But even without going back thousands of years and to bring it a little closer to home for most readers, one has only to look at the sorry history of the U.S. military in regard to sexual abuse, whether at bases around the world (as Cynthia Enloe has documented so thoroughly) or the ongoing epidemic of sexual abuse within the ranks that continues despite multiple commissions and lengthy reports and hand-wringing at Congressional hearings.

That said, the report does make some very valid points, namely that there is a lack of adequate data and that has important policy implications as does the incorrect interpretation and sensationalizing of data (they use a Nicholas Kristof piece as an example).

The report is also particularly critical of how the U.N. addresses sexualized violence which certainly in part is justified. I have always thought that it is unspeakably ironic that U.N. peacekeepers themselves have been accused of sexual violence. However, while the U.N.'s work on this issue is very far from perfect, the reasons are myriad and far more complex than the report's distillation implies and to put it bluntly, what is the alternative?

There simply is not another global body that is doing anything remotely as comprehensive as what is being done by the U.N. And it is notable to me that there is no attempt to address the complicity of the U.S. in dragging it's political feet when it comes to implementing UNSCR 1325 (it took 10 plus years to put a National Action Plan in place in large part because that is something that was not acknowledged as important by the Bush administration) as well as our inability to ratify CEDAW.

In all, the report raises a number of important questions, but it's analysis is limited and flawed and should be understood as such.