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Ending Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict: Posing the Next Set of Questions

12 Dec

Editor’s Note:  Dr. Megan Daigle came to us this fall from the University of Gothenburg at the suggestion of longtime GAPW colleague and friend Dr. Maria Stern. During her time here, Megan reinforced many of our core policy interests, including African and Latin American politics.   More specifically, her work on feminist theory and violence against women is both relevant and inspiring to us, and we hope to maintain a collaborative research and policy relationship with her for a long time to come. 

As a research fellow at the Gothenburg Centre for Globalization and Development in Gothenburg, Sweden, I travel frequently to conduct archival research and interviews.  For much of October and November, I was in New York interviewing UN officials, NGO staff, and other activists — and, of course, haunting the Global Action offices as my base of operations.  Arriving in New York as an independent researcher, it’s easy to feel a bit at sea.  The myriad headquarters and offices of UN bodies are all but impenetrable to outsiders, but given that my research focuses on the mobilization of resources, interventions, and political will to end sexual violence in conflict zones, this was where I needed to be.

Sexual violence in armed conflict (SVAC) is now a high-priority agenda item for the Security Council, following a string of resolutions beginning with UNSCR 1325 in October of 2000 and culminating most recently with UNSCR 2122 last year.  SVAC is also at the top of programming and advocacy dossiers at a variety of UN agencies including UNFPA, UN Women, UNICEF, and UNHCR, amongst others, and gave rise to the creation of UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, an interagency effort at improving coordination and accountability in work on SVAC.  This mobilization can be dated to the international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, which first tried SVAC as war crimes, but it really began to gain momentum with 1325 and the issuing of the first major NGO reports on the issue.  Funding for women, peace and security issues is always scarce, but it is now commonly said that, anecdotally, SVAC is receiving a disproportionate share of that limited pie.  In June, the United Kingdom held a massive summit hosting thousands of activists, experts, survivors, and government ministers.

Given this remarkable rise in interest and action, there are some questions that we need to ask, which are forming the basis of my research:

Why this issue, and why now?  This isn’t meant to suggest that the international community shouldn’t be doing something about the horrific scale of sexual violence that has accompanied so many modern wars.  Rather, the severity and persistence of SVAC is all the more reason why we should ask why we are so committed now — what interests is it serving, who have been the major players, and how has it come about?  That may sound cynical, but this question has important implications for how the issue is approached and how sustainable the effort is likely to be moving forward, especially if the political winds start to blow in a different direction.

Why are we taking SVAC as an issue on its own?  It’s hard enough — if not impossible and perhaps inadvisable — to try to draw a clear line between conflict and post- (or pre-) conflict periods.  We know that SVAC is strongly related to rates of gender-based violence and gender inequality that already exist in a given society before the outbreak of conflict.  We also know that incidences of domestic violence increase markedly in conflict settings, so discerning what gender-based violence is “related” to conflict is also difficult and a blurry line at best.  So why are we trying to address it as a separate issue — from gender-based violence in and out of conflict on one hand, and from the other harms and vulnerabilities faced by people living with conflict on the other?  One explanation seems to be that SVAC is seen as an “easy win,” not in the sense of being easy to fix, but rather that it’s easy to get on board.  Nobody is going to say they’re in favour of SVAC, certainly, so it’s a relatively easy issue to champion, even in as slow-moving and disinterested a diplomatic system as the UN tends to be.  Taking it out of its context allows this to happen, without requiring us to dig into the thornier issues of structural gender inequality, domestic violence, girls’ education, pay gaps, and women’s representation in politics — which many governments refuse to broach, but which might help us to make a far greater impact on rates of SVAC.

What effects is this mobilization having?  SVAC, like any kind of sexual violence, is notoriously hard to measure.  Survivors are reluctant to come forward, communities are often slow to act until evidence is long gone, and courts have been reticent not only to try cases, but also to provide the necessary considerations for survivors and witnesses.  There are undoubtedly many good things happening as a result of the recent surge in interest, many of which are supported by the UN and its various branches: social outreach and education, security sector reform, transitional justice processes, and medical and social service provision, to name just a few.  We also need to examine where we may be going wrong.  There have been criticisms of interventions and advocacy on the issue of SVAC from a number of directions that merit serious consideration.  First, some argue that male survivors are erased in the current discourse surrounding SVAC, even as many in the NGO community feel that organizations dealing with male survivors receive a disproportionate share of funding.  It has also been argued that decontextualizing SVAC, as I discussed above, seriously reduces our capacity to make real change as an international community.  What is more, many critics argue that this recent wave of activism — on the part of governments, NGOs, and UN bodies — reduces women to this, this issue, this role as victims of violation, and that it treats SVAC as the emblematic female experience in war.  When we think of women in war, we think of rape, and that’s problematic because it erases the many other roles that women play as diplomats, soldiers, peace builders, aid workers, or militia members.  I have a lot of sympathy for these more nuanced perspectives.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to ask ourselves, what more can and should we be doing?  In conversations that I had with UN staff from a few different offices, I asked them about prevention, and I heard the same story a few times: when we hear that women are being attacked in certain places — while collecting firewood or water, on routes between towns, or while working in fields — we send peacekeeping patrols to escort them.  This brings out an important distinction between protective and prohibitive forms of prevention; the first merely inserts some kind of impediment (peacekeepers, walls or fences, well-lit streets) between a would-be attacker and victim, while the second prevents assault from happening in the first place.  This focus on protective prevention is in part a function of short-term, output-focused funding models, where agencies are under pressure to produce quantifiable results by the end of a project, taking emphasis and funding away from long-view work on changing attitudes and standards.  But it does shape our approach and what our “solutions” look like.  This is just one example, but there are more: it’s imperative that we see more survivor-led initiatives, responses that don’t just consult with women and men who have experienced violence, but employ survivors to work on locally-appropriate solutions. It is simply not enough to deploy ‘experts’ and their tendency to uncritically export models across contexts.

The bottom line is that it’s not enough to move forward under the assumption that our good intentions mean we are, in fact, doing good — we have to be self-critical and willing to ask ourselves, is our ‘help’ helping?  I’m only at the beginning of this project, so I can’t begin to answer many of my own questions, but these are the thoughts I’m left with after weeks of interviews with UN and NGO staffers, and that will guide my work moving forward.

Ms. Megan Daigle  (