global politics, relationally

Stopping Wartime Sexual Violence?


This post is cross-posted at the Polity Blog, in promotion of my recently published Gender, War, and Conflict (Polity Press, 2014).

It was a coincidence that Gender, War, and Conflict was formally published on the eve of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence, held in London. The Global Summit, as its webpage described, was meant to shatter the culture of impunity towards wartime rape, take practical steps toward decreasing it, provide support to survivors, and change attitudes of apathy.

This ambitious summit was attended by public figures like Hilary Rodham Clinton and Angelina Jolie, as well as by scholars of wartime sexual violence like my colleagues Amelia Hoover Green and Marsha Henry, among others. While I sat this one out at home in Florida, I followed its progress on Twitter and read news coverage as the summit looked to “write the last chapter in the history of wartime rape.”

Scholars writing from the Summit expressed a combination of hope – given the amount of high-profile political capital being devoted to the cause – and despair – given the long, complicated, and important history of social science research into wartime sexual violence that was largely ignored at the Summit. The biggest complaint I have seen and read is that the Summit’s policy-world and advocate speakers have a commitment to the social cause of ending wartime rape without a matching commitment to knowing and understanding the history of wartime rape, the conditions of possibility of the crime, the significations of rape in conflict, and the gendered contexts in which wartime rape is committed.

In other words, the advocates at the Summit understood that war rape is a terrible crime in which women are disproportionately victimized. But there is more to it, and scholars have been trying to communicate that in order to improve policy analysis, and, hopefully, policy solutions. While the summit is over and the media has moved on to its next target, I think that this point is still a very important one.

In that spirit, here are some things that we do know about wartime sexual violence. First, both broadly interpreted (as domestic violence, sexual assault, kidnapping, trafficking, forced marriage, forced prostitution, forced impregnation, enslavement, and rape) and narrowly interpreted (as rape), wartime sexual violence has been a feature of war since its inception. This does not mean that it is inevitable, natural, understandable, or permissable. What it does mean is that there is a link between militarization, war violence, and sexual violence – a link that feminist work in International Relations has argued is bidirectional.

Second, and relatedly, we know that these crimes are gendered. One of the most common elements of that gendering is that they happen to women because they are women, but that is only one of a number of dimensions of the gendered nature of wartime sexual violence. I suggest in the book that war rape is a method of emasculation, whether men or women are its direct victims.

When the victim of rape is a man, the emasculation is straightforward; when the victim of rape is a woman, the emasculation takes the form of robbing ‘enemy’ men of their ability to protect their ‘innocent’ women and to reproduce their families, states, and nations. Wartime sexual violence at once shows the virility of the rapist (nation) and the impotence of the victim (nation). Without understanding war and conflict as gendered, and wartime sexual violence as a gendered part of gendered conflicts, we miss important things about how wartime sexual violence is possible, and, indeed, how it can be stopped.

Third, we know that the advocates at the Summit are right that there is a history of impunity towards wartime sexual violence. Wartime rape, and even genocidal rape, were not explicitly defined as crimes in international jurisprudence until the late 1990s, and were rarely classified as crimes against humanity – leaving radical feminist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon to wonder if women were human in the eyes of international law. This impunity, though, is not incidental like it comes across in a number of the statements of advocates at the Summit. Instead, it is structural. If war and conflict are themselves gendered, they rely on the perpetuation of gendered assumptions and gendered stereotypes to continue to exist themselves.

As such, those with a political interest in the maintenance of militarization also have a political interest in impunity towards sexual violence. In this view, the reach of the ‘impunity’ can be seen as broader: it is not only produced by ignoring wartime sexual violence, but also by insisting that wartime sexual violence is one-off, incidental, separable from the existence of war and militarism, and curable outside of addressing the gendered dimensions of those wars and militarisms. In this way, the Summit critiques surface-level impunity while – at least in some ways – entrenching a deeper impunity.

This is important not least because it makes some occurrences and impacts of wartime sexual violence less visible than others. This leads to the fourth thing that we know: we know that war rape does not start when ‘the war’ starts or end when ‘the war’ ends. ‘Wartime’ sexual violence often happens with the presence of militaries, peacekeepers, and other instances of militarism before formal wars and conflicts begin, and long after formal wars and conflicts start. Even when the commission of sexual violence wanes, the impacts of that sexual violence – in terms of societal gender inequalities, unwanted and unsafe pregnancies, social stigma and rejection, health consequences, and economic losses – continue for years and even decades after those who would pay attention to a narrow reading of war rape would notice.

That is why many feminist scholars, myself included, suggest that war is not an event but a continuum – where violence increases and decreases, but always exists. Recently, scholars like Rachel Pain and Caron Gentry have been arguing that we cannot fully understand war without understanding its everyday presence – and nowhere is this as important as in the arena of sexual violence.

In short, it is important to both praise and contextualize events like the Summit. This is why, in the book, I suggest mainstreaming gender in analyses of war and conflict – both to see the ways that gender analysis serves to add to, correct, and even transform traditional theorizing about war and conflict, and to look for the overlap between gender dynamics and power relations based on sexuality, gender identity, race, ethnicity, class, religion, and other axes of political distinction (and therefore discrimination). That will help any effort to “write the last chapter” of sexual violence in war – or any gendered, oppressive phenomenon – address the problem with a depth that makes solutions possible.