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The everyday gender inequalities that underpin wartime atrocities

The contemporary enslavement of women, and sexual violence inflicted on them in times of war, are rooted in ‘everyday’ gender-based inequalities between men and women.

A demo outside the Nigerian Embassy in London in 2014. Johnny Armstead/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

Readers are horrified by the reports of wartime atrocities committed against women and girls in recent African conflicts. Graphic descriptions of the most inhumane acts of sexual violence confirm their exceptional nature to audiences wondering how war could produce such unimaginable brutality. Yet the sexual abuse and enslavement of women is rooted in everyday gender relations. ‘War’ serves as an ideological scapegoat in debates that refuse to address uncomfortable realities about inequalities entrenched in the institutions of marriage, kinship, and the family.

The men and women who interact in wartime are full-fledged historical agents, socialised into norms and values that drive their behaviour in wartime and peacetime. To understand what happens in war, why, how, and to whom, we need to critically consider institutions that govern social relations in peacetime. These institutions, which are all the more powerful for passing unrecognised as instruments of daily abuse, have been shaped historically through the interaction of global, regional, and local forces. Changing them is often harder than ending conflict, and change—when it occurs—brings conflict right into the most intimate domains of life.

Pre-twentieth century conflict in Africa

Up until the end of the nineteenth century, conflict and violence led to the enslavement of women and children in African societies. European colonisation abolished the legal status of slavery and hampered the ability of independent African groups to wage war and organise raids. But everywhere in Africa the European administration introduced new forms of un-freedom and allowed slavery to continue happening de facto, if not de jure. At the same time, conservative gender ideologies in both European and African societies limited the effects of formal emancipation for women more than men. Women’s productive and reproductive autonomy was seen as a threat to the social and moral order of African societies by the colonial administration, independent African governments, and people socialised in patriarchal societies, including women. By the end of the 1940s international pressures to eradicate slavery had limited enslavement drastically. But the generic slaves whose freedom was being defended were implicitly male. Comparatively little was done to inquire into women’s ability to control their lives.

European colonisers had little interest in interfering with the internal dynamics of marriage in African societies. When colonial officers identified a case as ‘a question of marriage rather than slavery’, the official response was to display unusual respect for native mores and values. Black-boxing ‘native marriage’ concealed inequalities across different categories of women all labelled ‘wives’. Moreover, the ‘native marriage’ label sounded reassuringly familiar to male colonial administrators. Many of the institutions that regulated kinship and alliance in African societies were unfamiliar to Europeans. But male colonialists thought they understood marriage and knew how to deal with wives at home and abroad. They applied a Eurocentric understanding of marriage and gender to ‘native marriage’, and mostly did not bother to ask who the ‘wives’ were: which ones were enslaved concubines, and which ones were women of free descent; which ones had been purchased and forced into unwanted unions, and which ones had consented to a marriage sealed by the transfer of bridewealth to their relatives, not a payment to their future masters. Because of their patriarchal gender ideas, European colonisers cared little about subtle distinctions of status across free wives, concubines, and female slaves. In their eyes, women ought to accept the authority of male guardians, husbands and masters alike.  

Frederick Lugard, the highest ranking colonial officer in Uganda and Nigeria at the turn of the twentieth century, encountered many cases of fugitive concubines and enslaved women. As he explained in his 1906 Instructions to Political and Other Officers: ‘in many cases where the fugitive is a woman, it will be found to be a domestic quarrel, and the woman will be glad to return and be forgiven’. Would she, really? The fugitive woman in question had escaped to leave behind a relation that would have originated with her kidnap and sale at a young age, leading to forced sexual relations with a man much older than herself. Her slave status meant that she had no recourse to the support of her relatives. Her safety depended entirely on pleasing a man she had not chosen - and his free wives. But colonial administrators were overwhelmingly concerned that runaway female slaves might ‘drift into immorality’, and saw it as their duty to ‘protect’ these women by placing them under the tutelage of a male guardian. The message was clear: women needed protection and independence was bad for them.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century European and African gender ideologies were responsible for the slower pace of women’s emancipation and the invisibility of their continued enslavement, which passed unnoticed in contexts were women’s subordination was the norm and the mere idea of women’s autonomy evoked outrage.

When women are the spoils

Gender ideologies influence women’s status and their ability to negotiate their roles in society in peacetime and wartime. Colonial bureaucracies, influenced by European patriarchal ideals, focused on controlling African men and allowed the latter to control African women. Because in African societies women were conceptualised as legitimately subjected to male control in many spheres of life, they were added to the list of desirable war spoils. If the sexual, productive, and reproductive potential of women are considered valuable assets for those who control them, wars will result in attempts to seize them. And indeed, this is what has been happening from pre-colonial to contemporary African wars.

When in the 1870s David Livingstone travelled in the north-eastern Congo, he found that only women were desired and sold as slaves in regions where labour was scarce and people represented the most valuable form of wealth. Roughly in the same period, the pre-colonial increase in the population of the Kingdom of Buganda, estimated as somewhat over a million in the 1870s, was largely the result of the assimilation of captive women from neighbouring societies. Women were valued as workers, mothers, sexual partners, and in some areas as potential bridewealth payments. Controlling women was a means to expand the power of African pre-colonial polities. In many nineteenth century African societies chiefs could acquire large numbers of wives and slave women; commoners saw polygyny as an avenue of social mobility, and fathers could use their daughters’ bridewealth to pay for the marriage of their sons. In places where (1) people were the main form of wealth and (2) deeply entrenched ideologies made women, their labour, and their fertility controllable by men, the control of women was a primary objective of wars and of strategies of social reproduction in peacetime.

Today as in the past, ‘rape as a weapon of war’ is as much about skewed gender norms as it is about war and its temporary horrors. African rebel groups and other military organisations working for, or against, the state continue to abduct women and girls in large numbers. Captives can be sold as a means of financing the group’s activities, while others can be used as mothers and domestic workers to ensure the reproduction of the movement. These are time-honoured functions of enslaved women broadly documented in pre-colonial and early colonial African wars. They are not new phenomena.

The enslavement of women and girls is often accompanied by legitimising ideologies developed by the perpetrators. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau was quoted by CNN in May 2014 as saying “slavery is allowed in my religion, and I shall capture people and make them slaves,” one month after the group abducted 276 girls. This sort of justification is not limited to ‘Muslim’ groups, and we have seen similar Christian religious discourse deployed to the same ends by groups such as Uganda’s Lord Resistance Army (LRA). The kidnap of the Chibok girls in Northern Nigeria resembles the abduction of the Aboke girls by LRA combatants and the enslavement of many of the abductees. On 10 October 1996, 139 schoolgirls were abducted by LRA militiamen in northern Uganda. Many Aboke girls were able to return to their families, but unlike them, thousands of abducted women were integrated in the LRA camps in South Sudan as part of a strategy of LRA leader Joseph Kony to reproduce his movement.

There are many specific causes for these events. But what the Chibok and Aboke girls’ abductions and enslavement have in common—and share with their historical antecedents—is that they are rooted in institutions that make the control of women central to the reproduction of society and power struggles between men. The cessation of wartime atrocities should not be the only goal to which global and local civil activism aspires. Wartime brutalities against women, broadly publicised in media and reports, are like the tip of an iceberg. Lingering gender inequalities are the base that should be probed. 

Post-conflict reintegration restores women’s subordination, yet few are asking questions

The post-conflict reintegration of women in their societies of origin restores the functioning of gender norms that have the potential to objectify women. Yet women are not passive pawns in these games. They try to make the most of situations where the non-respect of tradition would penalise them severely. Many women staunchly defend norms that give them access to power as wives and mothers. Yet these very norms—abused and applied with inhumane brutality—make women indispensible to militiamen and rebels. The end of a conflict does not end the structural preconditions for the use and abuse of women, their bodies, and persons.

A Sierra Leonean colleague and gender activist explained one case where a woman wished to denounce the ‘husband’ who had violated her and forced her to live with him after the end of the war. The (male) village chief warned her that causing the imprisonment of her husband and father to her children would deprive her of income. The husband was now looking after her and the war had ended: why, asked the chief, would she want to lose him? It is not only that without a husband women’s economic options are limited, but also that they operate in political settings controlled primarily by male elders. Their chances to survive and live a dignified life rest on accepting established norms that give them limited, but tangible, power. Most of these women are unlikely to try to subvert the gender ideologies in which they grew up. They mostly do not share feminist agendas that they see as ‘Western’ and alien to their culture and history.

Different groups of women working together in international fora often hold opposing views about what women’s roles in society should be. Participating women often keep their views to themselves, as a condition for collaboration on what appear to be more urgent issues, and as a consequence of their mutual respect and friendship for each other. It is easy to blame war and the atrocities that it engenders. But thin agreement about wartime atrocities conceals profound dissent over deeply entrenched peacetime institutions.

Difficult questions should be asked: do women in post-war societies have the same capacity as men to choose if, when, how and with whom to have sex, marry, and have children? How are women who subvert established norms penalised? What are the contexts in which women make decisions? What institutions can they mobilise to advance their own agendas safely? Refusing to ask these questions replicates the colonial refusal to interfere in native marriages.

To not ask these questions is both hypocritical and foolish. It is hypocritical because it facilitates bureaucratic work at the high price of women’s marginalisation. It is foolish because shallow culturalism is a misguided approach. Institutions that embody profound gender inequalities are not simply ‘African’, and the struggle for greater equality is not a ‘Western feminist’ agenda. The entrenchment of gender inequalities took shape historically through the interaction of particular African and European interests. Women’s experiences and struggles for greater control over their bodies and lives are specific and local, not generically ‘African’ or ‘Western’. Post-conflict reconstruction efforts should avoid the restoration of ideologies that enable the structural subordination of women and their objectification as sexual, productive, and reproductive actors. More importantly, the women directly involved, especially the most vulnerable, should be empowered. Any measure that gives the power to choose for these women to someone else—be they concerned outsiders, religious leaders, local elite women or male elders—is a step in the wrong direction. 

About the author

Benedetta Rossi is Lecturer in African Studies at the School of History and Cultures of the University of Birmingham (UK). She is the author of From Slavery to Aid: Labour, Politics, and Ecology in the Nigerien Sahel, 1800-2000 (forthcoming in the African Studies series of Cambridge University Press in August 2015) and editor of Reconfiguring Slavery: West African Trajectories (Liverpool University Press, 2009). She has written many articles focusing on African slavery and emancipation and is involved in international collaborations on conjugal and sexual slavery in Africa.

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