Debating the long and the short-term view of sexual violence in war

Sexualized violence is an issue of security.  It is also an issue of women’s equality and rights. It's imperative that we use the traction generated by UN Security Council resolutions to move forward.

Aisling Swaine
18 April 2015

“I make myself stiff as stone, shut my eyes, concentrate on my body’s veto, my inner No.” The words of a 34-year old woman who tries to find ways to cope with “the unbridled raping sprees” that she and thousands of women experienced during the Russian occupation of Berlin, in 1945.  Documented in her anonymously authored diary, A Woman in Berlin, these words could be those of the many women today who are also caught up in wars that are not of their making.

These events in 1945 are neatly book-ended by two significant moments that mark the passage of a one hundred year-period of women’s global activism on peace and security. At  one end, is the 1915 International Congress of Women, which we commemorate this week in the Hague. This Congress brought together over 1,300 women from twelve different countries, to collectively respond to the events of World War I. Through a resolution adopted at the Congress, they expressed a stand in favour of peace and a transformation to modes of international relations away from options centred on masculinist belligerence. 

At the other end of this period, are the events of this year.  We mark 15 years since transnational women’s activism once again brought global attention to issues of peace and security from women’s stand-point. This time, women’s efforts prompted the adoption of Resolution 1325 in 2000 by the UN Security Council.  Their efforts drew the attention of this body to concerns specific to women in the contexts of war and peacebuilding.  Between 2000 and 2015, six further resolutions have been passed by the Council. Remarkably, the issue of “women, peace and security” has also become a bi-annual item on the agenda of the world’s foremost security body.

Alongside the demand to bring an end to World War I, the resolution adopted by the 1915 International Congress protested “vehemently” against “the horrible violation of women which attends all war.” At the time of the Congress, who could have imagined the proliferation of small arms, the use of armed technologies, and the ideologies of violent extremism and associated violence that women (and men) experience in wars today? And who also could have imagined the architecture of multilateralism that has been established out of the events of World War II?  The United Nations was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” And yet, wars continue, and in today’s version of the “modern warfare” noted at the Congress a century ago, women’s bodies are still horribly violated.

What has happened in this one hundred year period, in which the mid-way point of World War II defines much of our contemporary modes of multilateral relations, and the standards of rights that we attempt to uphold?  Where has our understanding of women’s lives, war contexts and associated “horrible violations” evolved to? 

The gains

It is important to firstly acknowledge the gains that have been made. We know more now about women's lives in contemporary wars than ever before. We are in an era where "asking the woman question" has become somewhat acceptable. It is not asked enough. And it still requires perpetual and repetitive asking.  However, there has been increasing visibility of women, women’s lives, rights and experiences related to war and peacemaking in recent decades. 

This gradual shift has lent unprecedented and particular attention to the issue of wartime sexualized violence. Our understanding of women’s localization in war as being “nothing but booty, dirt,” as articulated by the anonymous author of the 1945 A Woman in Berlin diary cited before, has shifted. Sexualized violence is no longer considered an inconsequential feature of war’s absurdity. We now have contemporary recognition that the violation of women during wartime, just like in peacetime, is a violation of the bodily integrity, dignity and rights of women globally.  Feminist inquiry has nudged the boundaries of “conflict” and “peace,” exposing the connections between violations in armed conflict and the violence, discrimination and exclusion that are ordinarily a feature of women’s lives. Significant moments in women’s transnational activism, such as the series of world conferences on women have had significant impact. Thanks to feminist inquiry, international legal prosecution for the sexual assault of women in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s was achieved.  Further inquiry has revealed the ubiquitous yet diversified presence of sexualized violence in multiple war contexts globally.  We have come far in making this issue visible and making it count in accounts of war today.

The enduring challenges

It is also important to acknowledge that the gains made have ironically been accompanied by some critical challenges and drawbacks. Reflexive critique by activists and scholars has pointed to an over-focus on the issue that has counter-productive impacts. Important analysis by Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern prompts us to pay attention to the problem of the hyper-politicization of sexualized violence that has evolved at global policy levels. This is largely hinged on the Security Council’s adoption of four successive sexualized violence focused resolutions, which are perceived to centre on the need to protect the sexed bodies of women. This approach has prompted the emergence of a governing global discourse that centres primarily on a penetrative sexual act wrought by monstrous men, understood as a calculated “weapon of war” scenario. This reductive discourse excises a wide range of sexualized and other harms that women experience alongside, and distinct to strategic rape.

In its resolution in 1915, the International Congress of Women stated its opposition “to the assumption that women can be protected under the conditions of modern warfare.”  This assumption, which these pioneering activists foresaw and so strongly castigated in 1915, arguably endures today, glaringly evident in the aforementioned resolutions. The Security Council was established to “maintain international peace and security,” and despite this expectation, it seldom succeeds in preventing the kinds of wars that entrench militarization and enable war-based violations to take place.  Instead, the sexualized violence focused resolutions effectively attempt to stymie sexualized violence by combatants, and provide protections to women that it imagines being possible during war. That men create the wars from which women need protection, seems to elude those men who propose that ridding wars of sexualized violence means that we can (and perhaps should) have  wars that are simply void of sexualized violence.  And this would happen while wars would remain replete with a myriad of killing and harms that impact women and men directly and indirectly, and that entrench militarism.

In addition, it is notable that the Security Council resolutions focused on sexualized violence do little to draw on concepts of gender equality and rights. Framed as an issue of “security,” there appears a fissure in the connections that activists have long sought to establish between gender equality, endemic violence against women and continuums of this violence into war contexts. Sexualized violence is indeed an issue of security. It is also however, an issue of women’s equality and rights. Eroding the conceptual and empirical connections between concepts of gender equality and sexualized violence decouples these resolutions from the multiple forms of violence that women experience outside of war. These international frameworks sit incomplete.

Where are we now?

One hundred years later, we are in a moment of critical healthy debate. On the one hand, our critique exposes how an exponential focus on sexualized violence can eclipse the totality of women’s experiences. Reductive approaches hide the intersecting influence of patterns of violence in peacetime through to war contexts. The sexual violation experienced by men is not fully exposed. There is evidence of fatigue of the rape story and the rape question in contexts such the Congo. There are some suggestions that we need to pull-back somewhat from entrenching too-heavy a focus on the issue.

On the other hand however, it is evident that the reality of brutal sexualized assaults in warfare endures. One hundred years later, the “horrible violation” of women in wars remains an urgent concern, and the demands made by the first women’s peace conference remain valid.

This moment of collective reflection in 2015 provides an opportunity to find ways to deftly navigate these lines of tension. How can we find a way to create enough noise about the sexualized harm impacting women in wars, while at the same time engaging in ways that are nuanced enough to push the boundaries of the reductive frames that have emerged? 

It's imperative that we use the traction generated by the Security Council resolutions to continue to move forward. There is for example, ongoing need to counter prevailing assumptions that women can be protected in war, and indeed that making war safe for women could be construed as a sign of progress.  Protections for all women and girls caught up in conflict, regardless of their role, is urgent. The idea of protection could however be rooted in rights-based modes that establish a connection between this specific interest of the Council, and their own articulation of the need for women’s empowerment in Resolution 2122. It is not enough to start at the “war moment”. There is need to go beyond war’s operational mechanics and tackle violence against women writ large - if  such acts are to be prevented in the first place.

There is also need to consider how we might evolve a more nuanced approach to the range of harms that women endure during war. A Woman in Berlin in 1945 cogently reflected on what her own experiences might mean to her:  “What does it mean, rape??.…It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything – but it’s not.” The meaning attributed to experiences of harm vary considerably whether socio-culturally or in response to the ways in which this violence is performed.  Sexualized violence may indeed be the worst experience or ultimate harm for some women.  For others it might be something else - the loss of entire families, livelihoods, the loss of ability to make choices over one’s life. A key challenge going forward is to find ways for broad categories of harm to matter in ways that the “worst” harms do, and to enable women to seek redress for these harms as if they matter.

Our wealth of (still incomplete and growing) knowledge also tells us that there is much over the past one hundred years, and before, that still requires visibility.  Asking the woman question was as valid in the past as it is now. However, in the era before and after the International Congress, it was not easy to do so. We have entire “official” histories of the world wars, colonial wars and earlier revolutions in which women are invisible. Women's lives were of little interest in men’s wars. A Woman in Berlin, could only be officially published in 2000. The 1945 version received such back-lash from the recovering post-war society that it had to be withdrawn. The foreword of the book notes that the author herself was publicly critiqued for “shameless immorality” for speaking about the rape that had occurred. She was compelled to become anonymous, and only allow the book to be published following her death (while still remaining anonymous). Thirty years post the International Congress, and sixty years prior to today, it was evidently impossible to publish an account of the mass rape that she and thousands of other German women were subjected to.

Our contemporary focus on sexualized violence could act as a catalyst and prompt us to generate a fuller picture of women’s experieces of war.  A longer-term view that looks back as well as forwards will build on, and complement, our immediate-term view. Two recent volumes further stitch together the gaps that have yawned in women’s stories and experiences during World War II. If this is a Woman (2015) by Sarah Helm documents the events in Ravensbruck concentration camp in which over 46,000 women were held.  Sonja M. Hedgepath and Rochelle G. Saidel’s (2010) have published a book on Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust, which pieces together Jewish women’s experiences. Collectively, these works illuminate the experiences of women from multiple social, ethnic and political identities in one context. A long-term view offers us critical context to today's engagement on the issue.  It allows us to contest ill-informed hyperbole.  Most importantly, it substantiates the need for questions to be asked about women's lives today in ways that they were not before. A truer picture emerges in ways that it has not done in the hundred years since the International Congress declared that “women should share all civil and political rights and responsibilities on the same terms as men.”.

“Violence is not inevitable. It is a choice.” The manifesto developed for this 2015 International Congress of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom(WILPF), which convenes in the Hague April 22-24th, sets out once again very clearly what our priority must be. While approaches to sexualized violence in war requires constructive onward critique and appropriate ways of researching, teaching and learning about it, we cannot negate what contemporary response has gained in terms of understanding and addressing the issue in praxis. There is need to foster nuanced, deepened and engaged responses that make connections between prevention (of war and of violence against women), response and redress.  

Read read more articles in 50.50's series Women's Power to Stop War in the run up to WILPF's centenary congress and  international civil society conference in the Hague, 22-24 and 27-29 April 2015.





Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData