Finally, it has been acknowledged – violence against women during conflict is not an “unintended byproduct” of war but a strategic function of it. It is a product of pre-existing gender relations in which unequal balances of power ensure women’s inferior position while legitimizing violence against them. Yet, despite this remarkable progress, with international laws such as Article 27 of the Geneva Convention or UN Resolution 1325 which recognize rape and other forms of sexual violence as a violation of human rights and seek to offer more protection to women and girls during conflict, contradictions still abound. These very well written and articulated laws - while impressive and appreciated - do not mean much if statistics for the same ills they claim to protect continue to rise or remain unchanged. This then begs the question, “How do we effectively translate these powerful words into action?”
This year has seen adjacent but different progressions toward ending violence against women by policymakers and women on the frontlines of justice. At one end, policymakers have done a lot of talking, declaring, deliberating and mapping out of well written plans, while women - from those who identify themselves as “ordinary” - to feminists, activists and survivors, have come together to mobilize and organize to condemn violence against women.
From the Commission on the Status of Women to the vibrant and energetic Billion Rising Campaign, women across the globe have been finding creative ways to deal with and address violence. Through powerful storytelling and advocacy, women activists have been formulating strategies and translating them into action – a true testament to the power of movement building in bringing about social change. A recent study by Htun & Weldon 2012 spells this out clearly, “the mobilization of feminist movements is more important for change than the wealth of nations, left-wing political parties, or the number of women politicians… Social movements shape public and government agendas and create the political will to address issues. Government action, in turn, sends a signal about national priorities….The roots of change of progressive social policies lie in civil society.”
This war against women simply because they are women, or simply because they are defending their rights or those of others, is a universal war faced by many women around the world. In Mexico and Central America, thousands have died due to the increased militarization that came with the “war on drugs” which has caused unprecedented levels of violence while failing to provide citizen security, especially for women. Attacks and threats of violence on women human rights defenders and their organizations have been escalating with many living under constant threat and fear for their lives and well-being. Not only is the violence used a means of social control, but the cruelty and brutality with which it is carried out makes it an extremely dangerous environment to live and survive in.
Such cases are not isolated to Central America. In Southeast Asia, the use of rape as a tool of war is the norm. Burma, Philippines, and south of Thailand are just a few of the countries in the region with wars in progress. The perpetrators who are almost always state agents – the military, the police, and the state’s auxiliary armed groups rape and kill girls as young as nine years old.
In Zimbabwe, the government employed sexual terror as a strategy to control and terrorize women. During the 2008 election campaign, now dubbed the “rape” campaign, 380 rapes were committed by 214 perpetrators against 70 victims ranging from five-year-old girls to elderly grandmothers. And it is feared that a repeat of this terror will occur during the elections later this year.
These are just a few examples of the bigger issue that is often ignored - the increasing militarization of states. The military both determines and reinforces hierarchies of power within and among states. During war, there is a heightening of hierarchical relations between men and women and equating constructions of masculinity of with violence. During conflict, violence against women takes a more dramatic turn.
Situating violence against women within a broader context is important not only for women’s movements but for policymakers in order to make connections and respond accordingly. It is a futile exercise to enact laws against rape without understanding the “why” question. Policy makers often enact laws based on the “what” “how” and “where” of violence against women, but not the "why". Since the “why” is merely glossed over in well written documents, institutions such as the military continue to reinforce violence even as laws are there to protect women. Not only that, but the impact of other global processes become veiled and fall into invisible realms of power that make violence against women possible.
For example, the US government’s use of military as a response to drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America indirectly encourages the continued commission of violence against women and gender-based crimes. Similarly, other African states such as South Africa’s use of “quiet diplomacy” as strategy to dealing with Zimbabwe’s tyranny indirectly encourages the continued violence against women. This is not to say that either government’s response is completely useless, but it is to point out the impact that such policies have in concealing violence against women as an urgent issue. These laws implicitly encourage the continued violence against women. The presence of expansive and well intentioned laws is not effective if impunity ensures lack of accountability and transparency.
So what is the way forward for women’s movements? The way forward is to continue what we have been doing so far – mobilizing, organizing and tactfully strategizing in conscious ways that respond to the changing global trends and processes. We must continue to work strategically with policymakers by holding them accountable to their “promises” to end violence. We must continue to examine their actions, or lack thereof, whilst also identifying gaps in which we can collaborate with them to further our end towards ending violence. In the meantime, we should not forget to regroup and take time to take care of ourselves even as we fight for holistic security, equality and justice.