The quest for gender-just peace: from impunity to accountability

Yakin Erturk reflects on the six years she spent working as the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, and argues that in order to build a gender- just peace, dis-empowering patriarchy and engaging with the feminist agenda of empowering women must be the guiding principle for all peace initiatives.

Yakin Erturk
29 November 2013

War against women transcends conventional notions of war and peace. Yet, when war strikes, violence against women becomes heightened, generalized and the norm. Crimes against women have been extensively documented in recent conflicts where rape stands out as a salient feature of war strategy.

Rape during war constitutes a core crime in international humanitarian law, however, until recently such crimes remained largely hidden and absent from conflict analysis, peace-building and prosecutorial processes. The recognition of violence against women as a human rights violation at the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights as well as the responses to the crimes against women in the wars in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, where rape and sexualized violence were used as weapons of war, placed issues concerning women, peace and security on the agenda for public scrutiny. Today, these war time crimes are defined as crimes against humanity punishable in the international tribunals, including the International Criminal Court. The gender aware normative instruments and mechanisms adopted in the course of the past decade also recognize women’s varied role in war, including their potential to contribute to peace. Among the most significant developments in this regard include the Security Council Resolutions (SCR) 1325, 1820, 1888 and 1889

The developments in the past decade in standard setting, particularly with respect to treaty law that provides for prosecution of crimes against women in conflict and the SCRs on women, peace and security, reveal a shift from impunity to accountability in responding to aggression against women. Parallel to this, there has also been a paradigm shift in the violence against women agenda from a victim-oriented approach to one of women’s empowerment and their active agency. In this respect, SCR 1325 is particularly significant in recognizing the potential role women can play in peace and security matters.

As we celebrate these promising gains in standard setting, we must acknowledge with regret, that violence against women continues in all parts of the world, perpetrators of crimes against women still enjoy impunity, and women’s agency is largely ignored in matters that concern their lives, their societies, and the issues of peace and security at large.

What lessons do contemporary conflicts offer for designing more effective strategies for peace and human rights protection of women during and in the post war era? Is gender-just peace possible given the deep rooted patriarchal gender regimes that determine women’s multiple subject positions? What are the parameters of a gender-just peace? Reflecting on my personal observations from a number of conflict and post-conflict countries which I visited between 2003 and 2009 in my capacity as the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, I would like to re-visit the links between gender and conflict in order to identify where and how gendered backlash during and after war ascend and normalize.

The nature of conflicts is diverse, and how and why they are transformed into war varies from case to case, but what is common to all conflict situations is that they are intimately connected to patriarchy, involving the clash of alternative masculinities competing for the control over productive resources and power at the local and global levels. Conflicts are also characterized by a common trend towards increasing militarization of societies at large, as has been evident throughout the world after 9/11, which has placed national security at the center of international relations and made it a priority agenda for all states.

Militarism is not only about military institutions, but rather a generalized dominance of militaristic values, which promotes rigid notions of womanhood that draw on the traditional role of women as mothers to serve the national interest, including by raising “good soldiers”, and notions of manhood that favour violence-prone masculinity. However, since warfare is not necessarily an essential quality of all men per se, military masculinity is fragile and therefore its sustenance requires constant nurturing and reinforcement which is provided by self -assertion through a reliance on weapons and sexual violence. The latter is illustrated by military brothels and the comfort women practice as well as the more recent wars where rape has become integral to war strategy. Such militarized environments empower both public and private patriarchy, reinforcing sexist, homophobic and xenophobic state agendas with distorted military budgets, and obscuring gender relations in ways that continue long after the fighting ends.

When fighting breaks out between enemy groups women become the war zone simply because they are women. In some conflicts rape, sexual slavery or sexualized torture of women occurs because of a general break down in law and order, in others, it is used as a strategy by or with the consent of officials to push a civilian population out of a territory, instill terror or to humiliate and torture them. Women, who are perceived as carriers of their culture and group identity, are also sexually violated as a way of dishonouring the enemy community. This is the cheapest and easiest way to destabilize and destroy entire societies, with a long lasting effect. As will be recalled, in the war during the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, rape and impregnation of Bosnian women were used as a method of ethnic cleansing. The sexual atrocities committed in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo are reminiscent of those perpetrated by Interahamwe militia during the Rwandan genocide. They aim at the complete physical and psychological destruction of women with implications for the entire society.

Women’s exposure to violence may also increase within their own family and community. For instance, where masculinity becomes severely damaged under detention, at check points, in refugee camps or in the home during raids, violence against women becomes a compensatory response. In the case of the Occupied Palestinian Territories where the enactment of masculinity is challenged daily and men are deprived of the sources of their socially constructed male identity to support and defend their land and families, according to Nahla Abdo Palestinian women have been placed in double jeopardy, having to face both the patriarchal-national ‘self’ and the foreign oppressive ‘other’.

During my visit to Chechnya, I received many testimonies of domestic abuse as well as acts of violence and intimidation committed by Chechen authorities against women accused of not conducting themselves in accordance with societal and religious norms.In Tajikistan, the challenges of the post independence economic transition, the changing sex ratio due to the civil war that followed, as well as the poverty driven male migration resulted in revitalizing practices such early unregistered and polygamous marriages. This, coupled with erosion of livelihoods, not only increased women’s vulnerability to abuse, but also undermined the emancipative gains women had made during the Soviet era.

Displacement and dispossession caused by conflict and war alters everyday life in a fundamental way; it challenges group boundaries, manipulates identities and destroys community sanctions, making women and girls subject to rigid patriarchal control and vulnerable to domestic violence, incest, among other forms of abuse. The legitimized and unrestrained use of violence in combat and the normalization of violence at home reinforce each other, putting women at risk of multiple forms of abuse.

There is an intimate link between the transgressions on women within their own group and that by the enemy, and a continuum of violence in times of peace and in times of war. In this sense, the distinction between peace and war is often irrelevant for many women. Violence against women which becomes reinforced through impunity following armed conflicts gives the message that it is alright to rape and abuse women.

The signing of a peace agreement following a devastating conflict is understandably received with enthusiasm by the international community as signifying a return to peace and stability. Attention and efforts shift from emergency needs to strengthening state institutions and maintenance of stability. Generous funds are allocated for disarmament, demobilizations and reintegration, but little or no attention is paid to the issue of reparation and livelihood security.

In order to move towards building a gender-just peace, there are a number of lessons to be learned. The voice of oppositional sides in the conflict must gain legitimate space in peace to clear the ground for an enabling environment where women’s rights issues can be addressed and prioritized.

There is need for caution that women’s interests are not merely co-opted into ethnic and class interests. Involvement of women and inclusion of women’s rights in peace agreements in themselves are essential but not sufficient.There must be political determination to enforce the gender equality provisions together with a strong gender and human rights consciousness and strategic alliances in civil society to demand compliance of the state and the international community with the requirements of the peace agreements.

Violence against women must be treated as a continuum – without singling out certain acts as more important - and as part and parcel of the overall status of women. It requires simultaneously providing immediate specialized assistance for victims, such as rehabilitation and health and social services, addressing the root causes of gender inequality and supporting women’s political, social and economic empowerment. In this respect, development and re-construction programmes need to identify both practical and strategic objectives that expand women’s capabilities while responding to immediate needs. The current international guidelines and resources for gender based violence often limit funding sources and programme options. For example, while domestic violence against women is the most commonly encountered form of gendered violence in all conflict situations, emergency programming cannot address it.

Women are not only victims of conflicts, but they are also active agents in coping with the atrocities. Local women’s groups and other civil society actors actively responding to the problems on the ground often struggle with little funds and are overwhelmed by the scope and scale of the problems they encounter. Most often these women themselves are victims of violence and are trying to re-build their lives and extend help to others in dire need. Supporting local and collective initiatives through innovative funding modalities and development programmes can contribute towards a long-term preventive approach. In identifying strategic alliances among women and men for building peace the concept of multiple masculinities provides an opportunity because subordinated men also have a stake in ending gender based violence and in establishing an egalitarian and democratic society.

Budgets that get distorted during conflict to finance the military and security sectors, are rarely revised to ensure that sufficient resources are allocated for the justice sector. In this respect, gender budgeting, which has emerged as an effective but under-utilized tool, should be explored to guide the allocation of national, bilateral and multilateral resources.

Ending impunity and ensuring that crimes against women are given equal and adequate attention in criminal proceedings and the adoption of reparation programmes are essential. Stability without human security and justice simply does not work.

Last but not least, the struggle to combat violence must go beyond a humanitarian and welfare approach which perceives women as victims who need to be protected. While all civilians need to be protected during conflict, it must be borne in mind that women do not experience violence because they are vulnerable weak beings, but because of a patriarchal gender order that privileges male control over women in public and private life and violence is used as a tool to sustain this power asymmetry. Understood as such, ending violence against women requires a new vision of human rights, development and security that expands freedoms and disempowers abusive power.

The reality on the ground with respect to good practices in responding to violence against women in conflict and post-conflict situations is generally not too encouraging. While there are no easy prescriptions, conflict-resolution and peace-building strategies need to be guided by a careful assessment of the dynamics of each conflict situation using a gender perspective with the experiences of women as its central category. Comparative gender analysis of conflict and post-conflict situations can also reveal insight into what works and what does not. Establishing a strong linkage between research, advocacy and policy is essential.

In the quest for gender-just peace designing peace and re-construction programmes in the post-conflict phase should be guided by an analysis of four factors in particular: the nature of the gender order prior to, during and/or after the conflict; specific causes and nature of the conflict; the prevailing international order – the extent to which there is a supportive international civil society and committed diplomacy with respect to gender and human rights issues: the position of oppositional interests in the post-conflict period.

In the final analysis, ending violence against women and therefore achieving gender-just peace requires ending patriarchy and militarist-nationalist agendas. This no doubt is a long term goal, but in the short and medium term what is achievable is rupturing and transforming patriarchal formations, values and practices. Disempowering patriarchy and empowering women – i.e. engaging with the feminist agenda – must be guiding principle for all peace initiatives. It is within this context that the rationale of integrating women in the peace process makes sense. The existing universal human rights regime provides the legitimacy and the mechanisms for making claims in this regard. States need to be held accountable for their international commitments.

Towards this end, the Council of Europe draft treaty on violence against women is another promising initiative. While there are some controversies among member states as to the scope of the treaty, when adopted it will be the only binding instrument addressing violence against women specifically, the implication of which will certainly be relevant for all stakeholders well beyond the European region. Therefore, anything less than a comprehensive document covering all manifestations of violence in public and private spheres of life, in peace and in war will be a lost opportunity.

The article was published in 2010. It is republished here as part of 50.50's series of articles during 16 Days: activism against gender violence


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