The neglected story of war

Women's energies address the social violence of "after". Plus: Erin Simpson and Rosemary Bechler  

Isabel Hilton
12 May 2009

When men have done making war on each other and on each other’s women, many return to home to make war on their own. Aftermath is the neglected story of war: what happens to the guerrilla fighter after he lays down his gun? Or to the former soldiers with stories of horrors never told, men cast adrift from the companionship of shared military experience, alone with unspoken memories?

The evidence is that many come home to act out their nightmares through violence against women. Every society that has suffered prolonged conflict experiences a surge in domestic violence, in sexual abuse of children and in rape after the “peace” returns. The half-life of war is a long tail of fragmented, private conflict, in which the enemy is always defenceless. If the story of war was told from the women’s perspective there might be less appetite for it, but their stories are not tied to the fate of the nation and there is no glory to be celebrated. The victims of this war are unseen and uncounted.

In Guatemala, a country that endured more than forty years of repression and war, violence against women has reached savage proportions against a background of official indifference. The war claimed 200,000 lives with a further 40,000 disappeared, 90 per cent of them, according to the Catholic Church, victims of the country’s armed forces. A peace settlement reached in 1996 committed the government to the defence of women. In fact, it entrenched the characteristics of Guatemalan government that had given rise to conflict in the first place: machismo and racism. Nobody was prosecuted for the tens of thousands of atrocities that had taken place and the democracy that was installed rapidly dissolved into a soup of corruption, gang warfare, paramilitary activity and organised crime, its well-honed security apparatus put to fresh tasks. These did not include the detection, arrest or prosecution of the murderers of any of the several hundred women and girls butchered in Guatemala last year.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Guatemala’s women are reluctant to get involved in politics. "They tell us they don’t want to face the aggression, abuse and ridicule that political activity can bring," said Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu. But without more women in politics, the culture of impunity that surrounds violence against women is unlikely to change.

And more women in politics can transform even a brutalised nation, said Eva Mappy Morgan, the deputy minister of justice minister of Liberia, another nation that has recently emerged from war. The difference, she said, is that in Liberia the election of a woman to the presidency has begun to have a dramatic effect. In Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia has the first democratically elected female president in West Africa. After fifteen years of civil war, Liberia, too, suffers from a high level of violence against women. But unlike Guatemala, Liberia has women in political positions across the government, including in the posts of ministers of agriculture, foreign affairs and culture, several deputy ministers and senior administrative posts throughout the government.

“It means that for the first time we can deal with women’s issues. We have alarmingly high levels of rape,” said Eva Mappy Morgan. “In four counties recently surveyed 61 per cent of the respondents had been raped during the war and just one hospital is still dealing with 100 cases a month.“

In response the government is setting up specialised sexual crimes units to investigate and prosecute cases of rape and violence against women. The government will provide training in investigation and prosecution in dedicated courts and a campaign of public education will aim both to increase confidence in the courts and advertise that impunity for crimes against women is at an end.

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