Only sexual violence in armed conflict?

Since its securitisation, sexual violence has overshadowed the bulk of other gendered harms that arise in conflict, including exploitation (McKay, 1998), trafficking (Aradau, 2008), displacement (Krause, 2015), domestic violence (Stark and Ager, 2011), and economic and political insecurities (Chenoy, 2005). In no small part due to the heightened and explicit attention on CRSV, sexual violence has come to be understood as the sole “gender” issue in armed conflict. Ironically, rather than extending the application of a gender lens to issues of international security, the policy agenda has resulted in a practice whereby those conflicts from which a higher number of reports of CRSV emerge are considered “more gendered” and requiring a gender-sensitive response, while those conflicts with fewer reports of CRSV are assumed not to have a gender dimension (Kreft, 2017; Campbell, 2018).

As such, “gender” has come to be synonymous with CRSV in international policy. All other forms of sexual and gender-based violence are relegated, by default, to the “non-political”. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it creates a de facto hierarchy of gender-based atrocities whereby CRSV, and specifically “genocidal rape”, is seen as the most egregious harm (Meger, 2016), marginalising other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Research has found that the vast majority of cases of sexual violence perpetrated during war are not done by armed groups for strategic purposes, but by civilians and intimate partners of the victims (Peterman et al., 2011; Stark and Ager, 2011). Even in the context of the “worst place in the world to be a woman” — the Democratic Republic of Congo — where estimates of the strategic use of CRSV by armed groups, numbers in the tens of thousands, the majority of women reporting sexual violence experienced it at the hands of their partners (Peterman et al., 2011). Yet, as feminists have long argued, just because violence takes place in the home, it does not mean that it is not political. That wartime scenarios heighten women’s vulnerability to intimate partner and other forms of GBV requires a systematic investigation into how war and militarism affect preexisting patriarchal relations and amplify the power disparities between the sexes (Enloe, 2000; Cockburn, 2004; Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013), begetting violence against women.

This brings us to the second problem with the hierarchy of gendered atrocities: it undermines efforts to address the numerous forms of gender-specific human rights violations that occur during times of militarisation, militarism, and conflict. The focus on CRSV risks perpetuating the invisibility of violence against women in peacetime and within national borders (Kreft, 2017). The presumption in international law and policy is that sexual violence is anomalous to an otherwise functioning socio-political system and, in its association with war, it is a unique phenomenon (Haskell, 2009). As such, sexual violence is portrayed as just a gender problem, separate from the political, social, economic, and legal causes of war, violence, and insecurity, more generally, a view which obscures the underlying political, social, cultural, legal, and economic systems through which sexual violence is made meaningful and constructed as a part of normal social relations during so-called times of “peace” (Ayiera, 2010).

The exceptionalisation of CRSV “as a weapon of war” further assumes that those instances of violence where the relationship between victim and perpetrator is not defined as hostile as per the conditions of the armed conflict are outside of the purview of “security”. Where the perpetrators were “friendly” forces, peacekeepers or civilians, it is assumed that because the perpetrators are not strategically using sexual violence towards wartime objectives, or because the victims are not women, that either gender is not a relevant analytic category, or war isn’t. Because gender is taken as a single, statistical variable (that is, a stand-in for “sex” in quantitative studies of CRSV), attempts to quantify CRSV overlook multiple forms of sexual violence, including: sexual violence by men against men (Zalewski et al., 2018); sexual violence perpetrated by women (Sjoberg, 2016); violence perpetrated against trans- and non-binary people (Shepherd and Sjoberg, 2012; Hagen, 2019; Daigle et al., this volume); violence perpetrated by armed troops after conflict (Medie, 2015; Davies and True, 2017); violence perpetrated by intimate partners and noncombatants (Guruge et al., 2017; Catani et al.. 2008; Leatherman, 2007); and sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated by the UN’s own troops (Simic, 2009; Kirby, 2008; Westendorf 2020).

Thus, while CRSV has been strategically framed as a “weapon of war” with the goal of attracting attention and response of powerful security actors (Crawford, 2017; Hirschauer,

2014), the effect of securitising CRSV has been to separate this form of gender-based violence from other forms of conflict-related GBV and from peacetime GBV, divorcing our understanding of this violence from its patriarchal determinants. The hard lines delineated between instances of sexual violence considered threatening to international peace and security and more banal, or everyday, variety abuses also preludes the arbitrariness of distinctions between conflict-related and non-conflict-related sexual violence. In the next section, I turn back to feminist analyses of sexual violence in so-called times of “peace” in order to make the case that sexual violence in all conditions is an act of political violence and as such constitutes a significant threat to women’s peace and security.

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