P is for Preventing Conflict Sexual Violence…. Or is it?

by Doris Buss

The UK Government is throwing the largest, global party on ending conflict sexual violence in London, and the guest list is impressive with, according to the latest publicity, “113 countries, 70 ministers, and over 950 registered experts” in attendance, not to mention Angelina Jolie and other celebs.

I’ve been thinking about parties and conflict sexual violence. It’s an admittedly odd combination; there is a celebratory feel to the event in London that seems out of step with the subject matter. But, perhaps this is exactly what it is needed; a big, loud, upbeat gathering that insists on change. It’s certainly a novel approach, and if it produces substantive initiatives to generate change to the high rates of conflict sexual violence, then what’s not to like?

But it’s those words – “substantive” and “change” – that are tricky, and this is where the issue of the guest list comes in. Its not just who has been invited (or not – and full disclosure: my name appears to have been overlooked. A simple bureaucratic oversight, no doubt), but also which concepts are in play in the conversations, and which have been omitted (by bureaucratic oversight or otherwise).

Two concepts seem to be strangely absent from the UK’s event on sexual violence: prevention and gender. The London event follows from the UK government’s “Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative”, or PSVI. The P in PSVI seems to have gone missing. From what I have seen, there is very little focus on actual prevention, compounded by the fact that there is also a rather limited approach to sexual violence, and the different forms it takes in relation to armed conflict.

The “Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict”, promoted by the UK government in advance of the London fête (with Burma the 151st country to endorse it), clearly signals that the focus is really on one type of sexual violence: sexual violence used ‘as a weapon of war’; an intentional strategy with a designated purpose to destroy or attack a community.

What is wrong with a focus only on this form of conflict rape? Doesn’t this topic warrant increased attention, even an international party, to stimulate a much-needed global response? The problem with focusing on just ‘rape as a weapon of war’ is that it is too narrow, overlooking the full extent of gender and sexual violence connected to armed conflict and which carries the danger that partial or ill-advised ‘solutions’ will result. The research on conflict sexual violence suggests there are multiple forms of sexual violence and varied categories of perpetrators and victims, needing a range of responses. ‘Rape as a weapon of war’ refers to one particular form of sexual violence that became a concern of feminists and international policy markers largely in relation to the patterns of sexual violence found in the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia and the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

But, research on more recent conflicts, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, suggest other kinds and patterns of sexual violence that do not necessarily match ‘rape as a weapon of war’, either in terms of orchestrated intentionality, the centrality of rape to forms of violence, or the rigidity of categories ‘perpetrators’ and ‘victims’. For example, while 40 percent of women, and 24 percent of men in the DRC reported sexual violence by militias in conflict zones, 71 percent of Congolese women reported experiencing domestic violence.i Another studyii found that sexual violence wasn’t just the preserve of soldiers and militias in the DRC, civilians, “including supposed sources of moral authority, such as teachers, pastors, priests, catechists, and peacekeepers” were also perpetrators. Finally, a UK-study found that 85% of women experiencing post-conflict sexual violence in Liberia knew the perpetrator.iii

These and other studies point to a complex range of factors that shape the patterns of sexual violence experienced in relation to conflict, and the range of factors that position women and men, girls and boys, as vulnerable to sexual violence. These studies also suggest that the post-conflict period continues to be a dangerous time, where gender norms and relations, as well as the experiences of sexual violence during conflict, continue to powerfully shape women and men’s security.

Yet the focus on ‘rape as a weapon of war’ seems to stand in for all forms of sexual and gender-based violence, and this might explain why ‘solutions’ to conflict rape, to the extent they are mentioned at all, seem to be narrowly focused on criminal prosecutions and increased policing. If prevention is strangely absent from the pre-London discussions I’ve seen, than punishment is over-represented.

But punishment is a poor substitute for prevention, and any suggestion of their correlation must be closely studied. Certainly, ending impunity is important, but the over-attention to legal solutions in country-level interventions is generating its own, problematic dynamic. In the context of the DRC, one studyiv suggests that legal responses to sexual violence, including by internationally funded ‘mobile courts’, are being “misused” to address other social or familial disputes (and provide a means to “’get someone out of the way’”) and are raising concerns that the basic principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’” is being compromised. The point here is not that a focus on criminal prosecution is necessary wrong, but that it is not the silver bullet donors may be hoping for.

Legal, particularly criminal, responses are also likely ill-suited to addressing the complex range of factors impacting on conflict-related sexual violence rates. Chris Dolan,v in a 2010 International Alert study on sexual violence in the DRC identified a number of priority areas for affecting substantive change to the conditions in which sexual and other forms of gendered violence unfold, some of which are on the table at the London event, such as developing a system of collecting and documenting data on sexual violence, and strengthening legal institutions. Importantly, Dolan also emphasizes the importance of addressing the role of changing gender relations, the need to address extreme poverty and the management of resources, and the leadership role of community organizations. Prevention is more than simply prosecution.

The events in London are exciting and the diversity of participants always offers the possibility that something surprising might happen. In my wildest dreams, the London event concludes with both ‘prevention’ and ‘gender equality’ making a surprise guest appearance, to wild applause and mutual recognition. My day dream also includes a small vignette in which a courier arrives with my last minute invitation and a plane ticket to London….

v Chris Dolan, 2010. “’War is Not Yet Over’: Community Perceptions of Sexual Violence and its Underpinnings in Eastern DRC”, International Alert.

This post was written by Doris Buss, an Associate Professor of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University and a member of WPSN-C.

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