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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Documenting Conflict-Related Sexual Violence: A Call for Institutional Introspection

By Kirthi Jayakumar

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Bangura, speaks to members of the Police Advistory Committee in Mogadishu, Somalia, while on a visit to the country on April 2, 2013. Source: AU UN IST PHOTO / TOBIN JONES.

Until over two decades ago, sexual violence in armed conflict was considered a byproduct of war. Little research went into understanding the extent of its prevalence, much less into acknowledging its systemic nature across conflict zones. Following the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 and the Yugoslav wars, the world learned of how sexual violence was carried out in a systemic, planned fashion to attack whole communities at a time. Even as jurisprudence grew with the emergence of legal interpretations in, for example, the Akayesu case before the ICTR, precious little translated to action on ground.

Survivors of conflict-related sexual violence continue to wait for justice across the world. For reasons ranging from the lack of amnesty to the lack of judicial mechanisms, such narratives continue to remain unaddressed. Sexual violence exists across a peacetime-wartime continuum. This means that factors within the personal/private and the public domains operate as enablers for some sexual violence: whether that is domestic violence within the home or sexual violence in war.

Socio-cultural dynamics in peacetime set the foundation for the rampancy of sexual violence in conflict. This culminates in the underreporting of cases, because of the fear of social stigma and discrimination. The lack of political will and robust logistical mechanisms make it difficult to monitor the prevalence of sexual violence in a conflict zone: the ongoing insecurity and denial of access to survivors by authorities are particularly major obstacles. Perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence seldom face the consequences of their actions because of a combination of factors – the complete absence of judicial and security sector systems to prosecute and penalize them, gaps in the criminal justice mechanism in place, and even the lack of political will.

This lack of political will was sought to be addressed by the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda, which still needs to see the light of day in terms of implementation. On the one hand, the agenda has been operationalized as a means to justify militarized interventions – effectively “genderwashing imperialist interventions.” “Progressive Western states” have adopted outward-facing National Action Plans that center interventionist strategies in conflict and post-conflict regions, especially in the Asian and African regions. To this end, it isn’t difficult to see that the WPS Agenda is another catalyst in the imperialist nation’s cache of interventionist politics: reaffirming the colonial structures the world should have long retired.

Patriarchal, colonial, racist, casteist, and imperialist structures are firmly entrenched in the ways we do post-conflict justice, policy, and peacebuilding. Several instances of mass conflict-related sexual violence continue to be denied, ignored, side-lined, and erased. The rush to deliver amnesty to perpetrators sends a firm message to survivors that their stories do not matter, that justice for them is immaterial to the idea of “peace.” The absence of an investigative mechanism and judicial apparatus to prosecute conflict-related sexual violence with due care for a survivor only underlines the extent of systemic apathy to a survivor’s needs. The erasure of these truths in history suggests that conflict-related sexual violence can continue with impunity of all kinds: social, penal, and political.

To dismantle this structural violence, truth telling is vital. One step in this direction is documenting sexual violence. To keep these truths alive in the accessible collective memory is to memorialize the truth, because all truth is actionable. To tell these stories beyond merely numbers, is to establish a firm commitment to actioning the documentation of major human rights violations that must not be forgotten. As Jane Mukunizwa, a staff member at the City of Joy in the DR Congo mentioned to Christina Lamb, who carries this in her book Our Bodies Their Battlefield:

“I want you to tell people what you have seen. Some of our politicians say we don’t have sexual violence but it’s not true, there are still now girls being raped every day, girls from all different areas, and all have the same story. Please be our voice because we can’t reach your country. When I hear our government saying there is no sexual violence here, it’s like they are stamping their foot on a wound. It’s not just rape, it’s what it leaves behind.”

Countries world over are challenged by the prevalence of sexual violence: where conflict rages, the enabling environment for such violence is firmly entrenched. Erasure and the absence of wholesome justice for all survivors of conflict-related sexual violence are normalized. State complicity ranges from the lack of political will to prosecute or enact legislation altogether, to actively perpetrating such crimes. Against this backdrop, the WPS Agenda should serve as a true instrument of Feminist Foreign Policy: to do so, it must go to the root of the problem: the systemic and structural violence that has been normalized. Institutional introspection is vital: but acting on the outcomes of that introspection, even more so.

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