• The Gender Security Project

Queering Armed Conflict: A Case for the Examination of Queer Experiences of Sexual Violence in War

By Kirthi Jayakumar

Image source: Pixabay

The year 2020 marks several milestones, one of which is the 20th year since the adoption of Resolution 1325 by the United Nations Security Council. This formally marked the inception of the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda at the United Nations. The epoch-making resolution opened up the conversation around sexual violence in conflict and emphasized on the responsibility of states to respond to the impunity through national action plans. It also made the case for the inclusion of women at the peace table in the post-conflict transition stage. In these twenty years, however, aside from a rise in the number of resolutions pursuing, reiterating, and partially expanding the agenda, precious little has been achieved, even as it is equally fair to acknowledge that what has been achieved is no less valuable.

Resolution 1325 addressed patriarchy in peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding for the first time (Anderlini 2007). It paved the way for the re-gendering of gender, where women become more modern and diverse as women (Pratt, 2013; Eisenstein, 2007). However, for all the doors it did open, the resolution prioritized strategic essentialism over inclusive feminist language in its text (Aroussi, 2017), and it is easy to understand why: prior to its adoption, the common tendency was to understand women as abstract victims in conflict (Somerville and Aroussi, 2013), and sexual violence was completely unacknowledged (Lippman, 2000; Campanaro, 2001). The conscious effort to essentialize gender identities was invested purely to draw boundaries and to mould conflict dynamics entirely based on other identity attributes (Yuval-Davis and Anthias, 1989).

This decision to pursue an essentialist strategy came at a cost. It failed to acknowledge personal positions, conditions, contexts, and their interactions with gender, which go on to creating unique gender experiences. Instead of arguing for gender equality or women’s rights, 1325 asked for the recognition of women as valuable actors in peace and security (Aroussi 2017), leading to the check-box syndrome where representation is reduced to being gender-based alone. It also effectively paved the way for the re-gendering of gender, where women become more modern and diverse as women (Pratt, 2013; Eisenstein, 2007).

One of the major limitations of the resolution is that it conflated “women” with “gender,” which is the core focus of this paper. By so doing, the resolution reaffirmed the binarization of gender in itself, and led to a mistaken affirmation that the gendered impact of armed conflict, the deployment of a gender lens in assessing and examining conflict, and the gender sensitive approach to understanding armed conflict all meant focusing on women alone. Within this, the idea of the “woman” was also largely essentialized – given that the idea was built upon the “assumption that women have innate qualities linked to their sex role” (Pratt, 2013: 776). This conflation of sex and gender is problematic and prevents the framing and implementation of suitable responses to gender specific challenges in armed conflict (Hagen, 2016). What follows is the heteronormative assumption that every “body” experiencing conflict is cisgender – male or female – and nothing more, nothing less. Those that have non-heteronormative sexual orientations and gender identities are “not served by WPS projects that rely on a woman/man divide” (Hagen, 2016). This challenge coupled with the limited implementation of the resolution on ground limits the scope of the prevailing understanding of armed conflict and its gendered impacts.

Why queer armed conflict?

Queer theory is not just confined to sexualities or sexual rights, but also questions established social, economic, and political power relations – and critically interrogates notions of security (Thiel, 2019). It is one of the most valuable tools in deconstructing the conflation of “gender” and “women” in many arenas, including in our understanding of armed conflict. Queer theory challenges several assumptions about world politics, international relations, and related dynamics, when applied to international relations and politics (Thiel, 2019). It aims to deconstruct established simplistic binaries – such as insecurity/security or war/peace – and recognises the inherent instability of political and social orders, and embraces the fluid, performative and ambiguous aspects of world politics instead (Thiel, 2019). That armed conflict of both internal and international character involves both politics and international relations in one way or another suggests that the framework applicable for queering international relations can also be deployed in queering armed conflict and post-conflict approaches.

Queer theory fundamentally criticizes approaches to politics and society that “assume natural and moral hierarchies” (Thiel, 2019). It challenges dominant hierarchies and values and disrupts the construction of binaries as fixed categories (Lauretis, 1991), and helps note the invisibility of certain bodies in international politics through the binary and heteronormative hierarchies of gender and sexuality (Filho, 2015). A queer understanding of armed conflict would help transcend the limited framework that has been extended to evaluating conflict through a gender lens. In comprehending the impact of armed conflict, this limited application of a gender lens has resulted in the exclusion of non-binary and queer persons in the pursuit of aid during conflict, and justice and peace in the aftermath.

Resolution 1325 treats women as either victims or as part of the peace process because of their “innate qualities” that are linked to their ascribed sex as women – namely, of being peaceful and nurturing, thereby making them better equipped for peacekeeping (Pratt, 2013; Whitworth 2004: 126). By falling back into stereotypical constructions, there is a clear demarcation of who can be a “woman,” to be included within this resolution. Resolution 1325 excludes of those who do not conform to the image of a cis-het woman by reconfirming limiting roles as a product of one’s sex identity (“women being nurturers, mothers, and therefore, peaceful”). This automatically means that trans women, queer women, and non-heterosexual women are excluded from the scope of the resolution. The rigid binarization automatically excludes non-cis het male identities aside from those mentioned above.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are two major factors that shape one’s experience of armed conflict. Within the scope of negative peace in the absence of overt violence, structural violence has enabled the constant and unrelenting oppression of those identifying outside the heteronormative and binary framework. From their homes to their societies, religion and culture are weaponized against their rights and interests, while legal, and socio-political systems continue to aggressively discriminate against them (Hagen, 2016: 2). This long-standing structural violence in the form of socio-political neglect of queer and non-cis-het gender identities has informed the gender lens deployed in the WPS agenda (Hagen, 2016).

This article makes the case for pursuing a feminist endeavour, as Hagen (2016) calls it, to unpack the normative blueprint of binaries in this context by “rejecting heteronormative assumptions around sexual binaries and behaviours.” The “focus on lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women destabilizes the myth of a heterosexual-cisgender Woman in Conflict (either victim of violence or agent of change)” (Hagen, 2016: 1).

Employing queer theory

This prevailing state of affairs inherently makes a pressing case for queering the WPS agenda after queering an understanding of armed conflict. Ní Aoláin (2009) argued in favour of the phrase “gendered harms” to refer to lived experiences of political violence and conflict-related violence of a gender-specific nature and seeks to distinguish it from legal categories of crimes, offences, and human rights violation. Rape and sexual violence are the most notable kinds of gender harms during armed conflict, and the prosecution of sexual violence in transitional justice mechanisms have included a dedicated focus on these kinds of crimes (Askin 1997, Askin 2003, Chinkin 1994, Copelon 1994, Gardam 1997). However, in all these instances, too, there is a common tendency to read “gender” as “women.” In more recent years, as Sivakumaran (2007) highlighted, there has been a focus on the sexual victimization of men in conflict settings as well. However, non-binary gender identities and non-heterosexual individuals have been excluded from this focus entirely.

Employing a queer lens to expand the scope of the WPS agenda would specifically speak to these challenges.

First, a queer lens can help expand the understanding of the nature of sexual violence that sexual and gender minorities experience discrimination during and after humanitarian emergencies (Rumbauch and Knight, 2014). Violence against queer persons is more or less similar to the kind of targeted violence that is acknowledged under the WPS architecture as affecting women (Hagen, 2016). Among women, lesbians and trans women are especially at risk because of the prevailing gender inequality and the unequal power dynamics within their families and society at large (Human Rights Council, 2011). Given that it is a form of structural violence (Cohn, 2013), it informs and enables violence of a homophobic and transphobic nature in ways that are similar “to the now well-documented systemic use of rape as a weapon of war in some conflict-related environments” (Hagen, 2016). As a corollary, this would involve recognizing the unique ways in which structural and overt violence act in combination to affect queer people: such as conduct that makes “communities complicit in the physical and emotional persecution against homosexuals and other LGBTI individuals who fail to conform to traditional gender stereotypes” (Bouvier 2016, 14).

Second, a queer lens would help distinguish between sexual and sexualized violence and acknowledge the prevalence of both. Sexual violence refers to forced and unwanted sexual activity without the consent of a person (NSVRC 2010). Sexualised violence refers to violence targeting one’s sex, sexual orientation, and/or sexuality (VSAC n.d.). By widening the definition of sexual violence to include sexualized violence, this paper acknowledges all forms of violence that target an individual’s gender identity or sexual orientation.

Third, it would facilitate a wholesome understanding of gender justice. Rape and sexual violence are the most notable kinds of gender harms, and the prosecution of sexual violence in transitional justice mechanisms have included a dedicated focus on these kinds of crimes (Askin 1997, Askin 2003, Chinkin 1994, Copelon 1994, Gardam 1997). Transitional justice mechanisms have tended to ignore the true meaning of gender by “constructing and reinforcing key gendered binaries” (O’Rourke 2011). A queer lens can help deconstruct these limiting binaries. Extant transitional justice mechanisms implement and may have pushed for legal protections for women on the basis of gender, but not for women/girls who are targeted because of their sexual orientation” (Moore and Barner 2017: 34).

References to sexual orientation are not included in legal texts addressing human rights and humanitarian law (Haley-Nelson 2005). Even as pathbreaking decisions by the ICTR and ICTY opened up avenues to include rape and sexual assault within the scope of war crimes and crimes against humanity, these forums also recognized sexual violence against men as torture (Moore and Barner 2017), thus creating a reality where violence against women is seen as “sexual” and where violence against men and people of other gender identities is seen in non-sexual terms (Petchesky 2005). Sexual violence against men, queer, and transgender people takes place more regularly than is reported (Menon 2013. However, none of the existing judicial regimes vested with the duty to prosecute crimes in a post-conflict reality have acknowledged these victims.

Finally, it would also enable the framing and implementation of wholesome aid that speaks to unique humanitarian needs. During- and post-conflict aid strategies continue speak specifically to the challenges faced by women and exclude those who identify beyond the binary. For example, “Relief programs targeting women only, for example, have been problematic for transgender people and people who do not live in a home with a female who qualifies as head of household, such as gay men” (Rumbauch and Knight, 2014). However, very little has been done to address these needs, and there is an urgent need for a wholesome response.


The Women, Peace, and Security Agenda is undoubtedly invaluable for all that it has successfully enabled world over. There have been many successes, and many creative strategies as a result of its adoption. That peace is not formulaic is a view that is both known and actively endorsed. Within this fluid framework, then, a rigid construction of gender is counterintuitive at best. The global turn toward acknowledging and slowly attempting to understand the spectrum of gender and sexual orientation must inform the future of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. A queer lens is definitely a significant tool in this attempt.


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