When we focus on rape, what do we miss?

It’s been 20 years since the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Despite this, it doesn’t seem like the Western mainstream media have figured out how to represent more than a narrow definition of the types of violence women experience during conflict. Too often the focus is only on rape and other forms of sexualized violence.

The term “violence against women” means any act of gender-based violence (GBV) that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women 1993, Article 1

Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo receive dubious distinctions such as being called the “rape capital of the world,” and Somalia, DRC, and Sudan/South Sudan ranked as three of the top five “most dangerous countries for women.” In each of these countries, media outlets and aid agencies often portray rape as the greatest threat women and girls face.

The broader picture of sexualized violence

Highlighting rape may capture headlines, but coverage focused solely on it can encourage us to see rape as distinct from other forms of violence. This is potentially problematic in that it obscures the broader picture of the brutality that women face in a conflict and post-conflict country. While historically under-reported, sexualized violence still must be imagined as part of a spectrum of acts (including economic and structural violence) committed against women for a host of reasons.

As a Swedish study called “The Complexity of Violence” by scholars Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern argues of violence in DRC, the often exclusive focus on sexualized violence is problematic in four ways: It is portrayed as synonymous with GBV, which erroneously suggests that other forms of violence are not gendered; it hinders our understanding of how other forms of violence relate to sexualized violence; it can feed into the commercialization of rape; it can often make male survivors invisible, which feeds into cycles of violence. Eriksson Baaz explains the “commercialization of rape” as referring “both to the ways in which engaging in the rape issue has become a lucrative source of attention and resources for a range of external actors, from donors, international NGOs, politicians, journalists, to researchers like ourselves.”

In addition to sexualized violence, women in conflict and post-conflict settings experience many forms of gender-based violence—including increased rates of domestic abuse, state violence and militarism, infanticide, femicide, forced labor, forced marriages, and harmful traditional practices such as inheritance laws that favor men. Violence can also manifest economically, such as when women are disproportionately responsible for the sick, wounded, and homeless in conflict zones. These forms of violence do not occur in isolation; instead, they stem from unequal gender power relations that often proceed from and are exacerbated by a conflict—they can be seen as structural in nature.

The structural nature of violence against women

In South Sudan, where violence has recently taken the form of cattle raiding, looking at the full spectrum of SGBV (sexualized and gender-based violence) can help elucidate the structural nature of violence against women. Cattle raids are usually carried out by men, and Oxfam has found that the reasons for these cattle raids are inextricably linked to a high bride price. A system that requires payment for women in marriage is evidence of:

  1. a patriarchal system in which fathers decide who their daughters marry and men feel ownership over their wives since they paid for them,
  2. economic pressures that encourage families to marry their daughters off as a form of income, and
  3. the way masculinity is defined as “brave” and married.

As South Sudanese women in Lakes State told Oxfam researchers, these patriarchal structures severely limit their autonomy:

The local chiefs help sometimes. For instance, if there is hunger in the family and the husband does not want to give the wife a lactating cow or sell a cow to provide for the family, the chief may persuade or force the husband to sell. In other cases you are suffering. If you want to leave, it is very difficult. The man will say I paid so and so many cows for you. The chief will not intervene to support you.

Constraints on women’s autonomy

Constraints on women’s autonomy perpetuate the negative impact of conflict. For example, women may not feel the impact of patriarchal inheritance laws during peacetime, but widows certainly do if they cannot control family assets after their husbands die in battle. This is especially true in countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, DRC, and Somalia where legal and cultural barriers to women’s rights predated the conflicts. Even when women do have control over some resources, they experience violence when subjected to arbitrary taxation and exploitation.

The structural violence associated with gender inequality may also expose women to physical violence. Such is the case in South Kivu province, DRC, where young women have reported joining armed movements in order to avoid forced marriages. Exposing one’s self to armed violence on the battlefield may seem irrational until you consider that women in such forced marriages often experience domestic violence.

A violation of human rights

Violence against women should be seen as a violation of human rights, a barrier to women’s active citizenship, and hence a fundamental constraint to both long-lasting sustainable peace and alleviation of poverty. Solely focusing on rape can be counterproductive to understanding these complexities.

Originally published by Women Under Siege.

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