Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Ending sexual violence in conflict means looking beyond the ‘warzone’

Effective action will mean challenging assumptions about the location of conflict, and paying closer attention to the socio-economic and legal contexts in which survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence navigate their lives.

With the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict taking place this week, much needed attention will be firmly focused on how to put an end to this pervasive problem.  The widespread use of sexual violence has been reported in Liberia, Northern Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, Iraq, Libya and Syria and Rwanda - where in the 100 days of the Rwandan genocide, an estimated 500,000 women were raped.

Effective global action on sexual violence will need politicians, civil society and local communities to be prepared to challenge a number of commonly-held assumptions about where and why sexual violence takes place beyond the misleading focus on the false binary of the ‘victim’ and the ‘perpetrator’.

The majority of victims of sexual violence are women and the perpetrators mostly men.  Yet a newly published IDS Rapid Response Briefing, Addressing sexual violence in and beyond the ‘warzone’, highlights a growing body of research that shows that sexual violence is experienced by both men and women.  Almost 24 per cent of men in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo reported sexual violence at least once in their lifetime, including being forced to watch their female family relatives being raped, or being raped themselves. 

As we have also seen recently, with the abduction of the group of school-girls by the militant Islamic group Boko Haram in Nigeria, sexual violence is not only perpetrated by states and militias but also occurs at the hands of militant factions. 

In the build-up to the summit there has been a significant focus on the use of sexual violence as a ‘weapon of war’ within conflicts.  Yet, high levels of conflict-related sexual violence take place outside of internationally recognised conflict zones, particularly within Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps or in urban areas where the majority of civilians seeking refuge from conflict flee.  One in five female refugees or IDPs living in camps or urban areas worldwide has experienced sexual violence while displaced.  High poverty levels, an absence of security and pernicious, frequently gendered, power dynamics mean that migrants and refugees in these settings are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence.  These intersecting problems are further exacerbated by the fact that while international humanitarian law applies to areas of conflict (like refugee camps), it does not apply outside of armed conflict-zones (like IDP camps and urban areas to which conflict-migrants have fled).   

It is often the socio-cultural norms underpinning entrenched gender inequalities that are the hardest to shift and that pose the greatest obstacle to tackling sexual violence.  But they must shift if any real traction in is to be achieved, and as our research into collective action to tackle sexual and gender based violence in Kenya has shown any initiatives must involve men.  It is frequently the case that the very areas that civilians seek refuge from conflict are those same areas where gender inequalities continue to be reinforced through practices such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation, and where levels of domestic violence are extremely high. 

Recent IDS research in South Sudan shows how men, seeking to reassert their authority after the civil war, have imposed rules that have reduced women’s mobility and prevented them for carrying out their usual responsibilities such as collecting wood and water. As a result women have faced the dual risks of being punished by men in the community for not completing their duties, and of being beaten by their spouses for breaking these rules. 

The participants at the forthcoming summit have an essential role to play in tackling these challenges. The first step is in helping the international community to develop a more nuanced approach that looks beyond the ‘warzone’ to achieve real and urgently-needed action on sexual violence irrespective of how, where and by whom it is perpetrated.

By: Hannah Corbett, Public Affairs and Policy Officer, IDS