Australia and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sexual and other forms of gender-based violence are an endemic problem of conflict-affected societies around the world. Because many of the civil wars of the last two decades have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, this region has been the focus of a good deal of international attention and efforts to address conflict-related violence. In eastern, central, and southern Africa, studies have demonstrated the links between sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and the overall health, development, and standards of human rights of a society. Since 2000, the international community, under the guidance of the United Nations (UN) and Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, has taken increased interest in the unique ways in which women experience war and conflict – in particular, sexual and gender-based violence. Resolution 1325 and subsequent resolutions under the Women, Peace and Security agenda (1820, 1888, 1889, 1960) urges all states and relevant actors to incorporate gender perspectives in peace and security efforts and for parties to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence in times of conflict.

For instance, during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, as many as 500,000 women experienced brutal forms of sexual violence perpetrated by members of the Interahamwe militia, by civilians, and by the Rwandan armed forces. In Sierra Leone, more than 250,000 women were raped during the 10-year civil war, primarily by the Revolutionary United Front and with ‘extreme brutality.’ Thousands more women have also been raped or sexually assaulted in the conflicts of Sudan, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia, and Somalia, as well. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, more than 1,100 women are raped every single day.

Rates of sexual violence are strongly affected by the social and political climate of the country. Studies show that the systematic social marginalisation of women and their subordinate status in society is a major contributor to sexual violence. In Congo and Rwanda, women lack access to and control over common economic resources, such as land, personal property, wages, and credit. This both reflects and reinforces gender stereotypes that support male superiority and entitlement and also tolerate and justify violence committed against women. Sexual violence in Congo and Rwanda is a learned behaviour, and social norms that support and reflect male superiority are also at the root of sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls. To some extent, sexual violence can also be attributed to poor living conditions and the lack of economic and social opportunities available in those countries. In the Congo, many soldiers interviewed by Eriksson Baaz and Stern identified poverty as a reason for their use of sexual violence, because it prevented them from obtaining consensual sexual relations. Ideas of masculinity in sub-Saharan Africa place an expectation on men to be both successful and sexually virile. When men fail to meet these expectations of masculinity, they may resort to SGBV as a forceful means for reasserting their manhood.

At the same time, when used by armed groups, sexual violence is a powerful instrument in Africa because of gender stereotypes that are exploited when rape is used. “Femininity” is associated with traits of passivity, life giving, and the need for protection. Women are seen to be the core of the community, and therefore an attack against a woman represents an attack against her entire community. Such attacks demonstrate the inability of men of the victimized group to fulfil their roles as “protectors” and fundamentally undermine social cohesion. In conflict, rape is an attractive weapon because of its effectiveness in destroying the whole community.

Australia has played a quiet, but influential role in international efforts to combat conflict-related sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) in recent years. Australia is a strong supporter of UN Women and the Human Rights Council, a member of the Group of Friends on Women, Peace and Security as well as the Group of Friends of Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. In 2010, AusAID funded the development of a best practices toolkit, Addressing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence – An Analytical Inventory of Peacekeeping Practice and in September of 2012, Australia participated in a high-level panel meeting on sexual violence in armed conflict at the UN in New York. Australia’s aid funding towards increasing gender equality in developing countries in 2011-2012 alone was over $2 billion. But less than 5 per cent of this funding was directed toward gender equality objectives in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Since 2011, Australia has shifted its foreign aid focus more toward Africa. In 2008, only 3% of Australia’s foreign aid was directed at African countries and development objectives. Since 2011, Australia has committed to increasing the share of foreign aid going to the least developed countries to 0.15% of gross national income, which in 2012 would equal $1.16 billion. Australia has also increased its humanitarian assistance in Africa and into the future intends to make this support more strategically targeted toward long-term recovery efforts in priority countries affected by country, and peace building efforts in post-conflict countries. The Australian government has committed $1 million until 2015 to Partners for Prevention, a joint UN program between the UNDP, UN Women, UNFPA, and UN Volunteers aimed at informing better programming and policy advocacy to tackle violence against women.

With Australia’s two year seat on the UN Security Council and its history of middle power diplomacy (that is, taking a cooperative rather than combative approach to foreign relations and seeing its role as a ‘good international citizen’ as a core element of Australian national interest), it is well poised to be a voice and advocate for women, peace and security around the world and we should expect Australia to take a bigger international role in this regard. But rather than continue the disconcerting trend of isolating conflict-related sexual violence from the continuum of violence experienced by women during times of war and during times of peace, Australia’s approach to the women, peace and security agenda must be grounded in the commitments expressed in its National Action Plan that recognises that “violence and the inequalities that women face in crises do not exist in a vacuum but are the direct results and reflections of the violence, discrimination and marginalisation that women face in times of relative peace.”

Sara Meger

University of Melbourne