Beyond sexualised violence: Making the links across the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda

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The UK government is hosting a Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London this coming week. The event brings together civil society organisations, world leaders, national policymakers and academics ‘with a view to creating irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict and practical action that impacts those on the ground’. This is the most recent in a series of moves under the auspices of the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), launched in 2012 by Foreign Secretary William Hague.

The expenditure of significant political capital by the UK on the issue of conflict-related sexualised violence (CRSV) has had material effects on the policy frameworks that govern this issue at the international level. In June 2013, we saw the adoption of a further UN Security Council Resolution on the topic of CRSV (UNSCR 2106), which was received by many  (myself included) as a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, the prevalence of conflict-related sexualised violence is of course a crucial area of concern in the governance of peace and security. On the other hand, the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda at the United Nations, the framework through which peace and security governance attends to the differential effects of conflict on men and women, is much broader in scope than the narrow focus on CRSV implies.

To deal with the positive first: the move to raise the international profile of conflict-related sexualised violence began in 2009/10 with the creation of position of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict and the unification of a range of UN entities under the umbrella organisation UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict. The increased visibility of this issue has had a number of positive effects, including the cross-cutting inclusion of language related to CRSV in UN SC ‘core business’ resolutions (that is, resolutions that relate to matters other than the thematic priority of ‘Women, Peace and Security’, which is evidence of the issue’s broader traction at the Council).

There are complexities that are erased, however, through many of the common representational practices related to this issue. There is a tendency to lapse into women-as-victim frames to represent conflict-related sexualised violence, which is a problem, and it is by no means clear that, even though there is an organised effort to include men and boys in conversations about CRSV, serious thought has been given as to how that works. With regard to the latter, there has been concern expressed among practitioners and service providers about the political economy of this debate: a long-overdue need to recognise the sexualised victimisation of men and boys in conflict and post-conflict situations has been translated in uneven and often thoughtless distribution of funds for service provision in post-conflict environments. The response has often been to try to stake the claim that while, yes, men and boys suffer CRSV in unrecognised numbers, women and girls suffer disproportionately.

This formulation seems problematic as a platform for action, though clearly it may be empirically verifiable in particular contexts. It is problematic is because it invites support through competitive logics (who is suffering more?) rather than focusing on the prevention, punishment, and sensitive social care in the aftermath of, conflict-related sexualised violence. Further, the argument founders wherever it is suggested, as in Johnson et al.’s 2010 study of North and South Kivu provinces and Ituri district in the Democratic Republic of Congo, that actually rates of sexualised violence against men/boys and women/girls were roughly even (74% of female respondents reported experiencing conflict-related sexualised violence versus 65% of male respondents). This case can then be held up to counter the claim about the disproportionate victimisation of women, and, while we know we cannot extrapolate in any meaningful way from a single case, by then the debate has moved on and the damage is done.

When the focus is on service provision, then we need to recognise not who suffers more but how men/boys suffer differently from women/girls and ensure that both sets of needs are met in the specific local context. Both men and women might be marginalised and even forced to leave their communities as a result of the stigma attached to conflict-related sexualised violence, but that might be different depending on the context. Men/boys don’t need pregnancy tests or prenatal care; women/girls don’t need to know about how to care for wounds to penis or testes. The care needs of both groups are different and should be assessed on the ground, in context, to ensure that the needs of the specific community are addressed, and in a sensitive fashion.

If the focus is truly on prevention then the impetus has to be to change cultures of gendered behaviour. While this might seem like a lofty goal, in the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda it has a very practical operational manifestation in the increased meaningful participation of women in all forms of peace and security governance, from peacekeeping to peacemaking to peacebuilding and security sector reform. Creating the office of a Special Representative of the Secretary General on Women’s Participation in Peacebuilding is an important and necessary action.

The visibility of conflict-related sexualised violence is linked in no small part to the existence of the SRSG-SVC and the political purchase that gives the CRSV agenda at the UN; if women’s participation in peacebuilding had similar institutional backing, this would bring about a significant cultural change. From Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Somalia and elsewhere, there is growing evidence that having women engaged in peacebuilding in meaningful, long-term and inclusive ways makes a material difference to the type of peace being built, and the kind of society that emerges from the post-conflict period. The ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda has always been holistic: the civil society organisations that fostered the foundational resolution (UNSCR 1325) and have remained engaged with critiquing, challenging and extending the agenda recognise the agency and potential of women, rather than seeing them solely as victims of violence. I believe that the diplomats, ministers, politicians, practitioners, public figures, and associated experts gathered in London this week can do the same.

Laura J. Shepherd, UNSW Australia