|Volume 5 Issue 03 | March 2011|
Journeys through Shadows:
BINA D'COSTA explores the role of women in conflict -- as victims and
On the global centenary year of International Women's Day on March 8, while we celebrate women's achievements in various social, political and economic platforms, we must also reflect on the reality that surrounds us. Through the interconnected global/local networks, we are exposed to violence, fear and insecurity either near us or somewhere else in the world almost every day. There are more and more vicious armed conflicts, and the nature of these conflicts has dramatically changed since the early '90s. Civilians are now the deliberate targets of the 'new' and 'dirty' wars. Civilian casualties in conflicts increased from 5% at the turn of the century, to 15% during World War I, to 65% by the end of World War II, to more than 90% in the wars of the 1990s (http://www. unicef.org/graca/ patterns.htm).
In this write-up, I focus on gender-specific experiences, especially of women in conflicts, which are diverse -- as victims, as survivors, as peacemakers and also as perpetrators. Many have written about women's real and symbolic roles in a society where gender like power, also inhabits social relations, including symbols, norms, organisations, institutions and subjective identities. Here, I would like to start by asking a question -- are all women and men, who advocate for women's human rights, feminists?
Women's activist or feminist activist?
Women's experiences of different kinds of political violence can range from armed international or civil war to state-sponsored or state-condoned human-rights violations against political, racial, ethnic, national or religious minorities. The Beijing Women's Conference in 1995 stipulated that such abuse involves:
torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment, summary or arbitrary executions, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, all forms of racism and racial discrimination, foreign occupation and alien domination, xenophobia, poverty, hunger and other denials of economic, social and cultural rights, religious intolerance, terrorism, discrimination against women and lack of the rule of law.
It further stated that:
Women's vulnerabilities also increase with the intensity of conflicts. Domestic violence, displacement, human trafficking/smuggling are three most serious threats for women during and after conflicts. Also, communities could become highly militarised with violence permeating in the deeper levels of a society that does not go away even after a war officially ends.
Some military cultures portray the sexual abuse of women as 'standard operating procedure', and rape of the enemy's women is often strategically used to terrorise the enemy population. Following the Balkan wars of the 1990s, gender specific experiences of women in conflict zones have received significant attention from many scholars and practitioners alike. Ruth Seifert in her work “War and Rape: Analytical Approaches” published in 1993 argues that rapes are culture- and history-specific, and that they should be analysed based on their contexts. She suggests that rather than considering rape as an aggressive manifestation of sexuality, it must be understood as a sexual manifestation of aggression. She identified the following meanings of rape during and after wars:
* As part of the ritualised and regulated 'games' of wars, rape reflects the exercise of sexual and gender-specific violence;
Mass rapes of women have been documented in East Pakistan/Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, Peru, Somalia, Uganda, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Congo and Sudan, for example. While women are also targeted due to religious, ethnic, racial, national and/or other political affiliations, there is a strong gender component behind deliberate acts of violence, as well. Indeed, gender is often used strategically for assaulting group identities, as well as women as women and men as men.
Recent projects on gender, sexual violence and conflicts have also made two explicit contributions to our understanding of the gendered politics of war.
'Real men' and the crisis of masculinity
Women as perpetrators of violence
Subsequently, the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal, convened in Tokyo in December 2000, was the first such undertaking to focus on gender-based war crimes. While the primary consideration was rape and sexual slavery by the Japanese military forces during WWII, as well as an assessment of the criminal liabilities of the Japanese state and the emperor as the then-head of state, this Tribunal also provided a wider platform by which to present the testimonies of rape survivors of other conflicts following WWII. A significant breakthrough in international gender justice was the case of Jean-Paul Akayesu, the former mayor of the Taba commune in Rwanda, who in October 1998 was sentenced to three life terms and 80 years' imprisonment.
Also various truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) have documented experiences of national struggles. But women have pointed out the limitations of these platforms and introduced the analyses of silence in reconciliation processes, which rely heavily on dialogues, public hearings and speech acts. Nthabiseng Motsemme in her work “The Mute Always Speak” suggests that women's silences uttered at the TRC in South Africa are 'languages of pain and grief'. While various forms of silencing coercion such as oppressive silences about sexual violence involve both physical and emotional violence, silence can also be used to communicate certain forms of resistance and can become a way for the marginalised or powerless to critique power.
Finally, various gender-sensitive legal and technical mechanisms within the United Nations have endeavoured to respond to the gendered impacts of armed conflicts. Two such mechanisms include Security Council Resolution 1325 and women's participation in international peacekeeping missions. Following decades of activism and advocacy by women's lobbies and NGOs, in October 2000 the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. It affirms women's roles in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, and also calls for special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, especially rape and other forms of sexual abuse. Although this resolution asserts women's direct participation in security matters, some have argued that it is not radical enough to be used as a transformative gender-mainstreaming tool. However, this resolution is pioneering in initiating a process that ensures women's equal representation in security institutions and decision-making bodies. Subsequent UNSC resolutions 1889, 1820 and 1888 have contributed to gender-sensitive international mechanisms on women, peace and security.
The 'blue helmet' women
Women's experiences and roles in conflicts are complex and require context-specific attention. The UNSC Resolutions and the presence of women in peacekeeping forces are responsive and responsible instruments towards bringing about crucial structural changes in gender relationships. While the analyses of 'new' kinds of 'dirty' wars do encompass the victimisation of boys and men, and the recent gender-sensitive mechanisms are more attentive to the complexities of the ground, women's pain and trauma must be understood through specific cultural and historical contexts. Related to these on the ground complexities, the power and privilege of women in leadership roles, and the questions about hierarchies (in terms of age, seniority, status, rural-urban divides for example) within women's movements must be understood and resolved through the lens of critical self-reflection.
Bina D'Costa is a member of Drishtipat Writers' Collective and author of Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia.
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