By Beverly Goldberg
The skin we are born into acts as one of the most powerful frontiers in our world. Much like a geographical border, it determines how much sovereignty and power we have over our own bodies and the bodies of others, and who becomes a winner and a loser in the endless wheel of fortune that constitutes life today. Although Violence Against Women is a global issue, a woman in a war zone in the global south is born into one of the most vulnerable skins of all. A skin that weeps blood, that will make her more likely to become a victim of physical violence, sexual violence and death than any one of us watching her from a distance.
Currently, 70% of all victims in warzones are civilians and the majority of these conflicts are concentrated in the global south. This is an issue because some countries within this region have been resisting their obligations to the 1995 UN Beijing Convention (which declares Violence Against Women intolerable and sets out objectives to tackle the issue) due to what they see as western bullying that culturally targets African and Islamic countries. Regardless of who is at fault in this political power play, it is the women on the ground who suffer as a result. And as their vulnerable skins keep bleeding, new wars keep being waged in a hyper-masculinised system that does not concern itself with how conflict affects the female body and spirit.
Even though it is not the women of the world that sit at the almighty negotiation tables where decisions to wage wars are made, they are disproportionately and deeply affected by those choices. Conflict makes women far more likely to experience gender-based and sexual violence, whilst amplifying many structural inequalities that had existed prior to the war that detrimentally affect women more so than men. In conflict and post-conflict zones, the maternal mortality rate in 2013 per 100,000 women was 531 compared to a global rate of 210. Female child marriage rates in 2014 were also highest in war-torn countries around the world, and only 76% of girls were enrolled in school compared to the global rate of 91% in 2013. How can these constraints on the woman’s right to life be any less violent than what causes her to draw blood, if they rob her of her life slowly and agonizingly until she is empty on the inside? As activist Zainab Salbi eloquently said, it is “the fear of losing the ‘I’ in me” that haunts so many women in war-zones today.
War and women are seldom discussed in unison by the international community. This is hardly a surprise when you consider that our entire social world, including the international sphere, is based on a patriarchal system that perpetuates power discrepancies between women and men. As a result, there is a lack of female involvement in the field of international security and issues affecting women at times of war are frequently undermined by international and national institutions. The problems they contend with are under-represented in a gender-biased media which is mostly concerned with masculine issues, making it difficult for these problems to be addressed.
Sexual violence as a weapon of war is an example of an issue that, although not exclusive to women, disproportionately affects women and until recently had received little political attention. Sexual violence in conflict zones has occurred throughout history, and is now thought to have been a significant occurrence during WWII. However, rape in the late 40s was still regarded as an issue of sex rather than power and sexual matters were considered too taboo to openly discuss, so historical records of such incidents are near impossible to come by. The result of this was the acceptance of the attitude that rape was simply inevitable and therefore unquestionable at times of war. This thinking persisted until the use of widespread sexual violence against mostly Bosnian Muslim women during the conflict in former Yugoslavia caught international attention and forced the world to recognise the atrocity of such acts. The Yugoslav Commission was created in 2001 to try former war criminals, allowing for some individuals to be solely charged with war time rape for the first time in history, and for wartime rape and sexual violence to be finally declared a crime against humanity by Judge Florence Mumba. Progress perhaps, but it’s clear this is still not a priority issue.
Sexual violence, which can include rape, sexual mutilation, and forced prostitution, is fuelled by patriarchal ideas that women are part of the “spoils of war”. Women are seen as trophies to which victorious warriors are unconditionally entitled and are treated accordingly; they are enslaved, repeatedly raped, and are possessed like branded livestock. Sexual violence is often used against local women to destroy the sense of pride among local males who have been unable to protect them. This act does not just bring shame upon their ‘protectors’, but also brings shame upon the women who are ostracised from a community that they are now too impure to partake in. It can be used to punish politically active women, and to inflict widespread torture among a community as the belief goes that female pain can be used to poison entire societies.
This is still happening on a huge scale, and current strategies to help women aren’t enough. The recent revelations regarding sexual assaults carried out by UN peacekeepers have exposed to the world the appalling exploitation of women by those who are entrusted to protect them. In the Central African Republic, 177 UN peacekeepers have been accused by 255 victims (majority female) of sexual assault and only 5 to date have been jailed largely due to the legal immunity they receive in their country of service. If women are not only threatened by those engaging in war, but also by those whose duty it is to exemplify peace and security, isn’t it clear that the current strategy has failed in a very serious way?
The hardship women face originates not within individual abusers, but within an abusive structural system that is gendered and discriminatory towards them therefore, solutions must attempt to tackle structural inequalities. They must especially address those inequalities leading to a lack of female representation in international security, starting with the issue of UN peacekeepers. Women currently make up less than 4% of soldiers and 10% of police deployed as peacekeepers which is disturbingly low. If women were more involved in the peacekeeping process, this would undoubtedly help tackle the problems of sexual abuse rife among UN forces and would allow more effective intervention when rape is used as a weapon of war by militants. UN peacekeepers are soldiers selected from militaries of member states, so national strategies and campaigns to diversify member states’ armies would give them a greater pool of women to choose from but there is also the option to implement a quota to compensate the entry barriers women suffer. Further inclusion of women at the negotiating tables is also vital to ensure issues affecting women remain visible, and with only 2 current female G8 leaders, the UN should help to counteract this imbalance with their own staffing strategies.
Long term strategies matter, but so does short term relief when dealing with emergency situations. More safe spaces where vulnerable women and victims can take shelter are needed but this is an almighty ask for a warzone in which infrastructure and resources are already depleted. A different and somewhat radical strategy may be to develop the concept of a refugee of gender and to provide women and their children with safe and viable routes to escape their current situations and seek new lives abroad. An individual is considered a refugee when they are escaping persecution based on factors such as religion, ethnicity, sexuality etc, and that are no longer safe in their home countries. If this definition were to be extended to women persecuted because of their gender that are under threat of violent or sexual attack in war zones, many lives could not just be changed for the better but actually saved. This would require a huge change in international consciousness, but it would be a step in the right direction on the long and convoluted path towards helping women in war zones feel safer in this world.
It is hard to conceive of war in a positive light for anyone, but women are affected by war in a very profound and different way from men and these issues must continue to receive more attention in the international community. Sexual violence as a weapon of war persists and whilst attackers from militant groups escape charges due to widespread impunity, stories emerge revealing the complicity of UN peacekeepers in both failing to act in prevention and perpetrating violence themselves. We evidently need new strategies to make warzones safer for women that take both the long term and short term into account. In an ideal world, where a woman is born should not have to determine how much her body is violated and abused. Gender based refuge could be a step towards meaningful short term emergency assistance, but this idea will need to be complemented with long term strategies that tackle structural discrimination to create a meaningful change.