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Gender politics and the United Nations Security Council

By Gina Heathcote


On 25 June 2013, the United Nations Security Council issued its sixth resolution on women, peace, and security: Resolution 2106. In line with three of the preceding resolutions on women, peace, and security (Resolutions 1820, 1889, and 1960), the Council focused on the issue of sexual violence in armed conflict. Resolution 2106 was passed despite criticism from feminist actors, including those involved in the drafting of the first Resolution on women peace and security (Resolution 1325). The continued, disproportionate focus on the sexual violence in armed conflict denies the spectrum of gendered experiences that occur both during conflict and in post-conflict spaces.

A week prior to the new resolution, the World Health Organisation, in conjunction with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, released a report that found violence against women to be a “global public health problem that affects approximately one third of women globally.” The research also found that the vast proportion of this violence against women was perpetrated by their intimate partners. In all regions of the world, the report found the prevalence of intimate partner violence against women was higher than the prevalence of non-partner sexual violence. The consequence is long-term global health costs that the report describes of “epidemic proportions.”

It is important to think through the Security Council’s current approach to women, peace, and security through the lens of these global health statistics. Sexual violence in armed conflict is brutal, traumatic, and prevalent across the spectrum of armed conflicts. Yet in terms of global understandings of threats to women’s peace and security, sexual violence during armed conflict is dwarfed by the global figures on intimate partner violence. This is not to diminish the importance of finding the means to prevent sexual violence during armed conflict, but we need to acknowledge that the two sites of violence are inter-related.

The United Nations Security Council Chamber in New York. Photo by Patrick Gruban, 2006. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.
The United Nations Security Council Chamber in New York. Photo by Patrick Gruban, 2006. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

Tolerance of violence as a means to relate to others and resolve conflict, especially in gendered situations, is taught in intimate spaces across generations. The use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, for opportunistic advantage or as a display of warrior excess, is made possible by the level of violence against women that our communities tolerate everyday. This is particularly evident in military communities. Survivors of sexual violence and survivors of intimate partner violence are unlikely to report crimes, during times of both peace and conflict, if adequate health services do not exist. We must begin to address the responsibility of states to provide adequate care and prevention strategies, as well as education, to halt and respond to the spectrum of violence against women.

The UK government has chosen to focus specifically on sexual violence in armed conflict under its presidency of both the UN Security Council and the G8 forum during 2013. In doing so, it neglects the crossover between violence against women within our communities and the brutal sexual violence witnessed in conflict states. The focus on naming and shaming perpetrators of sexual violence in armed conflict via international organizations, while inadequately funding domestic violence services at home and failing to challenge everyday sexism, permits a construction of sexual violence as something “other” — away from the UK and everyday life.

It is time to move women’s security out of the remit of the Security Council and onto the agenda of all states, international institutions, and governments so that the global health epidemic resulting from violence against women is spoken against in all spaces and places, rather than as a violation that only happens in times of chaos and violence.

Gina Heathcote is the author of The Law on the Use of Force: a Feminist Analysis and a contributor to the forthcoming The Oxford Handbook of the Use of Force in International Law. She lectures in Gender Studies and Public International Law at SOAS, University of London.

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