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How research and policy affect responses to sexual violence

Sexual violence in war has never been as visible as in the last ten years or so. We talk about it in global and national policy spaces, the media reports about sexual violence in conflicts around the world, and research in this area is booming. This is a major change, as sexual violence has long been considered irrelevant when thinking of war. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, issued in 2000, reflects this interest in valuing a gender perspective in global politics. This is a positive development for peace, justice, and human rights advocates, who have argued that the dynamics of war and peace are inherently gendered and therefore have different impacts on women and men.  Cynthia Enloe, for instance, has highlighted the importance of paying attention to women’s experiences before, during and after war in order to better understand women’s contributions to both war and peace.

In the mid-90s after journalists reported on gender-based atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, observers began to frame sexual violence as a weapon of war. Perpetrators used rape to fragment and destroy communities. In 2018 Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on efforts to prevent conflict-related sexual violence. If we can abolish landmines or chemical weapons, should we not be able to abolish sexual violence?

But sexual violence is much more than a weapon. In addition to fragmenting communities, humiliating individuals, and changing the ethnic composition of a population, sexual violence has a range of impacts. For example, it may reinforce dominant ideas about gender and sexuality as well as damage social bonds within families and communities. Importantly, sexual violence may reflect and exacerbate patterns of inequality such as along the lines of race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender, and sexuality. Nevertheless, sexual violence is not limited to wartime, and in many contexts, violence against women continues into peacetime.

When global policy makers and the media focus on sexual violence in wartime it is important; it helps ensure that attention and funding is available to provide support and redress for survivors. We need more research in order to help understand patterns and experiences, and perhaps develop better mechanisms for intervention at earlier stages. However, there are also negative consequences with an exclusive focus on sexual violence. Exceptionalising rape in war has the effect of normalising and ignoring widespread rape and abuse in peacetime or other forms of gender-based violence that take place on the margins of war. Undue attention to conflict-related sexual violence among certain populations can obscure other urgent problems, revictimize people, ignore relatively uncommon victims (e.g. men and boys), or make invisible certain perpetrators (e.g. husbands and boyfriends). Excessive attention for one particularly vulnerable group can create research fatigue. It can have the effect of imposing very specific definitions of abuse and harm and even become an unreliable indicator for what contexts are potential security threats.

The research community has an important responsibility to ensure it makes a meaningful contribution to outcomes for survivors. A critical approach will enable us to raise questions around what we know, how we know it, and importantly, how our methods and approaches affect different forms of intervention. But ethical and reflexive research alone cannot prevent negative effects and consequences; we need the global community of policy makers to engage with such critiques as well.

Featured Image Credit: ‘We all have fears’ by Melanie Wasser. CC0 Public Domain via Unsplash.

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