The Political Economy of “Barbarity” and Sexual Violence by Islamic State (ISIS)

Over the past several weeks, there seems to have been a flood of news stories about sexual violence perpetrated by members of the Islamic State. Academic colleagues on Twitter and Facebook have bemoaned what they call the ‘oversight’ of the issue of conflict-related sexual violence in Iraq and Syria, questioning why it is receiving so little attention.

I disagree. It seems to me to be receiving unprecedented attention. Media reports call the scale of sexual violence “industrial” and point to reports that:

the United Nations last month estimated that IS has forced some 1,500 women, teenage girls, and boys into sexual slavery. Amnesty International released a blistering document noting that IS abducts whole families in northern Iraq for sexual assault and worse. Even in the first few days following the fall of Mosul in June, women’s rights activists reported multiple incidents of IS fighters going door to door, kidnapping and raping Mosul’s women.

In an interview last month with the Huffington Post, Director of the Wilson Centre’s Middle East Program, Haleh Esfandiari outlined a modus operandi of IS attacks on villages, that included the systematic segregation of men from women, and then the distribution of women by ages into varying types of sexual servitude and violence:

“They usually take the older women to a makeshift slave market and try and sell them. The younger girls, basically they … are raped or married off to fighters.”

While no doubt such reports of sexual violence (particularly widespread and systematic reports) are horrifying and compelling, I’m concerned with how these reports are playing out in the media and increasingly in policy. Increasingly, we’re seeing the homogenization of sexual violence perpetrated in conflicts under the banner “rape as a weapon of war”. Little distinction is made between perpetrators, their objectives, or the types of conflicts in which such violence occurs, nor between victims or the way that various forms of sexual violence may serve different purposes in different conflicts depending on the aims of the perpetrators.

At the same time, the violence perpetrated by IS is being represented as especially barbaric and especially brutal, and is increasingly being used to justify the need for Western intervention. On the 10th of September, US President Barack Obama argued for military intervention to fight IS on the basis that “They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage.” Similarly, two weeks ago, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was interviewed regarding Australia’s decision to send troops to Iraq to fight IS, at which time she claimed:

This is a particularly barbaric form of terrorism, the likes of which we have never seen before. It specifically targets women and girls and minorities.

Firstly, this is not unprecedented. Not by a long shot. Women and girls have been subjected to rape, enslavement, forced marriage, and sexual torture both in and out of the context of war since the beginning of recorded history. On a numerical basis alone, sexual violence in Iraq and Syria does not even represent the most egregious abuses of women and girls in a current conflict.

But even more problematically, sexual violence is being fetishized in media and policy, obscuring the political, social, and economic insecurities produced by underlying gender inequalities and that make women vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence both in times of war and in times of peace. Rather than representing genuine concern for women’s vulnerabilities and experiences of violence, this focus exploits the political value of “rape as a weapon of war” for the purpose of advancing state security interests, making it “an object of conflicting parties/states rather than a subject of human relations.

Such presentations of sexual violence in media and policy separate this violence from its contextual determinants and embues it with particular intrinsic value that becomes commodified and tradeable in political spheres. Sexual violence in war now has a “use value” capable of increasing symbolic and political capital to be exploited by politicians, aid organizations, media outlets, and even academics like myself.

I propose cynicism with regards to the seeming commitment on the part of governments like Australia, the UK, or the US to systematically address such threats to women’s security on the basis that, at the same time these governments espouse political commitments to ending sexual violence in war, these same governments in their domestic policies have been systematically slashing funding to women’s shelters, domestic violence refuges, and women’s health programs.

And none of this is yet to mention the problematic discourse of ‘barbarism’ employed to describe the actions of our enemies, when these same actions are common practice by members of Western armed forces as well as in Western domestic ‘peace time’ contexts. Far from ‘barbaric,’ the Islamic State operates complex infrastructure and administration programs for the purpose of properly governing the areas under their control.

Obviously, as with the value of sexual violence, the representation of Islamic State as “barbaric” is also politically expedient and valuable in positioning the West as “good” against the backward, uncivilized, barbarian “other,” which is uncomplicatedly “evil.” These distinctions come with real, material value in international relations, enabling particular actions and responses while discrediting alternatives. Such narratives, too, have been so widely used that they are almost cliché, conjuring flashbacks of George W. Bush’s justification for the ‘War on Terror’ as necessary to liberate the poor, oppressed women of Afghanistan from their barbarian, male oppressors.

So I urge caution in accepting the dominant narratives currently circulating in media and policy regarding both the employment of sexual violence as a “weapon of war” in Iraq and Syria as well as its basis as justification for Western intervention. I am skeptical that states ever operate out of solely humanitarian or moral concerns, and thus the question must be asked: who benefits from “rape as a weapon of war” in the Middle East?

Arguably, the answer is not just the immediate perpetrators.


Forging New Paths for Gender Justice at the International Criminal Court?

The absence of these charges reverberated throughout the Lubanga trial; when the majority of judges handed down their verdict in 2012 they declined to find Lubanga culpable for the acts of sexual violence against child soldiers highlighted by the prosecution at trial, because Prosecutor Ocampo had not included these allegations in the initial charging document. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Elizabeth Odio Benito argued that sexual violence was ‘encoded in the charges’ of recruiting and using child soldiers, and stated that by excluding sexual violence from the definition of those charges, the majority was ‘making this critical aspect of the crime invisible.’

Fast-forward to 2014 and we see a marked improvement in the ICC’s efforts to address sexual violence. One clear sign of this shift comes with the current confirmation of charges hearing in The Hague against Bosco Ntaganda. In 2006,  Prosecutor Ocampo sought an arrest warrant against Ntaganda, also a commander of the UPC-FPLC. Unlike Lubanga, who was taken into ICC custody in 2006, Ntaganda remained a fugitive until March 2013 when in a dramatic move, he turned himself over to the ICC via the US Embassy in Rwanda.

Prosecutor Ocampo’s 2006 application for an arrest warrant against Ntaganda did not include sexual violence charges but Prosecutor Bensouda’s 2014 charging document represents a major change of course, not least because it makes sexual violence highly visible: the charging document, which is currently before the Court, refers to the UPC-FPLC’s sexual violence crimes against civilians and against the child recruits.

At the recent hearing, Prosecutor Bensouda further emphasized the centrality of rape and sexual enslavement in the UPC-FPLC’s campaign of ethnic persecution in Ituri. ‘Both property and women were considered spoils of war,’ the Prosecutor explained. She highlighted the evidence a woman who was raped and sexually enslaved by the UPC-FPLC, a man who found the bodies of 49 people murdered by the group including women whose bellies had been sliced open, and a child solder who stated that ‘the rapes continued throughout our training – sometimes the soldiers who raped us came in groups of three of four.’ Should the Pre-Trial Chamber confirm the charges, it will be the first time an individual is tried in the ICC for sexual violence crimes against child soldiers.

The focus on sexual violence in Ntaganda and not Lubanga can be explained by several factors: the Office of the Prosecutor has had eight extra years to investigate the case; the Office has been responsive to the demands of human rights groups, including the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice, to pay greater attention to impunity for sexual violence after the Lubanga verdict; the influence of Judge Benito’s dissenting Lubanga opinion; and, perhaps most importantly, the change in leadership in the Office.

Since being elected as Prosecutor in 2012, Bensouda has made clear her intention to pursue sexual and gender violence as a priority of her seven-year term. Her promises are being realized through her persistence in adding charges to the Ntangada charges, and through other measures. The release in February 2014 of the Office of the Prosecutor’s long awaited draft Policy Paper on Sexual and Gender Based Crimes is one such initiative and suggests that this increasing focus on sexual and gender violence is set to continue.

The draft prosecution policy names the investigation and prosecution of sexual and gender based crimes as one of the Office’s key goals for its 2013-2015 strategic plan. It highlights the need to pay close attention to these crimes from the preliminary examination onwards, and train staff in interacting sensitively with victims and witnesses. It also recognizes while the ICC Statute explicitly enumerates sexual and gender based crimes as war crimes and crimes against humanity, other international crimes including the recruitment of child soldiers ‘may also contain gendered and sexual elements’ – a major development given the limited charges against Lubanga.

With these recent developments in the Ntaganda case and the release of the Office of the Prosecutor’s gender policy, there is reason to hope that the ICC has learnt important lessons from its initial failures and is establishing a path to achieve its gender justice aims. Key ‘insiders’ including feminist-inspired judges, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and ‘outsiders’ including Brigid Inder, the Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice Director and Bensouda’s Gender Advisor, are at the forefront of forging this path. It is hoped that these actors are successful in ensuring that gender justice concerns are a hallmark of the next phase ICC’s efforts to address impunity in all its forms.

— Louise Chappell and Rosemary Grey (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, UNSW)

Reposted with permission from The Women, Peace and Security Academic Collective

2014 – The Year of Women, Peace and Security for ASEAN

Amongst the member states of the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), civil unrest, conflict and post conflict situations have been significantly reduced from its violent past.  This is a commendable success.  However, there remain serious situations where civilians are at high risk of human rights violence, physical abuse and death.  Myanmar continues to experience high level violence and conflict across its territory, the Philippine government and military continue to seek a ceasefire and peaceful resolution to the Mindanao secessionist movement, and over the last 15 years the state of Indonesia has undergone dramatic democratic transition, ceded independence to East Timor after a bloody protracted conflict and secured a ceasefire with secessionist guerrilla movement in autonomous province of Aceh.  Thailand is struggling with ongoing domestic political instability, and Cambodia is still recovering from one of the worst genocides witnessed in the 20th century.

All of these events dramatically affect the peace and security of civilians. As noted in landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), however, these situations of civil unrest and conflict affect women differently to men. Specifically, women are more likely to be politically excluded, financially disadvantaged and face a higher risk of personal insecurity in conflict and post conflict situations.

ASEAN flags by Prachatai. Retrieved from, shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Despite the pressing need of the three-pillar Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda (prevention, peace building and political participation) to frame regional engagement in these situations; to date, the institutional structure of ASEAN has precluded deeper engagement with WPS as a political-security concern.  As we outline in our forthcoming article in the Special Issue on Women, Peace and Security for the Australian Journal of International Affairs (2014), when the role and participation of women is discussed in ASEAN documents and dialogue on the political security agenda, the primary focus is on women’s protection. There are few references to women as actors who can engage in peacebuilding, security sector reform and conflict prevention.

In the last year, however, we have seen promising signs from the ASEAN Secretariat and ASEAN Human Rights Working Group, in cooperation with UN Women, to address this gap and we would like to suggest 2014 to mobilise activity and events to support this movement towards addressing the WPS gap in the ASEAN membership and regional organization.

The Importance of Regional Commitments

Regional action plans serve to amplify the comparative strengths of WPS policy and programming among member states, exchange and record expert knowledge and best practice, pool financial and human resources, and apply positive pressure for member states to share responsibility and accountability for reaching common WPS objectives. The benefits are not operational alone: by committing to support member states to implement the WPS agenda, regional arrangements send a strong normative message to national peace and security institutions that their legitimacy is enhanced by WPS responsive policies and priorities.  This investment requires considered donor support to facilitate such institutional investment.

The ASEAN Secretariat, with the assistance of supportive donor states such as United States of America, Australia, European Union and Canada, would be well placed to host a workshop dedicated on Women, Peace and Security that engages cross-pillar attendance. For example, a Joint Dialogue Workshop on 1325, co-hosted by the ASEAN Political-Security Community and Socio-Economic Community, could be convened to discuss the process for cross-community regional engagement in the development of an ASEAN 1325 action plan.  Specifically, this would be an opportunity to consult ASEAN members and Secretariat concerning the creation of a WPS expert role or a gender team within the political-security division of the ASEAN Secretariat.

ASEAN is under constant financial pressure: in order to maintain the‘one voice, one vote’ principle, member contributions are equal but this means that the contribution has to be affordable for both low-income and high-income states.  As a result, the Jakarta based Secretariat is approximately 260 staff, with a budget of $15 million per annum, compared to European Union budget of $120 billion.  Australia is regionally and diplomatically well placed to recognise and provide institutional support required by the ASEAN Secretariat.  As Australia’s first Global Ambassador for Women and Girls, Penny Williams, signalled at a regional conference in 2013:

We have identified gender equality as a critical cross-cutting theme across Australia’s aid program and all our aid activities must satisfy the criteria that they advance gender equality and promote the role of women at the design, implementation and evaluation stages.

While Australia has a strong record of supporting regional workshops and initiatives on the prevention of violence against women, gender equality and gender political participation, often in partnership with ASEAN members, there remains a need for greater investment by donors on regional institutional capacity concerning gender issues in situations where conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peace building is taking place. Given the international commitments that Australia outlined just last year, and our existing relationship with ASEAN concerning gender mainstreaming, there is the potential for Australian government to provide a supportive role in assisting ASEAN engage in dialogue on a regional WPS action plan.

— Sara Davies, Kimberly Nackers and Sarah Teitt, Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


Reposted with permission from the Women, Peace and Security Academic Collective.

Roast Busters and the Obfuscation of “Every Day” Rape in International Relations

By now, most people will have heard about the gang-rape club out of Auckland, New Zealand made up of teenaged boys calling themselves the “Roast Busters.”  They have been terrorizing the young female population of West Auckland for about two years now by systematically (so it seems) picking up unsuspecting young girls, plying them with alcoholic beverages, gang-raping them, and then posting videos of the exploits on various social media sites.

The internet (or at least the circles of it that I flit around in) seems appalled and outraged, especially after subsequent revelations regarding both police and school ineptitude in doing anything in response to the allegations brought forward by a handful of the victims. The case has been compared to Steubenville and analysed in terms of male sex privilege and victim-blaming mores.

But as our own Evelyn so thoughtfully pointed out earlier this year:

My concern with this is that as long as we focus solely on the two individuals who physically violated the young victim, we can remain blind to the role of others, the social context of the crimes, and wider still, the institutions and cultures in which such behaviours are produced. It is sad and unhelpful that sexual violence, whether in war or everyday contexts, is still discussed in an individualistic rather than a collective, cultural and institutional manner. We simply must look to the broader context in which this type of behaviour occurs, where it is not only tolerated but sometimes condoned and promoted.

Given that this blog is devoted to studying gender and war, some may question the relevance of such cases of “everyday rape” as a focus of feminist international relations. Since 2008 with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1820, the UN has explicitly recognized the destabilizing effect that sexual violence can have on the international community, threatening peace and security. This recognition opened up the possibility of an international response, including a military intervention, under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter for a situation in which sexual violence is used as a weapon of war and which poses a threat to international peace and security.

But when is sexual violence considered a threat to international peace and security? While it is recognized as an atrocity by international humanitarian legal standards as an element of genocide, a crime against humanity, and a war crime, it is only in very specific contexts and when that sexual violence can be linked to an explicit agenda and objective of a designated armed group.

But what about the 1 in 5 women in the US who have been raped, most of whom by their partners or someone else they knew? I am interested increasingly in the extent to which the narrowing of focus for the feminist peace and security agenda to this ‘exceptional’ form of sexual violence is obscuring the prevalence of this insipid violence perpetrated against women everyday (and in the US statistics, every 29 seconds).

Feminist and critical security scholars have long argued that the existing security paradigm is too narrowly (and inappropriately) focused on regime or state security. Each body of scholarship has advocated for emancipation as the true goal for achieving peace, defined as overcoming the persistent structural, cultural, social, political and economic barriers that prevent individuals from doing what they would otherwise do. Or in the case of feminist scholarship, overcoming hierarchical gendered orderings of domestic, institutional, and international relations.

When we think of conflict-related sexual violence as the only type that is capable of threatening international peace and security, we’re reinforcing a state-centric paradigm for conceiving of ‘peace’ and ‘security’ and obscuring the deeply embedded and problematic social relations behind this type of violence.

I have long asked my students, who are so fond of the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) paradigm for making states more accountable to the lives of their citizens, why it is that forms of violence are revered as exceptional and necessitating coordinated international response when perpetrated against a particular ethnic group or minority population, but not even considered problematic when it is only affecting 1 in 3 women in Australia, every day.

Is the answer for the UN to evoke R2P, invade Australia and ‘liberate’ the oppressed women suffering sexual and gender-based violence? Or do we need to expand our conceptions of peace and security to better understand and address the root causes of gendered violence and oppression that permeates all aspects of social life, from the “most peaceful” to most conflict-affected countries in the world?

Given that New Zealand ranks as the world’s second most peaceful country, I think we need to start questioning our indicators for “peace”.


UN Day 2013: Violence Against Women is a Global Epidemic

Join the UNAA Victoria in partnership with AusAid for the screening of ‘From Fear to Freedom: Ending Violence Against Women‘ followed by a public forum on how to address this global epidemic on Thursday, 24 October in Melbourne.
  • Stephen Fontana, Assistant Commissioner, Victoria Police
  • Roscel Diego, Gender Advisor, International Programs, World Vision
  • Murray McInnis, Director and Lead Ambassador (Legal Sector), White Ribbon
  • Fran O’Toole, Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Director of Services, Berry Street
  • Professor Jacqui True, Professor of Politics & International Relations, Associate Dean Research, Faculty of Arts, Monash University
WHEN: Thursday 24 October, 5.30pm for a 6.00pm start
WHERE: Deakin Edge, Federation Square, Melbourne
Free event. RSVP essential.

Rape Claims and article 15: Reflections on Researching Sexual Violence in the Armed Conflict of Eastern DRC

September 2012. My Congolese friend Marie-Noël, who runs a small, community-based NGO, welcomes us in Ruzizi, a border town between Rwanda and the DRC. We hop in her jeep and head for Bukavu. Five minutes later, the car is stopped. Two men have barricaded the road with a large tree branch. Fidel, our driver, refuses to pay the money they ask for. He shouts at them to let us pass. The men give in, open the barrier and exclaim ‘c’est pour la sécurité régionale!/ it is for our regional security!’, which is met with a roar of laughter on the street. Marie-Noël laughs too. She explains fictional article 15 of the former Zaïrean constitution which means ‘débrouillez-vous/fend for yourself’. Article 15, also known as ‘système D’, came into existence under Mobutu’s dictatorship. It allows the ‘petit prédateur’/little predator (Devisch, 1998) a social space of power ‘in a context where the difference between legality and illegality makes no more sense’ (Jourdan in Vlassenroot & Raeymaekers, 2004). Institutionalised in all levels of society, article 15 allows every civilian to grab whatever his predicament can afford for his daily survival. In the wartorn Kivus, ‘système D’ has become the rule for individual behaviour. I think about the women who claim they have been raped to get access to medical care and wonder whether this occurrence of would-be victims can be considered as a normal expression of  ‘système D’ or ‘survival maximising behaviour’.

I decide to go on this field trip in order to better understand how singular international attention to war-time rape plays out on the ground. Indeed, many informants agree that sexual violence has gained prominence globally and has rightfully become the object of widespread and earnest concern. However, researchers have argued there is a downside to this global attention. The subject has become such a hype these days that Marsha Henry felt compelled in a previous post on this website to compile a list of “Ten Reasons not to Write your Master’s Dissertation on Sexual Violence in War”, pointing to all the potential pitfalls that writing on sexual violence may entail. Moreover, perceived by the United Nations as a “separate and unique problem”, sexual violence requires a “targeted response” (Ayiera, 2010). Tackling impunity is presented as the ultimate solution to combating sexual violence in armed conflict. As a result, donor-funded ‘mobile courts’ offer quick but often disputable and unfair convictions (Douma & Hillhorst, 2012). In this respect Baaz and Verweijen argue for a more nuanced approach, ‘one that is less focused on quick, visible and measurable results in terms of numbers of convictions’ but instead ‘aims for structural, longer-term change, and, importantly, also reflects a responsibility towards soldiers who risk being tried unfairly and arbitrarily’. Clearly, the global attention on sexual violence comes with a price. The exclusive targeting of programmes for victims of sexual violence results in adverse consequences, such as an increased commercialisation of sexual violence (Baaz & Stern, 2013; 2010; Autesserre, 2012; Human Security Report 2012; Douma & Hillhorst, 2012; Heaton, 2013). For example, one report claims that some aid agencies exaggerate rape stories in order to get publicity and thus funding. Some local observers point to the ‘humanitarian business of sexual violence’ and its funds-driven nature; others point to the many women who claim they have been raped in order to access health care.

It becomes soon clear during my interviews that stories about rape claims are common and known to all organisations. A UNHCR Protection Officer tells me that she personally knows a lot of NGOs that claim to be doing programs on sexual violence just to get funding. She says: ‘They are no experts. It may be somebody who has three kids and who says that he/she is a consultant in psycho-social assistance.’ She continues:

‘This happens all the time but it is difficult to monitor because nobody can forbid somebody to do something. As long as there is funding it is difficult to interrupt these activities.’

Undoubtedly, the international response to the problem of sexual violence has led to certain unwanted side-effects. However, there is a downside to this critique as well. During other interviews in Bukavu and Goma with staff members of United Nations bodies, it is emphasized again and again that sexual violence in eastern DRC is still a huge problem with devastating consequences for the victims, their families and communities. When asked whether there is too much focus on sexual violence, a former Panzi worker answers:

‘No, the problem of sexual violence is very real and needs to be addressed, because the survivors of sexual violence are still numerous. Shifting focus away from sexual violence will not solve any problems, but the responses need to be on several issues, including sexual violence.’

Upon asking if sexual violence can be considered a business, she states:

‘For the serious actors on the ground (local and international), there is no self-fulfillment in focusing on sexual violence if it is not a serious problem.’

While I believe it is important to question the one-sided focus and its perverse consequences, I struggle with the question on how to do this without downplaying the severity and intensity of sexual violence in the DRC. Critically assessing the negative consequences of the international response to sexual violence can be useful but will this not endanger much needed funds for those serious actors on the ground? What about the victims? Can you look them in the eyes and explain that as part of your research, you question the ‘exaggerated’ focus on sexual violence? Even requesting that the focus be shifted away can be a dangerous move as it might decrease much of the reparative work being done by NGOs.

When visiting a facility that treats victims of sexual violence, I am confronted with the enormous difficult circumstances they work in. Worried that I might be perceived as ‘another’ researcher on sexual violence or ‘another’ westerner that comes to visit a ‘rape hospital’, I am faced with the paradoxical nature of my research questions: Is there too much focus on sexual violence?  Is sexual violence considered a business for agencies and individuals? One informant even questioned whether this debate should take place in the first place, considering the suffering so many Congolese women and men have to endure and the lack of adequate assistance they receive?

While international organisations, UN bodies, donors and local actors play a significant role in determining how sexual violence is framed and addressed, it is of the utmost importance to take into consideration the crucial link with the local context in which the violence is embedded. In the survival economy of the Kivus, the humanitarian sector has taken over many state functions. This means that locals will just tap into whatever resource and whatever discourse that generates some money, whether it is sexual violence or another issue. “In a society where people are forced to multiply their chances of opportunity, the NGO is just one more card to play” (Büscher & Vlassenroot, 2010). Système D enables every actor to ‘instrumentalise his/her own disorder’ (Chabal & Daloz in Verweijen, 2013). ‘Never forget’, Marie-Noël assured me, that ‘the Congolese take pride in their disorder/ils ont une fierté sur leur désordre’.

A slightly edited version of this text first appeared in

Reposted with author’s permission from

Charlotte Mertens is a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne. She researches the framing of sexual violence within the discourse of the United Nations and how this is translated on the ground in the context of the armed conflict in eastern DRC. Additionally, she conducts research into the local conflict dynamics that  cause war-time rape.


Autesserre, S. (2012). Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and their Unintended Consequences. African Affairs, published online 9 February.

Ayiera, E. (2010). Sexual Violence in Conflict: A Problematic International Discourse, in Feminist Africa, Issue 14, 7-18.

Baaz, M. & Stern, M. (2013). Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War? Perceptions, Prescriptions, Problems in the Congo and Beyond. London: Zed Books.

Baaz, M., & Stern, M. (2010). The Complexity of Violence: A Critical Analysis of Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

Boose, L. (2002). Crossing the River Drina: Bosnian Rape Camps, Turkish Impalement, and Serb Cultural Memory, in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28:1, 71-96.

Büscher K. & Vlassenroot, K. (2010). Humanitarian Presence and Urban Development: New Opportunities and Contrasts in Goma, DRC, in Disasters 34:S2, S256-273.

Chabal, P. & Daloz, J.-P. (1999). In Verweijen, J. (2013). Military Business and the Business of the Military in the Kivus, in Review of African Political Economy, 40(135), 67-82.

Devisch, R. (1998). La Violence à Kinshasa ou l’institution en Négatif, in Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines, 38:150-152, 441-469.

Douma, N. & Hillhorst, D. (2012). Fond de Commerce? Sexual Violence Assistance in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Disaster Studies, Occasional Paper 02, Wageningen University.

Human Security Report Project, Human Security Report 2012: Sexual Violence, Education, and War: Beyond the Mainstream Narrative, Vancouver: Human Security Press.

Jourdan, L. (2004). Being at War, Being Young: Violence and Youth in North Kivu. In Vlassenroot,K. & Raeymaekers, T. (Eds). (2004). Conflict and Social Transformation in eastern DR Congo. Ghent: Academic Press Scientific Publishers, 157-176.

What would peace look like?

This semester, I’m teaching Introduction to Peace and Security Studies. I gave the first lecture earlier this week, in which I surveyed for students some of the key approaches to understanding issues of peace and security. It got me thinking about what my goals are in terms of learning objectives. One of the key ones for me is getting students to critically think about what ‘peace’ would or should look like.

I talked to students about Johan Galtung’s distinction between “positive” and “negative” peace. When, in international relations, we talk about ‘peace’ we often have in mind the conception of peace as the absence of war. We think of states as at peace if there is no organized, armed conflict occurring or otherwise large-scale unrest. But why do we distinguish between the act of homocide by firearms as an act of war and homocide by firearms during so-called times of peace?

In the US, every year, somewhere around 8,000-10,000 people are murdered by firearms. An additional 4,000 or so are murdered with other forms of weapons, such as knives or blunt instruments. In wealthy, Western countries, approximately 25% of women have experienced violence at the hands of their partners. This violence, on the whole, does not look radically different from the violence experienced by men and women during times of conflict, except perhaps in scale or intensity.

Given the extent of violence and insecurity in the daily lives of ordinary people in some of the best-off countries in the world (let alone the vast majority of the world that do not experience the same standard of living and personal security of Western countries), how meaningful is this distinction between ‘peacetime’ and ‘wartime’?

My students appreciated this line of questioning and really engaged with the idea of ‘positive peace’ as an alternative conception of what ‘peace’ might mean. For Galtung, ‘positive peace’ means the absence of all forms of violence and constraints on the fulfilment of one’s potential.

But what does this mean for the practice of policy? There has been growing recognition on the international level of the relationship between poverty, inequality, and the outbreak of conflict. In 2000, the UN committed to the Millennium Development Goals, a series of goals directed towards improving the lives of those worst off in the world, primarily through poverty eradication and development. Unfortunately, there remains an analytical focus in policy and in much of our thinking about problems of violence of individual responsibility, rather than a focus on the international structures that maintain a system of violence, impoverishment, and exploitation.

The project of peace is so much bigger than just eradicating large-scale war or conflict. It’s also bigger than getting men to adopt principles regarding violence against women, or learning to mediate conflict with dialogue. We need to reform our international structures of politics, economics, and social life that reinforce inequalities and power-disparate relations that foster violence. To me, peace is emancipation from those structural constraints that frustrate our attempts at living a fulfilling, meaningful, and happy life.

What do you think? What kind of peace do you build?

The Steubenville rapes: part of a wider system and culture

This week, two young American male football players from Steubenville, Ohio, were tried and convicted of the rape and sexual humiliation of a teenage girl who was intoxicated and semi-conscious at the time of her victimization. But while these crimes and some public responses to the trial result are both shocking and concerning, I don’t believe we should be all that surprised if we consider the context in which they occurred.

Firstly, there are the perpetrators themselves: local sport stars in a football code glorified for its aggression,

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Australian experience with the revelation of widespread illegal and predatory behaviour of AFL footballers, and the readily-available misogyny for young males through websites like unilad, and you shouldn’t be surprised.

Next, the many responses from the American public and media that have expressed a disappointed incredulity with the conviction and sentences of these young men (approximately one year for one offender, and two for the other). These responses essential express pity for the perpetrators and lament the ‘excessive’ punishment for ‘one small mistake’ by otherwise upstanding young citizens, and complain of the ‘unfairness’ of their punishment and branding as sex offender. In a malestream media that constantly downplays violence against women and blames victims for their own violation, again, why are we surprised?

I was alerted to a powerful and well-written piece by Clementine Ford which comprehensively challenges these sorts of responses, and which I’m glad was published. But whilst Ford’s article is strong,

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principled and offers important counterpoints to outrageous assertions, I’m not convinced that the retributive tone is helpful. It presents quite a merciless personal attack upon the two young men and on the individuals at the expense of considering the broader picture.

My concern with this is that as long as we focus solely on the two individuals who physically violated the young victim, we can remain blind to the role of others, the social context of the crimes, and wider still, the institutions and cultures in which such behaviours are produced. It is sad and unhelpful that sexual violence, whether in war or

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everyday contexts, is still discussed in an individualistic rather than a collective, cultural and institutional manner. We simply must look to the broader context in which this type of behaviour occurs, where it is not only tolerated but sometimes condoned and promoted.

As long as aggression and even violence is glorified in sport, whilst male sporting heroes occupy an almost god-like social status, whilst they can develop an unbridled sense of importance and entitlement, and whilst objectifying females remains a favourite activity social activity for many groups of men, why on Earth are we surprised about sexual violence against women? Our global militarised culture is also a major culprit, as it presents violence as an acceptable and effective response to a variety of situations, and also perpetuates the most oppressive and self-centered form of hegemonic masculinity. Apparently for American female soldiers serving in Iraq, it was far more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier than it was to be killed by enemy fire. Furthermore, many international studies have shown that between 6 and 48% of women almost anywhere worldwide have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. In the context of information like this, I would suggest that the Steubenville rape cases are, sadly, not at all surprising; in fact they are entirely predictable.

So, rather than focus on individual perpetrators of sexual violence against women, let’s look at the broader picture. To truly begin to address this problem we need to be examining how, collectively, the objectification of women and the normalization of male violence creates the possibility for these sorts of crimes in the first place.

Not Gender and War But Gender and Peace: Some Personal Reflections

Having the good fortune recently to read some of R.W. Connell’s writings on gender and masculinity, I have been reflecting upon questions of masculinity and

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we “move towards equality, nonviolence, and mutual respect between people of different genders (and) sexualities”. The implicit aim is for a new social order and dynamic that not only eradicates gender-based violence, but addresses broader social ills. Putting aside Connell’s problematic use of the term ‘gender equality’ (because if ‘gender’ is a fundamentally hierarchical power system and therefore can’t become ‘equal’!), assuming that the intended meaning is equality of sexes and sexualities and that this is a key ingredient in preventing violence in all contexts, precisely what is it that needs to change?

Thus far in my research on conflict-related sexual violence, I’ve most frequently encountered work on its negative antecedents and aftermath, and also possibilities for post-conflict redress. Fortunately, these sometimes consider preventative measures like introducing harsher deterrent penalties for sexually-violent crimes, but prevention rarely means anything beyond that now-tired phrase, ‘challenging the culture of impunity’. Work that considers a more radical and transformative philosophy and politics (global, institutional, personal, intimate), that would logically lead to a reduction in all types of gender-based violence, appears rare. Writing on peace and ‘moral imagining’, J.P. Lederach argues that any substantive social change is necessarily preceded by an idealised vision of possibility which is sometimes dramatically unrealistic or even slightly mad. If we do think more radically, broadly and laterally, what precisely do we need for ground-breaking change in thought and in practice?

Philosophical work in peace studies offers some useful direction. Johan Galtung’s ideas about positive versus negative peace prompt thinking from a progressive rather than backward-thinking dimension. The current dominant global conception of peace appears stuck in a negative conception, where peace involves merely the absence of armed conflict and violence. Positive peace, however, involves active engagement with and efforts towards adequate living standards, economic, social and gender equality, and broad just outcomes for all. So this involves doing something, not just desisting from something.

Positive peace is therefore largely about addressing structural and institutional inequalities that create the foundations for much oppression, disadvantage, suffering and consequent conflict. Fundamental remaking of masculinist structures of power and governance, as well as major policy reworking, is necessary to address the sex and gender-based disadvantage that pervades most systems. The values and dynamics of many institutions also require a fundamental overhaul, for as long as powerful institutions such as politics and the military are hegemonic malestream at heart, violence will continue to be seen as

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a valid and viable potential solution to conflict. This normalisation of violence through powerful institutions needs to be altered, and supplanted with something inherently different.

Along with structural, institutional and cultural change must come shifts at the micro-level of personal conduct and interpersonal relations. Returning to Connell, we are reminded of the theoretical and practical importance of considering potential moments for disrupting the gender order, where unusual and transformative acts offer alternative possibilities forward. We might thus consider looking more closely as the many men who do not condone or commit

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violence, posing their way of living in a gendered world as a philosophical question about how change might come about. I have been fortunate enough to know many men who are prepared to examine their own place in the gender order, and to challenge a system that offers them power and privilege. From men who refuse to laugh at sexist jokes or to participate in misogynist subcultures, who actively question and challenge other men’s aggression or violence, who form rich and respectful friendships with women, and who insist upon sexual interactions based on constant consent and negotiation… perhaps it is such small, micro-level transformations that can offer inspiration for a future of sexual equality, justice and peace.

International Criminal Court’s case against Simone Ghabgbo: What it tells us about gender stereotypes in international law

Since the International Criminal Court (ICC) was first mooted in the 1990s, gender-oriented scholars and activists have been interested, and involved. These actors successfully campaigned for the inclusion of sexual violence crimes in the ICC Statute, along with provisions aimed at protecting victims’ rights and securing a gender balance on the bench. In the Court’s first decade of operations, these same actors have been closely monitoring the implementation of the gender elements of the Statute. They lobbied former Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo to pursue sex crimes in the Court’s early cases, and have strongly supported his successor, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, in her stated goal of focusing on these crimes during her time in office. 

While these gendered reflections on the ICC have been important and fruitful, there is further scope for a wider focus and greater nuance. It is troubling to observe gender justice scholars and activists using the term ‘gender’ interchangeably with ‘women’. Moreover, this gendered (female) subject is seen to occupy only a narrow range of roles. Most often, the gendered subject is the victim. Since the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals first swung into action, gender scholars and activists have called for justice for the (usually female) survivors of sexual violence crimes, and spoken about the difficulties of protecting and empowering these survivors at trial.

Sometimes, the gendered (again, code for female) subject wears court robes. Bensouda’s election to the office of Prosecutor was accompanied, although not necessarily motivated by, conversation about symbolism of female prosecutors. Gender scholars and activists often point to Judge Pillay’s interventions in the Rwanda tribunal that lead to the first conviction of genocidal rape as evidence of the value of female judges. More recently, some have welcomed Judge Benito’s dissenting judgment in the ICC’s first case, in which she recognized the sexual elements the recruitment of child soldiers, as evidence of the same thing.

These are necessary and important developments in a field that historically either entirely ignored women’s experiences or stereotyped them very narrowly. But rarely, if ever, is attention paid to the gender of the defendant. The two of us have discussed whether this is because the defendant is seen as genderless, or because all ICC defendant thus far have been male. In the end, these explanations point to the same thing: that men are seen as genderless, while women are seen as gendered. Even in the feminist discourse on international criminal law, the male is the norm, the neutral, genderless individual, while the woman is the deviation, the gendered individual, the Other.

Against this background, the ICC’s recent decision to seek the arrest of Côte d’Ivoire’s former first lady Simone Ggagbo is groundbreaking and conceptually challenging.  The arrest warrant describes Gbagbo as the suspected co-perpetrator of crimes against humanity, including rape and sexual violence, during the post-election violence in 2010 and 2011. Her husband Laurent Gbagbo, former President of Côte d’Ivoire, is also the subject of an ICC arrest warrant and may stand trial pending the outcome of current proceedings in The Hague.

Should Simone Gbagbo go to trial, she will be one of just four women to have been prosecuted in the international courts operating today although, as Diane Marie Amann has commented, numerous women stood trial in subsequent post-World War II proceedings. The Yugoslavia tribunal convicted Bosnian Serb politician Biljana Plavšić of persecution as a crime against humanity; the Rwanda tribunal convicted a former Rwandan government minister, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, of genocide and crimes against humanity; and charges were brought against Khmer Rouge minister Ieng Thirith in the Cambodia tribunal, although the trial has been  stayed as the defendant has been declared unfit.

It is precisely because it is so unusual for a woman to be charged with international crimes that when it does happen, it sparks questions about gender that we seldom think to ask when the accused is a man. The “normal” narrative, which positions masculinity, agency and violence on one side and femininity, passivity and victimization on the other, becomes suddenly visible. Once the narrative becomes visible, we can start to think critically about its implications in theory and in practice. Does it accurately reflect a universal balance of power? Or does it lock women into the role of the victim and preclude male survivors from receiving care and seeking redress?

The fact that Gbagbo is wanted in relation to sexual violence crimes also challenges gendered assumptions about culpability for sexual violence crimes. As is standard in ICC cases, Gbagbo is not alleged to have committed these crimes herself. Her position of power over those who (allegedly) committed these crimes is what makes her potentially liable under international criminal law. Thus regardless of whether the case proceeds to trial, the arrest warrant serves as a perhaps startling reminder that women may be the perpetrators of sexual violence, a notion that is largely unaccounted for in the gender justice discourse.

That said, the case against Simone Gbagbo could also serve to reinforce gender stereotypes. Even though the arrest warrant specifies Gbagbo’s alleged individual liability, her relationship as the wife of a powerful man could well be used to cast her as a faithful delegate rather than as an independent actor. Indeed, there seems already to be a struggle to define Gbagbo’s identity. The ICC press release defines her as “Mrs Gbagbo”, a title that has no equivalent for men, as men’s marital status has not historically been seen to subsume their identity. The warrant itself avoids this problem by referring to Gbagbo as “Ms Gbagbo,” however her identity as an individual is somewhat undermined by her description in this important legal document as the “alter ego” of her husband.

Whether the case against Simone Ghagbo complicates our understanding of the role of men and women in conflict situations, or reinforces existing gender norms, is yet to be seen. It certainly has the potential to do both. But all the actors involved at the Court, including the prosecutorial staff and defence counsel, judges and advocates, will need to tread carefully so as not to further entrench existing stereotypes which contribute to the perpetuation of conflict – particularly, sexual violence in conflict – in the first place.

— Rosemary Grey and Louise Chappell, University of New South Wales


Cross posted with permission from 8 Days of Activism on Women, Peace and Security, WPSAC