Sexual and gender-based violence is ubiquitous and exists across the peacetime-wartime continuum. In both contexts, SGBV is a representation of the dominance and aggression exercised by the patriarchy over women’s bodies. While in peacetime, the numbers are not the same in terms of scale as they are in conflict, sexual and gender-based violence takes place in an enabling environment made possible by social and cultural attitudes that normalize gender discrimination.
In armed conflict, particularly, bodies become social bodies and sites of violence with the greater intention of harming the societies the women belong to. Wartime sexual violence is a carefully deployed strategy to break the societies that are targeted with such violence. Any actor that deploys sexual violence as a war strategy is aware of the strong and robust nexus between gender equality and non-violence and the establishment of sustainable and durable peace, and wants to break exactly that. As the Cheyenne proverb goes, “A nation is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors or how strong its weapons.”
The mindsets and attitudes enabling such violence is rooted in the mindsets and attitudes that prevail in peacetime. A woman is deemed to represent the patriarchal hierarchy that commands her life: her husband, her family, and the community or province she represents. Women and girls are raised to assume that their bodies are the vehicles of honour and shame, and that safeguarding these are non-negotiable for their acceptance in society. If there were no prevalent concepts in peacetime that tied women’s bodies to notions of social honour and shame, that policed women’s bodies and freedoms, that prioritized notions of purity and tied it to the sexual and reproductive health rights of women, sexual and gender-based violence would not hold as a strategy in war.
In both armed conflict and during times of disaster, the enabling environment finds greater amplification with the breakdown of institutional machinery such as the security sector. With systems and structures either completely destroyed or being encumbered by the challenges of war or disaster, little to no recourse exists for women to seek justice or support after facing violence. The rampant impunity means that law and penal consequences stop serving as a deterrent in wartime.
The end result of such gender-based violence be it in peacetime or wartime, is a state of fragility. No society is completely peaceful if large sections of its population continue to feel unsafe, challenged, limited, and discriminated against. Rampant gender-based violence is a security threat and produces a weak, helpless form of negative peace that is in no one’s interest both in the present and in the future.
NB: Last week, I was invited to speak at a special session convened by the President of the General Assembly, with a specific focus on gender-based violence and its relation with peace and security. As part of the speech, I was invited to share a few recommendations on what governments may do to respond to this issue. The content above reflects a large part of my speech.