Think war, and the first thing that would come into the mind of a woman’s rights activist would be Sexual Violence. Doubtless, that war, conflict and all kinds of armed battle have horrible impacts. On the one hand, the polity and economy are crushed. On the other, the society is ripped apart. It doesn’t matter whose battle it is. It doesn’t matter why the battle prevails. It doesn’t matter who started it, or who fueled it, or who helps continue it. One thing that connects every battle is the untrammelled continuance of sexual violence.
Most people would say it is a common occurrence in wartime - with men taking to the armed forefronts, women are made the sole breadwinner of their families. This makes women vulnerable to attack, for it is they that keep society functioning despite fire. And what best can an enemy do to cripple that system, than by indulging in violence? The bodies of women become battlegrounds, as combatants and non-combatants exploit women sexually. What makes sexual violence so common on every warfront? What makes women the easiest targets? Yes, the fact is that rape is extremely effective in terrorizing, physically and psychologically. Yes, that rape destroys the basic unit of society: the family – by forcing the woman, and by extension, her husband and family, to suffer stigmatization.
But why is it such a common occurrence?
The answer lies in the fact that sexual violence already exists in peacetime. As much as gender violence is rooted in the institution of war, it is rooted in peace – sexual violence therefore subsists not in isolated intervals, but in a continuum. Bodies are always battlegrounds – be it in peace, or in war.
In peacetime, one doesn’t perhaps find as many occurrences in terms of numbers as in wartime, and that is the only difference. In both situations, sexual violence is a means to assert and show domination – a means for a man to control a woman. Peacetime evinces a situation where incidents are episodic, sporadic or scattered. The same offences manifest themselves in greater proportions during war. The manifestation in wartime is reflective of the prevalent notions in a socio-cultural setting – for this is what makes women doubly vulnerable to sexual violence in war. The thriving culture of already prevalent and uncontrolled impunity that war creates is an easy backdrop for added impunity in the form of sexual violence.
In peacetime, there is a rule of law system in place – but in war, the complete redundancy of a rule of law system rings the death-knell of prohibitive laws. Coupled with this is the sanctity that is attached to a woman’s modesty – this sanctity one speaks of does not stem from respect for women, but from the symbols that women are made out to be. Women are truly “sex objects”. Society requires that they represent of the code of honour of their families. Society makes them out to be the beacons of the honour, blood and lineage of their families. Consequently, their chastity and honour are no longer her property, but the property of the men tied to her – fathers, husbands and sons. It doesn’t matter that these women are violated with no role to play on their part whatsoever – they are just victims of violence – but, the moment they are violated, the women themselves are spurned.
Cultural salience attached to a woman’s modesty in peacetime reflects these connotations, which manifest into the treatment of women as mere chattels. Male dominance stems from these notions that surround the protection of female honour, which in turn, is inherent in many traditional cultures.
The countries that still continue to be hotspots of gender violence with a backdrop of war are essentially those that have a prevalent notion of chattel-like treatment of women. No wonder, therefore, that sexual violence is so effective in such instances, continuing to spread like wildfire.
In effect, therefore, bodies don’t turn battlegrounds in war, but remain the very same battlegrounds they were in peace.
The flaw lies in not recognizing peacetime sexual violence. The flaw lies in making women cultural property. The flaw lies in letting the criminals go, in peacetime, and in war time.
We punish the victims, and not the criminal. We punish the battlegrounds, and not the attacker.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Ending Gender-Based Violence 2012.