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Gender-based violence, not just in conflict situations

By Sophie Heigel

Reflections from the Gender, Peace and Security Coalition’s panel discussion with Nadine Puechguirbal, Monica Mendez, Dr Yvette Chesson-Wureh, Solene Brabant and Rola El-Masri.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is often followed by the successor “in conflict situations”. While the eruption of GBV in the presence of stressors, such as war, undoubtedly merits attention, it should not distract us from the underlying, enabling structures. The basis for GBV exists in society, in culture and customs, and GBV exists outside conflict situations. Focusing solely on conflict situations, generally does not lead to addressing the root causes of GBV.

GBV will take different forms, depending on the societal context. In Burundi, for example, militias have used GBV as a weapon and political tool since the 2015 crisis; songs have adopted lyrics about impregnating women of other ethnic groups. In Eastern Congo, security forces have fostered a “culture of rape”. In Mali, GBV takes the form of  female genital mutilation and is very much associated with tradition and culture. Then there is historical context, that extends its reach into the present: South Sudan and DRC have populations that have experienced levels of violence which leave them traumatised today, and which in turn may contribute to the replication of GBV. Here, many perpetrators are victims themselves.

In 2020, prolonged periods of confinement under the impact of COVID added a significant stressor to seemingly peaceful regions like Europe. With rates of GBV rising, COVID has uncovered that GBV-enabling structures persist.

The point is: GBV does not magically appear, it simmers and then erupts. Structural changes are needed to approach the issue at its root. Power is, though to varying degrees, biased towards men. Inequalities are also intersectional. Take the example of Mexico: gender, age, language, income, and ethnicity play a part in the complex network of inequality. The forms of GBV experienced will, therefore, vary among  different societal groups. However, it is important to highlight that female homicide in low-income groups (which tend to be indigenous) remains high. Due to their social standing, governments have little interest in pursuing justice for them.

To tackle GBV, power structures need to be changed. For the Liberian elections in 2011, Dr Chesson-Wureh established the Women Situation Room (WSR): as the country seemed to be on  the brink of war, the WSR provided the space for women to actively engage in peace and security issues, to take responsibility and to do this visibly. What also emerged from the conversation in this forum was that sexual violence persisted after the civil war had ceased. The perpetrators, in many places, were now in the position of “legitimate” power. How could women go to the police station to report sexual violence, if they  suspect the official to have committed the same crimes some years ago? 

As in most places in the world, the efforts to tackle GBV are ongoing. It is, however, essential to cherish the small and big victories along the way. In Liberia, women stood up, and politics responded by recognising the severity of the violence and hosting a four-day anti-rape conference. While this does not put an end to the rape crisis ravaging the country, it shows that formus such as the WSR make a difference by creating a voice that cannot be ignored – and a heard voice means power.

A similar approach is taken by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Rola El-Masri highlights the importance of not reducing women who experienced GBV to the  status of victims, but to shift the attention towards providing opportunities to claim agency. By making women economic agents, WILPF seeks to reduce the narrative of women and girls as passive recipients in need of (humanitarian) aid. How this can make a difference becomes very clear when looking back at the example of Mexico: there, homicides in low-income areas rest unattended as no one in a position of power is affected by the impact.  The victims presently have no leverage in pressuring for change. However, one of the many positive effects of WILPF’s work is that women with economic agency are more likely to have an influence on local decision-making processes. It is tilting the power imbalance.  

Lastly – Liberia  had a woman president from 2006 until 2018 (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf), and yet, GBV has not ceased. One often assumes that women in positions of power will take feminist decisions that take effect. There are two things to take into account here: firstly, the logic of patriarchy operates at all levels and will not be changed by a single woman in a position of power. The gender lens needs to be adopted across all institutions and levels to induce change at the household and policy level. Secondly, women often adapt to the logic of patriarchy to survive in the system. Once she finds herself in a position of power, she may not pursue measures to effect structural changes. Nadine Puechguirbal cited Audre Lorde when she stated that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

So, what does this leave us with? A dominant theme of the panel discussion was the persistence of GBV in non-violent situations and the need to change the system and power structures we are living in today. What also came across was the idea that these efforts need to occur across the globe, and while challenging the power structures should be the aim everywhere, the means on how to do this, especially regarding intersectional inequalities, are subject to local conditions.


Sophie Heigel is a Master’s student at the Graduate Institute, find her at @hglsophie, and the Gender, Peace and Security Coalition at @gpsc_iheid


Featured Photo: Aasawari Kulkarni/Feminism in India, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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