Using Intersectionality to understand and respond to Sexual Violence in Conflict
At first, rape and sexual violence was understood to be by-products of war. With time, it came to light that they were war tactics and carefully devised strategies in the way they were planned and executed — as several conflicts around the world have proven to be true. However, to understand the “why” of sexual violence in conflict, one needs to rely on intersectionality.
Gender-based and sexual violence are weapons of war. They are common in nearly every conflict. Up until recent times, the calculated approach behind using sexual violence in conflict has been ignored, and seldom considered in strategies developed to respond to sexual violence. The first step in the understanding is that sexual and gender-based violence is rooted in peacetime, and it is this that is amplified, enlarged and emphasised upon during conflict. To this end, then, it is a given that gender-based and sexual violence is ubiquitous and exists as a phenomenon in a “continuum” of sorts between peacetime and wartime.
The common denominator
In both peacetime and wartime, gender-based and sexual violence are a representation of the dominance and aggression of toxic and hegemonic masculinity, and of the fact that non-male bodies become focal points for aggressive discrimination based on ascribed sex or identified gender. The only difference in both situations of peacetime and wartime lies in the proportion and scale at which such violence takes place. During peacetime, there are scattered or episodic instances of violence that take place — inside homes, in public places, at work places and what not. The numbers are staggering, but the incidents are not part of a concerted strategy or plan that is executed with a view to create larger damage. The bodies are “individual” in that the cases are separate incidents and sexual and gender-based violence is not pursued as a policy of collective dominance, but of individual dominance in each equation.
In wartime, the scale and proportion is far higher, the approach to sexual and gender-based violence in most instances are concerted, planned and part of a larger strategy that involves breaking the enemy, or the dissidents, or anyone that is considered on the opposing side. Bodies become ‘social bodies’, and the number of events taking place toll far higher — both, as a matter of policy of dominance that is calculated and executed by a select bunch, and as a matter of opportunity / dominance / frustration exercised by any one — connected (directly or indirectly) and unconnected with the conflict.
Sexual and gender-based violence in war
Wartime gender discrimination and violence is proof of the prevalent undercurrent of socio-cultural dynamics that speak of gender discrimination in peacetime. This is precisely the reason for the “effectiveness” of gender-based and sexual violence in war in breaking a nation’s social order. If there were no prevalent concepts in peacetime of honour, shame, sexuality, sacredness of virginity and modesty, gender-based and sexual violence cannot function so effectively in war. The surrounding element of cultural salience in peacetime surrounding a woman’s honour is a reflection of the connotations that sexuality has in peacetime.
The dynamics of hegemonic masculinity and its resultant conduct of dominance stem from the notions surrounding the protection of female honour, which in turn, is inherent in many traditional cultures. Most countries that have remained thriving hotbeds of impunity with gender-based and sexual violence in wartime are those that are peppered with a sanctimonious perception of women as sex objects in peacetime. By “sex objects”, the connotation intends to convey that women are representatives of the code of honour of their families and the code of honour of their blood and lineage. This in turn leads to the augmented sanctity attached to the notions of virginity, chastity, honour and virtue of a woman. Women themselves are brought up with the preconditioning that their honour and shame are non-negotiable elements for their acceptance in society. A woman is deemed the representation of the honour of the three-tiered hierarchy that commands her life: her husband, her family, and the community or province she represents.
This is essentially where intersectionality comes into play. In an internal armed conflict, or a civil war, the deployment of sexual violence is often calculated as a means to breakdown an ethnic group. For instance, in Guatemala, during the Mayan Ixil Genocide, there was an element of ethnic discrimination involved that set the tone for the conflict in itself. Consequently, the ethnic factor proved to be the basis for the sexual violence inflicted on the women of the Mayan Ixil community.
Understanding intersectionality will help us see that given the importance of and emphasis upon a woman’s chastity, monogamy and fertility in peacetime, it becomes clear why and how women become the critical targets of enemy combatants in a state of war. An act of violence against women is a means for combatants to show their control over the “sexual property” in a conflict.
Sexual violence in peacetime is often construed as crimes against the individual — while in war, the very same offences gain greater magnitude. The continued subsistence of a culture of silence in peacetime is a springboard for the unhindered occurrence of violence against women in war. In effect, therefore, bodies don’t turn battlegrounds when peace changes to war, but remain battlegrounds through peace and war.