The following written account is one piece in a collection on our VOICES blog focused on the gendered experience in conflict and how gender differences should factor into the protection of civilians.
From the halls of Congress to the stage at the Oscars, from domestic workers to journalists and others in media, multitudes of women have been bringing public attention to the gender-based violence and misconduct they have experienced by using the hashtag #MeToo. This movement has taken the issue of gender-based violence out of the shadows and demonstrated that women across the globe, regardless of their country of origin, occupation, ethnic or religious background, or socioeconomic status, experience sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) at much higher rates than men.
Nowhere is this truer than in areas affected by armed conflict.
Recent studies have shown that countries with high levels of gender equality are less likely to experience conflict. In communities impacted by conflict, inequality, and SGBV are further exacerbated for several reasons, including lack of accountability, uneven power dynamics, and an overall culture of impunity. Even before the #MeToo movement began, advocates, grassroots leaders, and celebrities were already working relentlessly to create awareness of the problem of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) and counter the narrative that such violence is a normal part of conflict. In the words of Nadia Murad, an Iraqi woman belonging to the Yazidi minority who was taken prisoner by ISIS but escaped and went on to share this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with Dr. Dennis Mukwege for her work to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict:
“The protection of the Yazidis and all vulnerable communities around the world is the responsibility of the international community and international institutions in charge of defending human rights, the protection of minorities, the protection of the rights of women and children, especially in areas where conflicts and internal wars take place.”
Both as civilians and combatants, women experience many forms of violence in conflict, including SGBV. In the course of our work with civilians, we have heard from both women and men in conflict-affected communities about the challenges SGBV creates in navigating their daily lives. For instance, women who are, or are assumed to be, family members of fighters are often targeted by security actors and experience harassment within their communities, affecting their ability to move freely and provide for their families. In areas where civilians affected by conflict receive aid and other humanitarian support, women and girls have been forced to provide sexual favors and bribes in order to receive their portion of support. In many cases, women have been faced with the impossible choice to either put themselves at risk of violence or save their husbands, brothers, and sons who, as men, are often targeted to be killed or kidnapped. The prevalence of child marriage, which disproportionately affects girls, increases in conflict-affected countries as families, intending to provide protection, inadvertently do more harm given the violence that can occur in such relationships. The violence doesn’t end once civilians leave areas of active conflict; in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons, domestic violence and harassment of women and girls occur daily. Further, those who take on these challenges – women’s rights advocates and those in decision-making positions within communities or countries transitioning out of conflict – risk political violence against themselves and their families.
Appropriate responses to such violence require understanding the complexity of such violence in the context of armed conflict.
Under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), women and men, civilians and combatants alike, are afforded equal protection. Nearly twenty years ago, UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security took a step further and identified protection from SGBV as a key pillar of the agenda. In 2008, through the adoption of UNSCR 1820, CRSV was declared a war crime and a crime against humanity. That declaration made clear that rape as a weapon of war is a crime, but what about other examples of SGBV in conflict? In many cases, civilians have the answer.
At CIVIC, we recognize that civilians are not merely victims of armed conflict; civilians can be active participants in conflict mitigation and resolution. Strategies to address violence include methods to actively minimize the risk of being in vulnerable situations where SGBV can occur. In our work with community protection working groups, for example, civilian women share their strategies with other civilians and advocate for smarter and practical protection efforts by military and other security personnel. In one such dialogue, civilians called for an increase in security presence during times when women had to leave a secure zone in order to collect firewood and, as such, were more vulnerable to SGBV. Security forces responded accordingly and, as a result, provided better protection to over 3,500 people within that community.
This example also demonstrates the significant role of security actors in addressing these concerns. Security actors have both a responsibility and an interest to prevent and address civilian harm during conflict. Our efforts to facilitate civilian-military dialogues provide a platform, including through difficult but crucial conversations surrounding SGBV and violence against women, to improve protection measures. In these conversations, as civilians can discuss harms they experience and security actors can explain challenges they face, both groups can start to build trust, deepen understanding, and develop solutions.
Under IHL, all civilians – men, women, boys, and girls – should be afforded protection from violence in conflict. Specific resolutions have recognized the ways that women and girls are acutely impacted in conflict and the need to address – and end – CRSV and SGBV against anyone. The era of #MeToo is an opportunity to better understand this violence, foster institutional and cultural change, and develop and implement better protection measures as a result.