Jessica Horn: Every act of violence is a choice

Publication Date: 
May 26, 2011
"In this house we want a life free of violence against women". Local campaign in Suchitoto, El Salvador.

“Sometimes we need to name the abnormal as abnormal, and take action to defend what is normal!” - Shereen Essof. Jessica Horn reports at the close of the Nobel Women's Initiative conference, 'Women Forging a New Security: ending sexual violence in conflict'.

In a caucus to gather input for the global campaign  to End Violence Against Women, one of its founders Charlotte Bunch reiterates the basic feminist point, now underlying human rights-based laws and policies on sexual violence- that “rape is about power, not sex”. If we take that basic premise to be true, then how do we understand why sexual violence happens in conflict? And what do we then need to do to prevent it?

Over the past three days of the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference participants have interrogated the issue of sexual violence in war and politically motivated conflict, assessing responses thus far and generating ideas for further action. In the discussion, three arenas of perpetration have emerged. The first is the now publicly discussed and arguably most visible practice of sexual violence perpetrated by formal armies and rebel forces against women and girls, and sometimes men and boys, in the context of conflict and/or as part of an overt tactic of war. The second is the sexual violence and broader sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by armed forces and humanitarian agencies deployed to protect and support civilian populations in contexts of conflict. On this issue, the emergence of evidence implicating UN peacekeepers and humanitarian staff in abuse of women and girls in west Africa was cause of significant controversy in the early 2000s, prompting the  on peacekeeping within the UN system, and a slew of policies in the UN and non-governmental humanitarian agencies to address this. The third, focuses on addressing sexual and other gender-based violence that occurs within the security sector and armed forces themselves (an issue Jenny Morgan  on for openDemocracy in the context of the US military). While violators wear different clothing- the crisp uniforms of the trained solider, the t-shirt of a humanitarian worker, or the second hand clothing of the rebel- the reality is that almost all those who perpetrate sexual violence are men. 

At a popular level rapists are often framed as men who are unable to control their ‘natural’ sexual urges. At its worst, this argument places the blame on the person who is raped for having enticed or create an opportunity that a man could not ‘resist’. This extends into many militaries where, as one participant put it, there is still a latent “status quo of conquer, loot and rape”. While sexual violence has certainly been used as an orchestrated tool of war, it is important to remember that individual acts of perpetration are not always driven by a tactical agenda or have tactical impact. So sexual violence then, may not simply be another ‘weapon’ in a soldier’s or rebel’s arsenal. Nobel Laureate Jodi Williams, known for her successful leadership in the campaign against landmines, but also herself a survivor of sexual violence at the hands of a member of a death squad in El Salvador is clear that the notion of rape as an inevitable aspect of war is a fallacy: “every act of violence is achoice.”

And so what then makes men choose to violate women? , who has spent time in the field interviewing Congolese Mai Mai rebels credited with some of the now infamous rapes of women in their country argues that there are a range of factors, from dehumanising rebel training, to a desire to revenge violence that they have experienced in their own lives. When it comes to the armed forces, Anja Ebnoethe, Assistant Director of Geneva Centre for  points to research that shows that indiscipline and corruption are key enabling factors for sexual violence and subsequent impunity in national armies and peacekeeping forces. However the step from a sense of personal inadequacy, anger or indiscipline to performing acts of sexual violence in particular- and the array of ways it is enacted from gang rape to forced incest to sexual slavery and rape using guns or bottles- requires another layer of analysis. Is it enough to see sexual violence as just another form of interpersonal violence? Or does its gendered basis also tell us something more about its underlying causes?

Burmese prodemocracy activist Aung Saan Suu Kyi argues that “violence starts in the mind” as a deeply embedded aspect of patriarchal culture, manifesting itself in men’s sense of superiority and unqualified access to women’s bodies, and women’s sense of disempowerment and subordination. This might help in explaining the uphill task of creating and sustaining high level political will to work on, not least resource work, against violence against women. To name one example, the UN Secretary General’s  committed to ending violence against women still has a relatively small number of men signed up in public support. Thus while policy and legal reform and service provision are all essential and necessary aspects of confronting sexual violence, the task of ending it requires a deeper level of transformation, what Guatemalan activist Patricia Ardon calls a “change in the social imaginary”.

We know that while some men and boys do rape, others don’t and never would. Indeed, some men and boys actively reject the notion of sexual violence as a legitimate expression of their masculinity, and stand up to defend this principle in their homes, streets and even, as  has written on openDemocracy, in the context of war. Affirming a worldview and individual choices to respect rather than violate women and girls bodies is a critical step in this change and at the heart of preventing sexual violence. In Suchitoto in El Salvador, activists have taken on the task of deeper transformation on, and are changing social attitudes through a family-driven campaign, with people stencilling a message on their front doors that reads “In this house we want a life free of violence against women”. This is one in a series of examples of community-based campaigns to challenge the acceptance of violence and shine a questioning light on those who do not take a stand against violation, rather than direct stigma onto those who are violated.

As Zimbabwean activist and academic Shereen Essof puts it, “sometimes we need to name the abnormal as abnormal, and take action to defend what is normal!”.

About the author: Jessica Horn is a writer and women’s rights consultant currently living in Sierra Leone. She is a founding member of the African Feminist Forum and co-editor of 'Voice, Power and Soul: Portraits of African Feminists'.

To read openDemocracy 50.50's full coverage of the conference click .