Written by Clara Delcourt, a Franco-Danish second year Politics student. Her specific interests involve gender equality in Scandinavian countries, French politics, and contemporary issues such as terrorism, climate change, and nuclear proliferation.
Sexual assaults of women in situations of conflicts and wars have long been mischaracterized and dismissed by both political leaders and traditional IR theorists as a private crime and a personal sexual act. However, rape within war and conflict should first and foremost be considered as a tactic of political repression and as deep-rooted in gender assumptions and stereotypes.
Rape is a strong political military strategy as it can show the weakness of a community and even destroy a culture. Of course rape is an act of violence against individual women who become traumatized and face both severe heath risks and unwanted pregnancy. But it also has the power to “install a disempowered masculinity as constitutive of the identities of the [community’s] men“ (Hansen 2014). The argument follows that because women are usually characterized as vulnerable and defenseless and are therefore depicted as the victims in a conflict, men have the duty to protect them. Seen in this light, rape becomes an effective and humiliating weapon, pointing at men’s failure to protect the community’s women.
To give an example, the Pakistani security forces are said to have raped between 200,000 and 400,000 East Pakistani (now Bangladeshi) women in order to crush the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence. The mass use of rape was not only barbarous and humiliating on an individual level, but also had “grave social costs“ for the women, their families as well as for the East Pakistani society (Skjelsbæk 2010) ; If not killed by their husbands, the violated women were blamed for loss of honor and were ostracized by the Bangladeshi society. Because of the gendered assumption that the vulnerable women should be protected by the community’s brave and strong men, rape has been an effective and powerful tactic of state violence against the East Pakistani population.
But does gender matter in state violence, and do more women in power make violence less likely? According to traditional IR theorists, on the contrary to men, women have a special relationship to peace. This relationship supposedly derives from their nature, and more specifically from their experience of maternity and child care (Steans 2013). A state run by a woman might therefore be less aggressive toward other states as well as less violent toward its citizens.
Contrary to the arguments of politicians and IR theorists, however, women do not have a special relationship to peace, and more female political leaders does not lead to less state violence in our international system. In reality, the correlation between peace and women should be contested as it is a gendered construction. This dichotomy actually disempowers women and exclused them from the public sphere and from the state level. The associations men/state violence and women/peace both reinforce the “stereotype of women as incapable of functioning in the public realm“, and reproduce a gendered dichotomy in which women are depicted as naive, weak and vulnerable (Steans 2013: 100). It is hard, however, to affirm that states run by female political leaders are less likely to be violent as there exists very few countries where women have occupied top positions of power. First of all at the present time, there are only 18 heads of state and/or government out of 195 nations, so assessment would be difficult. Second of all, many women who are or have been in power reflected a masculine type power. Indira Ghandi in India, Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Golda Meir in Israel are examples of female stateswomen who behaved exactly like men when in power. Margaret Thatcher, also called the ‘Iron Lady’, adopted for example so-called masculine values such as intransigence and firmness to lead the country.
Indira Ghandi and Margaret Thatcher in a male-dominated political world
We should be careful not to adopt the gender-biased assumptions of traditional IR theorists who systematically categorize women as the victims, and men as the perpetrators of state violence. Indeed, women can also be the perpetrators of state violence. The former Government Minister for Women and the Family, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, has for example not only facilitated the massacre of Tutsis in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, but has also ordered and directed rapes and killings with the final aim of wiping out the Tutsi population.
Thus, sexual abuse is not just a by-product of conflict situations, but is used as a weapon of war. Rape has assumed strategic importance and is now a deliberate military strategy. The effects of sexual violence in war and conflict situations greatly extend beyond individual victims and are physically, psychologically, and culturally devastating for families and a society as a whole. Indeed, because women are seen as the reproducers and carers of a community, rape is a powerful way of destroying it. However, I have shown that gender does not matter in violence, and that more female leadership does not lead to less global conflict. The assumption that the world would be more peaceful if women held key power roles largely depends on the gendered view that violent conflict are a male concern, and that women are biologically less aggressive that men. On the contrary, women who have held important leadership role have often embraced traditional masculine characteristics.
Hansen, L. (2014). “Gender, Nation, Rape: Bosnia and the Construction of Security“. International Feminist Journal of Politics. 3 (1), pp. 55-75
Skjelsbæk, I. (2010) “The Elephant in the Room: An Overview of How Sexual Violence came to be Seen as a Weapon of War“, Report to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, Peace Research Institute Oslo, pp. 2-56
Steans, J (2013) Gender and International Relations. Cambridge: Wiley