10 reasons why I am writing a dissertation on sexual violence in war

julio 7, 2016

By Mariella de la Cruz Taboada (UAM)

Marsha Henry, lecturer in Gender, Development and Globalisation at the Gender Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE), wrote a post about why students should not write their master’s dissertation on the topic of sexual violence in war. As someone who is currently writing her dissertation (albeit, her undergrad dissertation), I give my ten reasons why writing about sexual violence in war is actually a good idea.

10. It challenges the writer to go beyond the sexual violence context

One cannot simply write about sexual violence without at least trying to understand some feminist theories and learning about the social context of the countries in which this practice took or takes place. Each country is different, each society is different. However, the purpose behind the use of rape and other formas of sexual violence is the same: to undermine the social tissue and to humiliate the person who suffers it, for a long period of time.  In order to understand why some groups decide to use this weapon (rape and sexual violence are not inherent to war) it is necessary to go beyond the crime itself and analyse what is behind it.

9. It helps to broaden future research

While I do accept Henry’s point that research has focused mainly on women, I do not believe this narrows the topic. For centuries the use of sexual violence in war has been neglected and the main group targeted by this practice are indeed women. It is quite logical that, now that attention has been paid, women are at the centre of the conversation.

However, unlike Henry, I do not believe this implies that we ignore other groups. As I mentioned in my previous point, the person researching this topic will have to research and understand about feminist theories. One of the many reasons for focusing on women has to do with their ongoing stigmatisation. After all,  it is hard to make communities accept women who have been raped and many never tell their stories because of shame. The earlier the taboo surrounding sexual violence in conflict is shattered, the more possibilities we have to reach other groups affected by it and the better chances we have to defeat patriarchal narratives. This will open the door for men and the visualisation of them as victims.

Researching this sort of topics will also make you aware of the existence of other problems regarding sexual violence and other actors involve. Until very recently the use of sexual violence by peacekeeping troops was a well guarded secret. The more we talk about and encourage research on this topic, the more cases will come out to the world and the more uncommon silence will become.

8. Non perpetuation of regional stereotypes

To those unfamiliar with the use of rape or other forms of sexual violence as a weapon of war, this sort of events must seem as a reality only happening in specific places. In reality, it happens in many places around the globe and more frequently that we would think. From the times of British and Spanish conquests to the Syrian war, rape represents a crime as old as war itself and it is not exclusive to one región. Considering the atrocities that took place in Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo, many in the western world might have wrongly assumed rape is an inherent characteristic of African conflicts. However global history proves that assumption wrong. Guatemala, Peru, the former Yugoslavia and Syria are some of the places that exemplify how this is a global phenomenon and not a regional one. 

It is important to stress this point as it helps to understand why this is an issue the whole world should pay attention to. This is not a regional problem, nor an African thing.

7. Men are bad, bad creatures. Or maybe not?

Now, while men are the main subjects of prosecution (after all, armies are composed mainly by men, as well as the ruling political classes), this in no way means that women cannot be found responsible for this horrendous crime.

A groundbreaking sentence came from the International Criminal Tribunal  for Rwanda when Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the Rwandan minister for Family Welfare and the Advancement of Women, was convicted for genocidal rape.

This not only represented the first time, and so far the only one, that a woman was convicted for inciting the commission of rape, but it also means that when confronting the reality of sexual violence in conflict, we must leave behind the misconception that only men can be the perpetrators of rape.

Moreover, as I have mentioned before, women are not the only victims, is equally important to highlight that women can be held responsible. This has a major impact in how we research and how we perceived the gender narratives. Not because I belong to one gender means that I automatically belong to the victim category.

Challenging the narrative of one gender as victims and the other as  perpetrators should be a motivation to commit to a in-depth research and to avoid drawing conclusions lightly.

6. The need to research in other languages

One of the things I found absolutely disturbing while researching was the lack of materials in Spanish, which happens to be my mother tongue. Actually, when I thought of this topic as my dissertation proposal, I immediately started searching in English. Later on I found other texts in Spanish, but even when I consulted with professors, I got a pen drive full of materials in English. What do I want to say with this?. Well, that we need more research about sexual violence in conflict and we need it in several languages.

Lately, the British government has been doing a remarkable work promoting the end of rape in war. Pushing for more commitments at the United Nations and calling countries to make a stand against this hideous practice. It is not a coincidence an english speaking country is the one leading the fight. The bulk of research in that language has certainly helped to raise awareness on the matter. If other nations are to take part in this sort of initiatives, the research in understanding why it happens, where is used, how to prevent and how to prosecute effectively becomes vital.

Write now I am writing this post in English because is easier and I find myself struggling trying to write a whole dissertation in Spanish, specially after all the information I have gathered comes in a different language.

Now, I do not pretend to be an authoritative voice in Spanish, but I do believe that we need more writings on the topic. Henry states that students should not write a dissertation about something that has already been researched enough and that won’t allow you make any new contributions, but I don’t agree with her. Maybe my dissertation won’t have any groundbreaking solution, but it is my only chance to research about a topic that is not taught in my degree(law) and it will be written in Spanish, for a change.

5.  Recognition, even when it comes decades too late and comparing cases

For me this has always been a topic of interest. I wrote my first paper on it from a historical point of view for my IB history paper. As a law student I have been able to gain a new perspective. The transition from an enrage sixteen year old to a calmer twenty three final year law student has made me understand things that were out of my comprehension a few years ago.

But even when now I do understand the social context behind the crime, I still believe that researching and seeking to understand the reality the surrounds sexual violence in a way looks to compensate the debt society has with victims who for many years were ignored, considered not worthy of recognition or as mere side effects of a bigger problem, war.  To finally pay attention to them, to learn from past mistakes and to try to understand why throughout its vast history mankind has failed to recognise and to stop this crime.

We not only help current victims, but open the conversation about previous ones and recognise them with the same status as other victims from other crimes. As simple as it may sound, this is sometimes what victims look for, the acknowledgment of their pain as a valid one and to receive the same recognition other sufferers have. Sometimes lawyers obsess with lengthy sentences and trials, and loose sight of what really is at stake, a person or a group of persons whose lives will never be the same.

Researching about diverse episodes in history will not change how things happened, but we must look back in order to look forward. The study of past cases can teach us how to approach recent ones.

4. How to reconcile justice and peace in post conflict societies?

Investigating about this topic does give you a perspective of what has happened, the nature and the power of such weapon, but also the imperative need to address the situation in post conflict societies.

While there have been advances in the legal development, rape in war is still hard to prove, hard to prosecute and even harder to get included in reconciliation and transitional justice programs.

The achievement of peace is such a priority on the political agenda that governments most of the time choose to ignore other issues regarded as residual or not that important. Sadly, most of those issues have to do with the use of sexual violence.

Reconciling the necessity of peace and the rightful ambitions of justice is a task we must address. For those writing on the topic it is quite obvious that this is a situation that deserves attention and that there cannot be a lasting peace if individuals do not feel they have achieved justice. Thus, there are worrying trends of widespread sexual violence in post conflict societies where rape was used as a weapon of war and was not took into account by transitional justice.

3. Highlighting the role of female judges

One of the critical things that some do not appreciate or maybe choose to overlook is how important the access of women to top judicial positions has been for the advance of women’s rights.

To analyse how the presence of female judges (see the International  Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia) has influenced the legal development is an interesting point.

So, why is this relevant in a dissertation about sexual violence? Female judges (more sensitive to a reality affecting mostly, but not exclusively, women) have been crucial to the consideration of sexual violence as a weapon and to therefore achieve sentences for the use of rape for genocidal or ethnic cleansing purposes. 

The voices of these women actually achieved change and they helped to add another perspective to a situation often dismissed as unimportant. The more voices, and the more different sectors of society are represented in tribunals, political establishments, academia, etc, the more accurately we can bring justice to the many sufferings civilian population suffers during conflict. It sheds a light in what it was perceived as a perpetual blackhole. 

As mentioned before, researching about the topic, at least from my perspective, does not mean to focus on the crime itself and never trying to understand the causes that made this crime so relevant. As a law student, is important to understand the processes that led to the recognition of sexual violence in war as «worthy» of being prosecuted by international tribunals, specially how this became a thing in the 1990’s and it was not important in previous times.

2. Looking for a more «humanitarian» humanitarian international law

One of the descriptions I read about humanitarian international law was the following: «law made by men for other men». This summarised the author’s thesis that it was never of the interest of IHL to protect women. A quick read of the early protocols and conventions of IHL, will conclude that either women were forgotten or were only found worth mentioning as members of a family, most specifically, members of a family led by a man.

Article four of Protocol II of the Geneva Convention lists rape as one of the acts that «shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever». And the Fourth Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol I require «protection for women and children against rape, enforced prostitution or any other form of indecent assault». And that’s it, those are the two articles that mention rape specifically. While others have been understood to cover sexual violence, they do not include the words rape or sexual violence.

And this is important because the Geneva Conventions are the main instrument available and probably the foundation where the legal construction of law of the armed conflicts rest. 

I know a lot has been discussed about this topic in the past twenty years and that research has managed to shift the focus from the obsession with the military and the battlefields to the hors de combat. We need to continue with that shift, not to forget those fighting the wars, but creating a balance and covering all actors involve in a conflict.

That is one of the things I want to achieve with my investigation, maybe not in this dissertation, but yes in a future. How from a legal perspective we can make humanitarian law more «humanitarian», focusing on the individuals going through conflict. The inclusion of women is a start. And the inclusion of weapons mainly affecting women is a good place to start.

1. It matters, they matter, we must care

For many years the global community has neglected victims of sexual violence in war, most likely a reflection of the neglect sexual violence victims as whole receive by their societies.

However there is a moment when it becomes too much to bear. Rwanda and The Former Yugoslavia were so terrible that it enraged the world, a world that has previously chose to ignore Guatemala, Bangladesh, Korea, among others. The political will to end with this practice might be still far away, but that should not stop us from trying to find an explanation and to find solutions. Most of us still ask why certain individuals choose to participate in the infliction of a pain so grave and why societies blame victims over the perpetrators.

Those answers won’t come if we just sit back and wait for others to look for them. So as repetitive as the dissertations might be for some people or as ill informed some seem to be about the reality surrounding sexual violence in armed conflicts, there is a need to research and find those answers.

William Hague, the former UK Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Commonwealth Affairs, stated that «Our generation has the opportunity, and the responsibility, to confront the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war». I don’t believe I have the weight of such pressing issue over my shoulders but, as a law student I am aware that there is a link between peace and justice. We cannot aim for peace when we ignore the suffering of a great part of the population. 

Researching for me involves not only knowing about sexual violence, but knowing why, how and when it happens. I do not aim to write about how rape happens in a certain place of the world, because even when now it can be localised in certain regions, it has happened everywhere. So I need to know about previous cases, compare them and analyse the legal development to understand what we have achieved so far and what is still left to achieve.

I agree with Marsha Henry as she rightfully points that students sometimes lack of the general perspective and focus too much on the problem itself, failing to understand that while an important problem, sexual violence is a part of an even bigger picture. For instance, the use of rape in the DRC is not the same as the one happening in Syria now. The weapon is the same but the purpose the targeted group and the perpetrators differ. There are mistakes in how we approach the topic, but I do not think that means we should not write about it, quite on the contrary I believe it only invite us to keep researching and to informed ourselves better.

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