On November 25, Women’s groups, national and international NGO and national governments launched the first day of the 16 days of activism against Gender Violence Campaign. The theme this year “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and Violence Against Women” highlights the need to actively and creatively address gender based violence (GBV) in a number of context, in the home, the private sphere and the public sphere.
While there are many ways to define gender based violence one cannot question the fact that it is a form of direct discrimination that affects predominately women and girls. Constant advocacy and campaigning has ensured that over the years gender based violence (GBV) has attracted more attention on the global stage starting with the implementation of SCR 1325 and more recently SCR 1960 passed in 2010. Unfortunately in many cases GBV has been associated with conflict, war and civil war an assumption that disregards the presence of GBV in the home even in times of peace.
In a recent interview Zainab Salbi the Founder and President of Women for Women International summed up the definition of armed conflict in seven words: “war is just a microcosm of peace.” The very elements that are magnified in times of armed conflict were present long before the violence broke out, during times of peace. However it is only possible to identify these elements through the accurate reporting, recording and publishing of events prior, during and after the outbreak of war.
Growing up in Africa, moving from year to year I experienced the same countries both at peace and war on several occasions. Often too young to completely understand the situation, I was old enough to experience the election of Yowari Museveni in Uganda after the dictatorship of Milton Obote, watch post-war Mozambique put its newly reformed justice system to work, to try and prosecute the murderer of Carlos Cardoso and noticed the predominance of violence in “peaceful” post apartheid South African society. It slowly dawned on me that there is no exact answer or accurate logic to the manifestation of violence and that understanding the events that led to the outbreak of violent conflict were essential in restoring some form of stability and necessary for the construction of positive peace.
Understanding the way in which violence was built into structures and systems that were part of everyday life; and how it “shows up as unequal power and consequently unequal life chances” (Galtung, 1969:171-172) is indispensable to resolving the puzzle that is violent armed conflict. GBV is a direct reflection of unequal power relations. Before going any further it is essential to agree that any insult to our human needs is a form of violence, and if some of our needs are relative, then increased levels of inequality may in themselves constitute a form of violence.
In all three cases rape and other forms of GBV were present before the outburst of violent, armed conflict. In Uganda women have retained a conservative role, struggling to break the glass ceiling. Domestic violence is often dealt with at the village level with the courts unable to address the issue as a result of financial, administrative constraints and the stigma still attached to being declared a rape victim. While the recent state of neither war-neither-peace in Uganda and the gradual militarization of society are bound to have adverse effects on women specifically due to the conservative rhetoric that defines women as home makers, confined to the private sphere and “good men” as soldiers, strong and brave.
Mozambique provides a slightly different example; still recovering from a brutal civil war in which rape provided a strategic weapon of war with tragic consequences the government has recognized the importance of addressing violence against women. Trauma centers, HIV/AIDS Clinic and Psychosocial therapy were all part of program, but structural inequalities persist due to the obstacles women face to accessing state resources, education and employment. Violence against women in Mozambique has adopted a different shape; women face discrimination and structural violence on a daily basis because the state has not fully recognized their needs and rights to equality on all levels.
Lastly South Africa has provided an inspiration to many countries and as a result of a strong civil society movement that has spear headed the fight against GBV. Yet South Africa retains one of the highest levels of rape in Africa, a fact that requires further analysis. The presence of high levels of GBV in South Africa labeled a “peaceful” country reveals some interesting observations about the presence of violence in the home regardless of the absence of violent armed conflict or war. Like in the other two countries gender inequality and discrimination is manifested in a number of ways, both in direct and indirect ways.
Does this mean that violence (GBV) is norm and how has violence been institutionalized in society? These three cases reveal that the more excluded women are the more militaristic, ethnically marginalized and conflict-prone state politics become (Lahai, 2010:4). If we are to understand GBV within this context then combating GBV requires a multi-dimensional approach that challenges the manifestation of direct and indirect violence. An approach that also targets gender inequality in terms of political representation, access to economic resources, and equal legal status in the public and private sphere on a daily basis in times of war and peace.
The World Development Report 2012 reflects a similar approach but fails to adequately illustrate the interplay between GBV and the nationally perceived status of women in the home and in the public sphere. The European Union has been an active actor in fighting Gender Based Violence abroad, taking part in gender inclusive exercises such as the “Ending FGM Campaign,” training peace keepers to deal with GBV, and encouraging the role of women in national police, security force and as peace mediators in transitional governments.
Unfortunately what the European Union appears to advocate abroad, differs greatly from what it practices at home where it has retained a bystander position, unwilling to take a public stance. GVB is viewed as an issue that affects the Global South, countries in conflict or in the process of economic development. The remedy is administered through a strong dose of ‘name calling,’ campaigns, lobbying against the consequences of GBV and through foreign policy. GBV in Europe, in this case Belgium is silenced and kept within the confines of the home. I retain a vivid childhood memory of our neighbour sending her kids around to our apartment in the fading summer evenings because she feared the impact of a drunken husband on weekends. Although I was too young to understand the full extent of these actions I remember wondering why she did not seek out help.
I received my answer many years later when volunteering at a social centre for immigrant women in Brussels. Many of these women faced obstacles in accessing basic services. Although various legal documents have acknowledge the presence of GBV and the need to proactively address the root causes; victims still struggle to have access to judicial and physiological services, while minority groups, asylum seekers and refugees face cross-sectional discrimination.
In some cases violence against women is even justified as illustrated by a work colleague’s negligent remark “and then she is surprised when she is raped…..look at the length of her skirt.” Violence against women and GBV is marginalised it is not recognised as an issue of priority.
Gender exclusion refers to the lack of women’s participation, and the ignorance of the human consequences of gender behind policies i.e. the way policies are experienced by men and women (Jenkins & Reardon, 2007:220). The recent austerity measures in the United Kingdom, Belgium and a number of other European countries will disproportionally affect women; the refusal by a number of governments to acknowledge the “care-economy” is a direct attack on gender inequality in the home and in the workplace-an example of structural gender based violence.
The latest Red Cross Report (2011) highlights the need for a broader conception of GBV and emphasises the need to critically analyse the environment in which violence against women takes place. We cannot apply policies abroad that we do not comply to at home. The general lack of political will in both African and European states is illustrated by the lack of resources attached to addressing the issue of GBV.
Furthermore, donors arrive with their own views, definitions and remedies for GBV, while well intentioned they sometimes disregard local, beliefs and hierarchal structures. Policy leaders, the media and humanitarian agencies point to the number of women and children victims as a way of justifying intervention, emphasizing the vulnerability of these groups in society (HRW, 2007, 2010; Amnesty International, 2007; ICRC). Such a construction only plays into stereotypes of men as aggressive and women as innocent.
Policies and programs are too narrowly focused on ensuring human rights, access to public health and gender equality and hence fail to understand or address the wider spectrum of the problem. Violence against women occurs at the intersection of different types of discrimination. It was also in this context that I came to understand the importance of field research and community based projects. The women I worked with had very defined goals and objectives for addressing their needs and tackling inequality unfortunately when applying for funding the conditions imposed by international donors neglected these diverging viewpoints.
The acceptance of pre-war violence shapes what people will tolerate in war times therefore understanding the presence of gender-based violence in times of “peace” is key to addressing the use of rape and GBV as a weapon in times of violent and armed conflict.
The European Union has much to learn from the way Mozambique and South Africa have addressed GBV, the first step to tackling GBV is recognising its presence. Fighting GBV begins in the home, maybe addressing gender equality on the political and socio-economic, public and private sphere can offer some insight in combating GBV. It is time to challenge the social characteristics attached to both men and women but such a transformation requires women to viewed as equals in the home, and the work place, and respected for their contribution to both. Most importantly understanding the presence of GBV in time of “peace” offers vital insight into the root causes of violent armed conflict and the role of women in society.
By Veerle Triquet
Veerle holds an MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Growing up in Africa , Veerle have been privileged to volunteer with several grassroots organizations that worked with women and children. Whilst working for the Mon Youth Political Party as a member of BVP (Burma Volunteer Program), Veerle took part in various Human Rights Advocacy Workshops that focused specifically on the needs and experiences of youth and women. Although her professional career is only beginning, her academic path reflects an interest in gender, human security and development with a particular “curiosity” for the relationship between gender and security.