Sexual violence in the aftermath of armed conflict: The public/private divide on a global scale

Cheaper than ammunition with high impact on civilian populations, sexual violence perpetrated against women by rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has become a weapon of fear, control and intimidation. Removed from the notion of entitlement to the spoils of war, women’s bodies are now a site of struggle and a bargaining tool in a political and economic agenda.

The DRC case is one of unprecedented viciousness where, over four days from 30 July to 4 August 2010, rebels of the FDLR group led by Hutu insurgents (of Rwandan genocide infamy), along with Congolese Mai Mai militia, systematically gang-raped about 240 civilians of Luvungi. The majority of the victims targeted by rebel forces were women. Luvungi is located near Walikele in the mining district of North Kivu in eastern DRC where battles between armed groups are waged for control of lucrative mineral resources in an unsettled political environment. Prior to the attack by rebel forces on Luvungi, United Nations (UN) peacekeepers had been withdrawn from outposts in North Kivu despite warnings that this move would increase the difficulty in preventing incidences of sexual violence perpetrated against civilians. Community leaders also brought the threat of such attack to the attention of the UN Civilian Affairs Bureau (charged with protection of civilians in the region) in Walikele. The FARDC (Congolese army) were also notified. The attack occurred less than 32km from a military camp manned by UN peacekeepers. UN peacekeepers did nothing to respond to the threats or stop the ensuing attack. MONUSCO (UN Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC) has been criticized as weak, ineffective and poorly managed. Whereas, MONUSCO has deferred responsibility to the state, national army and police force.

The attack occurred less than 32km from a military camp manned by UN peacekeepers. UN peacekeepers did nothing to respond to the threats or stop the ensuing attack.

The common denominator in sexual violence is that it is a crime of aggression fuelled by political and social attitudes. My position is founded on the idea that the Luvungi case of mass rape is an indication of the public/private divide in gender relations translated onto a global scale. This public/private divide reinforces the interrelationship between public and private social understandings of gender that inform the response of military actors to threats and incidents of sexual violence in the aftermath of armed conflict.

The public/private divide is defined by the presence of separate spheres of “public” and “private”. Definitions of the private world (or the ‘family sphere’ at domestic level) and the public nature of state-interaction with its subjects are founded on what is valued or important to a society. On an international scale, the public sphere translates into the sphere of armed conflict and the participants of the international community. The private is construed as communities of the civilian population. The private sphere is marked by either a lack of political will to intervene or selective intervention in cases of violence against women in post-conflict societies. This ‘private sphere’ is often cited as a rationale for such refusal to respond to threats because the physical threat against women is viewed as non-public and non-political. This leaves women of the DRC in a conundrum of terror and public discrimination: Sexual violence perpetrated against them is motivated by an economic and political agenda on the part of rebel forces, whereas, those charged with protection of DRC women consider sexual violence to be a non-political aspect of the private sphere. With respect to UN peacekeeping missions, the lag in practical and tactical responses to threats of sexual violence has policy roots. The historical and cultural public/private divide in security policy means that sexual violence in the context of armed conflict has only recently appeared on the peacekeeping radar. Often, rape in post-conflict societies is misunderstood to be an incident occurring within the confines of ‘private sphere’ communities and, therefore, part of state responsibility. Although rape may happen in this private sphere, away from armed conflict, this does not mean that it is unconnected with armed conflict. What is relevant is the nexus between sexual violence and the difficulty of maintaining peace and security in the region.

A consciousness should be created that gender-aware leadership and the recognition of men’s and women’s experiences of sexual violence post-conflict can improve the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations. Where UN peacekeeping forces negligently fail to prevent harm to the civilian population, there should be some machinery to hold these forces liable for such omissions. This would promote the idea that contempt for impunity is not a one-sided notion.

The potential for sexual violence in post-conflict societies needs to be part of the ceasefire agreement and subject to the scrutiny of ceasefire monitors to ensure that, when arms fall silent, sexual violence does not become the weapon of choice. Realistically, all-singing all-dancing UN peacekeepers cannot be omnipresent. However, when they are deployed to keep warring factions apart, what they monitor should include the cessation of sexual violence. It’s not about boots on DRC turf. It’s a matter of how those boots are utilized.

Where UN peacekeeping forces negligently fail to prevent harm to the civilian population, there should be some machinery to hold these forces liable for such omissions.

Women should not be restricted to the role of bystanders in conflict resolution and rebuilding of post-conflict society. Although state authority in the DRC is in the process of extension and the political environment encourages conflict resolution, women remain voiceless and their experiences ignored. The sporadic nature or complete cessation of inter-group fighting may be an improvement in the security situation in the DRC. However, the perpetuation of the public/private divide attitude towards sexual violence in the aftermath of armed conflict remains an obstacle to the prevention of such incidents of rape.

  • StevenMcD

    I think Africa has a similar policy to the Arabic countries in that woman are treated as second class citizens in that they “belong” to men. An assertion that is obviously horribly flawed and something that needs to be worked on.

    So in the case of a woman being raped they are often too scared to report it and so the culprits go unpunished. Those few cases that are reported often get “lost” in the politics and these offences seem to be seen as negligible in comparison to the other problems the country is facing. The only idea I have is that maybe along with the UN Peacekeepers, there should be an additional regiment of UN “human rights protectors” where their sole mission is to catch and prosecute offences against peoples’ basic human rights. Maybe the other option is to try and get some female leaders in Africa that could join the AU and initiate change, sadly this leads to my first point in that woman are not recognized as first class citizens in many of these countries.

    Great article!

    • Deb

      Yes, I agree with the reporting aspect of your comment. Medical and aid agencies in the DRC expect numbers to rise as more victims come forward to report their experiences. Ironically, the UN says their presence encourages more victims to come forward because their peacekeeping mission has created a ‘safer environment’ to report incidents of sexual violence.

      With regard to cultural ideas of women ‘belonging’ to men, I agree that there is a general sense of entitlement in the grander scheme of issues in gender relations e.g. prostitution, domestic violence and rape at a domestic law level. However, I don’t agree that entitlement applies to this particular context of sexual violence and armed conflict.
      Back in the day, women were seen as part of the spoils of war i.e. property of the warring factions. If you won the battle, then you were entitled to the property of the losing faction. In relatively recent history, sexual violence has been used as a politically-motivated weapon of war against women because of the devastating nature of the incident and its effect on communities of the civilian population.

  • Chelsea (CT, USA)

    Great article, Deb! I think you’re right on. The UN Security Council has taken some steps that would help reduce this public/private divide–with Resolutions 1325, 1820, 1888, and 1889, for example, which recognize state (public) complicity in sexual violence perpetrated during armed conflict and call for women to have major roles in peacemaking. But the international community hasn’t done much to implement these resolutions.

  • Deb

    Thank you Chelsea! Given your considerable expertise in the subject, it is much appreciated.

    I wrote the article with this string of UN Security Council resolutions in mind and cognisant of the big “PREVENTION” word that the International Relations crowd hangs over my head. It’s good that the UN Security Council identified sexual violence as a threat to the maintanence of international peace and security. However, I think the problem in implementation lies in the social and historical lack of political will at peacekeeping level.

    It struck me that the language of UNSC Res. 1820(2008) seems to water itself down. First, it demands that “all parties to armed conflict” take appropriate steps to prevent sexual violence. The listed steps include “enforcing appropriate military disciplinary measures and upholding the principle of command responsibility”; training troops on the prohibition of sexual violence against civilians; “debunking myths that fuel sexual violence”; and the “evacuation of women and children under imminent threat of sexual violence”. UNSC Res. 1820(2008) then urges police and troop contributing countries to take preventative action including “pre-deployment and in-theater awareness training”. Later on, the resolution “encourages” countries contributing troops to “consider steps they could take to heighten awareness and responsiveness” of UN peacekeepers.

    Even if 1820 was more robust, in reality, many of the countries contributing troops are only there to collect the stipend. Their armed forces are not well-trained or equipped for general peacekeeping operations, let alone operations geared towards preventing sexual violence against civilian populations.