feminism and conflict: whose security is it anyway?

I wrote this for The New Left Project back in March.

You need to give us more condoms because ‘you know, we have to use three or four women a day’.

These are the words of a soldier in Plateau State in Nigeria as reported to me by women’s rights activists there. They are telling me of the numbers of girls and young women who are being left pregnant by men in the security forces. The irony of messages around safe sex and HIV prevention being heard, while issues around power and violence against women and girls are not, is not lost to any of us.

Despite the international attention being paid to issues around sexual violence in conflict, and sexual exploitation and abuse by security forces in particular, these issues are not part of mainstream discourse when talking about peace and security. Sexual relationships between young women and men in security forces are well known. Men tend to view these relationships in terms of the material gains the women concerned make. They rarely consider whether genuine and enthusiastic consent to sex can truly exist when it is a man in uniform. Only a few women activists are trying to support the girls and young women concerned. They are not receiving any assistance to do so. Nor are they supported to speak out against what is happening.

Issues of women, peace and security are now on the global agenda in ways never previously seen. The Security Council, due to the activism of women’s rights activists and organisations, including those from conflict affected countries, passed Resolution 1325 in 2000. This was the first time, the organ charged with responsibility for international peace and security talked about women. In the past 13 years, a further 6 Resolutions have specifically looked at women and conflict. The African Union, the Committee on the Elimination of Violence against Women, conflict affected and donor countries are just some of those taking action.

Work is being done to look at sexual exploitation and abuse committed by peacekeepers and other military men and other forms of sexual violence in conflict. In fact, over the years, we have seen a narrowing of discussion around women, peace and security to issues of violence and an even further focusing to look particularly at sexual violence in conflict. This is conceptualised in a particular way: a militiaman coming across a (civilian) woman and raping or otherwise sexually torturing her. The sexual abuse by security forces that I talk about above fits into this and this reflects the realities for a lot of women. However, the risk is that the international community addresses this alone rather than looks more broadly at all types violence against women and girls that forms a continuum.

Doing so reflects only one aspect and misses the complexities of women’s experiences of conflict, peace and security. Although the most recent Resolution offered a welcome change to this overwhelming focus on sexual violence in conflict by examining women’s roles in peace processes, there is a danger in looking at women only as victims. Crucially, it misses the centrality of issues of women’s empowerment and leadership and does not see women as actors as well as being acted upon. In doing so, ways that experiences and expectations of gender roles change over the course of a conflict and how ideas of ‘what it means to be a woman’ and ‘what it means to be a man’ contribute to conflict, are lost.

Who are the women we are talking about?

The international discourse also tends to characterise all women into a homogenous category of ‘women’ writ large, as opposed to looking at differences between women. As a result, while some of the able-bodied, city-based, educated women may have opportunities, a lot more needs to be done to reach other women such as those who live in rural areas, and women who are of non-dominant ethnicities and religions, or marginalised classes and castes. One significant omission is women with disabilities, who are at least twice as likely to experience violence against them, are less likely to be believed when they report it and find it more difficult to access services and justice. Yet little national or international rhetoric, policy and action around gender based violence looks at this, let alone ensures that women with disabilities are able to take part in peace and security processes and decision-making. There is also little to no examination of homophobia and transphobia, and the ways in which strict policing of sexuality and gender identities drive conflict, how expectations around sexuality and gender identity change during the conflict and what happens to those who do not conform.

Supporting the women who create change

Women are often seen as weak, vulnerable, faceless and voiceless victims rather than as active agents for security and insecurity, while men are seen as strong, aggressors, perpetrators and those who take action. For example, when talking about youth, marginalisation and violence, we may be saying ‘youth’ but what we are really thinking is ‘young men.’ This stereotypes ‘young, angry, disaffected (black*) men’ as ticking time bombs that need defusing quickly. It ignores not only that the vast majority of young men are not violent and some of them actively work for peace, but also that women can be involved in violence too. Women make up 10-30% of armed forces and groups worldwide. In Nepal for example, women are estimated to be 30-40% of the guerrilla force. In addition, young women support militias and government forces (willingly or unwillingly) both directly and indirectly. In fact, while men are socialised into fighting due to dominant forms of violent, militarised masculinity, many women get involved precisely because it is seen as a way of challenging gender norms.

It is often men alone who are seen as those with political consciousness and power, when the reality is that women are also active agents for rights, peace and security. In Riyom, in western Plateau, women with sticks chased out men with guns, saying these soldiers were not providing security and so they did not want them there. Women activists in Plateau also point out that it is the women who are responsible for security for the family a lot of times; they are the ones who lock up the house at the end of an evening and make sure all is well. In terms of financial security too, the myth of the breadwinner is not borne out on examination of who actually provides for the family; women’s money is seen as belonging to families, while men’s money belongs to the men.

Riyom is not an isolated incident. All over the world women take action to deal with threats to the security of the community, promote rights and to mobilise for peace. In many cases, women are at the forefront of activism for democracy and human rights. In others, women take the lead in negotiating with (government and non government) militia groups as to what takes place in their communities during conflict. How the women of Liberia mobilised to end its civil war is probably the most well known example of this but there are countless others at community, national and regional levels that continue to be overlooked and unknown from Afghanistan and Palestine/ Israel to Nepal and beyond.

In Afghanisan, women in Shah Rahim in Balkh Province, with the support of men, negotiated projects that have provided access to water, irrigation systems, and a community centre. They also mediate community problems and help reduce corruption. In Nepal, Women For Human Rights ensured that the rights of widows was recognised in the interim Nepali Constitution and continue to raise awareness to change societal attitudes and assist widows to bring cases of violence to authorities. Activists from Palestine and Israel formed the International Women’s Commission after the breakdown of the Oslo Process. They are asked to brief the EU, UN and other stakeholders but are excluded from taking part in peace conferences themselves and told to continue to do what they do best: ‘whispering in the ears of decision-makers.’

Women make up only 1 in 40 signatories to peace agreements. Of the agreements signed between 1990 and 2010, only 16% even mention ‘women’ – and when they do, it is often to restrict their rights.

Not only do women continue to be marginalised from decision making but women’s rights activists also continue to lack resources and support. Only 1.3% of development funds for gender equality went to women’s rights organisations or women’s ministries in 2010. This means that 98.7% of money for gender equality is not going to activists or government departments concerned with achievement of women’s rights. Where is it going? What proportion of this 1.3% is actually going to activists as opposed to ministries? If this is the case for gender equality money, does any non-gender specific money go at all to women’s rights activists? It seems not. A global survey of 1, 119 women’s organisations from over 140 countries in 2011 found that only 1 in 10 of them received funding from national governments, international NGOs or foreign governments. Women’s rights organisations working on particular rights may receive even less. In 2010, groups empowering LGBTQI people received less than 0.01% of total aid donated by major government donors.

After all, whose peace and security are we talking about?

The prevalence of violence against women and girls should force us to rethink what is ‘conflict’ and what is ‘peace’. If women do not feel safe, this is not peace. Research shows that what is meant by peace can vary sharply between women and men. A study by ActionAid, Institute of Development Studies and Womankind Worldwide found that while women are more likely to see peace as including education, healthcare and freedom from violence, men have a greater tendency to look at the absence of formal conflict and the stability of government institutions and infrastructure.

In Plateau, one of the causes of violence is conflict over natural resources, particularly over control and use of land, between those who farm and those who herd. There is unclear demarcation of farming and grazing lands and, as a result, cows destroy crops, ruining the livelihood of famers, and herders do not have areas for their livestock to graze. Young men have set themselves up as ‘vanguards’ that protect and safeguard the land, the community and the women, against threats of violence and encroachment. However, the actions of these vanguards do not necessarily serve to reassure and make people feel safe but rather sometimes generate fear and conflict. Many women in particular feel unsafe walking alone, at night and/ or in secluded areas out of fear of harassment or other forms of violence from these male vanguards.

A key reason why these young men form these groups is because of practices of land ownership and inheritance. Despite provisions in the draft gender policy for Plateau State, women do not inherit land. They marry into other communities and so are seen as having no claims to either their natal or marital land. In contrast, young men are brought up to see the land as theirs and so act to defend what is seen as their inheritance. As such, ideas of masculinity and ownership are mobilised in ways that drive conflict. But of course, in a lot of communities it is women, not men, who actually work the land and they are the ones who collect the water for household needs. Due to gender norms around inheritance, however, women do not have rights over land that they work. Furthermore, due to harassment by vanguards, they are afraid when doing that work and caring for the family.

Young men appointing themselves as ‘community protectors’ is not ‘an African problem.’ During the recent riots in the UK, ‘community protectors’, largely men who came out to protect their property, were lauded as heroes. Information as to the violence with which some of them were behaving did not really reach the media. A friend of mine saw a group severely beat a young man who they thought was a rioter.  There is also a rich history of these self-appointed ‘protectors’ monitoring the behaviour of women and threatening them. Women’s sexuality and freedom are often policed to ensure adherence to ossified ideals of ‘tradition’ and culture’ in the name of ‘protecting community values’.

The Way Forward

In the past 15 years, gender and conflict has been taken increasingly more seriously. Given where we started from, this is a huge achievement in and of itself. It falls far short, however, of what is needed.  We are still at the ‘sometimes add women and stir’ stage rather than anything truly meaningful and transformatory. This is despite the overwhelming evidence of the roles that women play in making and building peace. Moreover, gender inequality is both cause and consequence of violent conflict – and a form of violence in and of itself. As restated recently in Sex and World Peace, gender inequality is, more than national wealth, level of democracy or issues of ethnicity and religion, the best predictor for whether a state will engage in inter or intra state conflict. Given these empirical facts, it is astounding that more is not done to redress unequal power relations between women and men.

Seeing the full complexity of what happens and what is meant by peace and security provides new insights and ways forward. We need to reconfigure our understanding of security to look at issues of concern to both women and men and counter how gender norms influence and perpetuate insecurity. This would mean dealing with threats to security that women mostly face, such as from security forces themselves; looking at ‘traditional’ security issues, such as land conflict, and seeing what is happening to women; and thinking about how stereotypes, roles and norms of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man, such as inheritance, influence and add to conflict dynamics.

We should not lionise all women as noble and brave, struggling and providing or stereotype all men as feckless, concerned only for themselves and a good time and living off the hard work of women. Black men get a hard enough time as it is; racialised as ‘perpetrators’ from which ‘their women’ need ‘saving’. Makua Matua critiques the savages – victims – saviours triad of international human rights: black men are seen as savages who perpetrate acts of violence against black women victims, who are rescued by white people saviours. As Gayathri Spivak writes, white men will not save brown women from brown men. There are many good men who work for human rights (including the rights of women), who resist toxic forms of militarised violent masculinity and act for peace. We need to be careful not to feed into racist perceptions of black men while also speaking out against gender inequalities. This is the classic dilemma of the black and Third World feminist.

We need to look at what is actually happening, contextualize and allow for nuance, rather than deal in broad-based gendered generalisations. There is a difference between what women and men are expected to do and what their realities and experiences actually are. It is true that men are supposed to provide security – both physical and economic – for their families and communities and that they may suffer when they are seen as not being able to do so, with their masculinity called into question. It is also true that women’s experiences and realities are complex. Women fulfill traditional gender roles, perpetrate violence and abuse and protect and defend rights and peace. Sometimes the same woman even does all three.

For peace and security to be fully achieved, it needs to be truly meaningful for both women and men. Without a feminist analysis, not only does what happens to women and girls get left out of the conflict narrative and what happens in response, but the root causes of conflict and how they are intertwined with gendered expectations of women and men are never addressed. Conflict analysis and peacebuilding work that is gender sensitive is both good for the achievement of the rights of women and girls and absolutely essential for the achievement of a genuine, meaningful and sustainable peace.

* I use black in the political sense of the term. It denotes strength and solidarity in the shared past and continuing experiences of imperialism, slavery, resource extraction, inequality and power imbalance of all those descended (through one or both parents) from Africa, Asia (i.e. the Middle East to China, including the Pacific nations), Latin America, the original inhabitants of Australasia, North America and the islands of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. It does so while acknowledging and celebrating our difference and diversity.

 

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