Time to rethink the women, peace and security agenda?

On June 24th 2013 the Security Council, under the Presidency of the United Kingdom, issued its sixth Agota Sjostromresolution on women, peace and security, Resolution 2106. Although under the rubric of women, peace and security, the new resolution focuses on measures to prevent and deter sexual violence in armed conflict. In continuing the focus on sexual violence the resolution takes us full circle from the first resolution on women, peace and security, Resolution 1325, which incorporated the Council’s response to sexual violence within armed conflict as an element of a broader approach. The new resolution, in contrast, places sexual violence as the primary concern and then incorporates additional issues relating to women, peace and security only as elements of responding to combating sexual violence– including HIV, sexual and reproductive health, women’s participation, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration processes.

While deploring the violence and suffering men and women experience as victims of conflict, including sexual violence, I wish to challenge the disproportionate attention to sexual violence as the epitome of women’s experiences of armed conflict. The failure of this approach to see or hear women as actors across the spectrum of conflict experiences reinforces women as represented through victimhood, vulnerability and childhood. Although Resolution 2106 acknowledges men and women as victims of sexual violence in armed conflict (in paragraph 6 of the preamble) the operative paragraphs fall back into the use of ‘women and children’ terminology risking not only the erasure of the experiences of male survivors but also re-asserting an equivalence between women and children in conflict situations that is ultimately harmful to women.

Feminist, gender and women-centred research identifies women as victims, survivors, perpetrators, fighters, decision-makers, peace activists and supporters of conflict. Women participate in and challenge armed conflict, as well as suffering the spectrum of conflict consequences: death, disability, dislocation and disease. The experience of sexual violence during armed conflict and in post conflict situations, as with the experience of sexual violence globally, is a specific type of harm that has gendered dimensions. Whether perpetrated against women or men the gendered dimensions – both the gendered harm and the gendered structures that create the conditions for sexual violence – are complex, culturally variant, cross cultural, hierarchical and knitted into the fabric of everyday in both peacetime and conflict situations. To disassociate sexual violence from wider gendered structures within a community and constructs women as primarily sexually vulnerable bodies assumes heteronormative relations as the standard and fails to acknowledge women as fully human.

The gendered structures of militaries are a very specific contributor to the prevalence of sexual violence in armed conflict situations. Resolution 2106 does not broach this issue beyond recognising, in operative paragraph 14, the need for pre-deployment and in-mission training for UN peacekeeping contingents. This is followed by a call to increase the number of women deployed in peacekeeping operations. This suggests the work of preventing sexual violence is best performed by women, ignoring the harmful sexual cultures women in militaries often report as inimical to their professional progression and, often, their safety. Underlying this are additional stereotypes, added to that of women’s vulnerability, of women as peacemakers and gender advisors as well as a check on the sexual excesses (read: violence) of men.

In Resolution 2106 the fifth paragraph of the preamble highlights an understanding of women’s political, social and economic empowerment not as an ends itself rather because women are thought to be ‘central to longer term efforts to prevent sexual violence in armed conflict and post-conflict situations’. Women and men are central to addressing sexual violence – in peacetime and in armed conflict – yet women’s political, social and economic empowerment should not just be attached to the issue of sexual violence. In Resolution 2106 women’s political, social and economic empowerment remains premised on a reification of gender difference and female sexual vulnerability, while gender equality remains marked by a need to construct women via her body as the penetrable, vulnerable feminine such that there is also an implicit invocation of her male protector to ‘save’ her. The Council do not need to invoke sexual violence to justify women’s political, social and economic empowerment: she is human, she is a social actor, she is a political actor, and she is an economic actor.

The Security Council currently perpetuates the gendering of men and women, constructing a heterosexual normality that prioritises sexual violence as women’s experience of armed conflict instead of perceiving conflict as space of multiple sexed and gendered bodies that interact, as humans, across the social, political and economic. Resolution 2106, prefaced by a statement from the unelected UN Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie, demonstrates the continuing use and reassertion of gendered, heteronormativity embedded in international law rather than an attempt to prevent violence, sexual or otherwise, in peace and security strategies.

(photo credit: Agota Sjostrom)

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