Beyond Sexual Violence: Gendered Political Insecurity as a Threat to Peace

Julieta Lemaitre and Kristin Bergtora Sandvik

Based on extensive field research in Colombia, our new article Beyond Sexual Violence in Transitional Justice: Political Insecurity as a Gendered Harm examines political insecurity as a specifically gendered harm that must be addressed in the ongoing Colombian transitional justice process.

In a previous blogpost we described the tragic plight of the women’s rights activist and survivor of sexual violence Angélica Bello. Bello was one of the main proponents of Law 18 June 2014, which sets out to guarantee access to justice for victims of sexual violence. The Law is part of the transitional justice process and seeks to bring Colombian law into harmony with international law regarding sexual violence in the context of the armed conflict. It defines crimes of sexual violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sets out criteria for investigating sexual crimes and protecting survivors analogous to those of the ICC. As the peace negotiations in Havana between the government and the FARC guerrilla continue to make slow but steady progress, the sexual violence agenda increasingly captures the field of harms to women in war.

While recognizing the importance of this law, we nevertheless suggest that it is a problem for the ongoing transitional justice process that there are so few articulations of what other kinds of gendered harms may look like and how they should be effectively addressed. Much of the growing literature on gender in armed conflict and the debates over post-conflict reparations for women focuses on the prevalence and harms of sexual violence. This development has engendered controversial debates concerning the alleged prioritization of sexual violence at the expense of other harms to women, whether this debate sexualizes and infantilizes women, as well as with respect to forms of victimization not captured by feminist frames of reference, such as male rape (This is often framed as a debate between the Halley and MacKinnon schools of thought). In her work on reparations, Ruth Rubio-Marin takes issue with what she sees as an excessive emphasis on sexual violence in transitional justice, embodying both a suggestion that sexual harm is the worst abuse that can happen to women and the entrenchment of a patriarchal ideal of female chastity. Rubio-Marin (2012) argues that the ‘hyper-attention’ to sex now risks doing further harm to women by deviating attention from other non-sexual forms of sex-specific harms, and isolating sexual and gender based violence from broader agendas that confront the multiple gendered forms of harm and injustice.

What are these other gender specific harms? What should transitional justice focus on beyond sexual violence? How can we think of gendered harms in relation to poverty alleviation or of resource redistribution?

In our article, we argue that if civic trust is to be built among all citizens, women’s experience of exclusion from the political through force and intimidation must be included in the narratives of armed conflict, political insecurity and the aftermath of war. Importantly, political insecurity is complex and extends beyond conflict between the state and the guerrillas, and yet the guarantee of security of political activity is a central component of a transition to peace. Arguably, political insecurity will persist as long as there is no effective challenge to the subnational hold of illegal armed actors emerging in the aftermath of war. The insecurity fostered by these actors is gendered, enforcing cultural mandates to confine women to the domestic space. In a transition to the end of armed conflict guerrillas can stop being both a threat for community organizing, and a justification for state repression.

Finally, we also suggest that the complete dismantling of gendered political insecurity will remain a challenge for transitional justice. A just transition to peace for women would require first, the dismantling of the capacity of private powers (at least of organized crime and business interests) to use violence to achieve their economic goals, and it will also require a vigorous promotion of women’s political participation at the grassroots level. More scholarly attention to the gendered aspects of these problems and scenarios is needed as Colombia continues to stumble towards the end of its 5o year old civil war.

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