Violence, Justice, Equity: Reflections on International Women’s Day

On this International Women’s Day (IWD), the official UN theme for 2021 is “women in leadership: achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” The elimination of discrimination and violence against women and girls are targets of the Millennium Development Goals and the UN Agenda 2030, which emphasizes inclusivity in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including gender equality and the empowerment of all females in Goal 5. Goal 10 aims to reduce gender and socioeconomic inequalities globally, including through the elimination of discrimination, violence, exploitation, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.

Dating back to the first celebration in 1909 in the United States, IWD is rooted in socialist women’s leadership in struggles for labor and economic justice, such as the 8-hour workday and limits on women’s and children’s labor; political justice, such as suffrage and liberation from fascism and autocracy; a refusal to sacrifice husbands and children to wars; and breaking down false barriers between “public” and “private” life that conceal the important roles of mothers and wives. Women’s efforts against poverty and violence have also been consistent IWD themes, including the structural violence of female subordination—“a tolerance of violence against women and children” and being “subjected to a life of sub-humanity for the sheer fact alone that they were born female,” as noted on IWD 2012.

To imagine a gender-equitable future from this historical moment in 2021 requires reckoning with how women and girls have been faring. For instance, since the start of the pandemic in the US women—disproportionately women of color—have left the work force at four times the rate of men, reversing previous gains. One of the more well-known outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic is the escalation of domestic violence and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), triggered by prolonged social isolation, household tension in close quarters, and increasing strains on individuals and families due to deteriorating health, socio-economic, and/or political conditions. The “Forever Wars” and other conflicts around the world have also raged on during the pandemic, adding to the world’s refugee crisis in which 75-80% of displaced persons are women and children. Trauma is understandably a common preoccupation of our time.

Working at the intersection of human rights and trauma mental health, I have spent the last year writing about SGBV and trauma-informed approaches to interviewing female survivors for purposes of investigating human rights violations such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and mass detention of people seeking refuge from violence and poverty. Among multiple things competing for our attention, mine has been focused intensely on militarism, conflict-related SGBV, impunity, and feminist activism amidst growing societal & global inequities and increasing violence in many forms—criminal, sexual, domestic, and political—during the pandemic. In the ongoing and escalating struggle for gender justice, urgent attention to violence remains important. Among the types of violence and harm SGBV stands out for several reasons. It is the only serious crime for which many justice systems require victims to prove lack of consent to the harm inflicted. Across diverse legal systems, redress for SGBV is difficult to attain due to attribution of blame and complicity to victims/survivors as well as impunity for perpetrators. SGBV has also historically been the least punished offense committed during wartime.

In the long history of international feminist activism, it is only recently that women’s efforts led to the recognition of conflict-related SGBV as a war crime against the long-standing idea that sexual violence against women, girls, men, and boys is an expected military reward or byproduct of war. Women’s campaigning for redress of this injustice, through UN human rights and women’s rights conferences and particularly since the 1990s International Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia, resulted in its designation as a crime against humanity. “From time immemorial, rape has been regarded as spoils of war. Now it will be considered a war crime,” said Judge Pillay of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (later, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights).

However, all forms of SGBV persist, supported by strong ideological underpinnings: state-supported violence, militarized masculinity, and victim-blaming alongside perpetrator impunity. These thrive in a broader context of social, economic, civil, and political inequities. SGBV is founded on sexist beliefs and compounded by other structural inequalities in the context of globalized discourses of militarized masculinity that merge sex and violence, and which are amplified through warfare. The globally pervasive threat of SGBV reduces the quality of life for targeted persons—disproportionately women, girls, and gender non-conforming persons—and is particularly acute in hyper-masculinist institutions in which sexual assault rates are often highest, such as in militaries. Conflict-related SGBV inflicts collective trauma by systematically targeting individual bodies in furtherance of broader social harms such as the mass displacement, dispossession, and extermination of entire neighborhoods and communities. Female survivors of conflict-related SGBV have reported feelings of complete insecurity and multiple losses: bodily integrity, health, loss of family and their livelihoods, disorientation and lack of belonging, profound dispossession of their personal identity, and marginalization.

Gender subordination relies upon intimidation and retribution on a spectrum of violence and coercion used to enforce gender systems and norms, which can be meted out by individuals with sexist values regardless of their own sex or gender identity. Regardless of the gender of personnel, militaries adhere to globalized norms that contribute to SGBV: strict hierarchy, rigidity, lack of accountability for collective actions, and an imperative to meet impossible standards of masculinism that cause routine frustration and unsuccessful attempts to compensate through sexual violence.

Decolonial feminism points to similarities between social conditions and struggles in the US and nations south of its border. Feminist activism in Latin America has forged pathways needed throughout the Americas and elsewhere for “how to grapple with an indifferent or deadly state” through creative use of law and demands for collective reparations based on individual instances of violence, including various forms of violence by law enforcement and military officers, which often involve terrorization of indigenous and marginalized communities. There is common ground with intersectional feminism and the transformative justice movement led by US women of color, equally concerned with the problems of impunity and mass incarceration in states that fail to protect their citizens from violent crimes after adopting similar systems of “iron fist” policing and mass criminalization.

In the spirit of IWD activists’ historical concerns with economic and gender justice, newly-launched Lux magazine (dedicated to “sex, with class”) provides thoughtful coverage of these issues. Several, diverse pieces deal with SGBV in some way, attesting to its importance across issues and contexts. Danielle Mackey’s article titled “Rape and Reparations in Mexico” discusses femicide, feminist movement, and the role of law, exemplified in Latin America, which has the highest global rate of homicide outside of a war zone. Mackey discusses the term femicide—the systematic targeting of females for violence and death—as conceptualized in US and Latin American feminisms. It first appeared in a ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) case of 3 women murdered in Juarez, Mexico, in which the Mexican state was held culpable for enabling the crimes and failing to punish perpetrators. The case highlighted sociological causes of violence: increased narcotrafficking, corporate sweatshops that drew women to work outside the home for the first time (often at the late hours their shifts demanded), and patriarchal backlash. The femicide concept and its codification underscore the structural nature of SGBV and the role of state negligence.

Critical approaches to international criminal law support notions of structural justice and equity expressed by female justice leaders and many survivors of conflict-related SGBV: “up-stream prevention” of international (and state) crimes requires measures to address structural violence and the fair and effective rule of law, but also “an honest assessment of the way in which exploitive and extractive economic relationships emanating from the proverbial Global North, and the corrosive global market for arms and armaments, perpetuates conflict and repression in the proverbial Global South,” as discussed in the new International Criminal Law: Intersections and Contradictions (van Schaack and Slye, 2021).

Feminist leadership in economic and gender justice across the world has demonstrated the inseparability of interpersonal violence in families and households, political violence and warfare, SGBV, and the structural violence of poverty, precarity, and inequalities within and among nations. Movements for justice and equity along these lines capture the spirit of International Women’s Day this and every year.

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