Another Look At Victimhood: UNSC Resolution 1820 And Victims Of Sexual Violence In Armed Conflicts

In 2008, the UN Security Council passed the resolution 1820, which condemns the use of sexual violence against civilians as a tactical weapon in armed conflicts. The particular emphasis of the resolution is on female civilians as victims of sexual violence and their special need for protection. The prevention of conflict-related sexual violence has once again shown its relevancy in 2010, as international media has reported of the wave of rapes and other forms of gender-based violence that torments the local population in the Eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The resolution 1820 is undoubtedly a major achievement in reinforcing respect for women’s and girls’ sexual autonomy in all situations including armed conflicts. However, the manner in which the text conceptualizes the victims of sexual violence as female civilians excludes not only men and boys but also female combatants and other women associated with armed forces/groups as potential targets of sexual violence. In addition, the resolution seems to regard women and girls as passive objects with no active agency in conflict situations. This article aims to make more visible the experience of sexual violence the resolution 1820 has forgotten but from which numerous female combatants and other women associated with armed groups suffer in armed conflicts.

The conventional way of understanding the roles of men and women in armed conflicts is to define males as active combatants and females as passive civilians. This, however, is a misleading simplification, as women and girls have throughout history contributed to war efforts in various ways. Recent examples include the internal conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone: it is estimated that women and girls have made up to one third of the fighting forces in each of these countries. Women’s active contribution in war efforts and even their direct participation in armed fighting do not automatically lead to appreciation towards their role after the conflict. As a result, women and girls often have a poor access to demobilization and reintegration programs which aim to help veterans to find their place in civilian life after the conflict. Explanations for this phenomenon are numerous: women’s role in guerilla fighting can be active but also highly unofficial, female veterans are not considered as a similar risk to peace and stability as their male counterparts, and women are not sufficiently informed of the possibility of participating in the programs. It must also be said that female veterans often hesitate to participate in veterans’ support programs, as they are concerned of stigmatization and hope to leave their past behind. Whatever the reasons are, women’s scarce opportunities to benefit from demobilization and reintegration schemes constitute a problem, as they have special needs that these programs should address. Many of these needs stem from the sexual violence they have suffered from during the war.

Female Combatants’ Experiences in Africa

We will now take a closer look at some recent armed conflicts in Africa and how the phenomenon of sexual violence has hit women and girls who have in one way or another been associated with fighting forces. Academic scholarship and reports compiled by organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have found several explanations why African women and girls have joined fighting forces. Many of them have had no choice, as they have been abducted and forced to join. However, there are also women and girls who have made a conscious choice to participate due to different reasons: some of them have a partner who is already involved, some feel a strong calling to fight for religious or political reasons or to revenge the death of a loved one, and some simply need to assure their daily survival and to fulfill their basic needs. A particularly interesting reason is the need for protection: in the insecure conditions of armed conflicts, many women and girls believe that being a member in one armed group will protect them against violence committed by other groups.

Ironically enough, joining an armed group either voluntarily or forcibly seems to expose females to sexual violence rather than to protect them against it. Women and girls have often multiple and simultaneous roles in armed groups: they are expected to carry heavy loads of weapons and other equipment as well as to assume cooking and other housekeeping responsibilities, but many of them also take active part in the actual fighting alongside with men and occasionally even make their way to commanding positions. However, none of these roles will automatically erase the possibility that females are also expected to serve sexually the males of the same group. It should also be noted that many of the women have been abducted primarily for this purpose. In a highly violent and coercive environment, that kind of “service” is often not a matter of females’ choice but a mere question of survival. International human rights organizations have reported of such experiences from several conflicts, which have taken place in countries such as Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Congo DRC in the past two decades.

The resolution 1820 gives an impression of passive female victims facing sexual violence without any agency of their own. In her study on African girl combatants, Myriam Denov has offered illustrative examples of female agency against sexual violence in the tough circumstances of the Sierra Leone civil war of 1991-2000. Girls in fighting forces feared handguns and other small weapons but soon realized their potential for self-defense, after which they started acquiring weapons not only to fight the enemy but also to reinforce their personal security inside the group they were involved in. Some girls got themselves a reputation as fierce fighters in the battle field and this aggression provided them with some protection against their male peers. One widely spread strategy was to seek for an influential male partner, whose authority in the group would eliminate attempts for violence against his companion. These kinds of relationships were often highly abusive and oppressive; yet many girls preferred them to being constantly harassed and abused by several men. Girls also created strong relationships of friendships and mutual solidarity, which helped them to bear the harsh and violent reality around them. Even if these strategies may have been effective, they should not be confused with female empowerment, which would genuinely contribute to gender equality and help to reduce violence against women in a sustainable manner.

Post-conflict Life after Sexual Violence

The post-conflict situation of female combatants may vary greatly, but many of them have one problem in common, namely the difficulty to access demobilization and reintegration programs, which prioritize male veterans. Nonetheless, these programs could address their gender-specific needs, many of which are due to sexual violence experienced during the conflict. Some of the needs can be satisfied by means of healthcare and psychological expertise, as many women and girls require help for physical and emotional traumas. Support in family planning and maternal health is equally needed in many cases. It should also be taken into account that many female veterans suffer from alcohol and drug abuse, which is often a consequence of wartime traumas.

Former female combatants are not always welcome to their old home communities, as they carry the double stigma of being female fighters and at least potentially sexually tainted women. By taking part in armed fighting they have broken the normative peaceful gender role that women have in most cultures, and their past in armed groups often sets questions on their sexual morals. In Uganda and Sierra Leone it has been noted that female veterans fear for their chances of finding a spouse, as men are known to prefer women with civilian background, because they are believed to be sexually untouched. Not being married is consequently an easy way to marginalization for women in many African societies. Women and girls with history in armed groups have also difficulties to find employment. This is partly due to their often low level of education and lack of skills, but employers also hold strong prejudices against them. The situation of many women and girls is sometimes aggravated by the fact that they may carry alone responsibility for a child born as the result of sexual violence or abuse. Since there are necessarily no social networks to rely on and few opportunities in labor market, former female combatants run the risk of ending up to prostitution as the only available means of survival. In the light of these observations, it seems that healthcare alone is not enough to help female veterans with experiences of sexual violence, but a broader set of means is needed to empower them to take control over their civilian life and to prevent social marginalization. That could include for example professional training and income-generating initiatives.

In the Way of Conclusions

If something should be learnt from these aspects of sexual violence forgotten by the UNSC resolution 1820, it is the recommendation for demobilization and reintegration programs to take female veterans with their specific needs into consideration and guarantee their access to support in an equal manner with men. Programs should be made both accessible and attractive for them by recognizing females’ multiple roles in the war and by offering relevant services such as holistic support to women and girls who are both former combatants and victims of sexual violence. This is something that relief and development agencies and the EU should stress while working in post-conflict countries to support demobilization and reintegration.

The resolution 1820 gives a great deal of attention to prevention of sexual violence and calls conflicting parties and international community to offer protection for women and girls in armed conflicts. Should the conflict-related sexual violence be eliminated efficiently, it is also advisable for major international players such as the EU as well as civil society to invest in conflict prevention in order to reduce the number of situations, which create favorable conditions for different forms of gender-based violence against both women and men.