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Campaign to Disarm Rape as a Weapon of War

The credibility of the international legal framework, a significant tool for advancing women’s human rights, is at stake. While the international community has made strides in constructing a framework of rights protections, there is a marked, abysmal gap in implementation. For example, women are routinely excluded from peace processes, despite UN Security Council Resolution 1325 mandating their role in peacemaking. The Security Council similarly passed Resolution 1820 demanding action to confront rape as a weapon of war. Yet states routinely create conditions that give rise to armed conflict; train, arm and fund violent groups that commit rape as a weapon of war; and fail to punish perpetrators within their own ranks. 


We can disarm and eliminate rape as a weapon of war in our lifetime. To do so, we call on policymakers to build on the solutions created by decades of women’s organizing worldwide. 

Armed groups often mobilize around a central organizing principle: namely, the policing of gender through the use of force. They readily grasp that gender, already a rigid power system, is easily conscripted to impose domination in pursuit of political, economic or social aims. 

Thus, sexual violence against women, LGBTQ people, and all those who transgress gender norms is not simply a manifestation of “brutality.” These are deliberate acts intended to impose a particular social vision and to realize specific goals, such as territorial authority, political power or economic control. Yet opponents of this violence tend to focus overwhelmingly on the self-proclaimed ideology or professed religion of armed actors, particularly those labeled as violent extremists. Understanding the central role of gender in the strategies of armed groups is key to identifying and seizing opportunities for strategic intervention.

We can disarm and eliminate rape as a weapon of war in our lifetime. To do so, we call on policymakers to build on the solutions created by decades of women’s organizing worldwide.

This gender framework helps us to understand why armed groups utilize rape as a systematic weapon of terror and control. Perpetrators have recognized the power of sexual violence to trigger ripple effects through families and communities. Women are targeted not just as individuals but also as supposed embodiments of their home, family, “motherland,” or as the “property” of enemy groups. Moreover, the stigma attached to rape often leads people to ostracize or even kill survivors. That dynamic rends the ties that bind families and communities, corroding people’s ability to sustain each other through times of armed conflict and rendering communities even more vulnerable to conquest. When we consider overwhelming evidence that state-sponsored armies, police, and even United Nations peacekeeping forces have committed acts of rape and gender-based violence in the process of “fighting terror” or “protecting” unarmed civilian populations, it becomes clear that sexual violence spans a very wide continuum of conflict arenas.

Women’s human rights defenders on the frontlines of armed conflict have multilayered, valuable experience  building local support systems such as shelters and advocating for women’s rights. They are best positioned to recognize and respond to the continuum of violence that women face: in private and in public, in times of war or peace, and from state and non-state actors. Women’s expertise should be indispensable to governments, particularly given policymakers’ frequently-stated commitment to combating sexual violence in conflict.

But instead, militarized nations reflexively rely on the use of force, essentially seeking to combat one violent masculinity with another. For instance, military intervention, recklessly expanded since the start of the so-called “war on terror,” has utterly failed to prevent the emergence of violent extremism. In fact, it has exacerbated the threat and deepened violence: according to the Global Terrorism Index, there were 1,500 terrorist attacks in 2000. By 2013, that number had risen to 10,000.

 

The stigma attached to rape often leads people to ostracize or even kill survivors. That dynamic rends the ties that bind families and communities, corroding people's ability to sustain each other through times of armed conflict and rendering communities even more vulnerable to conquest.

 

Moreover, governments in the Global North commonly link talk of women’s rights to their militarized policies. In reality, moves like the US-led wars on Afghanistan and Iraq undermine the rights of women in the targeted countries, not only threatening them and their families with warfare, but destroying the civic and social conditions needed for women’s movements to flourish and succeed. Conscripting women into foreign policy justifications puts women’s rights directly in the line of fire when these policies are opposed. When Northern states project power abroad under the banner of women’s rights, they rhetorically exploit women as human shields to protect their own geopolitical interests.

Meanwhile, these same states apply a small fraction of what they spend on their militaries to programs that support local women’s organizing against war and sexual violence. Some of these programs have merit and should be expanded, but they are contradicted and undermined by their very sponsors, whose pernicious policy incoherence threatens women today and into the future.

Women’s human rights defenders on the frontlines of armed conflict have multilayered, valuable experience  building local support systems such as shelters and advocating for women’s rights. They are best positioned to recognize and respond to the continuum of violence that women face...

Our hope lies in the reality that solutions to rape as a weapon of war already exist—and have been created, tested and advanced by the global women’s movement for decades.

Our challenge lies in the failure of world governments to create policies rooted in and consistent with the principles espoused by women’s human rights advocates.

We call for measures by governments, the United Nations, civil society, and regional actors to embrace these proven solutions. Guided by the core principles listed below, we will promote concrete recommendations to be implemented (1) during peacetime and in periods when hostilities are mounting, (2) throughout the stages of armed conflict, and (3) in the peace negotiations and “post-conflict” transitions that are key to preventing the emergence and re-emergence of conflict and the use of rape as a weapon of war.

Women’s human rights defenders on the frontlines of armed conflict have multilayered, valuable experience  building local support systems such as shelters and advocating for women’s rights. They are best positioned to recognize and respond to the continuum of violence that women face...

The following policy recommendations are rooted in a human rights framework and drawn from women’s varied experiences countering rape as a weapon of war worldwide.

Avoid the use of force and military intervention. Every armed conflict must ultimately be ended through a negotiated political settlement. Resorting by default to military intervention, rather than minimizing or averting the use of force, prolongs warfare and deepens the threats against women and families, including the danger of rape as a weapon of war. Moreover, violent extremist groups often fill their ranks by promulgating a vision of a locked ideological battle with an enemy. A militarized response feeds into this vision and drives recruitment. Instead, we must use mechanisms of international law, including the International Criminal Court and other tribunals, to promote accountability. For example, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the path not taken would have led the international community to respond to Al-Qaeda’s mass murder, not as opportunity for an even bloodier “crusade,” but as a crime against humanity demanding a rights-based response grounded in the rule of law and international cooperation. The task of policymakers remains to promote rule of law locally and globally, including by establishing a truly functional model of universal jurisdiction that would hold all accountable, regardless of nationality or political title, for human rights violations.

Promote positive social norms that prevent sexual violence. Policymakers must understand and address rape as a systematic, predictable tactic of warfare. One key to preventing rape as a weapon of war is to create policies and programs that counter negative social norms like stigma, thereby defusing their ability to fragment communities. This work must be led by grassroots activists and local leaders who can influence community perspectives and practices. Furthermore, violent masculinities that lead to rape also help to swell the ranks of armed groups. When men and boys learn to define their manhood and even their humanity through aggression, then grievances real and perceived—whether stemming from military assaults and occupation, worsening poverty and inequality, social and political exclusion, or cultural affronts to identity—are supposedly remedied by a reassertion of violent masculinity. The sexual attacks committed by violent extremists are also situated on a continuum, a magnification in scale and degree of the sexual violence women confront daily. Thus, promoting positive models of manhood consistent with gender equality and broader human rights is also a core preventative solution to the formation and growth of armed groups who commit rape as a weapon of war.

Address root causes of armed conflict and violent extremism. Armed groups bolster recruitment by exploiting people’s frustration with corrupt or repressive regimes, material deprivation, foreign occupation or cultural hegemony. These conditions are common outcomes of states’ projection of economic and military power, often deployed to dominate natural resources. The illusory pursuit of limitless economic growth and consumption has caused unchecked climate change and further resource depletion. The resulting loss of biodiversity, disruption to food and water systems, and mass displacement are primary drivers of armed conflict. Furthermore, dominant neoliberal policies such as the privatization of basic services and deregulation of markets erode the public safety nets that guard against poverty. Transforming the dehumanizing conditions that generate armed conflict not only correlates to the rights obligation of all states but offers a political strategy for defusing the allure of violence.

Promote the full range of human rights, including economic, social, civil and political rights. The so-called “war on terror” has created a political climate marked by fear, xenophobia and Islamophobia. Governments must meet their obligations under international law to protect the civil and political rights of all, regardless of identity. Furthermore, they must re-commit to their obligations to fulfill economic and social rights (such the rights to food, education, housing, healthcare and more). This set of rights is often haphazardly dismissed to the realm of so-called market-based solutions, while governments scale up investment in military budgets. In a society where people are guaranteed the full range of their human rights, peaceful dissent and public debate help preclude the rise of armed conflict. Such a society is only possible with full rights for women, including safeguards against sexual violence, and the economic and social rights that create the material basis for women to overcome subjugation. Just as severe gender inequality is an early warning sign of extremism, full economic and social rights are integral to building women’s capacity to engage fully as citizens and build societies where violent extremism does not thrive.

Protect civilians and increase humanitarian aid. Hungry, war-weary communities are made vulnerable to influence and recruitment by armed groups that offer food and stipends to fighters. Providing food aid, health care, shelter, protection from violence and other aid is a vital means to promote community resilience in the face of violent takeover. In the absence of state services, women’s groups fill the role, including to meet needs for often-overlooked psychosocial support and post-rape care. These vital humanitarian services must not be seen as an addendum but rather as a core component of a policy framework to sustain communities through violent crisis and to minimize the threats and consequences of sexual violence by armed groups.

Design peace processes with a central role for women’s leadership. The realities of warfare are changing rapidly: decreasingly a declared conflict between states and increasingly a complex firestorm of state and non-state actors. One constant is the essential role that women play in creating sustained peace, whether at a negotiating table or in their communities. Grassroots women, who have the experience of caring for the most vulnerable and of confronting rape as a weapon of war, have irreplaceable knowledge of local needs and dynamics. When women’s voices are prioritized at all levels of peacemaking, including in the formation of an official peace agreement, they bring all these perspectives. States have a legal and moral obligation to enforce the provisions of UN Resolution 1325 prioritizing women’s effective participation and leadership. The result is agreements that are more durable, resistant to future breakdown, and geared to create societies where armed conflict, renewed warfare and sexual violence will not re-emerge.

Bolster and sustain grassroots organizing. We must not let armed conflict erase the history of what came before and what often persists in its midst, including vibrant grassroots activism and women’s organizing. Where states are unable or unwilling to protect communities from armed groups, local organizations become the frontline of defense and sustain community-based resilience against violence. Local groups that have established legitimacy and trust in their communities are key to preventing sexual violence and protecting those at risk of harm. Furthermore, states must ensure that policies intended to block flows of financing to violent groups do not also cut off funds to peaceful civil society in affected communities. States must not allow counterterrorism regulations to obstruct support to the very people most effectively countering terrorism.

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