Tag Archives: conflict

A Personal Reflection on World Humanitarian Day 2016 and women’s safety

Sarah Sudan

The author in happier times in South Sudan circa 2005/2006

In 2012, I took a Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) course before I went to Libya with the British government for the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. I was really nervous as in mid 2011, there had been an attack on the hotel where I had been working in Kabul, Afghanistan days after I left and I realized I had never felt safe in that country and didn’t trust UNDSS to ensure my safety. I was most nervous about how I would react to the “fake kidnapping” part of the training- and as it turns out – I was fine, but one of my colleagues was not. She was a survivor and experienced a flashback during this section of the training. Our mostly male trainers had no psychologist on standby and were not prepared to support her so I was called in to help despite not having the relevant training or credentials.

This all came rushing back to me a few days ago when the AP report about the attacks on the Terrain House in Juba, Sudan and the rape of expatriate aid workers hit the news. The rage and sadness I felt about the UN’s refusal to deploy peacekeepers to protect these civilians threw me into a sad dark place. I then learned that the US Embassy (MY EMBASSY!) had also failed to protect these American citizens and had “made some phone calls.” Eventually the Government of Sudan sent in someone to rescue the people but the local staff of the hotel and 3 women were left behind to be rescued the next day by a private security force.

What must it have felt like to be the women “left behind”? And I couldn’t stop myself from immediately imagining myself as one of the three expatriate women left overnight with the rapist soldiers waiting to be rescued the next morning. I had to stop myself to save my sanity.

The most frustrating part for me is the false sense of security that being nearby the peacekeepers provided these aid workers. I am furious at the security officers who re-assured the people in the house that they would be fine. From the article: “One of the women gang-raped said security advisers from an aid organization living in the compound told residents repeatedly that they were safe because foreigners would not be targeted. She said: “This sentence, ‘We are not targeted,’ I heard half an hour before they assaulted us.”

Too often, our “security professionals” ignore women’s needs or have REALLY outdated viewpoints on how women can protect themselves. In Bangkok, at the recent women’s day- UNDSS told women that they should “smile more” to protect themselves and in Jordan, the UNHCR security personnel who was giving me a brief there said I should “dress decently” (to which I responded, since I’m a decent person anything I wear is, by definition, decent). Aid workers everywhere are deeply shaken by this event and what it shows about the lack of effective safety and security systems in the field.

Our so-called safety systems are not always going to be there. It’s obvious that we, as women, are often alone out there, and as every woman in the world has learned, in a world where rape culture is the norm and women are devalued, you have to take responsibility for your own safety and security.

August 19 is World Humanitarian Day where we remember our colleagues who were killed in the line of duty. Today, and every day, we should be thinking about the particular vulnerability to rape that women aid workers face in the line of duty.  Female aid workers everywhere are particularly deeply shaken by this event. Some are privately expressing how afraid they feel but that they feel worse for abandoning South Sudanese women who bear the brunt of the sexual violence. Will it be worse for them if we leave?

I’m too angry and sad to write a more professional polished piece – so I give you instead, a piece that I wrote about this in 2012.

Gender-based Violence and Security

This blog post was published by USAID to coincide with the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence event, “Who Takes Care of the Caregivers?  Providing Care and Safety for Staff in Gender-based Violence Settings,” taking place on Thursday, Nov. 29th 2012 in Washington DC, hosted by the Inter-Agency Gender Working Group, funded by USAID. It is no longer available online but a copy of it can be found here. Tips for female travelers that I wrote can be found here.

Gender-based Violence (GBV) is an issue that impacts aid workers – not just beneficiaries and not just staff that works in GBV settings. This post examines agencies’ duty to care for their workers by preventing and responding to GBV.

“Keeping International Workers Safe:  Preventing and Responding to Gender-based Violence”

Sarah Martin, Consultant and Specialist on Prevention and Response to Gender-based Violence

The sexual assault of the journalists Lara Logan, Mona Eltahawy and two unnamed British and French journalists in Egypt shocked the world and brought the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) against Westerners working in conflict areas to the forefront. Clearly GBV does not only affect the “locals” in these areas. Not only are journalists at risk but also aid workers–and not just in conflict settings or in GBV program areas.

I recently interviewed a large cross section of women travelers who work in a number of fields (including international development, human rights, humanitarian action and international business) about their experiences as women while traveling and working overseas*.  Many of them brought up their frustration that sexual harassment and sexual assault were never raised in security trainings and that agencies refused to address this as a real security concern. Increasingly, aid agencies are providing more “realistic” security trainings that simulate “hostile environments to prepare their employees for gunfire, kidnappings and other events in the field.”  While some of these trainings talk about sexual assault, there are no discussions of how to prevent sexual assault or how to react or support colleagues if they are assaulted. Sexual harassment in the workplace as a security issue is often ignored. In addition, the purveyors of these trainings are mostly male and show little awareness to the issue of sexual assault or the gender concerns of female trainees. I recently attended one such training where one of the participants relived her own sexual assault from years ago while undergoing a simulated “kidnapping.” While they took her out of the simulation, there were no psychologists or female trainers available to talk to her.

Female development and aid workers have the same security concerns as their male counterparts: crime and landmine accidents and armed robberies do not discriminate. Security measures, trainings, and manuals are the same for men and women, and most agencies take a ‘gender-blind’ approach to security. Most security officers are men, and many of them come from a military background. This gender-blind approach to security, however, leaves out a major issue.  Women also face another security threat that most men do not encounter – gender-based violence, namely sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Rape myths promote the false idea that women are only sexually assaulted by strangers. While this can happen, women are much more likely to be attacked by someone familiar to them – a co-worker, a driver, or a friend. Most of the women I interviewed shared stories about fending off sexual harassment by colleagues or actual cases of sexual assault in the field.

Rarely is their organization prepared to handle these issues. While there has been some action taken on “building safe organizations” – the focus has been preventing sexual exploitation of our beneficiaries by our staff. But there is not sufficient attention paid to sexual harassment of our staff by our staff or adequate support for staff that have been sexually assaulted. There is little information in the security manuals that I have reviewed about what medical care a survivor may need or what rights a sexual assault survivor might have. Nor is there guidance on reporting to local authorities, human resources or guarantees of confidentiality. Responsible employers must be prepared to understand and deal with the fact that their employees might become victims of sexual assault [1] and should be prepared to support them. This means bringing the issue of sexual assault up in security trainings and sensitizing the trainers and security personnel on how to address the issue – but not by restricting women’s access to “dangerous areas” but by making sure female employees are informed of the dangers, provided with information on how to protect themselves, and given sensitive and adequate support by their organizations in case the worst happens.

[1] Global statistics show that 1 out of 3 women has experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault.

* From the chapter I wrote entitled “Sexual Assault: Preventing And Responding As An International Travelers in the book Personal Security: A Guide for International Travelers, by Tanya Spencer, ISBN: 9781466559448 commissioned and published by Taylor and Francis, LLC.




New Report: The Continuity of Risk: A three-city study of Congolese women-at-risk resettled in the U.S

The summary below was contributed by Karin Wachter, one of the report’s co-authors

In October 2014, the University of Texas at Austin and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University issued their report: The Continuity of Risk: A three-city study of Congolese women-at-risk resettled in the U.S. The study was conducted to prepare for the 50,000 Congolese refugees planned to be resettled in the United States over the next several years through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

The Continuity of Risk concludes that Congolese refugee women have a sense of safety and food security in the U.S., and struggle with integration. The primary concerns expressed by the research participants include the impacts of trauma, social isolation, loss of power as mothers and precarious financial survival. The UNHCR “woman-at-risk” resettlement category is also discussed from both practice and policy perspectives.

The findings highlight women’s intersecting experiences with violence and forced migration.  The recommendations section of the report, in particular, emphasizes the potential for collaboration between resettlement and domestic violence and sexual assault agencies to help meet those expressed needs.  This study can help to inform those collaborative efforts already underway and spark ideas for new initiatives and partnerships.

The report can be downloaded from the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (IDVSA) website at:  http://www.utexas.edu/ssw/cswr/institutes/idvsa/congolese-refugee-women-at-risk/

Does Size Matter? Reflections on the Ending Sexual Violence Summit

WP_20140610_11_12_11_Proby Chen Reis

The recent Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict summit in London was billed as the largest gathering of its kind with 1,700 participants. 129 countries of the over 150  that signed the UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict were represented, and almost 80 of these by a government ministers. This indeed is a laudable achievement but does this represent success? Significant high level engagement is critical but only a start.  As a participant in the summit and invited “expert day” speaker, here are 5 areas where I believe the summit was less successful:

1.  Insufficient acknowledgement of root causes

During the official summit sessions, there was very little acknowledgment or focus on the need to work on root causes for prevention of sexual violence in conflict including prevention of conflict and ending militarization. This perhaps not surprising.  Though there was some mention of it, the focus was not on addressing the gender inequality that is the basis for much of sexual violence before, during, and after conflict.

  1. Lack of attention to the most prevalent form of violence against women

While sexual violence committed as a tactic of conflict is indeed horrific and requires concerted global action including by global security and legal institutions, most of the violence against women even in conflict settings is committed by intimate partners. Such violence happens in the home and is beyond the reach or care of the International Criminal Court or Security Council. It is essential to address it before, during, and after conflict and not create false hierarchies of sexual violence.

  1. Missing Voices

Three groups whose voices were notably absent from the mainstream discussions in the summit were grass roots activists working in conflict settings, including Nobel Prize winners, survivors of sexual violence in conflict, and invited youth delegates from around the world.  While there was a whole day dedicated to the youth, most of their public interactions and those of survivors and grass roots activists were either limited to “fringe” events which were held in a cavernous hall one level below the official meetings, or to heavily edited and scripted presentations or videos at the summit’s close.   A new network of sexual violence survivors launched on the margins of the summit aims to end such sidelining of survivor’s voices.

Social scientists were also notably absent from the official summit sessions though some attended and provided their views through blogs and open letters.

  1. Where is the (new) money?

Increased support for survivors was one of the stated aims of the summit. Various governments –very few compared to the numbers in attendance- announced new money for sexual violence in conflict prevention and response including a doubling of funds from the USA, about $5 million from Australia, 6 million GBP from the UK, 2 million Euro from Finland and 1 million Euro from Germany.  The amounts pledged are minuscule when compared to the scope of issue and the needs of the survivors and those who work to support them. 5 million dollars or 6 million GBP seems a lot of money, but rebuilding the health, legal and other systems in war affected countries takes much more money and decades of investment. The costs of caring for the needs of survivors through stop-gap humanitarian action are also significant.

  1. Elephants in the summit

In addition to conflict countries, Governments of donor countries that are documented violators of human rights including countries with legacies of using sexual violence in conflict and mistreating those escaping such abuses participated in the Summit. They were praised for their financial and political commitments to end sexual violence in conflict without any acknowledgement by the governments or the Summit hosts of the hypocrisy.

As Foreign Secretary William Hague noted in his closing remarks, the summit may in future be seen as the tipping point for ending sexual violence in conflict. That won’t happen without concrete commitments with targets and timelines. It also won’t happen unless those most affected by sexual violence in conflict – the survivors-  are recognized as a key part of the response to sexual violence in conflict and more generally as contributors to ending conflict. This has already been articulated in UN Security Council Resolutions relating to Women Peace & Security starting with UNSCR 1325 in 2000 as well as in the new CEDAW General Recommendation 30 on women, peace and security. Vague conclusions such as those included in the official summit summary or the summit’s Statement of Action will not lead to change. Follow-up by the UK Government and by those of us who care about the issue is essential.

The official Summit hashtag was #TimeToAct. For most countries in attendance that time has apparently not yet come.  We must hold our countries and those that participated in this historic summit or signed the Declaration of Commitment accountable and tell them words are not enough,

Policymakers, we need you! ….to pay attention to the evidence.

by Chen Reis

Last week Nicholas Kristof*, the popular NYT columnist, created a storm on twitter and facebook with his column “Professors, We Need You! “ which, among other points, decried the irrelevance of much social science research to policy-making. There have been a number of responses from academics on Twitter, Facebook, and in blogs with many pointing out that they and a significant number of their colleagues are actively working to produce policy relevant research.

Kristof makes some valid points about the obscurity of much social science research and the inaccessibility of the jargon. But he does not mention an important reality:  that even relevant, good quality, and well communicated research often fails to have much impact on public dialog and policy.  Some of the challenges may be inherent to the nature of policy-making itself, but the discrepancy is often seen when research findings do not conform to preconceived notions or agenda of  policymakers. When research demonstrates that pre-existing ’solutions’ are not applicable, it is likely to be ignored as well. This too is true both in the US national system and internationally.  For example, even though  the data suggest that most of the gender-based violence even in humanitarian settings is perpetrated by intimate partners, most of the focus in processes aimed at ending impunity and preventing violence remains on combatant perpetrated sexual violence.

Even in areas for which there is more of an evidence base, it is not clear how and whether the evidence is used. ALNAP, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action, is working to identify the quality and use of evidence available for the humanitarian sector.

The problem is not only that existing evidence is often ignored, but also that there is also little recognition or mention of the need for data on what works, even in key high level statements and commitments. The lack of evidence about what works speaks to not only the complexity of research in crisis settings but also to the lack of resources available for robust program monitoring and evaluation.  When it comes to prevention of and response to sexual violence in conflict, and to evaluation of humanitarian programming in general, it is only fairly recently that there has been a move to identify  evidence of what works. Humanitarian non-governmental organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are working with academic institutions to evaluate interventions for sexual violence in humanitarian settings. There are also initiatives to support the generation of evidence for action, such as the Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) initiative of the ELRHA.

It will be interesting to see whether this push for evidence-based action is reflected in the UK hosted Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict scheduled for this June.  I hope that support for building the evidence base and for using the evidence to inform policy and programming plays a greater and more integrated part of the global efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence in humanitarian settings.


* Kristof’s own work and actions related to sexual violence have been critiqued  as uninformed /naïve and potentially harmful.

The Conflict-Related GBV that the Humanitarian Community Ignores

by Sarah Martin

In humanitarian settings, there’s been greater attention paid to the issue of sexual violence in conflict thanks to the work of GBV activists around the world. There are more programs, more media and academic attention about the problem, and even an acronym (CRSV = Conflict Related Sexual Violence) created to allow us to refer to it in short-hand on power-point presentations. While, we still struggle to implement programs and get sufficient funding (CARE International UK released a report showing that only 3% of the U.S.’s humanitarian aid is spent on programs that focus on gender, including GBV) and GBV sub-cluster leads must still argue with other agency leads that GBV falls under CERF criteria for life-saving, progress has been made in acknowledging sexual violence in emergencies.

Rape is a horrifying fact of war for most people around the world. Yet women in non-conflict countries also experience sexual violence and not always at the hands of parties to the conflict. The latest data show that some 1 in 3 women globally experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner. Thirty percent of women worldwide experience violence perpetrated by husbands, boyfriends or other intimate partners and up to 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. Although Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) has been documented in humanitarian settings including refugee camps for over 10 years, IPV is rarely addressed in humanitarian response. Dr. Jhumka Gupta, a social epidemiologist and assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health, asks the question in today’s Huffington Post, “Why then are such private forms of violence against women largely an afterthought in settings impacted by humanitarian crises?”

Dr Gupta raises good questions – leading with a strong personal anecdote about a woman in Haiti during the coup against Aristide (pre-Earthquake) who wandered into the hospital she worked in with stab wounds from her husband. There were no services to refer her to and

“as a women’s health professional, all I could do was buy her food and see her in the hospital every day until she healed—at least from her physical wounds.”

Despite the assistance available during humanitarian emergencies (mental health, health care, shelter, protection and other programs), there continues to be a blind spot with regards to humanitarian attention to IPV.

Her anecdote reflects my personal experiences working for Medecins Sans Frontieres- Holland as an advisor on responding to sexual violence in the headquarters. MSF is known for working in the difficult places. They are known for drawing attention to neglected diseases and taking up issues that are ignored in humanitarian settings.  But when it came to arguing that MSF should pay more attention to IPV, I normally hit a wall. I often debated with conflicted team members in the field whether or not MSF should be treating domestic violence cases or trying to assist women who had been assaulted by their husbands. While I could normally get them to agree that it didn’t matter who the perpetrator was – that healthcare was needed and should be offered, I was not always very successful (particularly with non-medical personnel). I always ran up against the “culture” argument that IPV is “a cultural issue and we shouldn’t touch it” (although I had allies in operations including those who fought hard to open up Family Service Centers in Lae and Tari and now Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea that provide comprehensive services for IPV survivors.)

A review of published research  by Stark and Ager looked at studies conducted in conflict affected settings like Bosnia, East Timor, and refugee camps in Jordan and concluded that “rates of intimate partner violence tended to be quite high across all of the studies—much higher than most of the rates of wartime rape and sexual violence perpetrated by individuals outside of the home.”  Gupta points out that the International Rescue Committee released a report calling for the humanitarian community to consider intimate partner violence as a humanitarian issue in West Africa in 2012, and questions whether it is not addressed because it fails to capture the media’s attention. At the Cassandra Complexity, we also wonder why its not addressed with as much fervor as conflict-related sexual violence perpetrated by combatants (see the recent high level meetings hosted by the US Institute of Peace’s including one focused on “Men, Peace and Security”, a number of UN Security Council Resolutions specifically regarding sexual violence in conflict (as it relates to peace and security) and the UN Action against Sexual Violence initiative ). Stay tuned for more thoughts from the Cassandra Complexity community on this.

Ignoring IPV doesn’t make sense in humanitarian settings. The physical, emotional, social, and economic costs of IPV are staggering. Gupta points out:

“According to the World Bank, the economic costs of lost productivity due to partner violence are estimated to be around 1.2-2% of GDP. This is close to what the Democratic Republic of Congo spends on education. These health and economic tolls can threaten any chances of stability long after wars end.”

She also references a partnership with the International Rescue Committee and Innovations for Poverty Action in Côte d’Ivoire that shows how the humanitarian community can start to address this issue.  Her project observed reductions in IPV when combining women’s economic empowerment with a program that engaged men to challenge traditional gender norms. Gupta’s article calls for more US leadership on addressing this issue, but I believe that humanitarian organizations should take a lead in addressing this more concretely by speaking out about the impact of IPV on the clients, beneficiaries, and patients that they work with in conflict and humanitarian emergencies world wide. We have to stop using the culture argument to turn a blind eye to the suffering in the communities where we work.

16 Days of “Action”: A Lament

The second in a series of posts inspired by the 16 Days of Action. Cassandra Complexity co-editor, Sarah Martin, reflects on social media.

I get tired of social media sometimes. I recently read how the act of posting a charitable act on Facebook will actually make people LESS likely to donate money to a charity because in our minds, when we hit “like” or “share”, we’ve done our duty. We don’t have to DO anything. We’ve passively passed on the buck and “raised awareness” about the issue. It’s called “slacktivism.”

I’m guilty of this sometimes. I’m a social media junkie and love to read and share the different news pieces and articles that my many friends in Gender-Based Violence world post on Facebook and twitter. I know people working in the UN, in different NGOs, people working as journalists and in the human rights field, aid workers and people who have left the humanitarian field, and just smart interesting thoughtful people who like to read. As a consultant, it is very tempting to procrastinate and spend a big part of the day educating myself by reading all the interesting articles that I find when I jump on social media. But I know in my heart that it’s not “work”.

But as the 16 Days of Action against Gender-based Violence rolls around this year, I find myself turned off and almost feeling apathetic. So many tweets and beautiful ad campaigns and heart-wrenching ads, and orange colored clothes on my Facebook feed. In 2003 – 2010, I wrote so many pieces about 16 Days of Action when I worked for Refugees International and MSF. I begged with our comms people to post them and raise awareness. But now, I am seeing them and I feel a surge of sadness.

Maybe its because I spent this year in four different countries (Libya, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Egypt) where the response to violence against women sometimes seems to be limited to awareness-raising. Now don’t get me wrong – there is always someone on the ground TRYING to provide care. Trying but limping along. Maybe there is one organization – maybe 2 or 3 but always under-funded and under-staffed and over-worked.

Where is the link between the legions of twitter users and Facebook fans who like the good work that these organizations do and actual response to the needs of women living with the problem of violence against women in humanitarian settings? If we could even get a dollar for every click that we receive, we’d have enough money to buy dignity kits for adolescent girls to keep them from dropping out of school and from embarrassment when they get their periods. We’d have emergency contraception in all the clinics along with confidential spaces for interviews, and enough money to have training programs for helping nurses and doctors understand better how to interview a rape survivor. We’d have anti-sexual harassment campaigns on all the tvs, billboards, and radios. We’d have literacy programs for women trapped in the camps. We’d have more ability to teach aid workers what a livelihood program is and why its so crucial for women both as a prevention and a response strategy to intimate partner violence and rape in wartime.

But the work that we need to do goes beyond enough money and fundraising – that’s just the obvious link. It goes back to the quality that my co-authors and I identified in our Sexual Violence Research Initiative presentation in Bangkok last October. The “Je ne sais quoi” sometimes known as the Angelina Jolie factor or the CNN impact.

How do we move beyond the passivity of clicking “like” or “retweet” and move into actually generating more programs for women on the ground? A few humble suggestions:

  1. Donate your money to an organization that does actual work on the ground supporting survivors. Don’t be fooled by campaigns by organizations who say they do something – do your research!
  2. Get politically active and demand that your government to do more to support programs for survivors of gender-based violence, including granting asylum, funding abortion care, and providing sustainable care for all women vulnerable to violence – not just conflict-related violence or rape in war.
  3. Volunteer at or financially support a local domestic violence shelter in your home country- raise awareness about the impact of violence in your own community

Any other ideas, readers?

16 Days: Truth in a Time of Terror: Renewing our feminist resistance strategies

In  the first of a series of posts related to the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, Guest Blogger Dr. Vanessa Farr, Peace Activist and Feminist Freedom Fighter, reflects on the need to re-frame the debate and renew our efforts to end all forms of violence against women.

*note all page numbers following quotes in this post refer to  Judith Butler, 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London and New York, Verso: pp. 1-18.

One of the most significant successes of the global feminist peace movement in the past twenty or so years has been to expose sexualized war violence and galvanise international actors, including the United Nations, to act decisively to prevent and respond to it. Inside the UN, the women, peace and security agenda (WPSA) kicked off by Security Council Resolution 1325 in October 2000 has set off the most sustained and productive site of analysis, policy-making, lobbying and resource-mobilisation on women’s issues since the preparation for and passage of CEDAW from the 1960s to the beginning of the 1980s. Under its purview, a steady number of SCRs has been passed whose intention is to safeguard women from the worst excess of contemporary warfare, in particular sexual torture and sexualised violence. The CEDAW Committee itself has just passed General Recommendation #30 to ensure that the two streams of the agenda – the full achievement of women’s human rights, by means of their protection and participation in all aspects of security decision-making – are fully aligned.

Yet feminist peace activists are claiming, as we go into this year’s 16 Days of Action, only the hollowest of victories: because in 2013 we seem to be just as far away from our goal of ‘ending war violence against women’ as we were in 1995 at the Fourth World Congress on Women in Beijing which birthed the WPSA. Indeed, the third ‘P’ of our agenda, and the most important one of all, which is the goal to prevent women from suffering sexualised war violence at all, remains as elusive as ever. Women are not only still overwhelmingly unprotected from sexualised violence as a method of war, but the intensity and savagery of this violence seems to be increasing and may now even be seen by some armed groups as the most effective means to gain attention; its tenacity as the most egregious of crimes committed in war seems as strangling as ever; and efforts to end war violence against women through taking more punitive legal measures against any military actors who endorse it remain hopelessly ineffectual, slow, expensive and grueling for the survivors, while having no perceivable deterrent effect.

Are we at an impasse as a women’s movement? Can we engage differently with this apparently unyielding site of struggle and produce more effective results? And even more profoundly, what are our own self-limiting beliefs – what are we overlooking, or not properly articulating as we do our work?

In my efforts to think more deeply about these questions and to search out new frameworks for describing the problem that might allow us to move forward, I find myself looking anew at Judith Butler’s Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004), a book that was written at around the same time as the WPSA was starting to take hold. In it, she articulates her response to the 9/11 attacks on New York City, questioning the endlessly aggressive US foreign policy that has been elaborated across the globe since that date, and calling for Americans to “take a different sort of responsibility for the global conditions of justice”, one not premised on a “cycle of revenge in the name of justice”, that moves beyond “seeking legal redress for wrongs done”. She suggests a stock-taking of how the world has become so cruelly mis-formed, “precisely in order to form it anew, and in the direction of non-violence” (17). Her questions are very much ours, as a feminist peace movement.

Butler’s central concern is to understand “accountability…apart from the claims of vengeance” (3). She challenges silences that seem impenetrable and carefully unveils the prejudicial, racist and orientalist/imperialist attitudes that enable the US to “position…[itself] exclusively as the sudden and indisputable victim of violence” to therefore authorise itself – unilaterally – “ to use limitless aggression against targets that may or not be related to the sources” of its suffering (4), and from this position, to ‘fight’ violence with even greater aggression. This response, she reveals, both springs from and entrenches non-egalitarian belief systems and reifies an essentially dehumanising perspective in which “those hundreds of thousands of Muslim lives lost in the last decades of strife” can be brushed aside as irrelevant, while “those Americans who have been violently killed” are reframed “through nationalistic and familial framing devices” (12) as fully human, and thus fully able to be, and deserving of being, mourned either individually or collectively.

At the beginning of her book, Butler does not yet show how her thinking extends to an analysis of the gender dynamics of either the processes of dehumanising the ‘other’ or making them disappear. The story she starts off by interrogating is almost exclusively one of big men, whether they are Arabs or Americans, duking it out to decide who has a greater moral right to ‘claim grief’. In this regard, she offers a particularly striking analysis of exchanges between Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in which the former’s offer of relief assistance was rejected because he made it at the same time as he made a plea to the US to take “a more a balanced stand towards the Palestinian cause” and spoke what Butler observes as an “unutterable” (12-13) phrase about how the world continues to overlook the Israeli “slaughter” of Palestinians.

What struck me about Butler’s assessment is that it would be quite possible to substitute the analysis of ‘imperialism’ for one of ‘patriarchy’, the focus on ‘Arabs and Muslims’ (who also, of course, include women) for a concentration on ‘women’ alone, and the unsayable word ‘slaughter’ as it applies to the millions of women around the world who die through violence; and in so doing, to further expand the power of her analysis.

The ubiquity and apparent unassailability of the problem of ‘war rape’ and the ‘moral outrage’ that we can all feel about it happening has, it seems to me, actually had a de-politicising effect on our work as feminists opposing all forms of violence against women, wherever and whenever they happen. I’ve noticed how many officials in policy circles have begun to constitute what look like a valid set of reasons for never discussing the extraordinary levels of (often lethal) male violence against females around the world who are not in war zones. Thus it becomes possible for the UK government to launch a huge fund to ‘end war violence’ in foreign lands at exactly the same time as it dramatically reduces already poor funding for work with survivors of male violence at home and passes increasingly draconian anti-poor measures that expose already-struggling women to even more marginalisation and a higher than usual risk of violence, especially as their dependency on unreliable and aggressive partners deepens.

In some ways, then, the global high-level discourse against ‘war rape’ that has been brought about by the WPSA shares the same features of being based in prejudice and silencing as those mobilised in ‘fighting the war on terror’: only the suffering of some women matters, and then, only if it takes place in circumstances that the majority of (male-led) international observers decide constitutes a ‘war’. Within this logic, it becomes clearer that the international community continues to not successfully tackle sexual violations ‘in conflict’ because it refuses to try to eradicate the gruesome spectrum of violence on which all women everywhere, live – including in countries that can otherwise claim themselves to be living in something pretty close to ‘peace’. Why else has ‘ending war violence against women’ gained so much traction as a donor and policy focus when other public spending to support women fleeing domestic violence declines and violent public rhetoric and actions against outspoken women escalate, taking on frightening new shapes – such as the truly vicious forms of online trolling to which women leaders are routinely subject in ‘developed’ countries?

The answer, of course, is that it’s all happening because it is useful to the neo-liberal paradigm which argues that supplying ‘technocratic fixes’ to complex social problems is an effective way of solving them. War rape, then, has become yet another ‘logistical’ problem that ‘experts’ like me are called in to help ‘fix’ – as long as we focus only on the crime itself and not on the ‘unsayable’, the fact that men’s propensity to use gendered violence with impunity is the global injustice of our time. It’s possible because those in authority want us to see the violent ending of women’s lives in war time as somehow exceptional, whereas the terrorisation and slaughter of women by men at all other times is – well, it’s just an unfortunate by-product of men gaining access to guns and knives or using their fists to keep women in subordination. We do indeed live in a world in which some can, as Butler points out, come to a place where “radical violence becomes an option, comes to appear as the only option for some” (16). But when it is men who, time and again, use the radical violence of intimate femicide as their ‘only’ option for dealing with interpersonal strife, their extremism is somehow, today in 2013, still unsayable; and in far too many circles, is still not seen as the worst form of terror happening in our world.

Butler very clearly warns us that the new wars of our time, whether they are ‘wars on terror’ or ‘wars on war rape’ do little to “offer another vision of the future than that which perpetuates violence in the name of denying it” (18). As we go into 2013’s Sixteen Days of Activism, let us indeed focus on militarisation and war rape:  but only in order to re-awaken our vision of a world that is safe for all women and girls, whatever the political conditions in which they may live.