How Gendered Experiences Shape Processes and Practices of War and Peace

Jennifer Amy Leigh, The University of Law, UK

Jennifer is currently a full-time Civil Servant and part-time Graduate Diploma in Law student at The University of Law. Previously, she graduated from The University of Manchester with a MA in Politics and from the University of Liverpool with a BA Honours in English Language and Literature. Jennifer has studied abroad at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China, and IILM in Delhi, India. 


This article considers the gendered nature of conflict. It argues that war is not a patriarchal preserve and that gendered experience extends conflict beyond its usual boundaries. Women are shown to be affected by war, as the term is broadly understood, in a variety of ways, although the full extent of female experiences has not yet been assimilated into conflict discourse. It shows that the usual demarcations between war and peace do not reflect gendered experience, and the examples of the Congo and Korea are used to illustrate this point. The value of social constructivism in providing a theoretical framework for gendered experience is war is also considered, with reference to female experiences in World War One. The example of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is examined in even greater detail, particularly in respect to women’s experience of violence, sexual or otherwise, and their unwillingness to discuss it. Attention is given to the role of peace, which is defined not as the absence of war, but as the absence of insecurity and other forms of violence not usually associated with traditional conflict. The role of gendered experience in shaping peace processes is also considered, especially women’s participation is peace-building and the secure establishment of peace after conflict. It is suggested that many more connections need to be made if gendered experiences in the narratives of war are to be fully appreciated. The importance of avoiding stereotypes is made apparent.

Recent developments in the nature of warfare have had profound consequences for gendered experiences both during and after conflict. While war has traditionally been defined as either an international military struggle or a civil conflict between opposing forces within a state, it is now increasingly understood as ‘a sustained campaign against something undesirable’ (Concise English Dictionary, 2011: 1628). Indeed, today’s wars are referred to as ‘wars’ against drugs, guns, and terror (Kerrigan, 2017; Winkler, 2011; Rogers, 2004), partly, but not exclusively, fought within civil societies, including women and children holding only a limited knowledge of the war in their streets. This essay will show how war and peace can be viewed through the prism of gendered experience and, more importantly, that a full appreciation of the gendered nature of conflict is vital if the processes of modern warfare and peace-making are to be fully understood. This essay will use theories which stress the role of male elite power interests, as well as those which argue that the end of conflict is merely the prelude to the reassertion of patriarchal, social relations and ‘gendered dynamics’ (Borer, 2009: 1172). It will show how gendered experiences extend war beyond its hitherto geographical and temporal frameworks and bring value to the idea that peace should be ‘built’ rather than simply ‘declared’.

It is vital from the outset to understand the different ways in which women are affected by war and post-conflict situations. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 recognises that, at the most basic level, men and women experience conflict differently. The Resolution encourages international actors to increase women’s participation in peace and security processes and incorporate gender perspectives into post-conflict initiatives. An example of these principles being successfully applied is the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. Yet whilst Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (2016: 275) rightly identifies WPS as “the dominant discourse framing women’s advocacy and action in international affairs”, she also explains that until recently, the types of conflict likely to fall within the WPS agenda’s remit have been narrowly defined as those which lie within the denotation of traditional armed conflict. Presumably, the long-running siege of Mosul (2016-2017) would be included, whereas the 2012 racist murder of Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi woman, in California would not (Sjoberg, 2013; Katrandjian, 2012). Presumably, the 2017 attacks in Borough Market in London would also be excluded. The exclusion of these events, which do not fall within traditional definitions of armed conflict, is significant since it increases the risk of gender essentialism by which the gender is understood according to physical characteristics. This limitation in the WPS agenda’s remit is particularly significant as the terms for inclusion have been defined by male-dominated security institutions. For example, while the first session of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) briefed states on the role of women in combating terrorism and extremism, the CTC has not to this date negotiated with the WPS, leaving the latter playing a peripheral role in the terrorism discourse. Ní Aoláin concludes:

“the superficial inclusion of references to women in the context of addressing terrorism and advancing counterterrorism strategies should not be read as a form of meaningful intersection between the WPS agenda and by now well-established post 9/11 international security regimes […] The parallel reality is that, despite over a decade of intrusion into the peace and security arena, women find themselves (yet again) at the wrong party” (2016: 289).

One conclusion which might be taken from this is that despite the WPS agenda’s attempt to include gendered experiences in conflict and post-conflict narratives, the full range of women’s experiences have not yet been fully accepted into the discourse of conflict prevention and resolution.

Defining War, Defining Peace

It can be argued that the traditional demarcations between war and peace do not allow for the full expression of gendered experiences. To see war as the incidence of violence between two or more states and peace as the absence of such an incidence generally obscures women’s experiences in war. This is the argument of Chris Cuomo (1996: 42), who sees war as “white noise in the background of social existence”. Thus, while certain women in the Congo perceive the motivations of soldiers to commit rape as intimately connected with the conflict, and regarded as the ‘spoils’ of war, other women experience war in less traditional contexts (Card, 1996). For example, Catherine Moon detects war in the behaviour of women prostitutes in the development of the Korean De-Militarized Zone (1997). Indeed, viewed from a broader perspective, events such as the death of Alawadi lay outside the conventional divisions between war and peace. Several feminist scholars (Elshtain, 1987) have argued that to distinguish between war and peace is similar to distinguishing between the public and private roles in civil society. Once such a distinction is removed, the ways in which gendered experiences shape the processes and practices of war and peace become clearer.

As such, it is important to identify a theoretical framework by which these gendered experiences can be more clearly understood. The theory of social constructivism, according to which the thread of gender identity is “woven, moved, stretched” as women and men take their places in the social world (Messner, 1990), has attracted some attention in regard to this issue. Michael Messner explains that “gender identity, rather than being viewed as a ‘thing’ which people ‘have,’ is thus conceptualized as a process of construction which develops, comes into crisis, and changes as a person interacts with the social world” (Messner, 1990: 419).

An understanding of social constructivism allows us to gain a new perspective on gendered experiences. For example, during the First World War, particularly following the introduction of conscription in 1916, women’s gender identity significantly developed; the effects of this development extended far beyond the Armistice of 1918 and the peace treaties that followed. Conventional historical analysis has highlighted the way in which the involvement of women in WWI aided the campaign for female suffrage. Yet social histories of the 1920s shows how pre-war patriarchal societies sought to restore women to their traditional roles, while several women rejected any easy categorisation and certainly any restoration of pre-war complacencies (Vera Brittain and Virginia Woolf are two contrasting examples) (McKibbin, 1998). In this context, peace can indeed be interpreted as a process, one which has an impact far beyond the conventional stereotype. Hanley’s (1991) thesis shows how the widespread perception of the solider on the front line as the main victim of war frequently prevents us from acknowledging other victims and the effect of war on gendered experience. This also:

“discourages questions about war as a continuous condition […] eerily reminiscent of the motel room Patrick Purdy left behind when he set out for the Stockton, California schoolyard where he would spray the playing children with bullets from his assault rifle, killing five and ultimately himself. His room at the motel was empty but for a company of toy soldiers […]” (Hanley, 1991: 31-32).

The fact that Hanley’s analysis stretches from the First World War to the Cleveland Elementary School shooting in 1989 reveals the long history of tensions in gendered behaviour in the context of war and peace. However, detailed analysis of a more recent peace process will allow us to understand gendered experience more comprehensively.

The Example of South Africa

A highly persuasive account of the gendering of peace concerns one of the most famous peace and reconciliation movements. Tristan Anne Borer’s analysis of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SATRC) shows that women were reluctant to talk about the sexual violence experienced during the apartheid era. Indeed, women were far more willing to discuss offences committed against male relatives rather than offences against themselves, a point illustrated by testimony concerning sexual violence (Borer, 2009). Rape, as argued by Diken and Lausten (2005), is a prime strategy of warfare. In their work on the Congo, Baaz and Stern (2009) show women were often raped by soldiers from their own country as well as by peacekeepers who were supposedly their protectors. Yet, among the 21,000 testimonies given to the SATRC, only 140 mentioned rape (Borer, 2009: 117; South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 1998: 296). One explanation for this outcome is that, according to its definition, the TRC was interested in gross violations of human rights (GVHR) confined to killing, abduction, torture or severe ill treatment. Notably, Borer (2009) does not argue that rape surely qualifies as severe ill treatment. However, she does show that in its desire to pursue racial injustices, the TRC underestimated the degree to which “patriarchal power relations were integrated and used to bolster the power of the oppressors within indigenous communities” (Goldblatt and Meintjes, 1998). The TRC was clearly aware of its deficiencies in this area and stated in its final report that the definition of GVHR adopted by the Commission resulted in a blindness to the types of abuse predominantly experienced by women. This evidence indicates how the processes and practices of peace can be misconceived when insufficient attention is given to gendered experience, and to the social constructivist role played by women in post-conflict situations.

The South African example is equally instructive in other ways. Though an understanding of women’s experiences is essential to the process of peace, women in South Africa were reluctant to describe assaults due to a sense of shame. Added to this sense of shame, black women generally feared that testifying against the men who raped them would bring shame on the post-apartheid government. Indeed, many of the alleged rapists held government office positions and some were prominent members of the ANC (Borer, 2009). In this context, it can be argued that truth was particularly dangerous for post-conflict reconstruction. In addition, women who testified to events of rape suffered before they themselves rose to significant positions in the ANC would be seen as ‘weak’ from a male standpoint, assuming they had ‘allowed themselves’ to be placed in such a situation. Ultimately, the TRC acknowledged that women had indeed suffered from gross violations of their human rights, yet did so without undertaking a full investigation of those violations, an inquiry which may have been further hampered by the widespread reluctance of men to acknowledge the acts of sexual violence committed (Borer, 2009).

The South African example is also helpful for understanding present-day South African society. Sjoberg (2013) and other scholars (McEvoy, 2009) have shown that peace needs to be ‘built’ and is “not something that can be imposed from the top down by political elites but something that must be constructed from the bottom up with citizen participation” (Sjoberg, 2013: 180). The absence of such participation in South Africa has led to a failure to implement fundamental changes in ordinary women’s lives, despite many black women now occupying significant government positions. In Borer’s view, the failure of the TRC to address these issues means that the chances of implementing such changes are made “immeasurably more difficult when one key institution devoted to raising awareness about the culture of human rights – such as a truth commission – turns a blind eye, no matter how unintentional, to the plight of women” (Borer, 2009: 1186).

Perhaps a positive conclusion to be drawn is that the absence of a full analysis of gendered experience could enable other post-conflict societies to understand the rigour needed if the process of peace is to be fully completed.

Broader Conceptions of Peace

If gendered experience is to be fully assimilated into the reconstruction of peace in post-conflict situations, a much broader understanding of the nature of peace is needed. As discussed, peace is not merely the absence of war, but also the absence of violence and insecurity. Birgit Brock-Utne (1989) persuasively suggests that peace should encompass justice and equality rather than simply an end to war. The replacement of violence and insecurity with justice and equality can be achieved only if certain areas of gendered experience are addressed. Brock-Utne suggests that these areas include wife-beating, unequal working conditions and free speech, and may also include an end to sweat shop labour and gendered divisions of labour and resources. Women working in factories whose rights are infringed by the demands of war, those forced into prostitution, and those whose domestic safety is threatened, can all begin to shape peace processes by bringing their situation to the notice of relevant authorities. However, such willingness to give evidence may be limited, particularly in societies where war is closely linked to ideals of masculinity.

In societies where masculinity and militarism are particularly intertwined, the proclivity for war can be a structural rather than an incidental issue. Gendered experience can shape the process of both war and peace by showing how war is often perceived as the conventional image of “(masculine) warriors” protecting “(feminised) civilians” (Sjoberg, 2006). Such notions of protection are often far removed from the reality of feminine experience of war. Women are not necessarily protected in such situations and when they are, such protection may be dependent upon a loss of other rights such as the freedoms of expression and self-determination. Susan Rae Peterson has argued that war is a ‘protection racket’ whereby the lives of those ostensibly protected are risked to justify the making of war (Peterson, 1977). Indeed, some people justify the making of war by reference to the protection of the idealised ‘female’, a process which frequently entails the subjugation of women. This is one of the reasons why military propaganda has typically focused on the victimisation and murder of women by enemy combatants in order to motivate men to volunteer for service. Victory can legitimise exploitation and provide an excuse for violence if that exploitation is resisted.

The analysis above underlines the crucial role of gendered experiences in shaping peace processes. However, to take the first steps towards achieving this goal, it is vital that the theoretical positions underpinning peace activism are fully understood. The essentialist position places innate male violence at the root of war, making a clear link between war as it is commonly understood and violence in domestic situations (Kelly, 2000). Moreover, it is argued that attacks on women in war are evidence of a male desire to possess women as property, given that property, if defined broadly, can include productive labour and reproductive capacity (Turshen, 2001). In addition to physical assaults, women in war are made responsible for tending to the injured, caring for the young, and playing their part to ensure that another generation will be produced. This view clearly does not reflect the full range of gendered experiences in either war or peace, and fundamentally limits women to the traditional reproductive and nurturing roles. As Louise Vincent suggests, peace-builders who rely on such stereotypes:

“are reinforcing rather than assisting the fundamental revisioning of prevailing relations of gender dominance which justify women’s exclusion from the public sphere of work and politics on the basis of their putative special responsibilities and proficiencies as mothers” (2001: 5).

There seems to be a double-knot here, in that the evidence of the WPS suggests that women’s roles in peace-building are limited partly because of an essentialist outlook, and such a limitation refers to both male and female failing to be considered when peace processes are underway. It is these deficiencies which clearly need to be addressed if war is to be fully understood and peace built on secure foundations.


Evidence suggests that gendered experiences have shaped the processes of war and peace far more in recent years than has historically been the case. It is now understood that women’s experiences include more than simple nurturing and, just as significantly, that male roles in conflict and conflict resolution can be stereotyped as well. El-Bushra et al. (2005) has pointed out that women engaged in peacebuilding have been described as ‘weaving’ peace or supplying a ‘warm blanket’ of peace. Although such words reflect essentialist preconceptions of women’s roles, gendered experience is generally viewed as more concerning. Social constructivism offers opportunities to reveal the depth and variety of gendered experience. Gradually, an understanding of these two positions is filtering into peace processes. At the same time, the deficiencies outlined in South Africa, the Congo and elsewhere, not to mention the limitations of the United Nations in this regard, reveal that many more connections need to be made if gendered experiences are to be completely reflected in post-conflict contexts. This may change both the lives of everyone involved in conflicts and the complex processes of reconciliation that follow them.


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Why Is Sexual Violence Such an Effective Weapon of War?

Dawn Stevenson, University of Leeds, UK

Dawn Stevenson studied International Development and Spanish at the University of Leeds. After volunteering with a sustainable development NGO in Nepal for 9 months, Dawn is now working as a Policy Advisor in the Civil Service. Her main areas of interest are human rights, climate change and sustainable agriculture.


Sexual violence is one of many war crimes that is effectively and strategically committed to achieve war aims; it encompasses many forms of violence and is perpetrated against victims of all genders during both wartime and peacetime.This paper argues that rape is an extremely effective weapon of war because its multidimensional consequences give rape the powerful ability to destroy not only its victims, but to tear apart their families and communities. It will explore how rape becomes a strategic tool to inflict long-term, devastating and debilitating consequences for female victims, for the men socially connected to them, and equally for their communities and future generations. These consequences are facilitated by gendered structural violence and inequality entrenched in patriarchal (male-centred, structured in sexism) societies and their perceptions of female sexuality and male dominance. These pre-existing perceptions and attitudes facilitate the widespread use of sexual violence as both a deliberate strategy of war and as an outcome of economic grievances.

“We won’t waste bullets on you; we will rape you and that will be worse for you” (Zimbardo, 2007, p. 13)

Sexual violence is one of many war crimes that is effectively and strategically committed to achieve war aims in almost every armed conflict in recorded history (Jones, 2013, p. 1). Until the recent UN recognition of its systematic and deliberate employment as a strategic weapon of war in 2008 (UN, 2014), sexual violence had been perceived as merely a consequence or side effect of war (MSF, 2004). However, brutal and devastating forms of sexual violence are utilized to achieve the military and political objectives of warring factions, to terrorize, displace and destroy ‘enemy’ groups (UN, 2014; Baaz and Stern, 2009; Jones, 2013, p. 2). Sexual violence encompasses many forms of violence and is perpetrated against victims of all genders during both wartime and peacetime. For clarity and precision of focus this article will specifically analyse sexual violence in the form of rape of women and girls. As it is rape that is perpetrated en masse as an effective weapon of war (Farwell, 2004). Moreover, the preponderance of rape warfare is perpetrated against women and girls (UN, 2008).

This article will argue that rape is an extremely effective weapon of war because its multidimensional consequences give rape the powerful ability to destroy not only its victims, but to tear apart their families and communities. It will explore how rape becomes a strategic tool to inflict long-term, devastating and debilitating consequences for female victims, for the men socially connected to them, and equally for their communities and future generations. These consequences are facilitated by gendered structural violence and inequality entrenched in patriarchal (male-centred, structured in sexism) societies and their perceptions of female sexuality and male dominance (Boesten, 2012). Structural violence is defined as violence present not necessarily in direct, physical action but embedded into the political and economic structures of society (Farmer et al. 2006, p. 1686). Many forms of social injustice, including gender inequality and poverty form structural violence because they prevent individuals from realising their physical and mental potential (Galtung, 1969, p. 171). This article will conclude that these pre-existing perceptions and attitudes facilitate the widespread use of sexual violence as both a deliberate strategy of war and as an outcome of economic grievances.

To explore these issues, the article will principally analyse the case study of the Rwandan Genocide (1994), in which systematic, militarised rape was clearly used as a strategy of genocide to achieve ethnic cleansing and displacement of the Tutsi population. It will also draw from comparisons from the lengthy conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (1997-2003), which provides insight into the complex interplay of the strategic, militarily-commanded use of rape understood by the ‘Rape as a Weapon of War’ discourse (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013, p. 4), and the wartime exacerbation of ‘normal’ sexual violence born of soldiers’ socioeconomic grievances rooted in structural violence. It will explore how in both Rwanda and the DRC, rape warfare perpetrated with the economic goal of extorting personal assets and land by displacing women and communities, thus showcasing the political economy of rape (Turshen, 2001).

Sexual violence as a tool of genocide in Rwanda

We must first examine the use of sexual violence as a tool of genocide in Rwanda and explore why it was so effective in achieving the Hutu war objectives of destroying the Tutsi ethnic group and displacing them from land and assets in order to pillage. During the three months of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Rwandans died, eradicating three quarters of the Tutsi population (Jones, 2013, p. 2). The systematic rape of up to 500,000 Tutsi women perpetrated by the ‘Interahamwe’ Hutu militia groups, civilians, and soldiers of the national Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) (Human Rights Watch, 1996), was used as a weapon of war and an act of genocide with the intent to destroy the Tutsi ethnic group.

Understanding why rape was used as a weapon to further war objectives in Rwanda necessitates understanding the foundations of the genocide that created those objectives. The root of this genocide was the colonial assignment of distinct races to the previously fluid Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, creating “racialized political identities” that were later reproduced by nationalism during the post-colonial Rwandan revolution of 1959 (Mamdani, 2003, p. 144). Rwanda became a ‘Hutu nation’, in which the ‘alien’, non-Rwandan Tutsi aristocracy was seen to be holding a colonial, illegitimate claim to power. This language of political racialisation produced a radicalised Hutu social ideology which was inflamed by the military invasion of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) of exiled Tutsis from Uganda in 1990, which in turn triggered the civil war. The invasion was seen as an attempt to restore the colonial Tutsi monarchy, which justified brutal Hutu-Tutsi violence to wipe out the Tutsi population, all in pursuit of justice for the Hutu nation (Mamdani, 2003, p. 143, 147).

Genocide can be committed through various methods: by the mass murder and prevention of future reproduction of a victimized group, but also by destroying the cultural and social bonds of that group (Card, 1996, p. 8). In Rwanda, rape was used as a weapon for both strategies in the destruction of the Tutsi population. Firstly, rape was used to control reproduction, to end the Tutsi ‘race’ not only through murder and forced sterilization of Tutsi women by mutilation (Sai, 2012), but also by changing the race of the next generation through pregnancies resulting from Hutu rape of Tutsi women. During the genocide thousands of Tutsi women were gang-raped and raped with objects such as sharpened sticks and gun barrels, to cause life threatening injury and to forcibly sterilize them, to prevent the Tutsi population from bearing children (Human Rights Watch, 1996). In patriarchal societies such as the one in Rwanda, children adopt the father’s ethnicity; hence children of forced pregnancies take the ‘enemy’ group’s ethnicity (Sai, 2012). This ‘deliberate pollution’ of the “bloodlines of victimised populations” (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 341) is a frequent feature of genocidal warfare. It was also employed during the Bosnian war (1992-95), in which the systematic mass rape of an estimated 60,000 Bosnian women was used as a strategy for the genocidal ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian race through forced pregnancies, so that raped Bosnian women would give birth to a Serbian baby (MSF, 2004). The ability of rape to eliminate ethnic populations by changing the bloodlines of the next generation through forced pregnancy makes it a unique tool of genocidal warfare.

Rape warfare is extremely effective in decimating enemy communities because of its multidimensional, devastating and long-term consequences for raped women in the aftermath of their abuse. Many women raped in conflict are killed directly after or die from their injuries (Card, 1996, p. 8), whilst survivors can suffer life-threatening and long-term physical injuries from rape and/or mutilation (MSF, 2004). Many victims are also deliberately infected with HIV, which in fact led to an epidemic in Rwanda (Park, 2007, p. 15). Psychologically, sexual violence is used to intimidate, threaten and keep women in a state of fear (Brownmiller, 1986). In Rwanda, the Hutu population was encouraged to “use rape as a tactic of terror and spiritual annihilation” (Jones, 2013, p. 2), stripping Tutsi women of their dignity and identity (Sai, 2012) and causing long-lasting trauma (MSF, 2004).

Another factor that contributes to the efficacy of sexual violence as a weapon of war is that perpetrators of rape warfare have historically maintained impunity from retribution (Falcon, 2001). Despite its recent recognition by the UN and international community as a global security problem (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013), rape remains one of the most “under-reported and inadequately prosecuted of all war crimes” (Allen, 2007; Jones, 2013, p. 1). The stigma and socioeconomic consequences for sexual violence victims, rooted in patriarchal gender inequality, reinforce impunity. As the vast majority of women who suffered rape and other forms of sexual violence in both Rwanda and the DRC did not report or reveal the abuse they went through due to fear of rejection and ostracization from their community (Human Rights Watch, 1996). Moreover, sexual violence is not sufficiently addressed in post-conflict reconstruction and transitional justice programs. The impunity of sexual violence is important to consider because a lack of deterrence “only perpetuates its use and lessens the likelihood that perpetrators will face justice for their transgressions” (Jones, 2013, p. 2) as well as reinforcing the image of a soldier’s entitlement to rape as a spoil of war (Falcon, 2001).

The physical and psychological trauma of rape is exacerbated by its socioeconomic consequences that are underpinned by gender inequality and patriarchal perceptions of women and female sexuality. This gives sexual violence the ability to destroy not only its victims, but also their families and communities. The importance of women’s sexual virtue and the prizing of female virginity means that raped women suffer from great stigma and shame. Survivors are commonly ostracised by their families and communities (Nolen, 2009) and are vunable to reintegrate into society. The husbands of rape survivors are also considered shamed, thus raped women are often rejected by their husbands (2009), especially when left with pregnancies and children from rape Thereby they lose their access to land and economic sufficiency, thus being forced to live in isolation and poverty (MSF, 2004). In this way, because of the structural violence of gender inequality entrenched into patriarchal societies, rape can tear apart families and communities, and create a population of landless, ostracised women in extreme poverty, transforming rape into “a kind of slow murder” (UN, 2008). Therefore, underpinning the power and efficacy of sexual violence as a weapon to dominate, destroy and humiliate enemy groups and the choice to use this method, is the cultural emphasis on women’s sexual virtue and on controlling female sexuality, founded on normalized gendered violence and gender inequality (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013, p. 4).  The consequences of rape then reinforce the structural violence of gender inequality, as stigma, shame; social and economic ostracization and poverty exacerbate the already subordinated position of women in society, forming a continuity of violence against women, both structural and direct.

Women’s bodies as a battleground

Perpetrators exploit cultural conceptions of women’s sexual virtue and of men as protectors, to destroy individuals, families and communities through brutal forms of rape. In Rwanda, mass rape was used to tear apart communities and eliminate the cohesion of the Tutsi population. Frequent and brutal patterns of sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide included rape in the presence of family members, and equally witnessing the torture and murder of relatives (Human Rights Watch, 1996). This method was also employed in the Rape of Nanking during World War II, where Japanese Imperial Army soldiers gang-raped tens of thousands of Chinese women and girls, including the frequent use of forced rape between family members upon threat of death and forcing victims to watch the rape of their relatives (Jones, 2013, p. 1). These patterns exhibit a “calculated employment of psychological warfare aimed at reducing the cohesion of family units and the community as a whole” (2013, p. 1). The fundamental function of rape is the assertion of a “cross-cultural language of male domination” (Card, 1996, p. 11) by which perpetrators dominate and humiliate not only their female victims but also the men who consider themselves protectors of those women – husbands, fathers and brothers: “you destroy communities. You punish the men, and you punish the women, doing it in front of the men” (UN, 2008). The way women and girls are raped to humiliate and dominate their male relatives reflects the entrenched, structural, gendered violence they suffer, as “their bodies become a battleground over which opposing forces struggle” (Park, 2007, p. 15). Built upon these foundations, the multi-dimensional destructive consequences of rape are particularly effective in damaging familial and community cohesion (Card, 1996, p. 11) and are strategically employed to achieve “genocide by cultural decimation”, rendering mass killing unnecessary (1996, p. 8).

The mutilation of breasts and genitals that was perpetrated en masse alongside rape during the genocide formed part of a campaign of terror and “intimidation in its most malevolent form” (Jones, 2013, p. 2) and showcased the efficacy of rape and other forms of sexual violence as a weapon of war. This pattern reflected the hate media propaganda that portrayed Tutsi women as overtly “sexual weapons that would be used by the Tutsi to weaken and ultimately destroy the Hutu men” (Sai, 2012). As well as mutilations that took away distinctly Tutsi, ‘Hamitic’ features, the breasts, vagina and pelvic areas of victims were sometimes mutilated with machetes, sticks and boiling water following rapes (Human Rights Watch, 1996). Moreover, during the war and genocide women were more often raped out in the open than in their homes, often killed directly after they were raped, and “left splayed on public roads… with mutilated genitalia” (Sai, 2012). The horrific brutality of these assaults displayed publicly enacts symbolic violence, in that it sends the clear message of terror that “this can happen to you” (2012), validating Brownmiller’s (1986) assertion that through rape, “all men keep all women in a state of fear”. The clear patterns of mutilation show and symbolize the extreme bodily (re-)assertion of male Hutu dominance over Tutsi women and their sexuality, and over the whole Tutsi population, again exemplifying a war being fought over women’s bodies, which become the battleground for the humiliation of the enemy (Réseau des Femmes pour un Développement Associatif, 2005) (Park, 2007, p. 15).

A further purpose for using rape as a weapon of war in Rwanda was to disperse or forcibly relocate Tutsi communities, not only for ethnic cleansing, but strategically for the extortion of land and assets (UN, 2008). This was rooted in underlying Hutu grievances caused by the structural violence of social inequality between Hutus and Tutsis, entrenched by the colonial legacy of Tutsi aristocracy, which justified the extortion or ‘taking back’ of land from Tutsi families. Furthermore, the civil war legacy led to mass displacement, with 15% of the Rwandan population living in camps by 1994 (Mamdani, 2003, p.147).  The “plight of the displaced spread fear”, with hate media propaganda playing a crucial role in creating the discourse that if the Tutsi returned to power, the ‘Hutu nation’ would “lose both their land and their freedom, in short, everything” (2003, p. 147). Therefore, during the genocide, soldiers seized the property of widows whose husbands they had killed, acquired land through forced marriage to their victims, and pillaged the houses and possessions of those they raped (Turshen, 2001, p. 7). Some village massacres and mass rapes were committed for the prospect of acquiring land and assets (2001, p. 7) by killing the inhabitants and/or terrorizing them into fleeing their homes.

Rape for the extortion of assets: the case of the DRC

The effectiveness of rape as extortion of assets has also been a major objective of its mass perpetration during the lengthy conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Sexual violence has been a ‘defining feature’ of the war, making it the clearest “example of brutality and [the] widespread nature of rape in modern-day conflict” (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 307), with currently approximately 1.8 million Congolese women having been raped in their lifetime (Hirsh and Wolf, 2012). Mass, brutal rape of civilian women was used to “destabilize, dominate and destroy entire communities” by up to 20 armed ‘warring parties’ in the Eastern DRC fought for control over the region’s vast reserves of gold, diamonds and other minerals (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 307) (Dettke, 2012). Clear patterns in the perpetration of rape show that it was committed systematically and strategically for the economic objectives such as wresting personal assets and land from women, creating the political economy of rape (Turshen, 2001, p. 1). Most rapes were perpetrated by armed combatants, and the livelihood of the majority of female victims was in agriculture, which gave them access to the valuable assets of land and livestock (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 332). The majority of rapes were committed inside the victims’ own home and in their fields, often in the presence of husbands and children (Hirsh and Wolf, 2012), and often with extreme brutality echoing those in Rwanda, including forced rape between victims, rape of the very young, old and pregnant, mutilation and murder (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 350). These patterns clearly showcase rape perpetrated to terrorize and displace women and communities, leaving abandoned settlements to the persecutors (Dettke, 2012), the power lies in the atrocity of rape which makes it an effective weapon of war.

However, analysis of rape warfare must consider that the causal factors of its perpetration are more complex than ‘simply’ as a deliberate tactic to achieve war aims. For Eriksson Baaz and Stern, the ‘rape as a weapon of war’ discourse can be problematic, because of its seemingly universal conception of rape warfare as a conscious military strategy, ordered and “enforced down the chain of command” (2013, p. 4). In some contexts, this very much is the case: in Rwanda both the killings and the mass, systematic use of sexual violence of the genocide are known to have been ordered or encouraged by military and political leaders at both national and local levels to further their political goal – the destruction of the Tutsi as a group (Human Rights Watch, 1996). However, the discourse can exclude the nuanced realities of different conflicts, in which a complex interplay of factors may lead to the perpetration of mass rape by soldiers without strategic orders necessarily being given (Boesten, 2010, p. 111).

In the DRC, the mass use of sexual violence in the conflict reflected the opposite: the breakdown of discipline and control in military structures, allowing soldiers to manifest their social and economic grievances into sexual violence (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013, p. 4). Ethnographic research with soldiers in the DRC has shown clearly that individual perpetration of rape is very often directly caused by economic grievances and frustrations. Many militias in Eastern DRC are unpaid, with soldiers having little or no access to resources, making their living from extorting the population when possible in order to survive. Militias are dysfunctional and undisciplined, with combatants poorly trained, therefore rape becomes an ‘ideal’ and effective tactic to facilitate soldiers’ pillaging of local villages, that soldiers rely upon to meet their material ‘needs’ (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 342), without being a necessarily mediated and ordered warfare strategy. Interviewed soldiers said they had never received specific orders to rape, rather they had the attitude that rape is unavoidable in conflict situations (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2010, p. 31), and that rape was tolerated (even if not ordered) by their commanders. Furthermore, many soldiers claimed that poverty was their main reason for perpetrating sexual violence as well as other forms of violence, both to facilitate pillaging, and in their resorting to force to fulfil their sexual ‘needs’, being unable to “get a woman the normal way” without money (2010, p. 31).

Therefore, it can be said that the structural violence of extreme poverty can produce opportunistic rape (Boesten, 2010) within a patriarchal society that normalizes violence against women. From their justifications for rape, it is clear that in reality, widespread perpetration of rape by soldiers in the DRC (as in all conflicts), is caused not only by an ordered strategy but also influenced by the interplay of many contributing causes. These include ideas of militarised male sexuality that make them feel entitled to rape, and justify sexual violence as a ‘normal’ and ‘unavoidable’ consequence when combatant men are deprived of sex (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2010, p. 32). Moreover, pre-existing patriarchal perceptions of women as sex objects and of rape as a legitimate ‘spoil’ of war (UN, 2014) justify perpetration of the mass rape of women, and are exploited during conflict, facilitating the targeting of women through sexual violence as a weapon for achieving war aims. The intersection of normalized, gendered violence, and extreme wartime violence can be seen here: research shows that sexual violence is perceived as normal by communities in Eastern DRC (Hirsh and Wolf, 2012), and wartime violence is the “magnification of existing institutionalized and normative violence against women” (Boesten, 2012, p. 7). Therefore, the efficacy of sexual violence to achieve war aims, as both a deliberate strategy of war and as the outcome of economic grievances, is facilitated by pre-existing perceptions and attitudes which embody gender inequality and normalized gender-based violence, for “what people tolerate in peace shapes what they will tolerate in war” (Nordstrom, 1997, p. 1).


Sexual violence becomes an inexpensive and readily available yet extremely effective tool to achieve war objectives (Nolen, 2009), because of its immense impact that destroys and displaces communities (Bartels et al., 2013, p. 352), eliminating the cohesion of opposition and providing opportunities for perpetrators to pillage assets and extort land from their victims (Dettke, 2012, p. 2). Though not the only war crime that is used as a weapon to achieve these purposes, sexual violence has a unique ability to destroy its victims physically, socially and economically and tear apart their families and communities, stripping the humanity not just from the victim but from the group she is part of (Eriksson Baaz and Stern, 2013, p. 54). Held up by the structural gendered inequalities and perceptions of women in patriarchal societies, the consequences of rape devastate not only the victim but humiliate and destroy her family and community. The brutality and horror of rape perpetrated in warfare are so effective in terrorizing the population and preventing rehabilitation that they facilitate its use as a tool to achieve ethnic cleansing and displacement. The ability of rape to forcibly sterilize an enemy population and to ‘pollute their bloodline’ by changing the ethnicity of the next generation also make it a unique strategy of genocidal war. Moreover, whilst other war crimes face consequences in the post-conflict period, perpetrators of rape warfare commonly face no retribution. However, analysis of the complex interplay of contributing factors to the widespread use of rape in warfare, including the manifestation of economic grievances and brute poverty, and the exacerbation of pre-existing normalized sexual and gendered violence, shows that one cannot only conceptualize its use through the ‘weapon of war’ discourse, but must also consider these factors to gain a clearer understanding of the realities of rape in warfare.


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Gendered Dimensions of Conflict and Peace: Assessing the effectiveness of UNSCR 1325

Joshua Ellis, University of Cambridge, UK

Joshua Ellis is a final year student at Queens’ College, at the University of Cambridge, reading for an undergraduate degree in Human, Social and Political Sciences. His main area of interest is the issue of identity in conflict.

The unanimous adoption of United Nations Security Resolution 1325 (henceforth UNSC 1325) in 2000 provided the foundation for the international Women, Peace and Security Agenda (George and Shepherd 2016, pp. 297-306). Since then, eight further resolutions have reinforced this agenda, addressing gender-based violence in conflict and calling for increased participation of women in peace processes. UNSC 1325 is therefore seen by its supporters as a turning point, or “watershed” moment (Anderlini, 2010) in the relationship between the expectations of civil society (especially women’s organisations) and the actions of the international system, particularly the Security Council. Moreover, UNSC 1325 created awareness of the normative framework that governs issues pertaining to women, peace and security. Many in fact view this as its greatest success. However, by taking a sequential view of the stages of conflict – from pre-conflict setting through to the peace process – it will become clear that UNSC 1325 has not adequately addressed the gendered dimensions of conflict. Rather, it has failed in three key areas: pre-conflict and the militarisation of society, during conflict itself, and in peace processes. Given the resolution’s four pillars of prevention, participation, protection and peacebuilding (George and Shepherd, 2016), this failure amounts to a serious criticism of the resolution. In this sense, in order to assess adequacy this essay will identify the failure of the resolution to achieve these stated goals. We shall see that this failure has been encouraged, and at times exacerbated by a series of conceptual flaws. The first section of the essay highlights the failure of UNSC 1325 to address the pre-conflict stage. Gendered issues that stem from the militarisation of society pose a security threat to both men and women, and the failure of the resolution to take this period into account limits the scope of the resolution. The second section focuses on the conflict stage itself. The narrow definitions adopted by the resolution along with its strong liberal flavouring have seriously weakened UNSC 1325’s ability to address issues of sexual violence during conflict and the basic rights of women. The final section, on the peace process setting, highlights some of the achievements of the resolution in increasing female participation in peace negotiations. However, it notes that these improvements have been somewhat limited, and are often void of significant meaning.

Gendered Dimensions of Conflict and Peace

Before we can begin our discussion of the adequacy of UNSC 1325 in addressing the gendered dimensions of conflict and peace, it is important to understand exactly what is meant by ‘gendered dimensions’. For the purpose of this essay, it is important that we recognise the breadth of this term. Gendered dimensions do not solely refer to the violence against women in conflict or their participation in peace processes. Whilst this is certainly part of it, one cannot for instance escape the sexual violence that victimises men during conflict. Hence, it will be useful to move away from the liberal conceptualisation of gender found in UNSC 1325 (Shepherd 200, pp. 383-404). Thus, it is important that we acknowledge the gender perspective, as opposed to the just the status of women. That is to say, we consider the implications of conflict and peace for both men and women, through the prism of gender analysis. In other words, asking why the differentiation of power impacts men and women differently. This understanding will allow us to consider gendered dimensions in much more depth, thereby providing a better lens through which to analyse the success of UNSC 1325.

It is also important to be aware of the definition of security, as it is integral to this essay. Gendered dimensions of conflict in particular revolve around questions of security. So much so that UNSC 1325 sets as its goal the ambition of protecting the security of women, and preventing their security from being violated. However, the definition of security has expanded. It is no longer seen as the “absence of violence”  (UN Women, 2015), but also includes political, economic and social dimensions. In this sense, we see a further flaw in the adequacy of UNSC 1325 to deal with the gendered dimension of conflict, as it embraces a narrow definition of security and to a large extent it thereby neglects the broader security rights of women in particular.

Pre-Conflict Setting

Beginning with the situation before the onset of violence, we see a clear failure of UNSC 1325 to address the gendered dimensions of the pre-conflict process, most notably militarisation. Militarisation, or the build-up of a country’s military in preparation for conflict, presupposes a close relation between the political and military elites (Enloe, 1983). It brings with it pressures for men to take up arms and for women to loyally support the men. It often forces men who do not wish to fight into imprisonment or exile. This is a clear gendered consequence of militarisation, creating an environment that punishes men for not submitting to pressures of masculinity which have apparently decided he should be a solider and fight. UNSC 1325 fails to acknowledge this gender-selective issue of conflict, with no reference in the preamble or operative clauses. In fact, UNSC 1325 fails to address this period of conflict, choosing instead to focus on war-time sexual violence, participation in peace processes and the post-conflict vulnerability of displaced women. Therefore, a key problem of UNSC 1325 is in its limited scope.

In order to understand the severity of this implication, it is important to explore in more detail what happens during the pre-conflict stage. Impending conflict stokes the fires of national patriotism. This divisive discourse is often accompanied by a renewal of patriarchal familial ideology (Cockburn, 2001, p. 19) where women are reminded they are the keepers of the hearth and home and men are reminded that their duty is to protect the women. We see this in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. As national feelings intensified in the lead-up to the Bosnian War, women were urged to leave paid employment and attend to their “national duties” (p. 19). Moreover, in extreme forms of patriarchy, men’s honour is seen as depending on women’s purity. Women who seek to escape this code are killed with impunity. For example, Butalia (1995) identifies ‘honour killings’ in the context of communal strife in India as a gendered consequence of this period of militarisation. UNSC 1325 fails to prevent these acts of violence associated with the pre-conflict stage where masculinity is emphasised and patriarchal narratives are enforced. In that sense, the limited scope of UNSC 1325 seriously undermines its ability to adequately address the full extent of the gendered dimensions of conflict and peace.

Conflict Setting

Even when we move to look at conflict more directly, flaws in the adequacy of UNSC 1325 remain. First, touching on its limited definition of security – as we have already briefly discussed – the resolution fails to address issues such as the security of the right to health or the right to education, all of which have gendered dimensions in conflict. Second, UNSC 1325 is inspired by the ‘weapon of war’ narrative and deterrence logic. I shall draw on Kirby (2015) who argues that both these approaches undermine efforts to address gendered dimensions of conflict violence and terror.

Let us deal with each of these flaws in turn. In relation to the failure of UNSC 1325 to protect the gendered dimensions of an expanded understanding of security, the security of women’s education provides a particularly enlightening example. Modern forms of war have ended the public/private distinction and often it is the civilians who are worse affected. As we have seen, the supposed masculinity of the armed forces has meant that in conflict, civilians are predominately women. The story of Malala, shot on a school bus in 2012 or of the schoolgirls who were abducted in Chibok, Nigeria by Boko Haram in 2014 serve as evidence of this gendered violation of the security of basic rights. In other words, girls’ education is threatened particularly by conflict, thereby widening the gender gap in school enrolment. Moreover, girls are frequently left at home due to their family’s strategy to cope with insecurity. This is a result of gender norms that privilege boys over girls. Whilst clause 8C of UNSC 1325 mentions the Human Rights of women, it emphasises those that relate to the constitution such as electoral rights. Furthermore, Clause 6 touches upon “rights and particular needs of women”, but it does not adequately expand on the rights it is referring to, or perhaps more importantly on how to protect such rights from gendered discrimination in conflict. Instead, the focus of the resolution is on security from violence and therefore it does not adequately address the full extent of the gendered dimensions of conflict.

Let us focus then on the aspect of security that UNSC 1325 pays particular attention to that of gender based violence “particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse” (UNSC 1325, Clause 10). The view of rape as a ‘weapon of war’ is seen most clearly in Clause 11, which calls for the prosecution of those responsible for crimes relating to violence against women and an end to the provision of amnesties. In other words, the underlying implication here is that responsibility lies with the few and not the many. It is not possible to speak of prosecution in terms of the many who commit the act of rape or sexual violence. Nor is the reference to amnesties applicable to such perpetrators. Rather, the resolution clearly adopts the rape as a weapon of war narrative and assumes that responsibility lies with the few who orchestrate this tactic. There are examples from history, which can be invoked to support this narrative. For example, McKinnon as part of her broader argument on rape as tool of genocide (2006: 219) notes that in the Rwandan Genocide, Hutu men raped Tutsi women en masse as part of the attempted destruction of that ethnic group. In some cases, leaders such as Laurent Semanza ordered these assaults. However, Kirby (2015, pp. 457-472) argues that this exclusive focus on military actors’ neglects high levels of civilian and intimate partner violence that occurs in conflict settings. For example, in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a household survey revealed high levels of intimate partner sexual violence, despite a general fixation on atrocities by armed groups. In the Kivu region, the number of incidents of civilian and intimate partner violence surpasses 400,00, making it the most prevalent form of violence in this conflict zone (Kirby, 2015, pp. 457-472). Hence, when the continuum of gender violence is reduced to strategic military rape, many incidents will fall outside the purview of public policy. We can see therefore that UNSC 1325 is symptomatic of this failure, and as such it curtails its adequacy when addressing gendered dimensions of conflict.

We have already touched upon the deterrence logic that forms the backbone of the resolution’s approach to gendered violence in conflict. However, the hypothesis that increased prosecution will deter future atrocity further weakens the capacity UNSC 1325 to adequately address gendered violence in conflict settings. The “need to exclude these crimes, where feasible from amnesty provisions” (UNSC 1325, p. Clause 11) increases the chance of spoilers in peace processes, thereby potentially lengthening the period of sexual assault. On a strong interpretation of the ‘weapon of war’ thesis, responsibility for rape lies with senior figures. This is an idea we have already explored. If one were to remove the incentive of amnesty for a cessation of harmful activity, the fear of prosecution would deter guilty parties from coming to the peace table. This would extend the length of the conflict, not just violent crimes against women. Moreover, Kirby (2015, pp. 457-472) argues that as a consequence of pursuing deterrence logic, where reliable systems of prosecution do not exist, sexual violence will increase in proportion with the perception that it will not be addressed by justice systems. Whether one accepts this argument or not, it does not alter the conclusion we seemingly reach that UNSC 1325 fails to adequately address the gendered dimensions of conflict, especially that of rape and sexual violence.

The final pitfall of UNSC 1325 with regards to gender-based violence in conflict is that it does not reflect upon the consequences of gendering sexual violence. It pays no attention to the male victims of sexual violence in conflict. Whilst male victims of rape in conflict may not be as common as women, it is still an important issue. The failure of UNSC 1325 to address this dimension further demonstrates the insufficiencies which stem from the resolution’s liberal leaning of defining gender-based violence in terms of its relation to women. In DRC, 24% of men were victims of sexual violence, 80% of whom experienced sexual violence during periods of conflict (Kirby, 2015, pp. 457-472). However, when war rape is understood as something done by men to women, and therefore patristic on heterosexual dynamics, male victims are often ignored. This gendering of victimhood can motivate homosexual rape, forcing men to occupy the role usually reserved for women. Therefore, the narrow way in which UNSC 1325 defines security, along with its gender specific approach to sexual violence presents an exclusivity to the way in which it addresses the gendered dimensions of conflict. When we take its view of rape as a ‘weapon of war’ and its reliance on deterrence logic, the resolution fails to stand up to any notion of adequacy in addressing gender-based violence – a key gendered dimension of conflict.

Indeed, gender-selective violence in conflict that specifically targets males need not be sexual in nature. In fact, Jones (1994, p.67) notes that in the former Yugoslavia the most “serious atrocities committed against males primarily on gender grounds” were executions aimed at eliminating physical resistance to Serbian occupation. He goes onto argue that the Serb ‘militarised masculinity’ was defined against the subordinate masculinity of their male victims. Puechguirbal (2010, p. 177) recognises the failure of UNSC 1325 to address such issues as symptomatic of the resolution’s position within the liberal peace agenda.

The transformative ability of the resolution has therefore fallen somewhat short of the enthusiasm that surrounded its unanimous adoption in 2000. This concern – that the potential for success of UNSC 1325 has been overstated – is shared in the literature. Cook (2009) supports the aforementioned argument, maintaining that the resolution is “poorly formulated” and its language reproduces the “restrictive gendered framework” (George and Shepherd, 2016, pp. 297-306) of the liberal peacebuilding agenda. In other words, UNSC 1325 engages with women as “gendered and vulnerable actors” (Puechguirbal, 2010, p. 173). This not only limits the scope of the resolution, as we have seen, but it also contributes to “restrictive assumptions about where and how women can contribute” (George and Shepherd, 2016, pp. 297-306) to the peace and securities project. This is most apparent in the peace process setting.

Peace Process Setting

Aside from its concentration on gender-based violence, the main thrust of the resolution concerns women’s participation in peace processes. On reflection, the resolution in this regard has not been without success, albeit incremental. There has been a rise in the number of references to women in the text of peace process, from 11% prior to 2000, to 27% following the adoption of UNSC 1325 (UN Women, 2015). Whilst the percentage is still low, it is a positive trend. Moreover, the overall participation of women in peace processes is ‘inching’ upwards. The Philippines is an example of this success. The peace agreement that ended 17 years of negotiations between the Filipino government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front, signed in March 2014, had strong provisions on women’s rights. Half of the articles mention mechanisms to engage women in governance and protect them against violence. This was seen as a direct result of women participating in negotiations. Furthermore, the important shift came in 2001, a year after the adoption of UNSC 1325, when two women were appointed to the five-member government panel. By 2014, a third of this panel were female (UN Women, 2015).

However, a more nuanced approach questions the real significance of this example. An improvement in numbers does not mean that women are able to effectively influence negotiations and shape their implementation. Sarah Taylor (2008, no pagination), a member of Human Rights Watch, recognised that “it is not enough to acknowledge the right of women to participate in peace processes”, but instead one must actively seek to facilitate their inclusion, and ensure their equality in decision making processes. In Somalia for instance, during the 2001 peace process, women were allocated a quota in all six reconciliation committees. However, any decision required the authorisation of a leadership committee of male clan elders. Hence, it is in this regard that UNSC 1325 has failed to adequately address the gendered dimension of peace processes.


We have therefore seen that UNSC 1325 quite clearly fails to adequately address the gendered dimensions of both conflict and peace. However, in order to show this, I have expanded the original mandate of the resolution. It did not seek to tackle the gendered dimensions of conflict and peace as such, but rather the original intention of the resolution was to establish a normative framework going forward that protected women from gender-based violence in conflict and ensured they would be included in peace processes. There is an element of political necessity here, which my arguments ignored. To construct a resolution that aims to adequately address the entirety of the gendered dimensions of conflict and peace would not be feasible. Its sheer breadth would undermine the political will to implement, let alone the practicality of funding such a project.

In this sense, the most pertinent arguments that relate to the success of the resolution on its own terms are reflected primarily in its failure to protect women from gender-based violence in conflict, and the extremely slow pace of improvement in women’s representation in peace processes. The rape of 500 women in DRC in 2010 just miles from a UN peacekeeping station exemplifies this failure. George and Shepherd (2016, pp. 297-306) note in their review of UNSC 1325 that the main pillars of the resolution include participation, prevention and protection: the resolution focused on “the protection of both the rights and bodies of women” and addressing the issue of women’s role in peace and security governance. Therefore, in the specific terms of the resolution itself, it has failed to adequately address the issues it set out to resolve. Furthermore, in the broad terms of the question, UNSC 1325 has also failed to adequately address the gendered dimensions of conflict on account of its narrow definitions of security and rape, its failure to address gendered dimensions of pre-conflict militarisation and its enervating progress at generating equality for women during peace processes.


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Cook, S. 2009. ‘Security Council Resolution 1820: On militarism, flashlights, raincoats and rooms without doors – a political perspective on where it came from and what it adds’. Emory International Law Review. 23, pp. 125–139

Enloe, C. 1983. Does Khaki Become You? The Militarisation of Women’s Lives. London: Pandora Press

Enloe, C. 2005. ‘What if Patriarchy is the Big Picture? An Afterword’. In: Mazurana, D. E. and Roberts, A. R. and Parpart, J. L. eds. Gender, Conflict and Peacekeeping. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield

George, N. and Shepherd, L. 2016. ‘Women, Peace and Security: Exploring the implementation and integration of UNSCR 1325’. International Political Science Review37(3), pp. 297-306.

Jones, A. 2009. Gender Exclusive: Essays on Violence, Men and Feminist International Relations. New York: Routledge

Kirby, P. 2015. ‘Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict: The Preventing of Sexual Violence Initiative and its Critics’. International Affairs91(3), pp. 457-472

MacKinnon, C. 2007. Are women human? Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

Puechguirbal, N. (2010). Discourses on Gender, Patriarchy and Resolution 1325: A textual analysis of UN documents. International Peacekeeping 17(2), pp.172–187

Shepherd, L. 2008. Power and authority in the production of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. International Studies Quarterly52(2), pp. 383-404

Taylor, S. 2008. ‘NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, Security Council Debate on Women Peace and Security’, Available from:

Gender Identity, Gender Based Violence, and the Responsibility to Protect

Tommaso Trillò, The University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Tommaso is currently serving as Junior Researcher at the Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities. He holds an MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford and a BA in Political Sciences from the John Cabot University.

Over the last few decades, attention to gender issues has consistently grown in virtually all fields, from economics to anthropology, from public policy to humanitarian intervention. Despite expanding popularity, however, “gender” remains a rather marginalized area of study. As a matter of fact, “gender” is often treated as a “something to do on the side” of other initiatives, most of the time depending on the availability of residual funding after “more relevant” issues have been addressed. The mass atrocity prevention community is not immune from this dynamic. Despite a verbal commitment to the mainstreaming of gender issues as key elements of concern, gender-related projects remain relatively underfunded and marginalized.

Arguably, the study of gender and the implementation of gender-related policies and initiatives should be a more prominent priority in the agenda of scholars, policymakers, and practitioners working in the field of the responsibility to Protect (R2P). Attention to gender based violence (GBV) in time of conflict recently exploded, especially after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. However, as the title of the resolution explicitly suggests, the focus of GBV has mostly been on forms of violence specifically experienced by women. While the term “gender” should include both biological sexes, the equation of gender issues with women’s issues de fact creates pockets of exclusion from protection of male victims of some very specific forms of GBV. As a matter of fact, these forms of violence are often unreported, understudied, and at times lack recognition as actual violence amounting to torture or persecution.

In light of the above, this essay wishes to be a thought-provoking piece with the following as objectives. Firstly, gender should be recognized by the R2P community as a social category that is as meaningful as race, nationality, and ethnicity. Accordingly, gender should be studied and considered as a key element in the perpetration of violence. Secondly, the equation of “gender” with “women” should be abandoned because it is detrimental to the achievement of full protection needs for specific groups currently neglected, including male victims of GBV. Thirdly, neither of the two biological sexes should enjoy better protection under the framework of “gender”. Rather, both groups should be recognized as having gender-specific protection needs and therefore be the object of specific protection policies and actions. Finally, this paper wishes to argue that the international community already possesses the tools in order to offer full protection to people facing GBV through the Refugee Convention of 1951 and the concept of R2P, despite the relative weaknesses of both instruments. Achievement of protection is thus a matter of efficiency at all levels, and partially depends on change at the discursive level to increase commitment and reduce pockets of exclusion.

Analysis will be carried out as follows. Firstly, I will offer an interpretation of the concept of “gender” that draws on Foucault’s notion of discourse, Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, and Connell’s notion of hegemonic masculinity. Secondly, I will define gender based violence (GBV) in time of conflict and outline its path towards recognition as a matter of international concern. Thirdly, I will outline the opportunities for protection available to the international community under the Refugee Convention and under the R2P. Finally, I will make some recommendations.

Gender as a Social Structure

A short and powerful definition of “gender” has been advanced by Mahler and Pessar (2006), scholars in migration studies, in the context of their effort for the mainstreaming of gender as a legitimate object of study for migration scholarship. In their definition, gender is “the meaning that people give to the biological reality that there are two sexes” (Mahler and Pessar, 2006, p. 29). Gender refers to a social construction resulting from power dynamics between men and women and the effects of these dynamics on identity, social roles, responsibilities, and social status. Drawing from Foucault’s (1972) notion of “discursive formation” (or “discourse”), gender can be understood as a system of ideas, beliefs, utterances, and practices that systematically works to produce and reproduce the idea that two objects (men and women) are inherently different and, accordingly, should occupy different social positions. In Crawley’s words, gender refers to “the social organization of sexual difference” (Crawley, 2001, p. 7).

While Foucault’s notion of discourse is a rather useful theoretical lens to understand gender, Gramsci’s notion of hegemony can be more useful to understand how discourses about gender are produced, reproduced, and reshaped in a process that involves agency by all social actors involved (Fairclough, 1992, p. 56). Foucault tends to over emphasize the extent to which people are influenced by power, leaving little or no room for agency beyond the reproduction of existing structures. Gramsci portrays a much more unstable equilibrium that is highly dependent upon alliances between different groups and the production of consent from subordinate classes. This unstable equilibrium is the ground for constant struggle, where structures are constantly renegotiated (Fairclough, 1992, pp. 56-58).

Gramsci theorises hegemony as the power of a class over society as a whole. This dominance, however, is never fully achieved, and can only be maintained by forming alliances, making concessions, and most importantly developing ideological means to ensure the integration of subordinated classes into the hegemonic project (Fairclough, 1989, pp. 61-62). In other words, hegemony is the exercise of power through acquiescence rather than through coercion. A fundamental element in the exercise of power through hegemony is ideology. According to Gramsci, ideology is “a conception of the world” that is implicitly manifest in the ways in which people conduct themselves individually and collectively (Gramsci, 1971, as cited in Fairclough, 1989, p. 62). Ideology works to perpetrate hegemony by producing discourses that represent the world in a given way and by inculcating this discourses as ways of being (Fairclough, 1985, p. 28). Usually, ideological discourses manage to increase their currency and to undermine the validity of other discourses by presenting themselves as the natural order of things. If successful, ideological discourses are eventually picked up by subordinate actors that uncritically accept them as “common sense” (Gramsci, 1971).

Gramsci’s notions of hegemony and common sense have been picked up by Connell (1995) as the basis for the influential concept of “hegemonic masculinity”. Connell theorizes hegemonic masculinity as a system of beliefs that supports, reinforces, and legitimizes a patriarchal order of society that serves the interests of the dominant group (that is, cisgender men). Connell further argues that all members of society are to some extent complicit in the perpetuation of hegemonic masculinity. Among other ideologies, hegemonic masculinity produces normative ideas regarding what it means to be a man (and to be a woman) that are eventually internalized and reproduced by all members of society. One of the key insights of Connell is the realization that masculinity (like femininity) is not monolithic, but significantly fragmented. Different gendered identities arise from the intersection of gender with other social structures (such as class, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.).

Gender is, therefore, an ideological discursive formation (Fairclough, 1989) that is produced as the result of power dynamics between different masculine and feminine identities in any given society. Its underlying ideology is reproduced through discursive practices and according to the normative ideas produced by hegemonic masculinity. Through ideology, hegemonic masculinity is capable of spreading normative ideas regarding what is the appropriate way of being a man (or to be a woman). As these norms gain currency, those more closely adhering to them enjoy privilege, while those that do not or cannot conform are ostracized. For example, if the proper way of being a man is to be white, middle class, and heterosexual, other ways of being a man will be treated as deviant and therefore marginalized.

Gender Based Violence and its Troubled Way to Recognition

Despite the fact that there has hardly ever been a war with no GBV, gender issues in time of conflict have been remarkably absent from discussion until quite recently. For much of modern history, it was widely held that GBV during conflicts resulted from random incidents of frustration and violence caused by individuals. Even more problematically perhaps, GBV has been treated invariably as the violence of men on women, and as the violation of the property rights of a group of men by another group of men. In other words, perpetrating violence against women in time of war was not seen as a violation of the human rights of the women themselves, but rather as the violation of male property rights upon them. Furthermore, the possibility of men being objects of GBV was completely excluded from the discussion, and still today remains a particularly under-studied and under-regulated issue. Throughout the twentieth century, GBV has moved from almost complete irrelevance to full recognition as a human rights issue and eventually as a threat to international peace and security (Carpenter, 2006).

Gender based violence can be defined as “any harm that is perpetrated against a person’s will; that has a negative impact on the physical or psychological health, development and identity of the person, and that is the result of gendered power inequities that exploit distinctions between males and females, among males, and among females” (Ward, 2002, pp. 8-9). GBV is particularly likely to take place in time of conflict and in post-conflict environments. GBV can take many forms, including rape, slavery, forced impregnation/miscarriages, kidnapping/trafficking, forced nudity, and disease transmission, with rape and sexual abuse being among the most common (Manjoo and McRaith, 2011, p. 12).

One of the earliest steps towards recognition of GBV as a matter of concern came in 1863, when the Lieber Code (a U.S. code of conduct for the treatment of enemy civilians and prisoners of war) made rape a capital offense. Later, The Hague Convention of 1907 coded GBV as “violations of family honor and rights”. Explicit condemnation of GBV was achieved with Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, was restated in Article 76 of the First Geneva Protocol directed to the victims of international war, and was extended to the victims of non-international conflicts with the Second Geneva Protocol of 1977. Further commitment to eliminate GBV in time of conflict came with the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which includes several articles relating to the issue (Manjoo and McRaith, 2011).

Despite the existence of international laws and norms condemning wartime GBV, implementation has been patchy at best. In the aftermath of World War II, the trials of Nuremberg did not prosecute any case of GBV. Remarkably, the mass rape committed by the Red Army following the capture of Berlin went literally unspoken until very recently. The analogous trials in Tokyo only marginally engaged with GBV, treating these cases as a marginal category under the broad umbrella of crimes against humanity. More recently, mass rape, forced prostitution, and other forms of GBV went almost unspoken and unpunished in most conflicts, including very prominent ones such as the Vietnam War, the Pakistani secessionist war with India, and the First Gulf War (Saha, 2009, p. 505-7).

The turning point came in 1998, with the decision of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to condemn to life imprisonment Jean-Paul Akayesu for encouraging and facilitating mass rape operated during the 1994 Genocide. The decision recognized that rape can be perpetrated with the purpose of intimidation, degradation, humiliation, discrimination, punishment, control or destruction of the person, and thus is a serious war crime. Furthermore, rape was recognized as falling under the definition of torture in those cases when it is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. The decision also acknowledged that rape can be used as an instrument of genocide when it is accomplished with the intent to physically or psychologically destroy a group (Saha, 2009, pp. 505-9; Manjoo and McRaith, 2011).

After the 1998 Akayesu decision, attention to gender issues in conflict scenarios and beyond increased dramatically, followed by a proliferation of legal and policy instruments for the protection of individuals from such crimes. In 2000, Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security emphasized “the responsibility of all States to put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes including those relating to sexual and other violence against women and girls”. Entering into force in 2002, the Rome Statute of the ICC codes wartime rape as a crime of war. In 2008, Security Council Resolution 1820 recognized GBV as a threat to international peace and security. Subsequently, Security Council Resolution 1888 (2009) called for the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on sexual violence and for more concrete efforts for monitoring and reporting of GBV in time of conflict.

Offering Protection: Asylum and R2P

In this section, I wish to argue that the international community has two possibilities in which to offer protection to victims of GBV, this is dependent on their physical location with respect to the border of their country of origin. For people outside their country of origin, the international community can and should offer protection through a gendered interpretation of the 1951 Refugee Convention. For people still within the borders of their country of origin, the international community can and should offer protection through the implementation of the Responsibility to Protect, when a host state manifestly fails to offer protection. Both instruments are limited for a wide array of reasons, but nonetheless encompass a strong mandate across and within national borders.

The 1951 Refugee Convention can be a powerful tool of international law to offer protection to people facing persecution based on their socially constructed gender role. The efficiency of the Convention in offering protection to potential victims of GBV is, however, limited by the absence of “gender” among the protected grounds (race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and membership of a particular social group). Lacking a specific provision for GBV, it has been the strategy of the UNHCR to treat gender as a “particular social group” (PSG). Offering protection under PSG is, however, rather problematic. Neither the Convention nor its 1968 Protocol provide a univocal definition of PSG. Asylum applications based on the particular social group ground are often viewed with diffidence. States perceive it as the key to the “floodgates” of undesired refugee flows. Claims based on particular social group have very low success rates, and is usually treated as the very last resort for asylum claimants. Amorphous in nature, PSG has always been the object of very restrictive and inconsistent interpretations across and within jurisdictions, making it a very risky option for asylum seekers (Prochazka, 2012, p. 446; Cianciarulo et al., 2012, pp. 142-3).

Despite the fact that gender based persecution has been a policy priority in the agenda of the UNHCR for more than twenty years, implementation has faced several obstacles. Arguably, this is the product of three factors. First, the discourse on gender-based asylum claims has come to the fore during a period in which Western attitude towards migratory flows is not as friendly as it used to be in the early Cold War years. In some cases, expansion of protection conflicts with other priorities of receiving states. Secondly, the large bureaucratic structure of the UNHCR itself can be viewed as a sort of obstacle. As in many other bureaucratic agencies, policy implementation is often slow, and policy priorities do not always penetrate evenly through the various branches. Thirdly, it is worth considering that the UNCHR heavily depends on the financing of donor states, with the EU and EU Members providing almost half of its resources. While these states have declared their commitment to the defence of human rights, evidence shows that their asylum policies are becoming more and more restrictive. Thus, the UN agency is in the uncomfortable position of having to promote policy priorities that might or might not coincide with the political interest of its main sponsors (Freedman, 2010a, 2010b).

Finally, the greatest limitation of the Refugee Convention is probably its limited focus on international migrants. Despite its quite advanced outlook, the Refugee Convention was drafted in 1951, and is invariably a product of its time and context. Despite the fact that liberalism was on the rise in international relations, state sovereignty was still an almost untouchable concept, at least for what concerns the administration of domestic matters (Gibney and Loescher, 2010).

In the post-Cold War scenario, increasing attention has been given to the need to redefine State sovereignty to include not only rights but also duties. This trend is significantly changing international relations in some unprecedented ways. In this context, one of the most relevant developing trends is the growing consensus in the international community around the emerging norm of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Formulated for the first time in 2001, R2P was adopted unanimously by the international community at the 2005 UN World Summit. The concept of R2P stands on three pillars, respectively stating that (1) states have a responsibility to protect their own population from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing; (2) that the international community has a duty to assist states in performing their primary duty to offer basic security; and (3) that the international community has a duty to use appropriate peaceful or non-peaceful means, with the authorization of the UNSC, in order to stop states who are manifestly failing to protect their own populations from ongoing atrocities.

Probably the most interesting characteristic of the R2P is its implications for state sovereignty. Ever since its formulation by early social contract theorists, sovereignty derives its legitimacy from the people who choose to alienate part of their freedom in favour of a sovereign that in turn is charged with some duties, the most important of which is the provision of security. Ever since the peace of Westphalia (1648), where modern nation-states made their first appearance, the security function of the sovereign has been mostly interpreted as limited to external security, with little or no attention to the treatment of domestic residents (Deng et al., 1996).

Arguably, the R2P is a norm that aims at re-establishing the original meaning of sovereignty in terms of responsibility within the framework of social contract theory (Deng et al., 1996). This is indeed the key assumption laying behind its first pillar that aims at making any sovereign liable for neglecting its most basic functions. Similarly, the second pillar of R2P is grounded on the assumption that states who fail in performing their basic duties can call upon the international community to assist them. Finally, the third pillar of R2P wants to reinforce the idea that, in light of the nexus between sovereignty and responsibility, international interventions to enforce or protect peace and security are indeed legitimate in those cases when the state is failing in providing basic guarantees or is itself the perpetrator of violence.

While the limitations to the mainstreaming of gender in asylum are to some extent due to the nature of the asylum system as envisioned by the Refugee Convention and the bureaucratic structure of the UNHCR, the limitations to the implementation of a gendered interpretation of R2P are mostly discursive. Since R2P refers to the duty to protect victims and prevent atrocity crimes, the recognition of GBV as a serious human rights violation automatically includes GBV into the framework of R2P. Limitations are therefore mostly tied to the way in which “gender” and “gender based violence” are conceptualized, translated into policy, defined in guidelines, and eventually implemented in daily practice. Schmeidl and Piza-Lopez (2002) authored one of the earliest works in this field, arguing that the mainstreaming of gender in conflict analysis and response (1) allows the detection of previously overlooked signs of instability; (2) prevents the perpetuation of discrimination in post-conflict scenarios; and (3) unlocks the untapped potential of women as agents of change in the peace process (Schmeidl and Piza-Lopez, 2002, p. 7). More recently, Bond and Sherret (2012) and Davis and Teitt (2012) argued for the creation of mutually reinforcing synergies between the Women, Peace, and Security agenda and R2P. Sara Davis further engaged in her advocacy effort, and in a recent paper explicitly encouraged the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and the Special Adviser for the Responsibility to Protect (OSAPG) to address the role of gender inequality and gendered violence in their early warning framework (Davies, Teitt, and Nwokora, 2015, p. 245).


Gender is a social construction that is produced, reproduced, and maintained through normative ideas regarding what is the appropriate way of being a man or being a woman. People can be targets of violence because of their socially constructed categorization, and this includes gendered categorizations. Gender based violence is therefore violence targeted at both men and women because of their gender. Gender based violence has been disregarded for much of human history, and only entered the agenda of the international community after World War II, finally achieving full commitment in the late 1990s. Yet despite this, the international community has still been unable to fully implement adequate protection and prevention strategies to tackle gender based crimes. Any attempt to achieve this in the future is arguably dependent on the efficiency of the actors involved in filling “gaps” between the actual and the intended effects of their actions, between their intended impact and their policy commitment, and between their policies on paper and their discursive commitments. Finally, full and efficient protection requires change at the discursive level to disrupt the notion that gender equates with women and recognize men’s issues as equally relevant. In this respect, integrating gender in the refugee and R2P agendas would allow for better early warning, enhanced protection across and within borders, and increasingly inclusive peace processes that engage all interested actors regardless of gender.

References cited

Bond, J., and Sherret, L. (2012). Mapping gender and the Responsibility to Protect: seeking intersections, finding parallels. Global Responsibility to Protect. 4(2). p. 133-153.

Carpenter, R.C. (2006) Recognizing gender-based violence against civilian men and boys in conflict situations. Security Dialogue. 37 (1). p. 83-103.

Cianciarulo, M., David, C. and Silenzi Cianciarulo, M. (2009) Pulling the trigger: Separation violence as a basis for refugee protection for battered women. American University Law Review. 59 (2). p. 337-384.

Connell, R.W. (1995) Masculinities. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Crawley, H. (2001) Refugees and Gender: Law and Process. Bristol, UK: Jordan Publishing Limited.

Davies, S. E., and Teitt, S. (2012) Engendering the Responsibility to Protect: women and the prevention of mass atrocities. Global Responsibility to Protect. 4(2). p. 198-222.

Davies, S. E., Teitt, S., and Nwokora, Z. (2015) Bridging the gap: Early warning, gender and the responsibility to protect. Cooperation and Conflict. 50(2). p. 228-249.

Deng, F.M., et al. (1996) Sovereignty as Responsibility: Conflict Management in Africa. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Fairclough, N. (1985) Critical and Descriptive Goals in Discourse Analysis. p. 30-55 in Fairclough, N. (ed.) (2010) Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language. (2nd ed.), Harlow, UK: Longman.

Fairclough, N. (1989) “language and ideology”. p. 56-68 in Fairclough, N. (ed.) (2010) Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language. (2nd ed.), Harlow, UK: Longman.

Fairclough, N. (1992) Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge, UK: Polity press.

Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge, New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Freedman, J. (2010a) Mainstreaming gender in refugee protection. Cambridge Review of International Affairs. 23 (4). p. 589-607.

Freedman, J. (2010b) Protecting women asylum seekers and refugees: From international norms to national protection? International Migration. 48 (1). p. 175-198.

Gibney, M., and Loescher, G. (2010) Global Refugee Crisis: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Gramsci, A. (1971) Selection from the Prison Notebooks, New York, NY: International Publishers.

Mahler, S.J. and Pessar, P.R. (2006) Gender matters: Ethnographers bring gender from the periphery to the core of Migration Studies. International Migration Review. 40 (1). p. 27-63.

Manjoo, R., and McRaith, C. (2011) Gender-based violence and justice in conflict and post-conflict areas. Cornell International Law Journal. 44. p. 11-31.

Prochazka, S. J. (2012) There is no honor in honor killings: Why women at risk for defying sociosexual norms should be considered a “particular social group” under asylum law. Thomas Jefferson Law review Journal. 34 (2). p. 445-503.

Saha, A. (2009) Rape as a war crime: The position of international law since World War II. Journal of East Asian and International Law. 2 (2). p. 497-516.

Schmeidl, S., and Piza-Lopez, E. (2002) Gender and conflict early warning: a framework for action. London: International Alert.

Ward, J. (2002) If Not Now, When? Addressing Gender-based Violence in Refugee, Internally Displaced and Post-conflict Settings. New York, NY: RHRC Consortium.

Disaggregating the “peace vs. justice” debate: breaking the silos and moving towards greater coherence

Posted on January 8, 2019

By Jacqueline J.Y. Cho

Jacqueline Cho is currently interning with the African Union Partnership Team at the United Nations, and was an intern at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time of writing. She is also working as a research assistant for Dr Gyda Sindre and helps coordinate the Politics After War Research Network. She recently graduated with a BA (Hons) degree in Politics and International Relations from Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge in 2018. Her areas of interest include conflict prevention and resolution, African politics and refugee studies. 

The question of how to deal with a difficult past is one that confronts every society emerging from a dark history. Since the mid-1980s, many such societies have chosen to address the legacies of pervasive human rights abuses, often with extensive international support. The pursuit of justice, with dominant forms being through trials and truth commissions, are said to be in tension with peace; much of the literature has framed this as a question of “peace versus justice” (see Baker, 2001). What is important to note, however, is that in practice, this dilemma is not as stark of a choice as presented and, more fundamentally, the notions of peace and justice that are in play in these settings are questionable. The current hegemonic understandings of both peace and justice are inadequate as guiding principles of policies concerning ex-combatants. In particular, the emphasis on ‘extraordinary’ forms of violence shapes perceptions of justice in a way that marginalises gender and structural injustice, which may undermine even the most minimal objective of these policies: the cessation, or at least the reduction, of direct violence. International actors should refrain from the tendency to design one-size-fits-all policies targeting ex-combatants with a preconceived end-goal of either peace or justice. Rather, the policies should be context-driven, which may take very different forms from case to case and involve addressing the structural injustice that preceded and contributed to the conflict.

Emergence of the dilemma 

The question of whether investigating and prosecuting war crimes may trigger a return to violence traces its origin back to early 1990s as the United Nations began setting up the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) while the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict was ongoing (Baker and Obradovic-Wochnik, 2016, p.283). Scholarly debate surrounding the issue subsequently framed this tension as a question of “peace versus justice”. What had been an ad hoc problem with the ICTY then became a permanent feature of the international judicial system after 2002, when the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court entered into force. The potential clashes between creating accountability for international crimes through justice measures and laying the foundations for peace concerned not only the leaders who might be disincentivised from making peace if they were indicted for war crimes, but also resonated throughout civil society. One early example of this was the instrumentalisation of ICTY’s findings into politics of ethnized collective narratives, hardening inter-ethnic boundaries and generating tensions.   

However, what quickly becomes clear in studying the policies targeting ex-combatants is that the option is seldom either peace or justice, and that the division is not always so clear in practice. Despite the dichotomy of peace and justice often portrayed in the literature, it is difficult to clearly delineate this distinction, especially given that activities under the title of “justice” spill over to what have been traditionally “peacebuilding” activities, not least the restoration of the rule of law (Sriram, 2007, p.585). Similarly, peacebuilding practice often involves initiatives usually labelled as justice, such as support for criminal tribunals or truth commissions. For instance, the fact that many “traditional” peacebuilding agencies, including the UN and the World Bank, supported the justice processes in Colombia highlights that the two notions are not necessarily in opposition, and that it is possible to transcend the deemed polarity (Baker and Obradovic-Wochnik, 2016, p.289).

Achieving both peace and justice? 

The complementarity of peace- and justice-seeking mechanisms under certain circumstances further calls into question the binary framing. It has become unavoidable to overlook the question of justice and accountability altogether following a violent conflict, and the question today is no longer whether something should be done after atrocity but rather how it should be done (Nagy, 2008, p.276). At the same time, DDR programs have become key components of peacebuilding efforts. These two initiatives – one focused on justice and accountability for victims and the other on peace – therefore coexist in many post-conflict settings today. It is often argued that there is an inherent tension between prosecution mechanisms and DDR programs since the latter requires cooperation from ex-combatants whereas the former may trigger resistance. In fragile security environments, however, prosecution can in fact contribute to the success of DDR by physically and politically sidelining particular leaders who are bent on conflict (Witte, 2010, p.2). By demonstrating to the bulk of ex-combatants that wartime commanders have no viable future, prosecution mechanisms can shift the loyalty of ex-combatants away from wartime commanders and break the command structures, making it more difficult for ex-combatants to organise violence. Prosecuting leaders can also help the reintegration process by drawing a distinction between those who have the greatest responsibility for international crimes and the rank-and-file ex-combatants (Witte, 2010, p.3).

Legalistic approach to justice 

The “peace versus justice” dilemma not only fails to reflect the reality, but the dominant understanding of justice in this debate is particularistic and narrow, which in turn, skews the meaning of justice. Just as the notion of peace, justice is an inherently contested concept, with an intellectual history and a developmental trajectory. The interpretation of justice therefore varies between socio-cultural contexts and its meanings will always be contested (Baker and Obradovic-Wochnik, 2016, p.291). Nagy (2009, p.275) convincingly argues that justice is a discourse and practice imbued with power, and notes with alarm the tendency of the international community to impose an ‘one-size-fits-all, technocratic and decontextualized’ concept of justice. This can be seen by what Nagy (2009, p.275) identifies as ‘predominant institutions of justice’ – trials and truth commissions –  being rolled out in post-conflict contexts around the world. Figuring out how to implement justice first requires a determination of the problem, and given the resource, time and political constraints, the trials and truth commissions adopt a fairly narrow conception of violence and its remedy, justice. The primary focus of these donor-funded justice institutions are the direct perpetrators and direct victims of violations of international criminal law. This reflects the heavy influence of the international legalist paradigm, which, inter alia, focuses on generating elite and mass compliance with international humanitarian norms (Nagy, 2009, p.276). In such a light, it is difficult to deny that justice in this context reflects the concerns and constructions of justice found amongst its key – Western – donors, which may be alien in certain cultures that emphasise community identity.

Neglecting ‘ordinary’ gender violence? 

The privileging of legalistic approach can also counterintuitively produce zones of impunity, which is clearly demonstrated by the treatment of gender-based violence. The international legalistic paradigm places emphasis on what are considered as “extraordinary” violations of civil and political rights, and this construction disregards and treats as ‘ordinary’ the private violence that women experience in both militarised and post-war societies (Nagy 2009: 280). Similarly, while sexual violence committed during conflict has now gained a central role in international criminal law, trials and truth commissions, accountability mechanisms remain predominantly focused on “extraordinary” times and violence. This marginalisation of gender injustice from the current framework of ‘justice’ is acutely disturbing, given the ‘post-war backlash’ many women experience (Pankhurst, 2007, p.293). Violence against women, particularly domestic violence, often persists, or even increases beyond pre-war and sometimes even wartime levels, precisely at the period when everyone expects life to be improving. It is alarming that such ‘post-war backlash’ is perpetuated not only by ex-combatants but also state-actors, such as the police (Pankhurst, 2007, p.263). Until very recently, considerations of such gender-based violence have been glaringly absent from transitional justice programmes, often resulting in an absurd and alarming situation where gender injustice is further entrenched when so-called “justice” measures abound.

Dismantling structural injustice  

The framing of the “peace versus justice” debate further deflects much-needed attention from structural injustice that neither of these notions, in its currently hegemonic understanding, addresses. Mamdani (1997, p.22) identifies this problematic emphasis on the individual as ‘today’s agency theory’ and explains that the focus on perpetrators fuels the demand for justice in the form of criminal justice at the expense of social justice. The pursuit of the latter is essential given that ‘yesterday’s perpetrators and victims – today’s survivors – have to confront the problem of how to live together’ in these post-conflict contexts, and that the narrow, somewhat artificial and culturally-inappropriate pursuit of criminal justice leaves intact the pervasive everyday violence that predated and may have contributed to the conflict itself (Mamdani 1997, p.21). This problematic exclusion of structural injustice from the dominant “justice” mechanisms today is vividly apparent in the South African experience. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recognised apartheid as a crime against humanity, the Commission’s mandate narrowly defined perpetrators and victims in terms of ‘egregious bodily harm’ (Nagy, 2009, p.284). As a result, apartheid featured only as the context to the crime rather than the crime itself, overlooking the everyday violence of poverty and racism. It is for such reasons that the TRC, despite its laudatory status, largely failed to dismantle the pervasive structure injustice – racialised socioeconomic inequalities and ongoing political violations of human rights, political violence – and left a ‘de facto geographic apartheid’ in the ‘new’ South Africa (Nagy, 2009, p.280). Such serious limitations of the Commission that was carried out under the hegemonic understanding of “justice” urgently calls for a fundamental review of the notion itself. In this light, it is essential that policies targeting ex-combatants move away from focusing on particular individuals or groups but are better integrated into other initiatives that address structural injustice.


Having discussed the underpinning assumptions and the limitations of the “peace versus justice” dilemma, it is clear that this framing of the debate obscures more than it reveals. This dichotomy overlooks the fact that the choice is not as differentiable in practice and deflects attention from the ways in which so-called peace- and justice-oriented activities could reinforce the success of one another and achieve its shared long-term aim. More fundamentally, the narrow and heavily Western-influenced concept of justice that is currently dominant under the framework of ‘peace versus justice’ leaves intact structural injustice that may have contributed to the violent conflict. The creation of areas of impunity, especially with regards to gender-based violence and the real risk that unaddressed structural injustice may trigger a spiral of renewed violence, adds to the urgent call to shift the policy framework guiding ex-combatants. Standardised approaches that seek to impose either a particular normative vision of peace or justice must be avoided, and responses must be shaped by the particular economic, social and political fabrics of specific settings. These context-driven policies will vary widely and may include approaches that do not fit neatly into the “peace versus justice” framework but ones that nonetheless contribute towards the minimum overarching objectives of these policies: cessation, reduction and prevention of direct violence.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.


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