Is a woman’s place on the battlefield?

Editor Caroline Sweetman introduces the latest issue of the Gender & Development journal, which looks at gender, conflict and violence through the lens of feminism. 

Is a woman’s place on the battlefield? And if she’s there fighting alongside the men, is this progress? Last week I asked this question of students on Oxford Brookes University’s Master’s course in Development and Humanitarian Practice.  In this particular session, two of the students were mid-career professional soldiers – women soldiers, employed in the British Army. Their perspectives on the difference women would make
if they were actively involved in all levels of military decisions and strategy were really fascinating. World War II would have been fought, they felt, but others wouldn’t.

Grace Akallo, former child soldier of Uganda, addresses the UN Security Council. UN Photo/Mark Garten

This idea that women’s participation could change so much, helping end conflict and violence, is a spin on what’s come to be known as the ‘Lehman sisters‘ argument, that runs that the economic crisis and collapse of the banking system in North America and Europe wouldn’t have happened had women been in the boardrooms. 

It’s also what led to the passing of UN Resolution 1325 which attempted to achieve equal numbers of women and men in peace processes and post-conflict reconstruction. And it’s behind what one of the women soldiers I met last week said about how things would look quite different on the ground if UN peacekeeping forces were balanced with equal numbers of women and men:  ‘Communities would have a totally different dynamic with the
forces, they’d trust them.’

Women and girls have a right to lives free from violence against them. The route to get there goes through the profoundly gendered terrain of conflict, in which the gender-based violence that exists in all human societies increases in extent and morphs into new forms. It’s clear that conflict and violence require analysis together, through the lens of feminism.

We’re doing this in the new issue of Gender & Development which focuses on conflict and violence a full 20 years since the journal first did so in its second-ever issue. Writers in the collection focus in particular on the continuing failure to understand the complicated and context-specific relationships between gender inequality,
violence and conflict.

In her article, Cynthia Cockburn offers her analysis of the gendered terrain of warfare, highlighting the purposes to which the world’s elites put violence and conflict, and in particular focusing on the need for context-specific, detailed scrutiny of the ways in which gender stereotypes are invoked to stir up and justify horrifying aggression, violence and death in wartime. It is those with least power who
are expected to make the ultimate sacrifice. An amazing article from Myriam Denov and Alexandra Ricard-Guay traces the experiences of girl soldiers in Colombia and Sierra Leone through joining up, conflict, and demobilisation.

The G&D issue focuses on ‘gender-based violence’ (GBV) deliberately, as it is a wider concept than ‘violence against women’, referring to violence that is directed against a person on the basis of their gender identity. However, the two terms are often used interchangeably. 

Kerry Crawford’s article shows just how important the ‘framing’ of an issue is, to the real lives of people who need support and help. She argues that recent success in getting policymakers to understand wartime sexual violence in terms of security and, in particular, a focus on ‘rape as a weapon’ comes at a cost of isolating this violence conceptually from the wider
context of GBV before, during, and after active armed conflict. And that other types of violence may receive little attention. Also, the other interests of women that will prevent future conflicts and end GBV against them regardless of the context are neglected: a demobbed woman soldier may need post-trauma counselling, but also needs a way of making a living when she may be facing extreme stigma and discrimination, and a lack of finances and shelter. And the specific emphasis on ‘rape as a weapon’ affects the types of wartime sexual violence recognised and condemned by the
international community, the kinds of ‘victims’ granted assistance, and the extent to which women and men are perceived as victims, empowered agents, or perpetrators.

Cynthia Cockburn, Kerry Crawford and others here highlight the milestone creation of Resolution 1325 and other reforms in the wake of Beijing, and the impact this has had on policy processes to end conflict and violence, build peace and forge just reconciliation processes. As we end 2013, and consider how far there is to go to end conflict and violence in the world, we can take encouragement from the progress represented by 2013’s new Arms Trade Treaty, a landmark provision, which shows how the issues of women, peace and security can successfully move into the realm of mainstream
security. In their article the issue’s guest editor, Caroline Green, is joined by Deepayan Basu Ray, Claire Mortimer, and Kate Stone in an article which captures lessons for campaigners and advocacy about how ‘gender’ got into the ATT. It’s a fabulous, thought-provoking issue to end the year on.

Read more

Author: Caroline Sweetman
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.