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How Do Women Make Sense of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence?

Civil Society
Conflict
Gender
Political Violence
Women
Political Sociology
Mobilisation
Political Activism
Anne-Kathrin Kreft
University of Gothenburg
Anne-Kathrin Kreft
University of Gothenburg

Abstract

In the literature on conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), there is a lively debate between feminist scholars who view CRSV as intricately and inherently related to gender dynamics and relations in society (as part of a continuum of violence) and positivist-inclined scholars who insist that gender relations and other structural factors are not sufficient explanations for whether armed actors use sexual violence in conflict because such explanations do not account for conflicts in which sexual violence does not occur. Where feminist scholars insist that it makes little sense to study CRSV as an independent or exogenous phenomenon in conflict, but that any study and discussion of CRSV has to be grounded in an understanding of patriarchal relations, scholars falling into the positivist camp advance other explanations for the occurrence of CRSV, such as group dynamics, military strategy and individual motivations. Positivist scholars have also argued that CRSV is distinct in its prevalence, brutality and purposes, which merits treating sexual violence as a separate phenomenon from everyday sexual violence. A final dividing line is methodological: where many positivists use or have a favorable view of quantitative data and analysis of CRSV, feminist scholars are more critical of quantitative analysis of CRSV – in part because they raise concerns about data quality. This debate between feminist and positivist/ “sexual violence as a distinct phenomenon” scholars gave the impetus for this paper. Through qualitative fieldwork in Colombia (interviews and focus groups) in combination with a survey, I examine how women in a conflict-affected setting, and here primarily those organized in women’s organizations, make sense of conflict-related sexual violence. How do they understand CRSV, everyday sexual violence and any links, similarities and differences between them? Do women perceive a link between CRSV and any dynamics in or characteristics of society? How do they view the relationship between CRSV, overarching gender dynamics in the conflict and gender relations in society? How do women’s perceptions align with or nuance the notions of a continuum of violence and CRSV as a separate phenomenon? Are there any perceptions and understandings of CRSV that these two camps miss? Colombia is a particularly suitable case to examine these questions because of a protracted internal conflict with high levels of sexual violence and unusually high levels of women’s mobilization in civil society organizations. Contrary to many other post-conflict settings, women’s societal mobilization has been predominantly “home-grown” and played a substantial role in the negotiation of the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the FARC. Future research may extend the focus to other conflict settings to examine if the same or different understandings emerge. Ultimately, these results aim to contribute to the debate about how we can understand and study CRSV while also giving insight into women’s mobilization in response to and around CRSV and other gender dimensions in conflict settings.