Gender-based violence is identity-based violence.
Updated: Mar 13
International Women’s Day has been marked every 8 March since 1975, yet there is still a long way to go towards achieving rights and equality for women. #Metoo and other campaigns have made some inroads including abortion rights in Ireland, new laws recognising sex without consent as rape in Iceland and Sweden and a landmark case in Mexico where courts held the State responsible for rape committed by security forces (see Amnesty’s 5 wins for Women’s Rights). There have been high profile international justice cases that have profiled conflict-related sexual violence crimes in their judgements including the International Criminal Court case against Congolese former opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba (later acquitted on appeal), the case against the Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, brought in Extraordinary Chambers in the Senegalese Courts and the case against Sepur Zarco in the Supreme Court of Guatemala.
Nonetheless, every win for women’s rights is a very hard win. International Women's Day is an opportunity to rekindle our resolve to address the issues that make sexual and gender based violence so rampant in peace time, and so toxic in conflict. Conflict-related sexual violence, so often used as a weapon of war, simply reflects inequality and gender relations in times of peace.
In the world of preventing identity-based violence, integrating gender into prevention work is too important to miss. Gender based violence is identity-based violence. Gender is another ‘other’, so when we talk about mitigating and breaking down identity-based violence, the strategies used to address ethnic, religious or other divisions can and should also have an impact on gender attitudes and relationships.
Preliminary research shows that where trainings aim to address inter-ethnic prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination, the result can be gender transformative, even if gender is not specifically mentioned. This is because training that aims to address “otherness” can transform gender attitudes at the same time. I conducted some research for Aegis Trust in Rwanda in 2017-8, seeking to measure attitude changes following transformative peace education training at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. The training was known to reveal strong, even life-changing reactions in terms of people’s attitudes - they were able to understand the experience of the genocide from somebody else's perspective. The challenge was how to capture these changes - how to show that the peace education model was effective. A tool was designed to measure different cohorts of teachers at different stages of participation in these workshops. Categorically, gender attitudes were shown to change as participants engaged in critical thinking and empathy exercises addressing “otherness” even if the exercises didn’t specifically address gender.
Encouraging human rights and peace building activists - who are not necessarily confident working on gender issues - to embrace the transformative potential of their work is not immediately obvious. For many actors working on human rights and atrocity prevention, it is as if sexual and gender-based crimes are too unspeakable. It can be all too easy to relegate thinking about gender to specialist or women’s organisations. Many human rights and peace building actors feel that they would have to set up a new work streams to address gender, with new projects and dedicated funding. Even where actors are working on inter-community prejudice or justice for survivors, it is not uncommon to hear that ‘the girl victims are already lost’ ; or that their activities already include women and girls attending, as if this were all that could be done.
Donor-imposed gender audits can easily become box-ticking exercises without thinking creatively about how outcomes and impact can be gender transformative - without necessarily starting a dedicated programme.
How can we mainstream gender transformative outcomes in work that addresses identity-based violence?
Here are some ideas:
- Ensure strategies are gender inclusive: This is the easy one. Most actors are comfortable thinking about whether they can ensure female participation in their activities. Do equal numbers of men and women attend? Are there differences between urban or rural areas? Sometimes more men attend in rural areas because NGO activities are seen as "important" or bestowing some privilege; on the other hand, more women might attend in urban areas because NGO and "gender issues" are seen as "female" or less important than business activities, so thoughtful branding of activities might help redress imbalances.
- Challenge every outcome, milestone and progress marker questioning whether this could mean or reveal something different from the perspective of different genders. If an outcome is supposed to be that lessons learned are shared, the outcome should be challenged from a gender perspective: do those lessons include the experiences and voices of women? Do women endorse those lessons and feel empowered by them? Are they being shared with women and other marginalised groups?
- Empower women to set agendas, lead sessions, summarise in their words and evaluate impact. I've often noticed that the few women who participate in workshops are often chosen in break-out groups to be 'rapporteurs' for the group. Sometimes this can actually silence women, as they are relegated to summarising and reconciling everybody else's views.
- Use role models and stories show-casing both genders’ experiences. Examples, stories and case studies, need to be told from the points of view of both genders. Groups discussing and attempting to articulate the marginalisation, discrimination and repression they have suffered can provide important opportunities to develop empathy perspective taking skills. These can then open up accounts of other experiences of marginalisation, discrimination and repression. It is important that these perspectives are told by both genders.
- Explore masculine identities within work on stereotyping, discrimination and peace-building. Can you engender conversations about what it means “to be a man” in a certain country, locality or culture? How do these play out in relation to discipline at home? In relation to dealing with inter-personal conflict? In relation to women? Can men also be sensitive, compassionate and practice non-violence? What attitude changes are needed to foster peaceful male identities and role models? See the wonderful Men’s Resource Centre, Rwanda, run by Fidèle.