Masculinity and the use of SGBV
14 October 2011: Coming to the forefront of discussions on gender and insights to the causes of Sexual Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) are questions about the position of men. For some it is how to include them within gender analysis, for others it still remains a question of should we? By re-adjusting the focus will our every-day discussions, official policy-making and practice related to gender issues lose sight of the ever-pressing issues faced by vulnerable women? In particular this relates to the numerous women who have become direct targets for violence during conflict. I would argue a categorical and resounding, no - and here is why.
Coming to the forefront of discussions on gender and insights to the causes of Sexual Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) are questions about the position of men. For some it is how to include them within gender analysis, for others it still remains a question of should we? By re-adjusting the focus will our every-day discussions, official policy-making and practice related to gender issues lose sight of the ever-pressing issues faced by vulnerable women? In particular this relates to the numerous women who have become direct targets for violence during conflict. I would argue a categorical and resounding, no - and here is why.
Gender encompasses a whole spectrum of meanings and definitions that have become highly abstract and unnecessarily confusing in the three decades it has been written about. What should be a hugely interesting topic has been made virtually inaccessible to the majority.
Furthermore, both writing and interventions related to gender have all too often equated the meaning of the word to 'women'. This is defended by a simple and rather basic argument - that the issues of gender are only visible to women because they are persecuted for gendered reasons and men are not.
The distant dream of gender equality
Siddarth Kara’s book ‘Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery’ is a particularly harrowing account of female suffering at the hands of men, accelerated by the era of globalisation and the modern economy. From India to Nepal, Bosnia to Moldova, Thailand to Burma, Mexico to the United States he details his personal interactions with women and girls sold, brutally abused and forced into sex work. A particularly striking example of women’s subordination is his account of the female experience in Albania - to be a woman there is to endure a position of total inferiority to men and are thus often subjected to frequent violent abuse. The only way a woman may liberate herself from this fate is to symbolically become a man, known as Virgjinesha. These 'men' can never marry or have sex.
Kara also interviews the few individuals working tirelessly to prevent the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation. Their work often hindered by insufficient and poorly enforced laws, corruption and the direct engagement of law enforcement officials in the business of sex trafficking. At one point a respondent of Kara’s concluded simply "men want women as slaves".
Systemic use of SGBV
However, the use of SGBV as a tactic of war long precedes its official recognition, neither particular to the 'barbaric' nature of conflicts fought in the contemporary era nor an isolated issue to the developing world. Some 200,000 'Comfort women' were forced into sex work during the Second World War to service the sexual needs of military personnel in Japan. Women were raped and sexually abused in concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Rape and torture of women was part of a process of 'moral purification' during the 'dirty war' by the Argentine Military under the instruction of General Pinochet in the 1970's. These are only some of many more examples throughout the history of warfare.
Evidence of the use of SGBV can also be found among the United States Army and Western peacekeeping forces. The Pentagon received 3,230 reports of sexual assault by men within the US military in the fiscal year 2010 as well as their conduct in Vietnam and Japan have highlighted the sexual victimisation of civilian women. In post-conflict Bosnia personnel employed as peacekeepers, not only neglected every purpose for which they were employed but actually preyed on the fragility of the situation, engaging in the buying and selling of women and girls for their own financial and sexual gratification (read The Whistleblower: Sex trafficking, Military Contractors and One Woman’s Fight for Justice by Kathryn Bolkovac for a full account).
The role of men
The incorporation of these exploitative practices at all levels of society and in 'tactics' of warfare is widespread and on our doorstep. It must no longer be excused as isolated to issues of poverty or cultural practice, although this certainly aggravates the problem. The cause of SGBV both in an everyday context and during conflict is arguably related to the global significance placed on masculine identity – to be dominant and powerful. As such, violence against women will not end through women's empowerment alone.
The idea of masculinity
The way men view themselves and the expectations placed on them by society have encouraged, among some, a continuous pursuit to fulfill the ideal masculinity; in superior physical strength and dominant in intellectual and economic capacities. The destruction of another man's masculine identity continues to be the most effective means of weakening the enemy.
In the numerous cases of SGBV against women during warfare the act is often committed in front of a male relative as way of humiliating him in his inability to protect his female kin. In some cases men are raped by other men, as has been reported by the Refugee Law Project in the DRC and Uganda. The physical impacts are undoubtedly severe but the psychological affects can tell us more about the reasons behind these tactics. As a result of the humiliation and indignity caused by these acts it is not uncommon for a man to abandon his family or commit further acts of violence against the women in their lives, perhaps a means of regaining a sense of power and dignity. The end result is a complete upheaval of social norms and values and a total destruction of society - a logical reason for its incorporation into military tactics.
I believe we are only at the very beginning of these discussions. However, its is evident that we cannot expect recurrent violent abuse, subordination and exploitation of women to end if we do not address the challenges, pressures and expectations societies pose on the men that cause it. This does not excuse violence perpetrated by men but rather should encourage a more serious understanding of its origin.