Citizens feel disregarded and disempowered, motivating them to engage in demonstrations like the "yellow vest" movement in France, Black Lives Matter in the United States, and the #MeToo movement globally.
Citizens globally feel disregarded and disempowered, motivating them to engage in demonstrations like the “yellow vest” movement in France, Black Lives Matter in the United States, and the #MeToo movement globally. Given these sentiments and activism, it is no surprise that the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda has permeated organizations advocating for women’s empowerment and equality worldwide. As I explained in my first post, WPS aims have shaped policymaking at all levels since its creation in 2000, and its importance has continued to grow during António Guterres’ tenure as the UN Secretary-General.
To assess how WPS aims are creating change, I’ll write a post monthly that reviews recent work on peace and security’s gender dimensions. I’ll examine on their key findings and broader implications. In this first installment of the “What’s Up with WPS?” series, I focus on three reports in the WPS space released in late-2018. These reports underscore the need to rethink gender and conflict by challenging dominant understandings of genocide, jihadist groups, and gang violence. Together, they illuminate ways that policy and analysis can acknowledge the gender dynamics of violence to better respond to and prevent conflict.
Gender and Genocide
In Beyond Killing: Gender, Genocide, & Obligations Under International Law, the Global Justice Center provides a gendered analysis of genocide to prove the crime’s multi-dimensional nature. The report illustrates that by failing to acknowledge gender’s role in genocide, actors are ill-equipped to recognize the conditions that precede genocide and to recognize genocide-in-progress.
A key part of the report examines how men and women experience genocide differently. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide: “Genocide is committed when a person or persons carry out a prohibited act or acts with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such.” These prohibited acts against the group include:
- killing members,
- causing serious bodily or mental harm,
- deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the group’s entire or partial destruction,
- creating measures to prevent births within the group,
- and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The report goes on to examine how men and women experience each prohibited act. For example:
- With respect to killing, men and boys are often killed early in genocide because they are perceived as threats to authority, while women and girls are killed later in genocide either because of, or after, rape.
- And with respect to children’s forcible transfer, boys are transferred from their own group and forced to be purged of their identities and indoctrinated in the process (as in the case of Yazidi boys captured by Da’esh), and girls are transferred from their and treated as chattel but not forced to be indoctrinated (as in the cases of the Yazidi and Armenian genocides).
Recognizing that individuals experience genocide differently because of their gender identities illuminates that seeking justice looks different for each victim-survivor. What a girl needs to recover following forcible transfer, for example, is drastically different from what a boy needs.
One cannot understate the importance of recognizing genocide’s gendered impacts. Examining how people experience genocide differently will be key when seeking justice for victim-survivors in the aftermath of the ongoing genocides of the Rohingya and Yazidi people. Further, as the report convincingly argues, it is only possible to create a world where genocides are prevented when the gender dynamics of genocide are acknowledged, assessed, and used as indicators.
Gender and Jihadist Groups
In “The Women Rescued from Boko Haram Who Are Returning to their Captors,” Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani provides a detailed account of individual women’s lives before, during, and after capture by Boko Haram. The article highlights that captured women and girls were not universally terrorized. In fact, some women recount having a degree of choice and power in Boko Haram that they did not have outside captivity.
One woman featured, Aisha, recalls being married to a senior commander, which gave her great power among both men and women in the group. She also recounts her experience in captivity as one that involved no harm. While Aisha’s account varies wildly from most women’s experiences of brutal sexual violence in captivity, her account is not singular. Nwaubani details other prisoners who likewise began to identify with their captors. Arguably, this lingering identification leads some women—including Aisha—to return to Boko Haram after being “saved” from their captivity.
This reporting highlights that women do not always join or stay in militant groups because of fear or coercion. Nwaubani’s findings counter the dominant narrative that women experience disempowerment in such groups. Women might participate because of power and choice that the group provides. This is not to say that Boko Haram empowers women, but rather that there is no universal experience of women in the group.
Gender and Gang Violence
As Nwaubani examines how Boko Haram provides women with increased choice and a sense of power, Anna Applebaum and Briana Mawby argue that gang membership can provide women with security and a measure of independence. In “Women and ‘New Wars’ in El Salvador,” they note that although men seem to be the prominent actors in gang violence and in state responses to gang violence, women also play critical roles as gang members, as responders to gang violence, and as community members near gang violence.
Joining a gang can help women address economic, personal, and social situations that they are unable to resolve independently. But women’s leadership roles are often limited because of men and women who would prefer to be under the leadership of a man, especially in MS-13 and Barrio 18. That being said, the abuse of women’s bodies is also key to the gang’s power and dominance, with gangs frequently raping, murdering, and abducting young women and girls. This use of violence helps the gang gain power and maintain their proximal dominance.
Applebaum and Mawby’s research provides a great example for others seeking to apply a WPS lens to local contexts. Moreover, like Nwaubuni’s reporting, it encourages policymakers and researchers to recognize the multiplicity of women’s experiences in violent groups.
Addressing the multifaceted contexts of jihadist groups, gangs, and other such organizations is key to providing constructive policy responses to prevent these group’s rise and mitigate their impact. Had Aisha, for instance, lived in an environment that empowered her, Boko Haram might not have seemed as beneficial to her. We can imagine the same being true for women who participate in gangs. Likewise, had Aisha been more empowered once saved from captivity, her return to Boko Haram might have been less likely.
The reports reviewed here point to the need to address the gendered impacts of violence to research, prevent, and respond to conflict. As Cynthia Enloe teaches, looking at the world with attention to gender helps us understand how the world has been made and, therefore, how the world can be remade. Analyzing gender dynamics to rethink genocide, jihadist groups, and gang violence can contribute to meaningful policy change.