Thoughts on Gender-Based Violence and International Development

Pamela Scully

By Pamela Scully

In the past few years, I have been teaching and writing about feminist theory, colonial history, and humanitarian interventions around gender-based violence (GBV) in postconflict societies.

I come to this work as a historian, with a PhD in African history and the comparative history of race and sexuality in colonial societies. Postconflict states in Africa increasingly are adopting legislation to address GBV and have sought to advance women’s legal and political rights, at least on paper. Through my work with Emory’s Institute of Developing Nations—a partnership between Emory and The Carter Center—I have become most familiar with the work of government and nongovernmental organizations in Liberia.

Increasingly, the issue of GBV is gaining attention. The work of Eve Ensler and Dennis Mukwege to highlight the problem of rape in wartime in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the recent visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton there, have started to make this issue of sexual violence against women an international one. However, I worry— in both the context of government legislation and with regard to the work of international NGOs working on GBV—about the nature of the analyses offered and solutions proposed. Organizations seem confident that the proposals they are offering are enlightened and effective because they are framed within a discourse of human rights. The diagnoses and solutions come from within a Western frame of liberal political thought and from a feminist frame located very much in the international organizing that developed in the 1990s because of the rape camps in Bosnia and the genocidal rapes in Rwanda. Again, this certainly an organizing that we have to applaud: theorists like MacKinnon put rape on the map as a crime against humanity. Yet, I have reservations. Has the success of a particular version of feminism come to hamper the ending of sexual violence in the context of war and postconflict?  

Janet Halley has raised some of these concerns in her book Split Decisions, a wide-ranging analysis of Western feminism. Halley talks of the rise of what she calls governance feminism. Governance feminism concentrates on the realm of law and the state for redress of inequalities; it further assumes that women are victims of male aggression and a universal patriarchy. Halley is particularly influenced by Wendy Brown’s States of Injury. Brown argues that Anglo American feminism and, more widely, identity politics have depended on the elaboration of an identity created through the status of victim. Halley takes this up and ends her book asking whether Western feminism’s insistence on women as victims of rape, and on rape as the central event of a woman’s life, might both be a feminist consciousness-raising of an important sort but also a kind of injunction that women always suffer.
In the book I am currently writing, I am analyzing the implications of this critique with regard to the international arena. I ground the analysis in place and historical perspective. I ask how humanitarian interventions in GBV and also government solutions participate, even with the best of intentions, in a kind of imperial structure of belief, which goes back as far as the campaigns to end the transatlantic slave trade. This view sees the diagnoses of ills as needing to come from outside; it positions women as victims, and as the sole victims needing attention. There is little attention given to men’s experience of gender-based violence through recruitment as child-soldiers or being forced to enact forms of masculinity that damage them and their communities.

We need tomove beyond women as victims and men as rapists.We need a far more expansive understanding of gender-based violence as a category of analysis. We need to move beyond seeing women as victims and men as rapists. A more nuanced definition would see the ways that men are forced into particular roles either as rapists or as victims themselves of sexual violence. For instance, in a recent article the New York Times focused on men as victims of rape in the Congo, surely a first. Of course, we then have to worry if rape now gets attention only because men are also its victims—the dilemmas are real in creating a wider category of sexual violence. We also need to examine far more closely the way that particular forms of modern war and civil conflict and the democratization of violence have created rape as a particular weapon of war.

In addition, we have to query the solutions that the international development community is currently using to try to end GBV. I worry that we focus so much on the state. The models of intervention, of what makes a good society, emerge from places where the state largely works. Yet the state is in basic collapse in the kinds of conflict and postconflict settings that are receiving much attention for the problem of sexual violence. We need to look to local institutions such as women’s societies, religious communities, consumer cooperatives, and traditional councils far more than is currently done as staging places for dialogues about ending sexual violence. The Carter Center in Liberia is currently pursuing this approach, as is UNIFEM. In the past year, both have instituted ongoing discussions with wide groups of participants in Liberia as a way of creating new networks of relationships among women and between rural authorities and the central government.

In general, however, the models of intervention (i.e., particular understandings of rape, of women’s relationships to men, etc.) have roots in theoretical models generated outside the places in which they are being applied. Expertise tends to be seen as needing to come from outside or be generated by local partners who already have been trained in the rhetoric of human rights. I feel strongly that international NGOs need to work in real partnership with people in the countries in which the NGOs are involved. Doing so means listening to people and having local practitioners diagnose the ills and identify solutions.

In March 2009, through the auspices of the Institute for Developing Nations, I was fortunate to be able to organize a dialogue in Liberia on GBV and human rights as a way of trying both to explore and model different ways of working in the area of development. Participants from Liberia, South Africa, and the United States discussed issues related to sexual violence, law, and culture and society in Monrovia.

We concluded that it is crucially important to develop models of intervention that arise from the in-country context and not to assume that one analysis of GBV works everywhere. For example, women expressed some irritation with the insistence that women see methods of survival in war, which included forging relationships with soldiers in order to survive, as rape. Participants argued that the international development community should regard the women as heroes and powerful negotiators for saving their children through these relationships with militiamen, not as victims. Participants felt strongly that currently very few international NGOs really treat local participants as actual partners, but see them more as recipients of aid. They emphasized the need to listen to women and men and to be open to innovative models of addressing sexual violence.

In the book I am writing, I argue that we have to pay attention to how theoretical models are generated. We need to think about how this insight might apply to the work related to GBV. Various United Nations Security Council resolutions insist on the victimization of women and girls, a phrase reproduced over and over. However, they do not pay much attention at all to the ways in which boys are sexually abused, how men are raped, or made to rape women, as a way of marking them as unmasculine/feminine, as outside of the military code (here I think of Cynthia Enloe’s work on militarism). We need to develop and use much more theoretically sophisticated analyses of forms of sexual violence and patriarchy. The latter is a word that has fallen out of favor, but one that we need to think about much more. Feminist theories of the body and how it becomes a site of politics and violence are crucial to trying to work through the terrifying rapes that are being perpetrated in contemporary conflicts in the Congo, for example. How is it that the body has become the site of such terrible violence, being poked with guns, sticks, penises repeatedly? What messages are different warring parties communicating to each other through such violence? What is the relationship between the male and female bodies in this awful tableau, and might we ask how broader, perhaps globally held ideals of masculinity and economic agency are also implicated in the rapes of people in this eastern corner of hell?

In order to begin to elaborate different models of working to end violence against women, we need to pay attention to place, both by examining the history of Liberia, South Africa, and the Congo, for example, and by seeing people within different communities as having theoretical knowledge to offer. What does it mean that we have all this work on rape, on identifying abuses, but so very little on why it happens, on the economics of the terror in the Congo, on the ways in which Western business interests drive the search for coltan in the Congo? I am glad that Eve Ensler is beginning to campaign for more understanding of the economics of war, and Hillary Clinton also laudably raised issues relating to the commerce in minerals as fueling rape in the Congo. But I worry that we still manage to excerpt rape from economics, from political economy: that in the focus on women as victims, we actually participate in discourses that elide the responsibility of the West, which refuse to engage with the politics of who has and who does not in countries such as Liberia and the Congo.

In the context in which attention is finally being paid to sexual violence in the international arena, there is much exciting intellectual work to be done. At Emory, doctoral students in women's studies are working on topics such as analyzing domestic violence in the United States through the frame of human rights; doing a comparative analysis of domestic violence in postconflict Northern Ireland and South Africa; and postulating feminist theories of violence. My own work is driven by a commitment to create more conversations between the world of practice and that of academia. Academics need to know what questions practitioners in the field would like explored and thought about—we are the lucky few who have some time to think. Similarly, I worry that without major reflection on the intellectual models of development and of feminism that drive so much humanitarian work, international development practice will continue to reproduce a postconflict landscape that resembles the power dynamics and contexts that have helped make the world such a dangerous place for so many.  

Pamela Scully is a professor of women’s studies and African studies at Emory who teaches courses on feminist theory, sexuality and genocide, and postconflict societies in Africa. Scully is the author of books on race, sexuality, and colonial cultures. Her most recent book, coauthored with Clifton Crais, is
Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography (Princeton, 2008). She is currently writing a book on the concept of the vulnerable woman in the history of human rights.