War Crimes against Women: A Private Hell

In memory of Bety Cariño

Gender justice is an unfamiliar term to most people. Many assume it is merely a feminine (and therefore diminutive) form of justice, created by adding an awkward adjective to an abstract ideal.

But thanks to years of documenting gender-based crimes, pressure from women’s movements, testimony from victims and legal arguments, there is now a body of jurisprudence and a history of movements that define gender justice and promote it internationally. At an historic conference in April, organized by the Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice (WIGJ) and the Nobel Women’s Initiative, fifty women gathered in a Mexican beach town to evaluate the progress of gender justice and set forth a three-year work agenda.

I had the good fortune and tremendous responsibility of being among the luchadoras –women who struggle—charged with beginning this task. Participants made a collective promise to work closely with organizations back home and with the International Criminal Court and other bodies to end gender-based crimes in armed conflict and attain justice.

No small task. In a place as orienting as the edge of the Pacific Ocean, I often found myself disoriented by the enormity of it.  I was part of a world linked by common values, but fragmented by hundreds of seemingly senseless wars–each with a political complexity and historical intransigence that defied solutions.  The room filled with the stories of how women from diverse cultures, rich in resistance but plagued by discrimination and traditions of gender violence, seek peace and justice in equally diverse ways.

Some are immersed in internationally recognized conflict situations, others in peace processes, and others in rebuilding post-conflict societies. The law provides some framework, albeit insufficient, for their demands for punishment and reparations for gender-based crimes. They are learning to use those legal tools.

But many of us from Latin America came from countries where conflict situations are not internationally recognized; peace in Honduras and Colombia has been restored, we are told, even as murder, displacement and crimes against women continue on a daily basis. Mexico’s growing violence against women in the context of the drug war and impunity is the dirt that is routinely swept under the political rug.  We grappled with questions of where we fit into the international legal system, how we could build movements to stop gender-based crimes in low-level local conflicts, how a stronger gender perspective could help fend off the growing militarism that marks our lives.

Some women spoke the language of the courtroom and explained the international instruments that have been developed to document and punish gender-based war crimes. Other women talked of grassroots organizing tactics and how to build peace movements that take women’s demands and realities into account. Their experiences combined provided a broad and complex range of strategies. They reflected what Brigid Inder of WIGJ called “the tension between the punitive formal justice model and the more comprehensive and complex agenda for what we call transformative justice, where the finding of guilt or innocence is accompanied by efforts to transform both communal and gender relations.”

Common themes soon emerged. Testimonies from brave women revealed that within the hell of war lies a private hell. The hell of sexual violence–an inner circle shielded from scrutiny by the socially imposed shame of its victims and the willful ignorance of legal and political systems.

Our Latin American perspective required us to interpret from a framework of recognized conflict with an applicable body of international law, to a continent of emerging threats including the drug war and local battles over natural resources. The thread that united our experiences was the role of women as the leaders of social justice movements and the victims of conflict.

The sands beneath our feet shifted during the conference. Not when the tide rolled over during early morning walks on the beach–although those moments were also an important part of forging a common commitment–but when we heard survivors´ stories and statistics like these, from Joan Chittister:

  • At the turn of the 20th century, 5% of war casualties were civilians
  • In World War I, 15% were civilians
  • In World War II, the figure leapt to a 65% civilian death toll, as whole cities were bombed
  • By the mid-nineties, 75% of war deaths were civilians
  • Today, 90% of the human war toll are civilians–the majority women and children

Forget the complaints of “collateral damage”. As military leaders brag that modern technology has produced the most accurate weapons in history, during war strikes in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, women and children die.

They are not the collateral damage—they are the targets.

When finally, through the efforts of women like those at the Dialogue, international agencies produce some statistics on rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict situations, the figures are so staggering, the stories so shockingly brutal, that all attempts to explain away the phenomenon as the acts of a few rogue soldiers or part of the pillage of war fall away. Rape is a calculated weapon of war. It decimates communities, destroys families, spreads disease and leaves deep physical and psychological scars. That is the purpose.

No geographic region has a corner on barbarity when it comes to gender-based crimes. For example, women reported sex crimes and violence by paramilitary and military forces against displaced populations in Burma, Colombia and Sudan.

Many speakers noted that the use of women’s bodies as both the spoils and the battlefields of war appears to be on the rise. In some cases, women organizers for peace and justice have made progress, such as the fight against land mines and for peace in Northern Ireland, but new and terrible challenges have emerged in unexpected points of the planet, like Honduras. The opportunity to compare notes, to learn what works, what doesn’t work, who are allies and who are enemies gave renewed commitment and shared knowledge to women peace organizers who girthed themselves to return home to local battles.

Gender Justice is now an international issue

The International Criminal Court as a Tool of Gender Justice

The timing of the Dialogue responded to an immediate challenge: in early June the Assembly of State Parties will hold a 10-year Review Conference of the International Criminal Court. In addition, the year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Beijing World Conference on Women, the tenth anniversary of the UN Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and the dawn of a new “gender architecture” within the UN to promote women’s rights. As the organizers explained, “This is an opportune moment to reflect on the progress and work of the ICC, the possibilities embodied in the Rome Statute for the accountability of conflict-related crimes, and the responsibilities of the United Nations for the deterrence and resolution of armed conflicts, women’s global citizenship and gender-inclusive international justice.”

The ICC is currently hearing cases from four armed conflicts—Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Sudan—and all include charges of gender-based crimes. It has provided a forum to seek justice and to create public awareness of these crimes and has launched innovative projects, including the ICC Trust Fund for Victims. For women involved in giving testimonies–women and girls who live with the scars of war-time rapes and mutilations–the work of the court may be far away but the concept of justice that it seeks to provide is at the core of their daily lives.

The ICC takes a case when national systems of justice will not or do not function. It can be a blow against impunity. It is easy to think of impunity as a sin of omission. The hand not raised in protest appears genteel alongside the hand stained with the blood of the victim. And yet we learned from the testimonies of women on the frontlines of the battle for gender justice that impunity not only perpetrates crimes against women, it teaches generation after generation how to continue the practice.

Dialogue members noted that the international system offers both opportunities and limitations. Joanne Sandler of UNIFEM warned that Resolutions are not always proof of resolve. Since the Security Council issued Resolution 1325, there have been 24 formal peace processes. Women have been only 10% of the negotiators and 2% of the signatories. Worse yet, she said, there doesn’t seem to be progress. More formal mechanisms are needed to assure compliance with gender policies. Without permanent pressure from women organizers and experts, legal advances could remain a dead letter.

From the Courts to the Streets and Back Again

Gender-based crimes require responses in three areas: Prevention, protection and reparation. Experts working in the international legal system noted that prevention, the most important of all, is given fewer resources because it does not have measurable benchmarks. How do you measure the number of lives not nearly destroyed by horrors we can scarcely imagine? Participants agreed that although bureaucrats have yet to come up with a formula, prevention should be our ultimate goal.

To prevent sex crimes requires nothing short of a revolution in cultural, political and social norms. This group has demonstrated its willingness to step up to the task. The Nobel Women’s Initiative was founded by six women Nobel Prize winners who refused to rest on their laurels. Then there is Yanar Mohammed of Iraq, who went out into a Baghdad street to speak on International Woman’s Day in a bullet-proof vest, following numerous death threats, and then went on to denounce the rape of women in detention centers and sex trafficking, and create a vibrant cultural movement for youth.

Or Gilda Rivera, who was kidnapped and beaten during Honduras´ dirty wars of the eighties, then saw the nightmare return when a military coup d’état took over her country in June of 2009. It would be enough to drive anyone into exile or retreat. It drove Gilda into the streets of Tegucigalpa. Every morning she marched against the coup and every afternoon organized with Feminists in Resistance to protect women and document the crimes against them.

Too often the cry is not heard. Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, in a taped message, called rape “the silent crime against communities.” Then she immediately questioned the terminology, asking “Is rape really silent?” Women scream, yet far too often no one hears. Just sharing stories was a sort of catharsis for women who see far too much suffering in their work and lives. The Dialogue provided a forum to cry out to a gathering that will not only hear, but act.

What to do faced with such a daunting challenge?

The question was on the table, and since this was an action-oriented gathering there was no escaping it.  The International Gender Justice Dialogue sketched out ideas for the coming years in three areas: peace talks and implementation, justice and jurisprudence and communications. Dialogue members came up with lists of tactics, hints, strategies and challenges for the coming years, from Nobel Laureate Jody Williams´ creative messaging in the successful campaign to ban land mines, to lawyers´ advice on using the court.

But the key message was just one: Don’t give up. Ever.

As I write this, we have just received word that human rights defender Bety Cariño was murdered by paramilitary forces in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. She was part of a humanitarian aid caravan and is the third woman murdered in the conflict in this region recently. Bety wasn’t necessarily singled out as a woman, but it’s no coincidence that she was one. The same concerns and qualities that make it imperative for women to be among the peace negotiators and the leaders in social reconstruction and justice proceedings are the qualities that led Bety to become a defender of grassroots movements and to be carrying aid to an autonomous indigenous community when she was shot to death.

Bety´s assassination, the recruitment of girl soldiers in the DRC, rape in Sudan all are issues of gender justice. Jody William points out that that doesn’t mean they are “women’s issues.”

Gender justice is not a subcategory of social justice; it’s an essential component.

Laura Carlsen (lcarlsen(a)ciponline.org) is the director of the Americas Program (www.americaspolicy.org) for the Center for International Policy in Mexico City.

This article was originally published by Open Democracy.

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