WINTER 2001/2002
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gender, armed conflict & political violence


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it is in the period prior to the outbreak of armed violence that peace groups can be most useful both to warn of increasing dangers and to build networks which might decrease tensions


Victims, Perpetrators or Actors: Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence. Caroline Moser and Fiona Clark (Eds.). Zed Books. 2001.

This is the first of four related reviews of a series on women and violence published by Zed Books. The topic of women as victims of violence but also as peacebuilders is of crucial importance and can be related to efforts to increase the presence of women in peacebuilding at all levels. In, for example, the 'non-negotiable' peace plan on Northern Ireland presented by the Prime Ministers of the UK and Ireland, or the efforts of the representatives of the European Union, NATO and the OSCE in Macedonia to decrease ethnic tensions there all these peacemakers are men, so there is some way to go before women are a visible presence in peacemaking efforts.

From my experience, it is not clear that peace organisations have a much better record in having women in leadership roles in mixed organisations or in being 'gender sensitive'. Thus, these Zed books are useful both to analyse the impact of different types of violence on the lives of women and as a stimulant to us to help build peace organisations which can integrate the insights and approaches of women. Since there are common themes in all four books, I would recommend reading all four even if one is not directly interested in conflicts in Africa, the theme of What Women Do in Wartime.

Unfortunately, there is a good deal of contemporary sociological and feminist vocabulary in these books which may discourage some who are not at ease with discussions of 'hegemonic masculinity' or 'disarming patriarchy'. Caroline Moser and Fiona Clark's 'Introduction' to this study as well as Caroline Moser's important 'The Gendered Continuum of Violence and Conflict: An Operational Framework' is difficult to plough through. Since Moser's work was developed at the World Bank, it may confirm some in the view that the World Bank's analysis is not to be understood by the beneficiaries of its actions. I would like to think that my reviews can serve as a guide for those who get lost when there are too many subsets in Moser's 'Framework for causal levels of gendered violence' where she deals with structural, institutional, interpersonal and individual levels, made yet more complex by looking at four types of capital - physical, human, social, and natural- at each level.

The aim of the four books is to ensure that violence-reduction initiatives - peace negotiations, post-conflict reconstruction, solutions to build sustainable long-term peace and development - incorporate a gender perspective. 'This book aims to contribute to a more comprehensive global understanding of the complex roles, responsibilities and interests of women and men, whether as victims, perpetrators or actors, in armed conflict and political violence... It also seeks to identify concrete, operationally relevant issues for those designing policy or programme-level interventions.'

There is a good deal in this book for those interested in domestic violence, any assault on a person's physical and mental integrity, the daily violence which embodies the power imbalances inherent in a patriarchal society.. However, I will deal in these reviews only with armed conflict.

I found Cynthia Cockburn's chapter 'The Gendered Dynamics of Armed Conflict and Political Violence' the most helpful in providing a framework for analysis, and I plan to follow her lead by looking at four chronological moments in a conflict 'to show how being alert to the power relations of gender enables us to see features of armed conflict and political violence that are otherwise overlooked

1. 'In the period before armed violence breaks out, I consider the phenomena of economic stress and impoverishment, militarization and divisive shifts in the way identities are represented.

2. 'In times of war and repression, I look at three manifestly gendered elements of war: mobilisation into armed forces, the catastrophic disruption of everyday life, and the brutalization of the body in war.

3. 'In the process of peace making, I show that gender gives shape to different forms of refusal of the logic of violence.

4. ' I look at the gendered features of post-war periods, including displacement and return, reconstruction and reconciliation.'

It must be noted that these are analytical moments. In practice, attitudes and practices overlap, continue and change. However, as 'analytical moments' they help us to structure information gathering and proposals for action.

It is in the period prior to the outbreak of armed violence that peace groups can be most useful both to warn of increasing dangers and to build networks which might decrease tensions. As Cynthia Cockburn notes 'Looking with hindsight at societies that exploded into political violence or armed conflict, it is possible to see predisposing conditions, possibly causal factors, certainly warning signs... One warning sign of impending political violence or armed conflict is divisive shifts in discourse, particularly in media representations. Words chosen, tunes sung and images painted stoke the fires of national patriotism against a rival nation, point a finger at 'the enemy within' or deepen the sense of ethnic belonging in opposition to some 'other' from whom 'we ' are different, and by whom our culture or our religion, our very existence, are threatened.'

In this pre-armed conflict period, it is important to analyse power relations, 'who gets what, when, where and how'. Gender, of course, is not the only power division. It is important to look at economic class, ethnic differentiation, and geographic patterns. This requires both quantitative and qualitative indicators. 'More important than numbers, in a gender analysis, is uncovering the differentiation and asymmetry of masculine and feminine as governing principles, idealised qualities, practices and symbols.'

Often as tensions increase, there is an emphasis by political and social leaders on the idealised role of women and men. 'This divisive discourse is often accompanied by a renewal of a patriarchal familial ideology, deepening the differentiation of men and women, masculinity and femininity. '

It is important to study society in small enough units so that generalisations can be as accurate as possible. As Caroline Moser points out 'Empirical evidence shows that women and men, girls and boys, are not all equally violent, that communities vary in their levels of violent conflict, and that violence tolerance levels differ across Societies. Circumstances relating to the individual, the family, the community and the broader national context all play a role in violence and victimization.'

Women in time of armed conflict is the theme of insightful descriptions, especially Donny Meutens description of 'terror, displacement and gender in Colombia' - a description of Thomas Hobbes' state of nature'. Ana Cristina Ibanez on women guerrillas in El Salvador and Urvashi Butalia on the role of women in communal conflicts in present day India, especially in right-wing Hindu movements shows us that women are not only victims but actors as well. These descriptions will sensitise readers to the complexity of the role of women in conflict, but there is little that one has not read before in descriptions of intra-state conflicts. What is newer concerns the role of women in the process of peacemaking and post-war reconstruction.

As Caroline Moser points out 'An important recent approach to armed conflict reduction is the conflict transformation approach - which aims to reduce armed conflict and to rebuild the fabric of societies ... While negotiations occur at structural and institutional levels, they are also important at the interpersonal level, through formal and informal arbitration. Women are more often than not excluded (or minimally represented) from conflict transformation and peace talks at international, national and local level, and their legitimate interests and needs are therefore not recognised in such negotiations.'

Thus, there is an important role which women can play in 'bottom-up' community- based strategies to rebuild trust, collaboration and cohesion between and within local communities in which individuals are enabled to develop and use to the full their capacities for creativity, service and enjoyment.

The immediate post-conflict period is of great importance so that new seeds of war are not planted and that the end of the conflict is not simply a return to the pre-war situation. Old privileges may be in eclipse, but will a new business elite, a new criminal underworld, a re- structured police and military recreate the familiar masculinist hierarchies?

Thus, as Ana Ibanez in her study of women guerrillas at the end of the El Salvador conflict writes 'If future generations are to learn from the past, memories should not be buried. It is a vital cultural process to assign to events in which one has participated a place within the evolution of history. For this to be possible, it is necessary, using the means that popular culture deems necessary to enable both victims and victimisers to discover the opportunity to repent, punish and forgive. If these steps are taken, national reconciliation is possible and the structural changes required to avoid another war can be implemented more successfully.'

Thus from this book, Cynthia Cockburns' chronological approach is a useful tool for structuring insights on women and conflict. Caroline Moser's operational framework can be especially useful in the study of pre-war periods and the power patterns which lead to war. It is also useful in post-war analysis to see how the power patterns have changed. While this operational framework is not simple to use, I think it can be of real help to those who are looking at specific geographically-based situations and who may not be as sensitive to gender based power divisions as they should be.

René Wadlow





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