The Intersection of Gender, Power and Violence in Armed Conflict.

On the 30th October 2014, soldiers of the Sudanese army searched houses, severely beat residents and raped women and girls in the Sudanese town of Tabit in a series of attacks over a 36-hour period. According to one report, over 200 cases were credibly reported, with two soldiers stating, “that superior officers had ordered them to ‘rape women’”. Why did military officers order the rape of civilians? Because they were believed to be “rebel supporters”. This case provides an example of how sexual violence in armed conflict can be chosen as a specific tactic. As will be explored in this blog post, what makes this tactic feasible or effective in the eyes of the perpetrator is the underlying gendered hierarchies that rely on essentialist identities and marginalises femininity. 

Rape as a “weapon of war” was brought to international attention predominantly after the mass use of rape in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war and the 1994 Rwandan genocide with international bodies, such as the United Nations, taking steps to tackle it. For example, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, enacted in 2000, called for all parties within an armed conflict “to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape”. However, feminist research since has shown that while rape is a gendered insecurity in war that does target predominantly women, this does not encapsulate its full gendering dynamics nor the gendered assumptions behind it.

Sexual violence in conflict holds a range of purposes and aims. One such purpose relies on the gendered assumption of the masculine ‘warrior’ and ‘protector’ identity. Rape can serve a communicative purpose in the form of humiliation by targeting this gendered identity as it ‘feminizes’ the enemy by reducing them to ineffective protectors of their communities and thus undermines the cultural and social fabric of their society. Cynthia Enloe highlights how militarized rape is used by states occupied with the sweeping threat of ‘national security’ as a form of repression. This use of militarized rape is evident in the case of Sudan, as the state relied on gendered assumptions by exerting its masculine dominance and authority against a village perceived to be supporting their enemy, thus undermining the rebel group’s authority, targeting their masculinities and ‘feminizing’ them.

Therefore, in relation sexual violence in conflict relies on the gendered assumptions of the feminine ‘victim’ identity as women and girls become the ‘protected’.  Laura Sjoberg describes sexual violence and rape as a tactic of warfare that serves an explicitly gendered purpose by targeting the foundations of a community through women who are utilised as “centres of gravity” for their communities. This holds significant implications as it positions female bodies in relation to their society, as it is not only the individual victim that is the target but through them the wider community, ethnic group or nationality. Female bodies become weaponized. In the case study of Tabit, it is the power positionings of women as symbols of their societies that makes them effective targets to those seeking to undermine the wider group through their gendered foundations and it is therefore through them that responsively the group’s masculinities are targeted.

It should also be mentioned that the majority of Tabit, the village targeted, belong to the Fur ethnic group, a minority group in Sudan who have been previously targeted by militias, such as the notorious Janjaweed, supported by the Arab-dominated government. Women were targeted because of their identity as not only women, but minority women, and therefore in these armed conflicts there is an intersection here of not only gendered power hierarchies but also ethnic power hierarchies. 

The case of rape in Sudan provides evidence that through the use of sexual violence power and gender intersect as a tactic that specifically targets an enemy’s masculinities undermining the gendered identity of the male ‘protector’ while subjugating them through the process of feminization. This tactic relies on notions of gendered subordination and is only made feasible because of the gendered positionings of women that locates them as the ‘protected’, in relation to their communities and therefore viable targets. Therefore, the explicitly gendered use of violence in armed conflict reflects and reaffirms the patriarchal system of power that subjugates femininity and valorises masculinity. Significantly, the example of Tabit is but one of many examples of the continued use of tactical rape in conflict. It is important for the full gendered dynamics behind sexual violence and the tactical nature in which it is adopted to be fully explored in order to effectively tackle it.

Author Bio:

Anna Grant-Jones is undertaking an MA in Violence, Terrorism and Security at Queen’s University Belfast. She is currently working on her dissertation focusing on gendered narratives and media conceptualisations of female terrorists. 

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