From November 25 to 10 December was marked the 16 days of activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign with this years theme of “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the world”. This year marks the 24th year of the campaign initiated in 1991 and coordinated by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership.
The United Nation metastasized the initiative and launched under its own campaign of UNiTE to End Violence against Women (VAW) by inviting “you” to ‘Orange the World’. A colorful feel-good awareness campaign that gives the illusion of meaningful impact by simply sporting an orange garment and trending a hashtag. In Afghanistan the indolent expats and PCS (Project Civil Society) posed in photo-ops wearing orange scarf in front of their highly maintained and largely secluded gardens. The ubiquity of social media contends people to pride in orange and think they have done their part.
Perhaps they raise an awareness, but what kind of awareness and at what cost? There is nothing orange about the banality of evil that sentimentalizes gender based violence. VAW is too important of a matter to be left to be branded into another wristband cause or worse: a Kony 2012 campaign. Instead of handling such a significant epidemic at such a crucial time to slacktivism, we must have a real conversation about VAW and the ever encompassing system of patriarchy.
Violence Against Women
A conversation about VAW must begin by discussing the notion of domination that is ingrained in every society and made possible by the logic of subjugation of men over women. The key problem with VAW is its pervasiveness among women and girls aross cultures, classes and ethnicities.
The prevalence of VAW all around the world is simply staggering and yet it is largely perceived as a private matter. Hence a crime of secondary severity. This results in callous handling by authorities and victim blaming in the few incidences that are actually reported. According to UN women, nearly 35% of women worldwide have experienced intimate partner violence. Can a campaign to orange the world address the culture of impunity for those who commit VAW or only further enable to ‘conspiracy of silence’? This year them of ‘from peace in the home to peace in the world’ needs to acknowledge that it is still in the domestic ‘private’ sphere where VAW is most occuring. It is here where more light needs to be shed and a real conversation to be had.
We must move from the gender constructed arbitrary roles for men and women to an understanding of relationship between the different conditions and obstacles faced by women. Gender prescribed roles are a form of VAW. We are daily playing certain prescribed gender roles, as if we are actors in a social drama. While it can differ individually, culturally, nationally, it exists nonetheless in some form or other everywhere. These gender roles get inscribed in the cultural narrative and thus become tolerated.
Gendered division of labour exists around the world. From Global North to South, the domestic sexual division of labour has not changed significantly. Women still comprise the majority of the informal sector and their work at home is not accounted in the conventional socio-economic structures. The role assigned to women must be considered a global epidemic. It must be understood culturally, the global patterns must be tracked and a gender specific interpretation must be provided.
At the Intersection of Conflict and Gender
Violent conflicts of today are transforming into ‘total wars’. And in the modern landscape of warfare, women are often regarded a mere ‘strategy’ of war. As an afghan whose devastated country is entering the fourth decade of protracted conflict, I can see that war is a gendered activity. Although many Afghans come from a strong matrilineal and matrilocal family structures, it is dominated by the univeral patriarchal structure.
Women have multiple roles in war and the aspects are multifaceted. The undeniable fact is that war costs women differently than men. Very often, women play narrow identity roles.The role is ultimately as victims, and there are empirical evidence that predominately men are perpetrators in conflict. But it is necessary to not consider women just as victims as it takes away their agency. In some cases women are found to be perpetrators in the conflict, albeit it is an anomaly.
A particularly brutal element that is found at the intersection of gender and conflict is sexual violence. Sexual assault is the cornerstone of patriarchy and it is hyper-intensified in conflict whether in public or private. In public, women body becomes a theatre of war. A terrain of war where sexual assault, slavery, rape, abduction become not symptomatic of war but systematic strategy of war. The silence and the shame of sexual violence is very intense for women who become ostracized for having “submitted” themselves to enemy males. It is however predominantly in the domestic sphere that women are subjected to sexual violence at an alarming high rate in the midst of war.
Just as it is mainly men who wage wars, it is also men who negotiate peace. The peace process and the subsequent reconstruction very often neglects the role of women in a narrative that marginalizes women into voiceless victims. Post-conflict is conceptualized through patriarchal paradigm as it only refers to termination of ‘official’ war that is conducted by men. This ‘formal ceasefire’ does not account that often in post-conflict reconstruction, women still endure rampant insecurity. The ‘return to normalcy’ tolerates high level of violence against women, for as long as men formally put down their weapon and don’t kill each other, the conflict is over.
The central obstacle to change in practise is how institutions such as the courts and social services address VAW. The way in which emergency shelters for women operate is an example of how institutions enable VAW. Why is it that if a woman is a victim of abuse by her partner, the woman is forced to seek an emergency shelter and leave home. Why put the onus on the victim to seek shelter? Hence it is no coincidence that despite the fact that 50% of women experience some form of sexual or physical abuse, less than 10% of sexual assaults are reported to the police.
This years the focus of the VAW awareness campaign has been the relationship between militarism and the right to education. Militarism being the cornerstone of patriarchy and power, and its intersection with conflict and gender is a timely theme. The role of power is at the epicenter of militarism. Military thrives on hegemonic masculinity. Women are to serve their country not by becoming soldiers, but by keeping their purity, which is the honour of their men. This is most evident in how the mother is symbolized before and in the midst of war.
There is an urgent need to have an understanding of VAW globally, an awareness that goes beyond a 16 days orange campaign comprising of celebrities, bracelets, scarves and viral social ads. We must do away with essentialist argument that sees gender roles as inescapable and show that it is gender constructs rather than anatomical or psychological differences that have resulted in the formation of strict gender norms, and ultimately the global subjugation of women. It is absolutely critical to mainstream experience and expertise of women into the reconstruction efforts. This point is a poignant necessity in the war ravaged nation of Afghanistan. A post-conflict reconstruction efforts with a ‘return to normalcy’ must not expect women to relinquish gains made and jeopardize the gender inclusive future.
It is significant to incorporate a gender analysis into our worldview instead of feeling good about an orange event. A conversation that illuminates the often neglected national and international structures of power and institutions that breed a subtle systematic gender based socio-economic injustice.
Suhrob Ahmad tweets @ndrshb