March 6, 2012

Studying rape as a weapon of war

Scholars examined the violent acts committed against women in times of war during a symposium entitled “Understanding Sexual Violence in Conflict” Thursday and Friday last week.

Elisabeth Wood, a professor of Political Science at Yale University and at the Santa Fe Institute, explored why armed groups choose to engage in wartime sexual violence in certain situations in the symposium’s keynote address on Thursday. She contrasted the behavior of combatants in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, who seldom engage in sexual violence, with that of the Bosnian-Serb forces who raped approximately 20,000 women during the Bosnian war in the 1990s.

“Variation matters. Indirectly, it matters, because if we want to try to intervene, we had better try to understand why it goes on in some cases and not others,” she said. “Directly, it matters, because it would imply that rape is not an inevitable aspect of war.”

The differences in the form, frequency, and victims of sexual violence cannot be easily explained, according to Wood. One common misconception is the notion that given the opportunity, men will rape, Wood said.

“This [misconception] is a common thread in early literature on this subject. It’s a deeply insidious assumption, and we know that it’s false,” she said. “The mere fact of opportunity doesn’t even explain the variation we observe.”

Friday’s presentations were more area-specific.

Jocelyn Kelly, Director of the Women in War Program of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative spoke on “Gendered Dimensions of Conflict” of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

“[Rape in DRC] is this huge, omnipresent threat,” she said. “Sexual violence changes the perceived value of women. It is [even] deeply linked to the economies of entire communities.”

The symposium’s goal was to increase the general understanding of sexual violence, according to second-year political science graduate student Amanda Blair, one of the organizers of the event.

“I think the overarching theme is to understanding the nuances of sexual violence,” she said. “We need to understand what gets men to that point and, what’s more, that men aren’t the only perpetrators.”

This symposium was a part of the Sawyer Seminar International Women’s Human Rights: Paradigms, Paradoxes, and Possibilities and is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.