Case Study
Gender-Based Violence
in Conflict
Heide Serra elaborates on gendered violence in war, as well as how women across the world are moving from harm to hope.
Heide Serra, like our other speaker focusing on gender, wants to start by saying that while today's focus will rest firmly on women and girls we still need to dispel myths that women aren't perpetrators and that men aren't victims of sexual violence. She works in an organization called AMICA and they do work mostly in East Europe and the MENA (Middle East/North Africa) region – they'll be starting a project in Ukraine in the very near future.

But first some background information:

We're seeing the highest amount of displaced persons on record – every day, according to Heide, there are 44,400 more. 50% of refugees are under the age of 18. 70% of refugees reaching Europe are men – women don't have as much access to the resources that would allow them to leave. This could be in the form of money, or social freedom or something connected with potential dependents (children, family members relying on them). Families tend to invest more in men and boys, she finds, as they are seen to be likelier to make the tough passage over. On the other hand, 80% of refugees in Lebanon are women and children – they're often held in camps near the Syrian border.

There was a German study about women refugees in the country and they documented a number of reasons why they migrate. A lot of factors affect both sexes, like danger to life, the presence of war, terror, or fear of torture. But there are gender-based ones too. For men it's often a fear of forced recruitment or death, and for women it's a combination of things: honour killings, forced abortion, marriage, widow burnings, rape, domestic violence and sexual violence as a strategic weapon of war. These are often from women coming from Syria, Afghanistan or Iran.

When international refugee law was being drafted there was a particular image of who a refugee was: a man, often a political dissident needing to flee for his thoughts. Laws were drafted to meet those needs – but violence against women tends to be more hidden and you need a different approach entirely. At a conference she attended, Heide heard an international attorney say that maybe we need different definitions of war and violence for men and women because they're experienced so differently.

There are so many nuances that can be hard to catch without careful attention – did we know, for example, that sexual violence increases during ceasefires and negotiations? What makes this even more complicated is that gender-specific forms of violence is very difficult to prove. It often takes place in the private sphere, in families and in homes. Survivors may not even know they were subjected to forms of violence, structural violence or deprived of independence, money or freedom.

Some women find it acceptable to be abused – a good man hits his wife and all that. There are also taboos connected to shame, making it difficult for people to come out with their stories because they fear stigmatization. It could even mean a threat to their lives, as they've seen in Libya. For men it's also quite hard: there are less support structures and even less recognition that rape or sexual assault can happen to them. And as hard as this is, it's even harder to document gender-specific violence in times of conflict. The amount of civilian deaths in war has increased from 5% in WWII to 90% or more today. For a child in Aleppo it can be said to be safer to walk with a gun to the front line than to stay at home. Again, many of the dangers are gender specific: men face a higher risk of being killed or recruited, and women have a higher rate of abduction and rape.

Sometimes women in particular are targeted. There was a famous case of 200 schoolgirls being abducted by Islamist terrorists, or the systematic slavery and rape of Yazidi women in the Middle East. The money generated from the industry goes on to support the terrorist cause, and women too old for sex slavery are forced to work on farms harvesting food.
Heidde's partners on the ground report that women are often excluded from decision-making when it comes to conflict and this is a problem – if you don't hear women's voices or know what threats they face, how can you expect to develop relevant measures to address their needs? It's not like there aren't strong women in civil society. In Libya, for example, women were very active during the revolution. There were prominent figures on the streets: lawyers, doctors, judges, and then over 600 women ran for office in the new government. But only 33 out of the 200 seats were filled by women in the end.

Women are still pushing for representation, but measures restricting their freedom of movement were put in place. A travel ban on women between 18-60 appeared on the basis of it being a security risk – this affected Heide's partner organization and their effectiveness. But women protested and now the age has brought down from 60 to 45, and travel's allowed if they have a male companion

Situations in conflict areas can have an impact on health and access to health services – many things are restricted. Or hospitals themselves can be attacked like they were in Benghazi. There was a women's clinic among the shelled hospitals, and it was a prominent institution not just in the city but the whole region. The only one that remained intact was the military hospital and there were many reports of harassment there by armed groups. Lack of education or access to medication can also affect maternal death and infant mortality rates.

In conflict areas girls receive almost 2.5 times less education than girls in other countries – the lack of security makes it hard to travel, and girls are often protected inside the house. That, and families are more likely to invest in men and boys as they're seen to be more able to support the family.

We see a higher rate of women being the primary breadwinner in conflict regions, but the access women have to jobs, security, money and land gets less and less. This means, more often than not, that many are at a higher risk of sexual exploitation. There can be cultural values standing in the way as well – in Kosovo, for example, it was more likely that widowed women would live with their parents or in-laws. Heide's organization would invest in helping single mothers find resources necessary to live independently. Then we can see how, in Syria, 13% of marriages before the war involved a minor – now they're over fifty percent. Families are getting more and more desperate, making them targets for men looking to marry a teenager.

Many of these marriages aren't registered with the authorities (they're illegal, even if socially acceptable) and this causes its own problems. For example there are cases where men are 'married' to them for only a few hours. Or women can't prove their marriages or legitimate children because of a lack of paperwork. There's also women's access to the legal system to think about – they need social and economic security to exercise their rights. You also need to know what rights you have. When we work in remote areas it's often we see women who don't know what they can ask for or what their rights really mean. And while the issue of a single woman suffering from violence is one thing, there are often whole cultures of impunity where women have no way to ask for protection or redress in the long term.

Even in Bosnia, the first country that guaranteed redress for female survivors of sexual assault, but this is only for those living in Bosnia-Herzegovina (and not in Republika Srpska). It was difficult to file in and be recognized as a survivor because of social stigmatization. Thousands of women were eligible, but only 800 have come forward. And of the 200 cases brought to court, only 29 have ended in a conviction. The numbers are a tad bleak.

Bosnia, along with Rwanda, was the first time the world really recognized that sexual violence was a topic for international policy making and law. It was defined as an act of violence using sexual means, sometimes coming through chains of command. These rapes were public – we've had some cases where it was committed in the center of the village and the perpetrators told them that this is what will happen when they come back. So the villagers fled. This was also to humiliate the survivor and their family – it was sometimes meant to be a message to the men. As in, you couldn't even protect your family. What kind of man can you be?

We started seeing changes around this time – tribunals in the Hague started focusing on sexual violence as a weapon of war. And then in 2000 we got the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). This was the first resolution that looked particularly at women and their experiences – it recognized that they are more than just victims.
Tangent: She also mentions that the victimization of men is also a growing concern – it's said that in Syrian prisons 50% of survivors are males.
There have been seven other UN resolutions concerning the WPS agenda passed since then, and one of the most important was 1820 in 2008, calling for the legal prosecution of perpetrators as an international crime. But implementation isn't great: in Germany the first National Plan of Action (NPA) rolled out in 2010, ten years after the fact. The second NPA was in 2016 and it still doesn't have a budget.

There's also been CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, which applies to all state and non-state actors. It's often non-state actors who perpetrate, and so Heide says this could be a tool to implement 1325. There are also the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the gradually changing international criminal codes of law. But, again, it's still hard to find evidence and witnesses strong enough to appear in court and go through processes lasting years.

These are just a few factors when we think about legal, political and official frameworks. Where they do a lot of work is on the ground, empowering female survivors of violence. AMICA, her organization, was started as a grassroots German organization rising out of a network of people wanting to respond to media reports about Bosnia and Herzegovina. They wanted to find out if the massacres, mass rapes, and strategic rapes of thousands of woman was true.

The first step was to organize humanitarian aid, collecting goods and driving into Tuzla and to the refugee camps. They asked survivors for confirmation and, unfortunately, they got it. They established the first counselling center in Tuzla, rented a house, built an interdisciplinary team and created a multi-sectoral approach for traumatized women at the time. This included legal aid, psychosocial support and addressed any lack of basic needs.

And they're still there, long after the media and initial donors moved on. They had to deal with the long-term consequences of surviving rape, and there wasn't any other option except to keep working. They founded self-help structures like clubs in Tuzla or agricultural clubs in other villages. They tried to get a sense of what phases people go through when dealing with this kind of trauma.
Since 1993 they've worked in nine countries, mostly East Europe and the MENA region, and they've been operating in Libya since 2012. Anyone could come in for any issues relating to violence, because if they advertised themselves as a sexual assault help center then women could be stigmatized for even just coming in. They had two project partners in Tripoli and Benghazi and offered counselling, English/computer classes, bookkeeping or sewing, and this allowed women from even traditional cultures to come in. Male relatives and in-laws often had to approve of their coming, and being able to say they're learning how to sew was a good first step.

Once they were in the courses the social worker (because the teachers were social workers) could tell them about other services, like social counselling, legal consultations (about inheritance rights, losing homes, rights over child education). All of which would be for free. Then there are mental health services, art therapy whatever – it depends on the region and what the needs are. The partner organizations sometimes know best, and utilizing the opportunity for intercultural knowledge is key.

Another project they have is a national helpline – it's called a social line and not a helpline, of course. Violence isn't mentioned in any of the paperwork. And this helps women in isolation who might not otherwise be able to make contact. Then there are public campaigns, media campaigns, lobbying to have apps put on iPhones before they're bought. They have drivers to help women come to the center, but the phone is typically the first point of contact. Their time in Bosnia showed the need to establish basic health services and needs, but when things start to enter the long-term (and the longer they turn out to be breadwinners) the more these women need to build up the knowledge they have. One skill suggested by local centers was to offer courses in fixing mobile phones – they'd otherwise have to give them to men, and there might sometimes be photos of them without hijab. So they build a three-week course at the center and now women are advertising their skills as repairwomen.

They also do mobile social work – think going to people's homes. This had to happen in Libya because in 2014 another civil war broke out and the center was destroyed. The team ended up working with refugees in the city in a similar way like they worked in Chechnya. They'll be doing this in Mariupol as well, which is a city close to the front line in East Ukraine. Women who live in the gray zone don't have access to services (some villages have one bus going in a week) and so they bring mobile teams of gynecologists or psychologists to the field.

There are also lobbying and advocacy campaigns – folks are trying to find sustainable pathways to peace. But, as we've always known, trying to rebuild civil society after a revolution is still a really, really big job.