This article was originally published on EUI Times here.
Is the world safer for women now than one hundred years ago? From trench warfare to the advent of drones, the last century has seen enormous shifts in the nature of armed conflict. The means by which humans ultimately contest power may have changed in form, but they are still founded upon a grimly basic logic of coercion.
With this in mind, Jennifer Welsh is ambivalent about how much safer women are today than their foremothers. Welsh is Professor of International Relations at the European University Institute (EUI) and a Senior Research Fellow at Somerville College, Oxford. She is organising and chairing a panel at the 2016 State of the Union on ‘Women in conflict and peace-making’.
Sexual violence against women emerges as the overarching danger faced by women and girls in armed conflict. Welsh tells EUI Times, “This type of violence has become a weapon of war in a way that didn’t exist to the same degree one hundred years ago. Today armed groups use this weapon strategically, for very particular ends.”
Welsh traces the prevailing spectre of sexual violence to specific changes in how wars are fought today. “Two facts are worthy to keep in mind during the State of the Union. First, we see over the course of the last century a dramatic decline in the incidence inter-state violence and a relative growth in the frequency of civil conflict. Indeed, the vast majority of today’s wars are civil wars. Second, the types of armed groups have evolved, as have their objectives and tactics. One particularly striking feature of contemporary conflict is the presence of non-state armed groups who prey deliberately on civilians – including upon women – as integral parts of their campaigns to spread terror.”
“While I wouldn’t want to suggest complete historical novelty, these changes are important to acknowledge. Many of today’s conflicts are also what we refer to as ‘asymmetric’: one side is materially much more powerful than the other. In this case, the weaker side resorts to non-traditional means of combat, often in contravention of the law of armed conflict. The use of indiscriminate explosive weapons, hitting a market or a school, or the raping of a civilian population – these tactics can instill fear and assist in victory. It’s not to say these crimes didn’t occur before – they did – but they come into much sharper relief in the some of the conflicts we’ve seen in the past two decades such as, for example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq or Syria. ”
Yet this kind of debate opens a sprawling can of worms. In recent years, there has been a tendency for military intervention to be justified by world leaders on the grounds of protecting women’s rights. This was evident in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as more recently in debates about how to confront the threat of ISIS.
In many ways, this tendency echoes Europe’s colonial past where colonial expansion was justified by a narrative that depicted a barbaric and misogynistic ‘Muslim world’ in contradistinction to a liberal and enlightened West. This has in turn fuelled calls to ‘civilise’ Islamic states in order to make them ‘safe’ for women, in line with Western norms. The argument goes that this so-called ‘imperial feminism’ uses a rhetorical commitment to advance women’s rights as a pretext for military intervention, which is actually driven by economic and geopolitical imperatives. Welsh demurs from this explicit critique of humanitarian intervention but concedes that there are often ulterior motives behind the progressive rhetoric expressed by Western state leaders.
“I think Afghanistan is a very good case to examine, because the justification for involvement evolved over time. At the beginning there was a very expansive version of what the Western intervention was all about. It was certainly about addressing the security threat that Al Qaida posed, given that Afghanistan was the place from where that threat arose. But there was also a more hubristic vision for what intervention could accomplish. In the midst of rooting out Al Qaida, Western leaders also promised their respective populations that they would remake Afghan society, and that success would be defined against standards of democratisation and rights promotion – including the promotion of women’s rights. Very quickly, however, as the interveners became bogged down, the more expansive justification was chipped away at and the underlying security imperative was revealed. ”
She continues, “I think it is right to ask penetrating questions about why Western countries intervene. But I’m not willing to go as far to say that the commitment to addressing grave injustices is always purely rhetorical. In the case of Afghanistan in the early years of intervention, many actors pursued – in addition to a security rationale – a genuine desire to address poverty and injustice; one can see this in the aid budgets and aid programmes of Western donors. In other cases, Western actors have argued that the injustices perpetrated against women not only infringe on political or economic rights but also constitute grave and serious violations of physical integrity that require some kind of response. When acts harm women’s physical integrity in a systematic and large-scale manner, I would be prepared to say the demand of third parties that rights be defended is not imperialistic. Whether a military response to such acts is always justified is another question.”
Looking to the 2016 State of the Union, Welsh tells EUI Times that it is an especially ‘opportune moment’ to reflect upon Europe’s successes in advancing women’s rights as well as addressing the challenges that persist. She asserts that “Europe is a great environment in which to ask how our efforts to bring about change at a formal or legal level translate into day-to-day practice.” Certainly the last few decades have seen enormous shifts in women’s representation in both Europe and beyond, as well as legal changes to enhance their social and economic opportunities.
The particular panel that Welsh is chairing aims to broaden how we think about women’s participation in conflict. “The starting premise is that we don’t want to only consider women as victims. Women have historically played many roles in the course of armed conflict – not just as victims of violence, but also as combatants, as supporters of the war effort, and as political leaders deciding upon war or peace. There are also fascinating histories about how women have participated in non-violent resistance. Today, in the new kinds of conflicts we face, women are also being recruited to play their part in the modern ‘battlefield’. On the other end of the spectrum, we want to look at the degree to which, and they ways in which, women are involved in peace-making – not just in terms of peace negotiations but also in terms of transitional justice and the rebuilding of post conflict infrastructure.”
With respect to the broader theme of the 2016 State of the Union, Welsh emphasises that Europe should not be seen as exceptional nor European women as especially privileged. “There are still very important gaps and issues which are worthy of focus, which allow us not to treat Europe as a special case but rather to understand how Europe might be more similar to other parts of the world. If we consider the persistence of sexual violence, the participation of women in senior leadership positions, or the role of women in politics, there may be less that distinguishes Europe than we might think.’’
Speaking to EUI Times, Welsh offers a poignant and trenchant reminder that securing women’s rights remains perennially difficult in a world plagued by war and conflict. The ways in which women are affected by war in the 21st century emerges as a complex and oblique picture, a shifting vision of agency and vulnerability. The message remains that the struggle to safeguard women’s rights does not begin and end on battle lines but its terrain provides an excellent locus for enquiry.
Jennifer Welsh is Professor and Chair in International Relations at the EUI and a Senior Research Fellow at Somerville College, University of Oxford.