By Nicola Henry
Much of my work to date has been centered on the reactive currents of judicial, quasi-judicial, and non-judicial mechanisms of justice, and until recently I did not specifically theorize the ways in which the “primary prevention” of violence (preventing violence before it occurs) might well be another mode of justice.
Understanding the socio-cultural determinants of violence – as a feminist project of justice – makes sense when we consider global statistics, and find that women and girls continue to be disproportionately the victims, and men the perpetrators, of sexual violence. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. Where I live in Australia, 1 in 5 Australian women compared to 1 in 22 Australian men have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, and since the age of 15, 1.5 million Australian women have experienced sexual assault, 99% of which has been perpetrated by a male.
Despite the universal “epidemic” of men’s sexual violence against women, children, and other men, recent feminist scholarship has been instrumental in challenging problematic essentialisms around victimization, such as debunking the notion that women are “inherently rape-able,” or acknowledging the differences between women from diverse socio-cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Most researchers and practitioners would agree that in addition to thinking about the intersections of disadvantage on the basis of socio-economic status, race, religion, and sexuality, gender inequality and social norms and expectations around masculinity and femininity undoubtedly play a key role in the perpetuation of sexual violence globally.
So how can feminist intersectional understandings of sexual violence in armed conflict translate into practical, on-the-ground strategies for addressing the individual, socio-cultural, and socio-structural conditions causes of sexual violence?
First and foremost, there needs to be a thorough understanding of the drivers of sexual violence. In Australia, a new “world first” shared framework called Change the Story: A Shared Framework for the Primary Prevention of Violence Against Women and their Children focuses on intimate partner violence in heterosexual relationships and non-partner sexual assault, and gender inequality and gender-based power relationships as the key causes of violence against women. Drawing on international research and practice on key (gendered) determinants and “what works” to prevent violence, this framework acknowledges that although there is no single cause, higher rates of violence against women are associated with greater rates of gender inequality where violence is encouraged, condoned, and trivialized, and where stereotypical constructions of masculinity and femininity are adhered to. Other complex social, situational, and individual factors must be considered in times of armed conflict, and it is important to avoid a “one-size-fits-all model,” yet the strong causal relationship between structural gender inequality and gender-based violence is likewise the problem that needs addressing in this context. The biggest challenge of course is how to change deeply-embedded structures, particularly in the aftermath of conflict where energies and resources are being diverted elsewhere.
Another challenge concerns avoiding cultural imperialism – the distinctions that are problematically drawn between western and non-western women and men. The recent surge of attention to the “cultural scaffolding of rape,” however, acknowledges that sexual violence is widely tolerated despite also being explicitly condemned in most (if not all) societies across the globe regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, or context. Working together transnationally and collaboratively to devise, implement, and improve culturally-specific primary prevention strategies that promote gender inequality and dismantle problematic gender norms is an important step. There have been varying degrees of success in a number of interventions in predominantly western countries, yet greater attention to the complex interplay between individual and structural causes through interventions such as respectful relationships education in schools, public awareness campaigns, and fundamental changes to representations of gender in popular culture, are a good start. Legal frameworks that are social justice- and feminist-inspired must also be implemented to respond to sexual violence in the aftermath of conflict to send a message to the community that such violence will not be tolerated.
Sexual violence – regardless of whether it’s against children in institutional care, against victims of armed conflict, or in times of peace – is an issue of national and global importance. One of the most pressing issues concerns how to prevent violence before it occurs, and how to respond adequately and effectively to violence when it does occur. Undoubtedly there are differences between contexts, perpetrators, victims, and their communities, and intersectionality can be a useful way of acknowledging and working with such differences, however, primary prevention strategies, as well as conventional and creative justice responses, can and should be a source of inspiration, or alternatively a lesson for future justice responses to sexual violence.
Dr Nicola Henry is Senior Lecturer in Legal Studies at La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia). Her research focuses on justice responses to sexual violence in international and domestic spaces. Her books include: War and rape: Law, memory and justice (Routledge, 2011);Preventing sexual violence: Interdisciplinary approaches to overcoming a rape culture, co-edited with Anastasia Powell (Palgrave, 2014); Rape justice: beyond the criminal law, co-edited with Anastasia Powell and Asher Flynn (Palgrave, 2015); and Sex, violence and justice in the digital era, co-authored with Anastasia Powell (Palgrave, forthcoming). She is Chief Investigator with Dr Anastasia Powell on an Australian Research Council project on technology-facilitated sexual violence. Henry’s full Gender & Society article can be found here.