Women’s political mobilisation linked to conflict-related sexual violence

women's political mobilisation conflict-related sexual violence
© iStock/jacoblund

A new study appears to show that sexual violence in armed conflict may spur on women’s political mobilisation and agency.

The author of the thesis, Anne-Kathrin Kreft at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, drew on four months of fieldwork in Colombia, which has been engaged in protracted internal armed conflict for more than 50 years. Colombia is considered a priority state in Swedish humanitarian aid allocation; and conflict-related sexual violence is widespread, peaking in 2003, when 2,500 rapes were reported.

Sexual violence has previously academically been considered a hindrance to women’s participation in public life, as it spreads fear and causes long-lasting physical and emotional trauma. Kreft’s research, however, found that the prevalence of sexual violence in Colombia – committed by the country’s military, paramilitary groups and rebels – had triggered increases in women’s political mobilisation, with the founding of a number of survivor support groups and women’s rights bodies.

Kreft said: “The findings are encouraging for Sweden’s feminist foreign policy, which emphasizes gender-sensitive approaches to armed conflict and women’s empowerment. My analyses reveal that women mobilize in civil society at higher levels during conflicts with widespread sexual violence compared to conflicts with no or few reports of sexual violence. The activists saw sexual violence perpetrated by armed actors as deeply gendered. For them, sexual violence is closely linked to, and an expression of, patriarchal norms that devalue, oppress and disadvantage women in society. This is why they are convinced that wide-ranging transformations in gender norms and relations are necessary to make Colombia safer for women, including from conflict-related sexual violence.”

33 activists from 24 women’s advocacy and support groups around Colombia, several of which received support from the Swedish government, were interviewed for the thesis. A number of the groups had been established specifically as a result of conflict-related sexual violence, while others had taken the issue on as a pressing priority.

Kreft added: “Reflecting the gendered threat sexual violence poses, much of the civil society activism also extends to a broader fight for women’s rights and gender equality.”

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