Violence against women in armed conflicts

Violence against women in armed conflicts


by Graziella Romeo (Department of Legal Studies)

Legal feminism has taught us to reflect on how we conceptualize the political subject, that is, how we think of the individual as the hero of the public sphere. Who is the ideal subject claiming rights and making political decisions? Philosophical reflection on the forms of organization of the political has taken place through the identification of the universal male subject, who builds the nation, the state and its functioning mechanisms. Women, on the other hand, have long been "de-politicized" or considered essentially irrelevant in the places and moments of exercise of sovereign decision-making. The processes of democratization and the extension of suffrage have brought women back into the political community, albeit progressively and not without the help of corrective mechanisms of representation, such as the so-called "gender quotas". Yet, the constitution of women as political subjects, i.e. as figures who occupy, contribute, use, obtain visibility and recognition in society is a phenomenon still underway. The cruel repression of political protests, led by women, in Iran is the latest example of such a struggle.

It is not difficult to understand, then, how this depoliticization weighs particularly heavily during armed conflicts, as demonstrated by the historical and legal reality of women victims of sexual violence in wartime. Judicial cases of sexual violence during armed conflicts have made it abundantly clear that rape constitutes a weapon of war, employed to degrade and subordinate women, punish those who are politically active and, through their bodies, humiliate the enemy. 

In recent years, international human rights law has recognized a right to compensation for women who have suffered sexual violence during an armed conflict. In 2019, the Committee against Torture, which oversees compliance with the UN Convention of the same name, concluded that Bosnia and Herzegovina violated Articles 1 (prohibition of torture) and 14 (right to compensation for harm) of the Convention for failing to compensate the biological and moral damage of the victim of an incident of sexual violence, by a member of the occupying army, during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The Committee argues that rape constitutes a form of torture and, in the particular context of war, an episode of discrimination on the basis of gender because women are intentionally identified as victims with the specific intent to humiliate them and reduce their sphere of self-determination, including political determination. The decision comes more than twenty years after the facts contested by the plaintiff and after the Constitutional Court of the Bosnian Republic had excluded the possibility of compensation for moral, biological and existential damage due to the prescription of the crime.

This decision reflects a fact: the still modest awareness of some national courts about the existence of a gender dimension in the episodes of violence that characterize armed conflicts. The risk is to consider rape as a marginal and inevitable effect of hostilities and not as the manifestation of discriminatory and oppressive intent against women. International human rights law has, from this point of view, a lot to do.

There is no more opportune moment than the present to reflect on the importance of denouncing, prosecuting and compensating for sexual violence in wartime. We are reminded of this by the current conflict in Ukraine. Reports of rape are widely described in the international press. Already on March 4 2022, the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women released a statement regarding the urgency of creating mechanisms for the protection and inclusion of women as part of humanitarian crisis response strategies. The time to restore the centrality of women in the socio-political sphere is now.

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