First posted June 13, 2014

This week has seen a flurry of activity around an issue that for far too long has been forgotten, silenced or viewed as an inevitable consequence of war: sexual violence in conflict.

London has been the centre of activity, where hundreds of politicians, activists, researchers, campaigners, care providers and, most importantly, survivors of sexual violence gathered for the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict conference.

All of this is extremely important – but in the rush to ‘do something’ about the horrific crimes being committed in Syria, Central African Republic, Nigeria, and other conflict zones, we should not forget some basic premises.

These may seem self-evident, but are often not addressed when discussing sexual violence in conflict: sexual violence needs to be seen in the broader context of violently unequal power positions; sexual violence does not only occur in conflict or only in societies affected by violent conflict.

Furthermore, we in the ‘Global North’ often play a major direct and indirect role, either by our actions or inaction, in perpetuating the situations which can lead to violence.

The painful truth that most perpetrators of these monstrous acts are in fact not monsters, but otherwise ‘normal’ members of society, products of gender norms and expectations which we all play a role in constructing.

First, while it is extremely important to highlight sexual violence against women, men, boys, girls and gender minorities in violent conflict, shining the light on one issue always risks leaving other issues in the dark. In focusing on sexual violence in violent conflict, we should not forget that it usually occurs in the context of other violence: of murder, mutilation, torture, arson, forced displacement, exclusion and other forms of direct and structural violence.

These forms of violence are embedded in broader systems of oppression and exploitation. We must not fall into the trap of advocating merely for a more ‘sanitised’ version of war that continues to be horrifically violent – just minus the sexual violence.

Second, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of seeing sexual violence as only happening in war zones. In war as in peace, intimate partner violence continues, and the perpetrators of sexual violence are not only militias, militaries and guerrillas, but spouses, partners, neighbours and family members.

A recent, disturbing EU report on gender-based violence speaks volumes in this respect, as do misogynist crimes committed by the likes of Elliot Rodgers.

According to An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales, published in 2013 by the UK Ministry of Justice, Office for National Statistics and Home Office (ONS):

• Approximately 85,000 women are raped on average in England and Wales every year; • Over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year; • One in five women (aged 16 – 59) has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16.

According to the ONS, around a tenth of reported cases of sexual violence were against men and boys – though it must be noted that under-reporting may be even more of an issue here than in the case of women and girls.

Sexual violence is an issue we need to address here as well, and across the European Union, austerity measures have severely hit funding for projects on sexual and domestic violence, with UK shelters reporting that they have had to turn survivors back.

While the concern for sexual violence ‘out there’ is necessary, it rings hollow when simultaneously funding is cut for programmes and shelters of domestic and sexual violence at home.

These two points bring us to the third one: what role do we collectively as the Global North – our governments, banks, private sector companies, media, religious institutions, and NGOs – play in perpetuating the dynamics in which sexual violence occurs in conflict? What is our direct and indirect culpability?

This questioning in no way reduces the culpability of the perpetrators, but rather widens the net and raises necessary, uncomfortable and complex questions. We continue to sell weapons to states and non-state actors in conflict zones; we consume minerals and resources from these zones and we continue to give political and financial support to state and non-state actors without demanding an end to impunity – unless it is politically expedient for us.

Which brings us lastly to the perpetrators: although their crimes are horrific, we need to overcome the facile temptations of seeing them merely as demons, monsters or barbarians. More often than not, they and the people backing them are ‘regular’ people, not maniacs or sociopaths – and that is the truly unsettling issue.

Sometimes, it can also be difficult to draw the lines between perpetrators and victims: where does a son stand who is forced at gun point to rape his father, mother or sister?

Let us be clear, though, that understanding the dynamics does in no way mean condoning the deeds or lessening the perpetrators culpability. But labelling them simply as ‘deviant monsters’ is the easy way out, for it does not force us to look long and hard in the mirror as individuals and as societies and ask ourselves: what it is about our values and our actions and inactions that abets such crimes? All of these issues are on the table in London, and though the impact of a single conference should not be exaggerated, it is already a milestone that sexual violence is being debated at this level. However, no-one is served by an over-simplification of the issues. The issue is far too serious for that.

We, as being directly or indirectly part of the systems that have allowed sexual violence to occur, owe it to the survivors to engage with these uncomfortable questions.

Henri Myrttinen is Senior researcher on gender issues for the peacebuilding organisation International Alert

A new report by International Alert aims to give a more nuanced understanding of the links between gender and peace. You can read the report here.