On Thursday, March 17, the Center for the Study of Gender and Conflict was pleased to welcome Dr. Aisling Swaine of the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University for a Lunch and Learn discussion on the variations of violence against women (VAW) present in conflict-affected areas. The discussion focused on the question, “what counts as conflict-related VAW?”, Our general topic of discussion focused on exploring how International Humanitarian Law and foundations within the global justice system contain loopholes to addressing VAW in conflict or post-conflict areas. Swaine drew attention to the fact that the restrictive mandate of considering only “strategic sexual violence” as a crime against humanity is limited in addressing the less recognized, individually perpetrated violences that erupt within communities in conflict.
Dr. Swaine has an extensive academic background in the area of gender and conflict. She currently is a professor of International Affairs at George Washington University, and received her Ph.D. from the Transitional Justice Institute and her B.A. in Humanitarian Assistance at the University College of Dublin. She has experience in both practice and research at established institutions including the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice at the School of Law at NYU, and has worked in policy and research within the UN Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security agenda. She has done field research in post-conflict areas including Liberia, Timor-Leste, and Northern Ireland, and has worked alongside several NGO’s, including UN Women, in these countries. Swaine has also been appointed advisor and fellow in multiple gender and human rights associated rosters.
Swaine began her talk by reviewing her history in discovering the systemic injustices to fair representation and protection of women under international law. Drawing on Feminist Legal Theory, Swaine proposed that patriarchal foundations of international legal frameworks have neglected to recognize broader violence that women face in a conflict or post-conflict environment, and international aid organizations have only recently begun to tackle some of these issues of sexual violence at the international level. To reveal the variations of violence, Swaine asks “what forms of violence against women manifest in a context of armed conflict?” and, “what measures are the international community taking to protect these unrecognized forms?”. Drawing from a modified version of Elizabeth Wood’s variations theory, Swaine emphasizes variations of violence beyond just systematic rape that include variables of casualty for example: sexual violence as instrumental, sanctions against sexual violence, the stigmas of reporting and naming, violence as opportunity, impunity, and the availability of resources. (Wood, 2006; Swaine, 2015).
Swaine applied her approach to understanding the variations of VAW to the conflict, or as maintained by the British, “the troubles,” of Northern Ireland. During the conflict, Republican paramilitaries, fighting for separation from the United Kingdom, used their power to commit violence within the boundaries of their homes against the women of their own cause. While international law prohibits the use of systematic rape in the context of war, these public sanctions failed to identify the individual accounts and perpetrators of sexual violence within one’s own ethno-nationalist boundaries. Gang rape and domestic violence within both communities were being unreported and unrepresented, and so perpetuating the violence even further. Women were discouraged from reporting the abuses they experienced as the men were viewed as heroes within their ethnic communities.
The unfortunate circumstances that occurred as a result of the limitations of international law formed a perverse understanding of what can be referred to as “Hierarchy of Law,” where one’s experience of sexual violence can be viewed through a sort of spectrum of severity. If the international community neglects individual accounts of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) and only recognizes the restrictive umbrella-mandate of strategic sexual violence, then how are we to tackle sexual violence occurring in the everyday lives of women in conflict-affected areas? Swaine challenges the prevailing approaches used to address gender-based violence by asking, “who wins the worst violence contest?” This single question evokes a very provocative analysis of how current international laws may limit basic levels of inclusiveness of sexual assault victims questioning if they remain legitimate actors and citizens of the global community.
Swaine’s research in CRSV and VAW exposed to us the UN’s rather limited playing field in mandating international law. UN Resolutions have been set in order to better frame the discussion of sexual violence to recognizing larger violences occurring within communities in conflict. But are these resolutions useful when they must align with the agenda of the Security Council’s perception of what does and does not constitute a legitimate issue? Swaine is working to create more space within International Humanitarian Law to address and protect the needs and address the grievances of women worldwide. For my own takeaway from the discussion, I am discouraged that individuals should ever be in a position to have to prove or justify the violence done against them as good enough or legitimate to be represented in the international scope of law. Why should it matter what the violence is called?