A warning against desirable facts about women in peace and conflict

Oversimplified perceptions of gender roles in war and conflict reproduce gender stereotypes and existing inequalities, according to researcher Maria Eriksson Baaz.
If the international development aid is based on desirable facts rather than actual facts, a lot can go wrong, says gender researcher. Illustration photo: iStockphoto.

Rape is used as a strategic weapon during war. This has eventually become a truth. But is it really the case everywhere, always? 

At the conference A gender perspective on demography and conflicts, packed with researchers, policy makers, politicians, and global development professionals, Maria Eriksson Baaz addressed some of the persistent myths dominating the aid and development field.

Eriksson Baaz is professor at the School of Global Studies at University of Gothenburg, and has done research within the field for many years.  

Objective knowledge is a myth

She doesn’t want to talk about alternative facts; rather, she wants to talk about what she refers to as desirable facts.

­­­ “There is no such thing as objective, neutral knowledge,” she says from the podium.

Political agendas can affect research results, and research on women, peace, and security is no exception. She goes on to point out four “facts” that have gained foothold in this area, and offers her explanation to why they have become so well established. She then looks at what research says about these very facts.

Number one is strategic use of rape as a weapon during war.

“We want the theory about rape as a weapon to be true,” says Eriksson Baaz. And when saying “we”, she’s referring to those who are developing international aid policies and strive towards a better situation for women in war and conflict zones.

­­­ “There is no such thing as objective, neutral knowledge”

“If it is true that rape is used as a weapon we should also be able to avoid it by regulating rape in the same way as we regulate the use of other weapons.”

This knowledge was established after the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. Prior to this, rape did not get the same kind of attention, but was considered a sad, brutal, and unavoidable part of war. The state of emergency brought about by war allowed men to be men – and to rape the enemy’s women.

The second established fact is that sexual violence in war situations may be explained by the lack of gender equality in peace time.

“We also want this to be true, because if what happens during peace time is important in order to avoid sexual violence in times of war, it becomes important to spend aid resources on equality work, also during times of peace.”

See also: Using the body as a weapon

Women as natural peace- keepers

A third fact observed by Eriksson Baaz is that more women in the military and peace keeping forces reduce violence and increase efficiency.

Maria Eriksson Baaz is professor of Global Studies at University of Gothenburg. Photo: GU..

“We seem to think that women have a civilising effect on their male colleagues. Furthermore, we think that female soldiers can approach the female part of the civilian population more easily than men,” she says.

“We want to believe this because it is a good argument for increasing women’s participation on these arenas.”

The same argument applies to peace processes. We presume that peace treaties are better and last longer if women are involved in the negotiations.

Finally, Eriksson Baaz points to the most clearly established fact: that civilian women and children are the main victims of war.

“We want to believe this because we want to display women’s suffering, which has been ignored for a long time. The history of war has revolved around men, and by emphasising women’s suffering women get recognition for what they have been through.” 

Research does not always tell us what we want

What does research tell us about these four issues? Maria Eriksson Baaz emphasises that research neither confirms them as absolute truths nor fully rejects them.

“Research gives a much more mixed and nuanced picture. Sometimes it shows the opposite of the desirable facts, whereas other times it gives us what we want.”

Generally, research on the field demonstrates how important it is to understand the context. Whether our presumptions concerning women are correct or not depends on which conflict, war, or post conflict situation we’re talking about. We’re seeing more and more research on women, peace, and security, but this also means that the gap between policy and research is getting bigger, according to Eriksson Baaz.

We presume that peace treaties are better and last longer if women are involved in the negotiations.

The gap between policy and research is particularly big when it comes to the issue of sexual violence in wartime. Research has shown that even though rape is common during war, it is not ordered on a large scale basis. Rather, sexual violence during war tends to be tolerated when it occurs, but that does not mean that soldiers are commanded to rape civilians as part of an intentional strategy. 

Here, too, the context is important. Research has shown that sexual violence was used as part of a war strategy in ex-Yugoslavia. In other places, there have been chaotic situations during which sexual violence have occurred, but they weren’t sanctioned.  

Women stereotyped as passive and peaceful

Eriksson Baaz believes that the desired explanations may be counterproductive. When such theories are established as facts, they may contribute to the reproduction of stereotypical representations of gender, but they may also reinforce female oppression and gender inequality. 

Desirable facts also shape research. Many researchers in the area, like Eriksson Baaz herself, support the Women, Peace and Security agenda and also feel the pressure to deliver desirable facts. As such, there is an added risk that researchers are not critical enough when analyzing the data they collect. 

“For instance, it may be an easy option for the soldier to claim that a rape was ordered. In this way they might avoid being condemned for the assault, by blaming the commander. This is a pattern we can see in the Congo recent years”.

“If this is what we want to hear as researchers, it is easy to accept such testimonies at face value, and refrain from doing a more in-depth analysis”. 

When it comes to the idea of women as a civilising factor in peacekeeping forces, research shows that whether women’s participation has the desirable effect depends on how the military is organised. In addition, ideology may be significant. In this case, too, the effect may be the opposite of what is expected. Eriksen Baaz points to the civilian population’s attitude to the military as a factor. Sometimes a uniform is more significant than gender.

“We saw the opposite effect in Congo – the civilian population feared the female soldiers more than the male.”

See also: Unwise argumentation for women peacekeepers?

Men are also victims of war

The fact that children and women are the main victims of war is also debatable.

“There is no doubt that civilian men are more exposed to murder and forced recruitment than women.”

On the other hand, women are more exposed to long-term suffering and sexual violence.

One issue that has received relatively little attention from politicians and decision makers is sexual violence towards men. Eriksson Baaz refers to a study from the civil war in Uganda, which shows that as much as thirty per cent of the victims of sexual violence were men

Sometimes a uniform is more significant than gender.

Other researchers at the conferences agree.

Kristin Bergtora Sandvik, research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and professor at the Univeristy of Oslo, is studying the situation in Colombia. She acknowledges that we know too little about sexual violence against men during war, but what we do know is that ninety per cent of the dead bodies found in Colombia are male. She calls for a strong research programme that focuses on men.  

“Men also have gender, how about a men’s research programme?”

Feminine bias?

Why has it come to this? Eriksson Baaz wonders whether it might be because the development and aid field wants certain facts, and thus ignores research. She doesn’t believe that this is the main reason, but we have to acknowledge that it happens. In addition, the researchers are partly responsible, as they are part of and want to contribute to the agenda. 

Women’s lives are primarily studied by female researchers. This is also the case when it comes to the field women, peace, and security. Most research focus on and attend to women’s voices, meaning that we hear one side of the story. 

According to Eriksson Baaz, this may result in a feminine bias in the research. Research results are affected by who we listen to and how critical the researchers are to what they’re told.

There is no doubt that civilian men are more exposed to murder and forced recruitment than women.

As regards the issue of ordered sexual violence, for instance, it is decisive whether the researcher asks the female victims or the male offenders

Risky business

According to Eriksson Baaz, the international aid policy is more vulnerable to desirable facts than research. Research practices peer reviewing, which works as a filter to secure personal wishes and tendencies from governing the research results.

“Yet, the pressure to deliver desirable facts is also felt among the research community and is a cause of concern.” 

If the international development aid is based on desirable facts rather than actual facts, a lot can go wrong. Both Eriksson Baaz and all the research projects presented at the conference emphasised the importance of understanding the context before intervening with aid efforts. They are worried that oversimplified perceptions of gender roles may compromise the idea of women’s integrity and women’s rights. 

Assuming that women’s participation in military forces or in peace processes will reduce violence and increase efficiency imposes an impossible – an unwanted – responsibility on women as natural peacemakers. Moreover, oversimplified perceptions of gender roles in war and conflict, such as who are the passive victims and the active offenders, contribute to a reproduction of gender stereotypes and a consolidation of already existing inequalities.

Maria Eriksson Baaz argues that we do not need to worry, since research does not necessarily undermine “what we want” even when it doesn’t say exactly what we want to hear.  

According to her, women’s rights is a better argument and a better guideline in the work for women, peace, and security, no matter what.

Translated by Cathinka Dahl Hambro.

A gender perspective on demography and conflicts

Maria Eriksson Baaz gave the presentation “Gender and conflict: dominant stories and uncomfortable questions” at the conference A gender perspective on demography and conflicts 27.04.2017. 

The conference also presented research results and policy recommendations from the Research Council of Norway’s NORGLOBAL research programmes ECONPOP and GENDER-EQ

Project presentations GENDER-EQ - Women and Gender Equality

Kilden genderresearch.no has, on commission from the Research Council of Norway, produced project presentations and a summary of policy recommendations from eleven research projects within the programme GENDER-EQ - Women and Gender Equality.

All presentations may be found at NORGLOBAL’s website.

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