The following quotes the words of a woman who lives on the outskirts of Colombia’s second largest city and who was raped by armed actors a few years earlier. and a male sexual violence survivor from northern Uganda who was raped by Ugandan government soldiers in the late 1980s. Today both are local activists who stand up for them and work closely with survivors of (conflict-related) sexual violence. This article builds on our research with conflict-affected communities in Colombia and Uganda. In Colombia, the word “victim” is widely used by civil society organizations and activists, while in Uganda “survivor” is the most preferred term used by conflict-affected communities themselves. We strive to use preferred terminology when discussing context. When we make general observations across contexts, we use “victim survivors”.
Sometimes I think about what happened to me and I cry and I say, “My God, I’m filth, I feel dirty, I feel depraved.” And they say you forget, but you never forget. Yes, the intensity decreases, but you never completely forget … And now I’m here doing this [activism] because it’s nice to fight for the people who really need it (activist in Medellín, Colombia).
Before joining it [male sexual violence survivors’] Group there was too much stigma from the community that really made us suffer and kept us silent. But since we formed this group, we now know how to better deal with it. There is still stigma around and we still suffer, and some of us even in silence, but at least we have learned to deal with it somehow (male sexual violence survivor in Gulu, northern Uganda).
At first glance, given her previous victimization and the sustained effects articulated in the statements above, her life as an activist would find her life as an activist to most observers as surprising, if not extraordinary. This is because (political) activism is uncomfortable with the prevailing perceptions of passive, traumatized, and silenced victims of sexual violence. Furthermore, the above quotes do not reflect the counter-narration of survivors who turned to activism, “leaving their victim behind” in the process. This is because the lived experiences of victims of conflict-related sexual violence survivors seldom fit exactly into a single box or act either Victim or Agent.
In this article, we examine the complex interfaces of victim and choice among survivors of conflict-related sexual violence to move beyond simplified and often harmful dichotomies. In doing so, we draw on our respective field research experience from Colombia in Uganda. In Colombia, Kreft carried out four-month research in 2017 and 2018, including 31 interviews with representatives of civil society activists. Schulz conducted research in Uganda over a period of 9 months between 2015 and 2018 in close collaboration with the Refugee Law Project (RLP) and on the basis of a relational and care-based research approach. Based on this research, we propose that a more nuanced understanding of the complex relationships between victims and freedom of choice is critical to better understanding and supporting activism by survivors of victims in conflict-affected environments.
For more than twenty years, the WPS architecture (Women, Peace and Security) has been the most important instrument worldwide for combating conflict-related sexual violence and for strengthening the socio-political freedom of decision of women in conflict situations. The founding United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 signified the growing recognition that war is inherently gender-specific. In recent years, global awareness of conflict-related sexual violence had increased significantly after civilians were systematically raped in the wars in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Conflict-related sexual violence has since become a prominent issue – if not the prominent – WPS problem.
But as often happens when a phenomenon, especially one as violent and stigmatized as sexual violence, becomes the subject of often sensational reporting, there are many simplified and essential narratives. Those affected by conflict-related sexual violence are typically portrayed as “voiceless victims”, leading to a “disempowering narrative of silenced, isolated and completely marginalized survivors” who are deprived of all freedom of choice, power and control . Scientists like Roxani Krystalli viewed the tendency to dichotomize victims and freedom of choice with skepticism. However, this uncomfortable dichotomy is still anchored in the perception of victim-survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, also in the silos of protection and participation in the WPS agenda.
Sacrifice and Freedom of Choice: Problematic Assumptions and Dichotomies
This is partly because the victim-agency dichotomy is gender-specific and contrasts the victim woman who needs protection (patriarchal, white) with the agent who takes on either the role of the perpetrator or the protector. It doesn’t help that sexual violence has long been normalized as a collateral damage or prerogative of the victor in war (rule over the opponent’s wives) and at the same time stigmatized or even taboo (attracted very little attention or outrage before the 1990s). It is therefore not surprising that conflict-related sexual violence in politics and in the public sphere in particular evokes the image of women as tacit victims without power and freedom of choice.
In no way do we want to downplay the terrible crime that is conflict-related sexual violence or the many debilitating effects it has on victims. A variety of physical, psychological and social consequences have been documented, ranging from permanent injuries and disabilities to depression and suicidal intentions to social exclusion and an increase in domestic violence. These consequences are real and grave and deserve proper political responses. What we want to question, however, is the misconception that victimization of conflict-related sexual violence, however stigmatized, invariably creates passivity and voicelessness.
The ongoing activism of the Korean “comfort women” and their struggle for recognition and compensation as well as the public commitment and support of Nadia Murad are just the best known examples of the agency of victim survivors. In fact, in contexts from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Uganda to Colombia, there are associations of victims of conflict-related sexual violence. The socio-political freedom of decision of women in conflict-affected environments, as peacemakers in their communities, as civil society activists and as political heavyweights in peace negotiations is receiving increasing attention worldwide, also within the framework of the WPS.
But all too often these forms of freedom of choice are presented either as exceptions to the norm or as linear processes of transition from victim to freedom of choice. At least these narratives see women turning to activism In spite of their victimization. In the worst case, it is implicitly (and often even explicitly) assumed that female agents have overcome their victim status. Take, for example, the UN Secretary-General’s 2020 report on conflict-related sexual violence, which describes “a survivor’s extraordinary journey … from victim to activist”. The report says: “Women are powerful agents of change. They are not only victims of war, but also vectors of peace and progress. “However, such language reinforces the dichotomous and mutually exclusive view of victim and agent.
To question the dichotomy
In no way do we intend to downplay the extraordinary agency used worldwide by victims of sexual violence during the war, as highlighted in the UN Secretary-General’s report. Quite the opposite: We would like to direct the spotlight on the agency of victim-survivors in conflict situations, also in order to surpass the perception of this agency as “exceptional”. However, we strive for a differentiated approach that emphasizes the permanent interrelationship with the victim. What we want to specifically challenge is the problematic binary view of either agent or Victim. Because: Neither of the two tropes – the passive, silenced victim or the survivor of the agent who escaped the shackles of the victim – always and necessarily accurately reflects reality, as our field research with conflict-affected communities in northern Uganda and Colombia shows . Hence, our challenge to ubiquitous dichotomizations is on both a conceptual and an empirical level.
Conceptually, treating the victim inappropriately as a reversal of freedom of choice combines two very different things: exposure to harm and the (in) ability to make decisions and act. The reversal of sacrifice is the absence of sacrifice; The opposite of agency is passivity. These are two separate dimensions that cannot simply be projected onto one another in order to create misconceptions about how a victim should react to violence. In short, sacrifice and freedom of choice are not a one-dimensional dichotomy. These are two independent spectra that can and can covare in different configurations. Some victim survivors fall towards the more passive end of the spectrum, while others are very active. Of course, an individual’s ability to exercise decision-making powers is heavily influenced by structural factors such as gender or socio-economic status. Depending on the context and social environment, individuals can also move along the axis of the agency of passivity over time and, under certain circumstances and in certain spaces, express a high degree of (political) freedom of choice, while in other areas they are more passive and quieter.
Another problematic assumption that underpins the victim-agency dichotomy is the underlying gender binary representation. The juxtaposition of female victims with male perpetrators / protectors not only reduces the scope for women’s freedom of choice, but also eliminates the well-documented victimization of men in conflict-related sexual violence. While the portrayal of the passive, disempowered and silenced victim, who is deprived of their freedom of choice, appears particularly pronounced for women and girls who are victims of sexual violence, this portrayal often also applies to their male colleagues.
In the existing but limited literature on sexual violence against men during the war, the experiences of male victim-survivors are analyzed primarily with an emphasis on vulnerabilities. Among other things, it examines how sexual and gender-specific violations often affect the masculinity of male victim-survivors, described as “emasculation”. The underlying assumption is that this perceived loss of masculinity also leads to a deprivation of their freedom of choice, since the freedom of choice is viewed as a male trait. The gender binary representation of course also completely erases the experiences of people with different sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions (SOGIE) who are exposed to high levels of discrimination and violence in both war and peacetime.
Below we illustrate the various manifestations of political choice and their connections with victims, based on research we conducted with civil society activists in Colombia, some of whom are themselves victims of conflict-related sexual and other forms of violence. and with male and female survivors of conflict-related gender-based violence in northern Uganda.
Forms of political freedom of choice
The interviews in Colombia were conducted with representatives of civil society organizations of women and victims’ associations operating in the three largest cities (Bogotá, Medellín and Cali), but also in smaller urban or rural areas. Colombia has a particularly dynamic civil society sector with several nationally active women’s associations, such as Casa de la Mujer, La Red Nacional de Mujeres and Sisma Mujer. Some of these women’s organizations were founded in direct response to the armed conflict, such as La Ruta Pacífica de Las MujeresAnother example is the response to wartime violence, particularly sexual violence, against women in 1996. Another example is Iniciativa de Mujeres Colombianas por la Paz, which was founded in 2001 in response to the absence of women in the peace negotiations between the government and the FARC. The best known victims’ associations specifically for conflict-related sexual violence are Corporación Mujer Sigue Mis Pasos, Red de Mujeres Víctimas y Profesionales as well as the campaign No, Es Hora de Callar, initiated by the journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima, who was kidnapped and raped by armed actors while covering the armed conflict.
Many of the women in these organizations and associations are victims of the armed conflict that has ravaged Colombia since the 1960s, including sexual violence by armed actors. Their individual experiences and the activities of the victims’ associations are proof that victims and political freedom of choice coexist. The women’s organizations and victims’ associations document cases of conflict-related sexual violence, they offer victims of this violence psychosocial and psycho-legal support and accompany them in court proceedings, they work with children and young people to overcome harmful gender norms, and practices, they raise awareness and participate Participate in advocacy campaigns, support state institutions in capacity building, participate in legislative development and generally devote their time to changing gender inequality and improving women’s rights in Colombia.
A similar dynamic can be observed in northern Uganda, where multiple groups and associations of different conflict-affected communities exist, including those specifically for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. A prominent example is the Women’s Advocacy Network, which brings together over 900 war-torn women (and some men) to advocate justice, accountability, and recognition of gender-based abuses committed during the more than two decades-long civil war in northern Uganda. In 2014, WAN asked the Ugandan Parliament for more recognition and redress for her experience of sexual violence, and the network’s chair Evelyn Amony spoke to United Nations officials about the plight of women from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA ) were kidnapped. Rebel group and children born into the ranks of the rebels as a result of rape.
In addition, there are several groups of male and female sexual violence survivors, such as the Men of Courage Association, which is specifically composed of men sexually injured by government soldiers in northern Uganda. In this group, survivors engage in peer-to-peer support, conduct joint income generating activities, and organize mutual savings programs to support one another and create safe spaces for healing and recovery. By confronting their experiences, damage and weaknesses on their own terms, the survivors of these groups exercise different forms of freedom of choice and immediately refute the stereotypical image of the always vulnerable, passive and helpless victim of sexual violence.
These are just a few examples of how victims-survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in these very different contexts, Colombia and Uganda, deal with their experiences and thus exercise different forms of freedom of choice. Indeed, there are a multitude of different ways and forms in which the freedom of choice of victims and survivors is manifested – from formal and public spaces to more informal and everyday expressions in everyday life.
The enduring strength of the victim
Our conversations with activists and victim survivors in these two cases also show that these various forms of agency and activism do not imply in any linear fashion that the victim has been overcome. Although they are able to immerse themselves in their experiences and exercise certain forms of freedom of choice, the lived realities of the victim-survivors with whom we have worked are also characterized by persistent vulnerabilities and, at times, cycles of (re) victimization.
For example, some of the male sexual violence survivors from northern Uganda who spoke openly about their experiences were often stigmatized in their communities and sometimes even in their families. In addition, in Uganda, male rape crimes are often equated with homosexuality, which is illegal and socially unacceptable. Talking openly about human rights violations committed by the government in this current sociopolitical context therefore often means that survivors are verbally and sometimes even physically attacked and there is a risk of further antagonism.
Persistent feelings of anger, fear, frustration, or sadness were also evident in the words and behavior of the victims’ survivors in both situations. Some even articulated feelings of shame, even though they were rationally aware that they were not responsible at all for the violence that armed actors inflict on their bodies. As the Colombian victim activist quoted in the introduction to this article said, by remembering the crime of sexual violence, she continues to feel, “I’m filth, I feel dirty, I feel depraved.” Pervasive patterns of blame and stigma on victims , which are recurring topics in the interviews, leave their mark on those who are precisely aware of these harmful patterns and practices and who dedicate their lives to the challenge. As another victim activist from Colombia says: “We always wear this symbol and people say,” There go the raped women “.
It is also not easy and straightforward to get involved in civil society activism. For some activists in Colombia, the stories and pain they were exposed to on a daily basis led to depression or even prolonged withdrawal from activism. Some of the victim activists actually told stories of very low profile activism. They reported being torn between the emotional consequences and physical threats associated with this type of work – in an environment of frequent assassinations of social leaders – and a sense of obligation to other victims of conflict-related sexual violence. The interviews in Colombia sometimes evoked a sense of responsibility or purpose that was pervertedly carried by victimization.
Victimization as a driver of the agency
Indeed, we both find in our research that victimization can be a driver of political freedom of choice. Instead of mobilizing In spite of Many victim-survivors mobilize precisely because of their experience (or threat) from victims because from it and fueled by persistent weaknesses. The Colombian and Ugandan victim and survivor associations in particular are a prime example of such patterns: They are organized and directed by victims of conflict-related (sexual) violence, are composed of them and work for them. Awareness raising, mutual support and political advocacy.
In previous research, one of us (Kreft) has theorized patterns like mobilization in response to the collective threat that sexual violence in conflict poses to women – certainly supported by a global WPS framework that supports this type of mobilization against CRSV as such legitimizes war strategy. As mentioned earlier, we can observe similar mobilization patterns in self-help and survivor groups in northern Uganda, including men.
In the Colombian context in particular, the victim has become a powerful political instrument, a political category on the basis of which claims for reparation and reparation can be asserted against the state. One victim activist insisted, “You will not find – in a single moment, in a single statement, in a single place – … that [I identify] as a survivor because it’s a crime and because I have a right to justice. “In Colombia, therefore, the victim usually involves the criminal notion of having suffered unlawful harm from another – a concept that the (agent)) disregards the survival framework. In other contexts, such as Uganda, this may be perceived differently, and conflict-affected communities and individuals themselves often prefer the terminology “survivor”.
Another activist from Colombia explained the powerful power of the victim as both a political category and a mobilization factor
We emphasize … the difference between position and state. There are women who have a position as victims, who recognize and identify that they have experienced this violence, and it is from this place that they present themselves to the world. Some are activists and take an active part in this whole machinery of organizations of the victims of the conflict.
It is the victimization of sexual violence, as well as the danger of such victimization, in that she is a member of the target collective of women in this particular context that functions as the engine of political mobilization. Cross-country statistical analyzes also show that these mobilization patterns are not limited to Colombia: in conflict-affected countries where sexual violence is more pronounced, we also observe greater mobilization of civil society by women and more protest events by women.
Lessons learned and ways forward
As our reflections from Colombia and Uganda show, the connections between victim and freedom of choice are complex, strong and weak at the same time. Victimization can serve as an engine for political mobilization (although, of course, this is not the case for all or even most of the victims). Understanding the political freedom of choice of victims and survivors as a departure from the victim role, however, is an unlawful release of their ongoing pain and vulnerabilities, as well as the immense courage and energy required by their ongoing activism. In short, such representations do not do justice to the complex and multifaceted realities of the experiences of conflict-affected communities.
We must therefore rethink the relationship between victim and freedom of choice in conflict situations, and particularly in the context of sexual violence. Instead of two dichotomous categories, victimization and freedom of choice can coexist in different configurations, leading us to recognize that someone can be both a victim of violence and suffer from its consequences, while at the same time exercising political freedom. Most dominant narratives in science and politics, however, tend to take into account either the agency or a person’s victim – as the above-mentioned example of the UN Secretary-General’s report on sexual violence shows.
What we need to capture the co-constitutive forces that victimization and freedom of choice can be, we argue, is an approach that conceptualizes agency as relational – centered around people’s relationships with one another, their previous victimization, structural factors and to the contextual weaknesses that demarcate the spaces in which they exercise their freedom of choice. Such an understanding of agency – in contrast to the more individualistic understanding of agency that dominates political thinking – recognizes the intrinsic connections between different experiences and helps us to go beyond the pronounced dichotomization of victim and agency and instead recognize their fluidities and variations .
The Agenda for Women, Peace and Security (WPS) undoubtedly recognizes both the victimization of sexual violence and the representation of conflict-affected communities, especially women. We believe, however, that the WPS agenda would benefit from more explicitly recognizing the interfaces between sacrifice and freedom of choice, rather than tending to ensile the two as separate pillars. This would paint an even more holistic picture of gender dynamics and experiences of political violence and armed conflict around the globe. Indeed, recognizing the intrinsic relationships and complexities between victim and freedom of choice can bring more structured and nuanced stories about the lived realities of those affected by conflict-induced sexual violence to the fore, beyond the universalization of narratives and storylines.
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