16 Days Campaign Theme series: Peace or war, what difference does it make?, by Kirthi Gita Jayakumar

Kirthi Gita Jayakumar

Peace or war, what difference does it make?

That gender-violence is a weapon of war, and common on every warfront is a fact. But what is obscure, and perhaps little considered, is that it is as rooted in peacetime as it is in wartime. The thin red line separating the two does not exist: gender violence is ubiquitous, existing in a “continuum” of sorts, between peacetime and wartime. In both situations, the occurrence of gender-violence is significant of the dominance and aggression that men assert over women, and of the fact that the bodies of women are focal points for aggressive discrimination based on sex. Where the difference lies, however, is in the proportion. In peacetime, bodies remain ‘individual’, as scattered or episodic instances of violence take place. In wartime, the scale and proportion extends beyond this limit, where bodies become ‘social bodies’, with the number of events taking place tolling much higher.

Wartime gender discrimination and violence is proof of a prevalent undercurrent of socio-cultural dynamics that speak of gender discrimination in peacetime. This is precisely the reason for the effectiveness of gender violence in war. If there were no prevalent concepts in peacetime of honour, shame, sexuality, sacredness of virginity and modesty, gender violence cannot function so effectively in war.

The surrounding element of cultural salience in peacetime surrounding a woman’s honour is a reflection of the connotations that sexuality has in peacetime. The dynamics of male dominance stem from the notions surrounding the protection of female honour, which in turn, is inherent in many traditional cultures. Most countries that have remained thriving hotbeds of impunity with gender-violence in wartime are those that are peppered with a sanctimonious perception of women as sex objects in peacetime. By “sex objects”, the connotation intends to convey that women are representatives of the code of honour of their families and the code of honour of their blood and lineage. This in turn leads to the augmented sanctity attached to the virginity, chastity, honour and virtue of a woman. Women themselves are brought up with the preconditioning that their honour and shame are non-negotiable elements for their acceptance in society. A woman is deemed the representation of the honour of the three-tiered hierarchy that commands her life: her husband, her family, and the community or province she represents.

Given the importance of and emphasis upon a woman’s chastity, monogamy and fertility in peacetime, it is understandable why women become the critical targets of enemy combatants in a state of war. An act of violence against women is a means for combatants to show their control over the “sexual property” in a conflict.

Sexual violence in peacetime is often construed as crimes against the individual – while in war the very same offences gain greater magnitude. The continued subsistence of a culture of silence in peacetime is a springboard for the unhindered occurrence of violence against women in war. In effect, therefore, bodies don’t turn battlegrounds, but remain. The lack of peace at home and at the grassroots snowballs into the lack of peace in the nation, and the lack of peace across the world.

Kirthi Jayakumar is a lawyer (International Law & Human Rights). (The only link is: www.kirthijayakumar.blogspot.com)