Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War? Perceptions, Prescriptions, Problems in the Congo and Beyond

Book Review

Reviewer: Katerina Krulisova

Publisher: Zed Books, 2013 ISBN: 978-1780321639
Available at: Amazon<
Author's page: Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern

Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War? Perceptions, Prescriptions, Problems in the Congo and Beyond

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The academic and political recognition of sexual violence as a weapon of war undoubtedly marks a historical success of the activism of the feminist movement, widely defined. Sexual violence during armed conflicts represents an acute, and serious, global security problem that requires a coordinated policy action—such action, however, is only possible via prior recognition of the phenomenon as a threat and the subsequent securitisation of it. By moving from the unproblematic side-lining of rape as an unfortunate by-product of war to granting it a spotlight in the news and international organisations’ reports as well as top social science journals, however, an unproblematic and, more importantly, unquestioned, hegemonic narrative of rape as a weapon of war was successfully created. This dominant understanding, despite its progressive appeal, inevitably constrains the boundaries of understanding of the issue and may lead to the further production and reproduction of gendered violence.

In their truly eye-opening book, Eriksson Baaz and Stern deconstruct the dominant discourse on rape as a weapon of war to reveal its limitations and they test their theoretical presumptions on the infamous case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), often nicknamed as the rape capital of the world. 

Starting by contrasting the ‘Sexed’ and ‘Gendered’ stories – the dominant understandings of incentives to rape, the authors highlight the well-known sexgender paradox of feminist scholarship – showing how the theory produces the women/men which it later claims to represent. In the case of the Congo, rape and rapists are at the same rendered as exceptional through racialised narrative, and subsequently normalised by gendered militarisation narrative. Since gender became a measurement of modernity and rapists are understood as gendered in a wrong – militarised - way, they need to be cast as non-human or bestial. If they were human, then all the (male) humans would are potential rapists, which is a rather unsettling thought. 

The nodal point of the hegemonic discourse – the assumed ‘strategicness’ of sexual violence – implies the possibility of change. Rendering rape as a weapon of choice or conscious strategy rationalises the intention of the rapists and implies accountability, therefore making the action preventable and offering a hope for a better future. By offering a possible liberal progressive solution, the discourse becomes normatively attractive for policy-makers and academics alike, driving any biological impulses firmly out of the reasoned intentions. The notion that militaries may not always be embodiments of order and control problematises the notion of strategicness together with acknowledgement of the sociological research on forward panic and spirals of violence and influence of those upon the combatants. 

Rape and sexual violence clearly overshadow other conflict-related violence when it comes to reporting as sexual violence becomes a buzzword for journalists, which leads to the commercialisation of rape and feeding into the colonised story of evolutionary development. This, in practice, leads to trivialising other forms of violence, and possibly encourages victims to represent themselves as victims of rape to be eligible for critical funding. 

Eriksson Baaz and Stern’s critical analysis of the dominant discourse clearly identifies the exclusions and ethical dilemmas of the unproblematic reading of rape as a weapon of war when it comes to the case of the Congo, and forces its readers to leave the comfort of the rationally Westernised picturing of the unmodernised colonial beasts engaging in barbaric sexual violence as a part of savage warfare tactics. The book represents a brave disruption of the hegemonic discourse and may encourage a more nuanced and conflict-specific research into the global problem of wartime sexual violence, which will inevitably lead to more effective policies aimed at combating sexual violence.

2019 - Volume 13 Issue 3