Victims taking agency
We tend to think of victims in general and of victims of sexual violence in particular, as passive, as receivers of aid and support. Rarely do we recognize them as resilient persons who take agency and deliberate action and call for action.
Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Both symbolize the fight against sexual violence in armed conflicts, yet in two distinct ways.
Dr. Mukwege and his staff at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu (South Kivu, DR Congo) have assisted thousands of victims of sexual and gender-based violence for almost two decades now. These services have been invaluable for victims to heal physically and psychologically. Nevertheless, once victims return to their families and communities they often face the social consequences of wartime rape. They are stigmatized, socially excluded and expected to remain silent about their ordeal because rape victims are often perceived as spoiled and can thereby damage the honor of a family.
Nadia Murad never lived in the eastern DRC, but the social norms including blame and stigma she faced after fleeing her perpetrators after months as a sex slave, were similarly oppressing. Despite the social constraints, Nadia Murad choose to speak out, not only for herself but also for others. She did not bow to but challenged the social norms and codes that discourage an open dialogue about the ills of sexual and gender-based violence and gender inequality more generally. Ms. Murad’s message is important because it challenges our views about victims.
We tend to have certain stereotypical clichés in mind. We tend to think of victims in general and of victims of sexual violence in particular, as passive, as receivers of aid and support. Rarely do we recognize them as resilient persons who take agency and deliberate action and call for action.
While this behavior makes Ms. Murad’s so exceptional (and the reason why she received the NPP), a number of recent studies have shown that victims of sexual violence as well as their families in conflict contexts, are far more resilient and socially active than previously acknowledged. For instance, Annan et al. (2011) found that women who were abducted and raped by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda were well integrated into their families upon their return. Similarly, Koos (2018) has found that victims and households affected by wartime sexual violence showed more prosocial behavior in their community than unexposed households, potentially to avert social stigma.
That being said, the fight against sexual violence as a weapon of war is an important cause and deserves global attention, but we need to take into account that most perpetrators (even in civil wars) are civilians, not soldiers. Intimate partners, relatives, friends and people with a certain degree of authority are the main perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence both in civil wars and in peacetime, in developing as well as industrialized countries. Hence, sexual violence is a manifestation of an ultimate cause: misogyny. Political, social and academic attention must turn to questions that help us understand and eventually alter the conditions that contribute to misogyny in the first place.