Tag Archives: sexual violence

I’ve gone back and forth on the use of the term ‘victim‘ v. ‘survivor‘ when describing people who have experienced sexual violence. It’s a comparable issue when writing about people who have experienced human rights violations, but it’s in discussions around women’s rights and sexual assault that I’ve seen more thinking around the terms we use.

My own diction has been determined by the nature of the work I’m doing: generally my research that examined occurrence and motivations behind  sexual violence focused on victimhood, whereas previous work I’ve done as a counselor and advocate (supporting women directly in aftermath) focused on resilience.

But the choice between these two terms has left me dissatisfied, namely because it oscillates between two notions that are simultaneously present in sexual violence.

Broadly speaking, feminist discourse has tended towards using ‘survivor’ as default. Kate Ravenscroft employs the hybrid term ‘victim/survivor‘, explaining that it is necessary to retain ‘victim’ as part of the label because both are connected to people’s experiences. She writes:

Much writing about sexual assault focusses on telling those of use who have been affected by it that we needn’t be a victim. That instead, we can be a survivor or perhaps even a ‘thriver’. That we can overcome what has happened to us simply by choice, or willpower or some special combination of actions and decisions. While I see what this sort of work is trying to achieve, and appreciate its intention, I cannot either agree with it or abide by it. We are victims. Sexual assault happens to you, hatefully and deliberately. It is inflicted upon you by someone who knew very well what they were doing, who understood only too well that they were harming another human being in the pursuit of their own satisfaction. What more literal experience of victim could you inflict? It was never our choice to be in this situation and it cannot simply be made otherwise, by us or by others, no matter how determined or well-meaning.

…Taking an experience of submission, brutality and suffering and turning it into the site of empowerment is no small task, even if it is, literally, a meaning of survival. I suppose that this is what ‘victim/survivor’ means, the importance of maintaining both terms, of linking them to describe this life. One does not come without the other, one does not outweigh the other, one does not replace the other. Rather, they are the conditions, the competing realities of a post-rape existence.

–Kate Ravenscroft, “What does victim/survivor mean, anyway?

But even this label is not enough in encompassing the full range of experience connected to sexual violence, particularly in conflict contexts. In a report on sexual violence in the DRC, Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern use the term “(non)survivor” “simply to point to the fact that not all victims of SGBV survive” (p 14, footnote 23). This may seem obvious, but given that the majority of discourse around SGBV focuses on the experiences of those who live after their violation, Baaz and Stern’s term is an important reminder that is not always the case, that recovery and justice is not always possible, and that in being a form of violence, rape is inextricably linked to mortality and death.

These are still imperfect labels though. (Non)survivor is easy to confuse with ‘non-survivor’, which could be used to desribe someone who has never been raped. ‘Victim/survivor’ is clunky and long. I’d be interested to know if anyone has other, or better, suggestions.


…while there are no generalized remedies to prevent sexual violence, let us highlight two common problems in policy efforts aimed at preventing sexual violence.

One is the tendency to adopt quick, easy and visible remedies, such as isolated workshops on human rights and IHL, and information campaigns, rather than long-term commitment addressing the complex structural causes. One can see why such remedies are so tempting: they tend to be uncontroversial, respond to a sense of urgency, and provide visible proof for the constituency that something is being done. However, these types of superficial interventions seldom have any tangible effects. The main problem in most warring contexts is not that the perpetrators of rape are unaware that rape is wrong and a crime.

A second problematic tendency in current interventions is the propensity to isolate sexual violence from other forms of violence committed against civilians. This problem is tricky, as the newly won arrival of sexual violence in the global security arena also signals a great success, which should not be underestimated or undermined. However, the resulting singular focus on sexual violence in many conflict arenas can carry some unintended and unfortunate effects. In addition to rendering us deaf to women’s (and men’s) stories of other violence committed against them, such a singular focus risks contributing to a commercialization of sexual violence, as has been the case in the DRC. This ultimately banalizes sexual violence. The fight against sexual violence is best served, not by a singular attention only to sexual violence, but by better listening to the stories of those affected by war, and by situating the prevention of sexual violence in the context of civilian protection and women’s rights more generally.

–Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern, “Ask the Experts: Sexual Violence During War” (bolding mine)

I really liked this excerpt from this concise blogpost from some of the heavy hitters in research on GBV during war. While there has been increased recognition and desire to address sexual violence during war by international and national policymakers, these two problems–the tendencies towards fast & simple solutions we can ‘see’ and towards isolating GBV from other connected political issues–will be the next frontier advocates and researchers working in this area will have to cross.

Looks like the FCO’s initiative to prevent sexual violence during conflict is starting to become real. The Stabilisation Unit (tri-departmental between the FCO, DFID and MoD) is hiring a UK Team of Experts “which will form one strand of the Foreign Secretary’s wider initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict.”

Hm.. but what will these other strands be? And really, how important are they? Beyond assembling this expert team to focus on prosecutions and capacity building, it still seems unclear what this initiative will be doing or how it connects to prevention.

Gender Action Peace & Security UK have a (incidentally, quite clear) response paper that resonates with some of the concerns I had when Hague made his announcement in May. Highlights below (bolding, ellipsing & re-ordering mine), but the paper is excellent and worth a read.

On the FCO’s initiative’s theory of change to prevent sexual violence

  •  “As the UK must focus on where it can have the biggest added value, it would be useful to understand the theory of change on preventing sexual violence. Whilst an increase in prosecutions erodes the culture of impunity, there is still weak evidence to show a clear link between prosecution and prevention of sexual violence in conflict, partly due to the limited number of prosecutions. It would be useful to understand why the focus is on prosecution as a preventative mechanism rather than other efforts to change social norms and attitudes.”
  • The most successful prevention initiatives have been where work addresses root causes of violence and promotes empowerment. Prevention initiatives focus on challenging social norms and the social and behavioural change that is required to prevent sexual violence from happening.”
  • “In addition, we believe that focusing on prevention alone is not enough to make significant progress on sexual violence in conflict. The provision of basic services is limited or non-existent in many conflict affected contexts, but is absolutely vital for survivors. The UK’s own Call to End Violence against Women and Girls Action Plan recognises this and focuses on prevention, providing support, working in partnership, empowerment and taking action to ensure justice for survivors… this initiative should follow this model.”

Important measures this initiative must include:

  • Provision of essential services through ‘one-stop shops’
    • “The series of steps that must be taken to access justice is characterised by high levels of attrition. Cases are dropped as they progress through the system. As a result, only a fraction of cases end in a conviction or a just outcome. One way to reduce attrition is to invest in one-stop shops, which bring together vital services under one roof to collect forensic evidence, provide legal advice, health care and other support.
    • No survivor of sexual violence in conflict can risk retribution and further shame without basic health, livelihoods or psycho-social needs being addressed with a guarantee of confidentiality… Experience shows the difficulty of pursuing prosecution without accompanying health, livelihoods, legal and psycho-social support.”
  • Survivor-led justice:
    • “Focus on survivor led justice by ensuring accountability mechanisms to survivors. Support for survivors should be foremost and there should be recognition that some may not wish to report or go to court.”
    • “Ensure survivors are active participants in evidence gathering i.e. approaches that are designed to collect testimonies based on how survivors want to tell people what has happened to them should be adopted.”
    • “[The UK should] respond to the highly likely breakdown of formal justice systems and their restriction to capital cities… Will the UK provide support to judicial bodies at community and national levels to ensure that they can properly assist survivors?
    • “The UK should also consider identities of perpetrators: access to justice is particularly problematic where there is state perpetrated or sanctioned violence.”
    • “What action will the UK take with regards to community/informal justice systems, such as arbitration by families, traditional chiefs and elders and tribal authorities, access to which is preferred by or only available to the majority of the population?”
  • Experts working withhuman rights defenders & survivors: 
    • “The starting point needs to be what the UK can do to support women’s rights organisations to help survivors, shown to be essential to ensure support for survivors, lasting change. This will also lead to longer-term sustainability of efforts after the teams leave. In many fragile and conflict affected states, women’s rights organisations are already collecting data, drafting legislation and training those in security and justice forces.”
  • Putting the safety of survivors first and do no harm:
    • “…concrete mechanisms and methodologies need to be in place that draw on the lessons from international, national and community responses to sexual violence regarding interviewing and testimony of survivors.”
    • “The UK must take steps to safeguard against the threat of backlash against and targeting of survivors and activists involved in this work, e.g. staff from the ICTR came to homes of women who had been raped, identifying them to communities which resulted in attacks, stigma and ostracism.”
    •  “Those who face allegations of rape and sexual violence may be in positions of authority both during and even long after the fighting has stopped, placing survivors at risk for the duration of prosecutions. Furthermore, there is a risk that data shared with authorities (judicial and governmental) who may be complicit in international humanitarian and human rights law violations will be used to persecute survivors. The UK should put in place strategies and procedures to mitigate risk.

Basically,  maybe the FCO should just hire GAPS UK… Unlikely, but you never know.

Update. Bright spot in the sky– Women Under Siege (and I’d guess other NGOs) have been invited for consultation (at least 2 meetings in London). Hopefully their expertise will be taken seriously by the FCO.


Last week was the start of the trial of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State defensive coach accused of sexually assaulting ten boys over his career. In response to the testimonies, Maureen Dowd has penned an incendiary NYT op-ed called ‘Moral Dystopia’, angrily asking the same question many of us did when the Sandusky scandal came to light:

How could so many fine citizens of this college town ignore the obvious and protect a predator instead of protecting children going through the ultimate trauma: getting raped by a local celebrity offering to be their dream father figure?

Dowd responds that the reason so many were bystanders to Sandusky’s crimes is that our materialism, online narcissism and cynicism with authority have put morality into jeopardy. Doing the ‘right’ thing is no longer an imperative, and perhaps has become optional as society recognises morality must change according to circumstances.

This, unfortunately, is an incredibly flawed argument that gravely misunderstands the complexities of intervention and whistle-blowing, particularly in relation to sexual violence and broader human rights violations. Dowd, like many others, have been particularly shocked by Michael McQueary, Sandusky’s graduate assistant coach and former Penn State quarterback, who actually witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in the shower and did nothing to stop it.

“I’ve never been involved in anything remotely close to this,” the 37-year-old McQueary said. “You’re not sure what the heck to do, frankly.”

Now in the harsh spotlight of the media and courtrooms and hindsight, McQueary’s words tremble with their flimsiness. How could he have not physically intervened to stop a boy being raped when it was within his power to do so?

Because these are the rationalizations that rape and other types of violence hinges on. Inaction–be it from fear, not knowing what to do, or denial–is inherent to impunity.

The real answer is ugly. The truth is that it is that many of us could be like McQueary and permit the rape of a young boy within earshot by doing nothing. It is, actually, sickeningly easy to see something wrong and do jack shit about it.

This does not mean we are not morally culpable in these situations. But the assumption that human nature is to intervene is problematic. In fact in most contexts the assumption should be, that left to their own devices, people will not act. This has nothing to do with individual morality, but the psychological processes and social institutions that enable structural and systematic violations to occur.

Yet, interestingly, intervention can be instilled as more of a norm—evidence of which is also embedded in the Sandusky case. In response to Dowd’s critiques, Amy Davidson contends, “The narrative of the past few years seems less about ‘sinking into moral dystopia’ than about the draining away of a swamp that hid bad behavior.”

And although Dowd fixates on narcissism and cynicism with authority as contributing to our current moral ‘dystopia’, Davidson quite rightly points out that these same phenomenon have also been responsible for getting justice for Sandusky’s victims:

Victim 1, who is now just eighteen, had a sense that he could put his loneliness to the test by turning on a computer, and that he might learn, there, that he wasn’t isolated after all. He also seems to have had a sense—in the way that young people in any number of countries have—that even a powerful person can be challenged or exposed online.

Davidson also notes that when the indictments came down, it was through alumni Facebook groups and social media that everyday citizens were able to put unrelenting pressure on Penn State’s board. She even offers, what if McQueary’s “culture-honed instinct had been to at least take an iPhone out of his pocket, and snap a picture” to intervene?

I don’t believe, as Davidson queries, that social media alone would have stopped Sandusky. But she is right that there is something amazing and powerful about how accountability is becoming increasingly wired into culture.

And I just don’t see that as dystopic.

As part of the UK’s forthcoming Presidency of the G8 in 2012, Foreign Secretary William Hague has announced a UK initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict.

I know this is the type of policy update folks would expect me to be ecstatic over. But I have to admit I’m sitting on the fence about this one.

Foreign Secretary speech

Namely because, after scrutinising the press release from the Foreign Commonwealth Office beyond the headline, I just don’t see much on how this initiative aims to focus on prevention. And it drives me crazy when programmes (good or not) do not accurately describe what they’re doing and why.

In the press release, the closest line of logic I can find linked to ‘prevention’ is

And we want to see a significant increase in the number of successful prosecutions so that we erode and eventually demolish the culture of impunity.

So maybe the connection to prevention is:

demolishing the culture of impunity towards wartime sexual violence –> less rape in ongoing and future conflicts

That seems really nice. I am all about breaking down impunity. Just given the complicated structural factors and causes of wartime rape, it seems like a very distant outcome. Especially when considering that the majority of the work proposed for the initiative is aimed at gathering evidence and testimony to support investigations, capacity building for national authorities on legal frameworks and campaigning on the need for stronger international response on sexual violence during war.

Again, those are all fantastic things for to incorporate as part of the UK’s lead on the G8. It’s just painfully obvious to me that responding to sexual violence after the fact is not the same as preventing it in the first place.  I’d be a bajillion times happier with the headline:

Foreign Secretary announces UK initiative on preventing convicting sexual violence in conflict

Let’s not get sloppy with our language just because it sounds nicer to ‘prevent’ rape during war. Rounding up to a future impact dilutes the fact that increasing conviction and prosecution rates are major victories in themselves.