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From: African Studies Review
Volume 55, Number 2, September 2012
pp. 29-36 | 10.1353/arw.2012.0043

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This special ASR forum, “The Case of Gender-Based Violence: Assessing the Impact of International Human Rights Rhetoric on African Lives,” grounds itself in the notion that gender relations (and, indeed, gendered social norms) can undergo significant transformation in zones of conflict or in other contexts of extreme socioeconomic and political instability.1 Individuals actively reconfigure moral landscapes of power and sexuality amidst the everyday chaos, violence, and deprivation that constitutes the experience of war for most people, thereby formulating new normative frameworks of appropriately gendered norms for social interaction and sexual expression. These norms, of course, are rather dramatically cross-cut, for all actors involved, by an extensive list of factors that include one’s ethnolinguistic or religious affiliation, citizenship status, gender, and myriad other allegiances that are all too frequently brought to the fore by conflict or other forms of instability. War and instability, it seems, force individuals to think of themselves, and others, in ways that might not otherwise have seemed imaginable.

The case studies in this issue are based upon research in Rwanda, Congo, Uganda, South Africa, and Liberia. One unifying theme is the frequency with which human rights rhetoric divorces conflict-related gender-based violence from the peacetime normative framework.2 The authors illustrate the cultural restrictions and patriarchal oppression that encourage violence within different dimensions of the socioeconomic and political context (home, culture, political authority, economy, and military), and they analyze gender-based violence as a form of structural violence. Nonetheless, as Sharon Abramowitz and Mary Moran caution us, gender-based violence in conflict and postconflict zones is not simply an enhanced version of “traditional” gender oppression. We would be severely remiss, the authors remind us, to read conflict and crisis as culture.

Another thread that weaves throughout the articles involves transactional sex, specifically in the form of the murky continuum that links commercial with criminalized sex. Jennie Burnet asks readers to consider “the degree to which all militarized sex encompasses this divide” (p. 112). In the context of South Africa, Judith Singleton discusses the significant gap between laws against rape and women’s lived experiences in townships, where the cultural practice of lobola—loosely translated as “brideprice”—is interpreted as granting men sexual access to their wives, irrespective of their consent. In the context of eastern Congo, Dunio P. Zongwe notes that both the state and the judiciary face significant financial limitations that inhibit their ability to successfully prosecute cases of gender-based violence. When the state finds itself so severely constrained, is it any surprise that transactional or survival sex is likely to become a strategy employed by women and girls with a limited menu of life choices at their disposal?

Articles featured in this special issue both complicate and underscore contemporary international human rights rhetoric, which holds that women and girls are disproportionately targeted for gender-based violence during and after conflict and comprise the majority of all victims (U.N. Resolution 1820U.N. Resolution 2008).3 Many human rights researchers and practitioners concur with Major General Patrick Cammaert, former commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who noted that “it has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict” (Cammaert 2008). Indeed, international human rights rhetoric and news reporting have increasingly focused upon gender-based violence in zones of conflict or other forms of instability. In a 2010 statement to the Security Council Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, described the DRC as the “rape capital of the world” (BBC News 2010). This dubious distinction then replicated itself in myriad forms, with news reports describing the DRC as “the worst place in the world for women” (Kahorha 2011) and an article in a prominent public health journal reporting that forty-eight women are raped every hour in the DRC (Peterman, Palermo, & Bredenkamp 2011).

For women, who have long been invisible during and after conflict, human rights discourse can provide an opportunity to have their experiences recognized and their roles as survivors and agents of change on issues of accountability and redress understood. The involvement of women in the design and...

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