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April 14, 2011 |  3 comments |  Print  Your Opinion  

Limit Arms Exports to Reduce Violence Against Women

Rebecca Gerome: The availability of small arms increases sexual violence against women. Therefore, gender based violence needs to be central to international discussions on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), and states must act to end impunity for armed violence against women.

Marie was gang raped on 10 June 2010. “When you call [for help], people hear but they don’t come out to help when there are people with guns around,” she says. Her story is one of many others in Amnesty International’s January 2011 report on Haiti, entitled “Aftershocks: Women Speak Out About Sexual Violence”. Most of the rape victims interviewed were threatened by groups of men armed with guns.

Between February 28 and March 4 2011, States gathered in New York for the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) Preparatory Committee. Discussions on the ATT present a vital opportunity to examine the tools used to commit acts of gender-based violence, most often small arms and light weapons (SALW). Although many binding international instruments exist on gender-based violence, these have not been taken into consideration by the disarmament community.

What impact do international transfers of conventional arms and ammunitions have on women’s lives?

Marie’s story reveals the invisible impact of armed violence: its impact on women’s minds, bodies and freedom. High death and injury rates of men are the most obvious and visible effects of gun violence, yet what fails to appear in statistics is when guns are not used to kill but to exert power; when guns are used behind closed doors to subjugate family members; when guns are used to threaten adolescent girls with sexual violence, forcing entire families to flee. What we fail to talk about, when we talk about small arms, are the rapes of tens of thousands of women at gunpoint.

There is a strong correlation between carrying small arms and notions of masculinity, considered to be traditional “gun-culture”. Armed conflict changes men’s views about what qualifies as masculine behavior: group pressure amplifies men’s aggressiveness and inclination to treat women as inferior. Since almost all men are armed in times of conflict, it is inevitable that their weaponry is implicated in the exercise of power over women. In Colombia, where 60 to 70 percent of women have experienced some form of violence in their lives, the presence of guns in society is strongly linked to a patriarchal and “machista” culture, which supports the notion that men need guns to defend themselves and protect their families. Yet, instead of providing security, these guns aid and exacerbate violence against women and girls, both during and after conflicts.

During four days in the summer of 2010, a mass rape occurred in Luvungi, Eastern DRC. Nearly all of the 303 reported rapes were described as having been perpetrated by groups of two-to-six armed men, taking place in front of the women's children and husbands. It is estimated that 200 million small arms are in circulation in the Great Lakes region with a heavy concentration in the east of the DRC.

In Colombia, which has the second highest number of internally displaced people in the world after Sudan, 2 out 10 displaced women identify sexual violence as the direct cause of their displacement. In the armed conflict, all parties use sexual violence as a weapon of war. In Sierra Leone’s civil war between 1991 and 2002, 64,000 women and girls suffered war-related sexual violence. Testimonies of women explain how the assaults were endured at gunpoint. ´They put their guns to our throats and stomachs to make sure that we followed their orders,’ one woman reported.

In Libya, rape is also being used as a tactic to instill fear. “They (...) forced him to watch as two of them took turns raping the woman,” recounted a Tripoli resident describing the invasion of a family member’s home by four armed militiamen.

The Security Council has recognized that rape in armed conflict is a threat to international security. So why are so many guns being sold to so many countries where rape is a strategy, a tactic to dehumanize and subjugate?

It has been said that “for women, war is not over when it’s over.” According to a 2007 study from Montenegro, of 1500 women seeking assistance from women's shelters, 90% were threatened with small arms by their partners. Often, guns brought home by off-duty soldiers, police and private security guards are used to facilitate domestic violence. In her recent visit to the U.S., the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women noted the widespread use of guns in domestic violence.

By facilitating domination and violence against women, guns prevent women from exercising their basic rights on a daily basis, in the marketplaces where they trade, in the fields where they work, at water-points and along the roads where girls walk to school.

From the Haiti to the Balkans, the stories repeat themselves, endlessly. Guns are being used to take away women’s rights on a massive scale. So why is gender-based violence not part of the discussion on the arms trade?

In 2009, the U.S. reversed its position on the ATT and decided to support negotiations. This policy shift by the world's largest arms exporter, with a $55 billion-a-year trade in conventional weapons (40% of the global total), was a key step forward. Meanwhile, the European Union recently made its internal code of conduct on arms exports legally binding in order to become a "very credible actor" as a promoter of the ATT. The 2012 negotiations will not be simple, but it is clear that to protect women’s rights, the relevant binding international instruments covering gender-based violence must be applied in arms transfer decisions.

Yet the ATT is not enough. States must also start collecting data. Without accurate data on gun possession and trafficking and their links to violence against women, it is impossible to formulate successful public policies on these issues. Finally, states must take action to end impunity for armed violence against women and increase women’s participation in discussions on small arms policies.

Rebecca Gerome is a consultant for the IANSA Women's Network. IANSA is the International Action Network on Small Arms, a global movement against gun violence, linking civil society organisations working to stop the proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons. Rebecca graduated in 2010 with an MA in International Affairs from Sciences Po.

This article was submitted for the's competition: "Empowering Women in International Relations." It coincides with the 10th Anniversary of UN resolution 1325 calling for an increased influence of women in all aspects of peace and security. The contest is sponsored by the U.S. Mission to NATO and the NATO Public Diplomacy Division.

You can read more submissions from the competition here.

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Tags: | security | Peace | Gun Violence | Small Arms | gender | Women | ATT | IANSA |
Laura  Cohen

April 28, 2011

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Rebecca, thank you for raising one of more under-explored phenomenon of violence against ‎women: the growing connection between gender-based violence (GBV) and the availability of small ‎arms. In addition to the examples you point to with respect to Columbia, Sierra Leone, and the ‎Eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, I wanted to highlight another region ‎experiencing this scourge: the Western Balkans, and specifically Bosnia i Herzegovina (BiH). ‎

The rise in armed domestic violence in this region was the focus of a 2007 report by the South ‎Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons ‎‎(SEESAC) entitled “Firearms Possession and Domestic Violence in the Western Balkans: A ‎Comparative Study of Legislation and Implementation Mechanisms”(1). According to the report:‎

‎“The war in the former Yugoslavia increased the proliferation and easy availability of small arms ‎and light weapons, both legally and illegally possessed, contributing to a rise in violent behavior ‎not only in the public space, but also within the family. Other factors linked to the post-conflict ‎situation and transition have also contributed to an increase in domestic violence, including ‎economic and personal insecurity, unemployment, crime and intolerance. Available data from ‎existing research suggest that domestic violence is the most widespread form of violence ‎throughout the region, and that women are the primary victims. It is estimated that every fourth ‎‎‘ever-partnered woman’ has experienced physical or sexual violence in intimate relationships.”‎

As you are aware, the banning and punishment of sexual atrocities, including rape, sexual slavery, ‎torture, and enforced pregnancy, are codified in several international human rights declarations and ‎binding conventions. Yet the trend in post-conflict armed domestic violence remains hidden from ‎the national public spotlight. This is yet another iteration of why your call for the integration of ‎GBV within negotiations about the Arms Trade Treaty must be taken seriously by the international ‎community.‎

For contextual purposes, during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War international attention was drawn to ‎the wide-scale rapes that were committed by Bosnian Serb Army (BSA) and Serbian paramilitary ‎forces against Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) and Croatian women. Members of the Bosniak and ‎Croatian armies were also accused of raping Serbian women in revenge (2). The United Nations ‎Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that 30,000 women and girls were raped, although the ‎true number may never be known (3).‎

The patriarchal belief of using women to embody the honor and dignity of their nation and of their ‎families did not begin during the Bosnian War. Rather, these long held misogynist attitudes were ‎present in the region before and during the communist era. Previously conducted ethnographies in ‎the region showcase how proliferation of the male blood line propagated the society, regardless of ‎religion or ethnicity (4). This attitude frequently encourages domestic abuse by men to induce “their ‎women” into submission and relegating them to the private versus public sphere (5).‎

One expression of the society’s rampant sexism is reflected in its unwillingness to address rape and ‎domestic violence at the national level. Without acknowledging the ongoing suffering of many ‎women before, during, and after the war, their experiences are essentially hidden by the very same ‎people—men—who are responsible. For women who experienced wartime rape and are now living ‎with GBV, the social shame of speaking out and asking for help is suffocating. ‎

This stigmatization masks the rise in domestic violence as well as all the arms left over from the war ‎and in the private possession of men around the country. The GBV taking place includes the use of ‎small arms and light weapons (SALW) against women and the abuse of alcohol, according to the ‎BiH Gender Center (6). One key reason for the increase is the high level of aggression which men ‎experienced and normalized during the war—as perpetrators and victims (7). ‎

The expression of feelings, including sadness, fear, shame, terror, and humiliation, are perceived as ‎overtly feminine. In the post-war climate there is no longer a militarized enemy for men to release ‎their rage against; an economy that enables to them to earn a living; or a family structure that ‎mimics pre-war life. Male belligerence is now directed at the persons within their immediate realm: ‎their wives and female relatives (8). Even if a woman wanted to get help, there are few resources ‎and networks for her to turn. For example, there are only seven shelters for women escaping ‎domestic abuse across the country (9) and only 10% of survivors of rape actually receive help (10).‎

All women in BiH must be given back their political agency and opportunity to participate more ‎meaningfully in local, regional, and national affairs which affect the direction of the country and ‎security in their personal lives. For example, a reassessment of male/female relations can help ‎mitigate the rise in GBV, including the availability, predominance, and use of small arms against ‎women in the home environment.‎

‎1 & 9) Dokmanovic, Mirjana. "Firearms Possession and Domestic Violence in the Western Balkans: ‎A Comparative Study of Legislation and Implementation Mechanisms." South Eastern and Eastern ‎European Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC); Belgrade, ‎Serbia: 2007. See:

‎2) Folnegovic-Smalc, Vera. "Psychiatric Aspects of the Rapes in the War Against the Republics of ‎Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina." Mass Rape: The War Against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. ‎Ed. Alexandra Stiglmayer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.‎

‎3 & 7) Spindel, Cheywa, Elisa Levy, and Melissa Connor. "Challenging Post-War Violence in ‎Bosnia and Herzegovina." With an End in Sight: Strategies from the UNIFEM Trust Fund to ‎Eliminate Violence Against Women. Ed. United Nations Development Fund for Women, et al. New ‎York, NY, 2000; Page 86 & 90. See: ‎

‎4) Engle, Karen. "Feminism and its (Dis)Contents: Criminalizing Wartime Rape in Bosnia and ‎Herzegovina." The American Society of International Law. 99 (October 2005): 778; Page 808.‎

‎5) Denich, Bette S. "Sex and Power in the Balkans." Woman, Culture, and Society. Ed. Joan ‎Bamberger, Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, and Louis Lamphere. Stanford, CA: Stanford University ‎Press, 1974; Pages 243-254.‎

‎6) Crossette, Barbara. "Chapter 1: Bosnia & Herzegovina as a Catalyst for Change." UNFPA: State ‎of the World Population 2010, "From Conflict and Crisis to Renewal: Generations of Change"; Page ‎‎40. See:

‎8) Salzman, Todd A. "Rape Camps as a Means of Ethnic Cleansing: Religious, Cultural, and Ethical ‎Responses to Rape Victims in the Former Yugoslavia." Human Rights Quarterly 20.2 (May 1998): ‎‎348-378.‎

‎10) Amnesty International. "Authorities must ensure access to reparation for survivors of war rapes ‎in Bosnia and Herzegovina." See:
Unregistered User

June 28, 2011

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Going to put this aitcrle to good use now.
Allie  Dawe

October 15, 2011

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Thank you Rebecca, for drawing out attention to this post-conflict violence. Since reading your piece I have talked about this to many women. Most simply cannot see how post war rage and disempowerment of men impacts on women and the crucial link to small arms.

Laura, many thanks for the contextual information. The deliberate intimidation of women as a strategy of ongoing war against a community of society is continually ignored. Yet the more patriachal the society the stronger the link to women and girls being central to the family honor.

The process you are talking about seems to be, in fact, neither war, post- war, nor civil war. It is using women to fracture and dis-member a society at the grass roots level, the family. Understand this we can see that our best efforts to find and prosecute the perpetrators of sexual violence in war and post-conflict situations cannot be successful.

Women understand that to complain and seek any legal redress endangers her, her children, and her family. When the family is dishonored, the possibility of violence against HER by family members becomes ever present. When family honor is a principal focus in a society then any Policy or Strategy must account for this and must consult women on its workability. Policies and strategies can only work if they do not lead to family fracturing, the very thing which organised widespread rape is designed to do.

In the US the UK and Australia we have a 40 year history of providing safe houses for women who are victims of domestic violence because we have understood that the safety of the victim must be addressed first, before complaints or legal redress. Why do we not discuss this primary need before rolling out Policies to support and enact Resolution 1325.

International Policies to empower women are wonderful but strategies must be devised from the grass roots level. Women in each society must be supported to devise their own, for they will prioritise children and family differently to European women. My presumption of individualism would be horrifying to women in societies where the family and collective are central to life. Even if we could devise useful strategies, it will be most empowering to women if their strategies for empowerment, redress and healing of the sexual violence perpetrated on them be supported by international agencies and governments Top down strategies to empower women are out of place but certainly a subject for comedy routines.

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