Power over one's own body
Having power over one’s own body is a prerequisite for being a free and equal individual, and thus a condition for democracy and peace. It is impossible to fully participate in society if someone else is in charge of whom you can associate with, what clothes you can wear or where you are allowed to go.
Every person’s right to decide over their own body is stipulated in several international documents, such as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Yet in most societies women generally have less power over their bodies than men. Many women are not allowed to decide how to dress, what friends to have or whom to marry. This lack of power manifests itself in public opinion through statements proclaiming that women should not have sex before marriage or with different partners. It manifests itself in the prohibition of abortion and in difficulties accessing contraceptives. It manifests itself through women’s bodies being treated as commercial goods, e.g. when women are sold for sexual purposes.
The lack of power over one’s own body is also prevalent in other groups. For example, LGBTQ persons still have less power over their bodies than heterosexuals. In many countries relationships between two people of the same sex are prohibited, socially unacceptable and even illegal. This makes it impossible for these persons to fully exercise their human rights.
In 1994, the UN’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo asserted every person’s right to decide when and with whom to have sex or reproduce. It also declared that contraceptives, sex education and legal abortions should be accessible to everyone.
Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are fundamental for having power over one’s own body. However, issues concerning women’s health tend to get overlooked, especially during conflicts, as gynecological and maternal health centres, and women’s centres, that could provide support to women, are often forced to close. Every year, more than 330 000 women die from complications related to pregnancy, childbirth and unsafe abortions. For women in conflict regions the risks associated with pregnancy increase significantly.
Men’s violence against women
During a war there is also typically an increase in the level of violence among the civilian population. Men who witness their mothers, daughters or wives being subjected to sexual violence, may also use violence against their own family members – sometimes as a way to regain control and deal with the shame. Previous experiences of abuse play a big role in times of peace too. Men who have seen their mothers being exposed to domestic violence, often repeat such behaviour in their own close relationships.
Unemployment, trauma and changed gender roles in the family due to war are other reasons why violence against women increases during and after armed conflicts. Human trafficking also gets worse in conflict zones. Although the presence of the international community in conflict zones ought to protect women against sexual assault, it instead tends to increase the demand for sex in exchange for money or food.
Men’s violence against women is the most widespread global threat to women’s safety, but very little is done by governments or the international community to stop it.
Sexual violence in war and conflict
Stereotypical gender roles mean that women are regarded as the ones in need of protection during wartime. Rape is therefore used as warfare, to humiliate the ‘enemy’. It is not uncommon for men to be forced to watch their wives and daughters being raped. Raping women and children is an effective strategic weapon, since its impact goes beyond the physical and psychological consequenses for the individual victim – it destroys entire families and social structures for long periods of time. It is also systematically used as a method of ethnic cleansing. Women are being subjected to torture – weapons are used to inflict pain and to damage their genitals, which can cause infertility.
It is not uncommon for female victims to be ostracised by their families due to the collective shame that sexual abuse causes. The massive trauma suffered by both victims and witnesses persists and goes on to affect future generations.
Many victims also get infected with life-threatening diseases. During the genocide in Rwanda, for example, it is estimated that around 250 000 women were raped and among those who survived it is estimated that 70 percent became infected with HIV (read more at Amnesty International).
Whilst it is true that men are also raped in conflict situations, women are exposed to sexual violence to a much greater extent.
In 2008, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1820 in response to the strong international condemnation following reports of extensive sexual violence taking place in the Balkans, Rwanda, DR Congo and in Darfur (Sudan). This was the first time that the Security Council recognised that systematic rape can constitute a threat to international peace and security. Resolution 1820 has subsequently been reinforced with the adoption of resolutions 1888, 1889, 1960 and 2106. Nevertheless, impunity for acts of sexual violence committed during conflicts remains high, and indeed this is one of the reasons why it continues to be used as a war strategy.
Many of The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s partner organisations work with issues relating to gender-based violence. They accompany women to gynecologists, run hotlines and shelters, educate both men and women about women’s rights and organise campaigns that challenge traditional gender roles. They support victims of sexual violence and fight against impunity for the perpetrators. These are all ways to strengthen women and to help them to speak up and gain control over their own bodies.
Updated in: 2014-09-30