Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War?
Perceptions, Prescriptions, Problems in the Congo and Beyond

Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern

Book Review

Until very recently, sexual violence has been viewed as an unfortunate but unavoidable side-effect of war; rarely discussed and even less frequently prosecuted. In the aftermath of the Rwandan and the former Yugoslavian conflicts, that slowly began to change.

The international community’s perception of rape in war turned from the assumption that it was the inevitable result of (sexually) frustrated (male) soldiers separated from their families and usual societal norms acting on their own volition, to the belief that it was instead a coherent strategy of war ordered by commanding officers.

This new understanding of sexual violence in conflict offered hope that it could be both prevented and stopped and so has, for at least the past decade, become the overriding interpretation of rape in war, at least officially, amongst humanitarians, academics, and policymakers alike.

Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern’s Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War? Perceptions, Prescriptions, Problems in the Congo and Beyond may well turn this belief on its head. Throughout this book, the authors use rich theoretical analysis, coupled with original fieldwork undertaken in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to raise serious questions about both the focus on, and our understanding of, sexual violence as a weapon of war. They convincingly argue that although the prevailing narrative of rape as a gendered weapon of war has been both comforting in its appeal and revolutionary in its success in engaging many actors in working towards redress for the victims of war rape (p. 2), having such a dominant framework of analysis has meant that the voices and suffering of those that don’t quite fit into this limited model – victims, perpetrators, and others – are not considered at all. Importantly, the authors query the intense focus on sexual violence in conflict and argue that separating sexual from other forms of violence committed during war both fetishises and exceptionalises these particular acts in a way that dehumanises all involved.

In the first chapter, ‘Sex/Gender Violence’, Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern consider the two main narratives of sexual violence in conflict: what the authors call the ‘Sexed’ Story and the ‘Gendered’ Story. The ‘Sexed’ Story is the older explanatory framework – often called the ‘sexual urge’ or ‘pressure cooker’ theory (p. 17) which assumes that (1) ‘wartime rape is a result of the sexual desires of men, resulting from their biological make up’ (p. 17) and (2) that ‘war suspends the social constraints that hinder men from being the sexual animals they naturally are/can be’ (p. 18). The ‘Gendered’ Story is the more recent understanding of rape in conflict – that instead of being biologically driven, rape in war is the product of an idealised militarised masculinity in which rape becomes a ‘particularly effective means to humiliate (feminise) enemy men by sullying “his” women/nation/homeland and proving him to be an inadequate protector’ (p. 21). In the ‘Gendered’ Story, crucially the perpetrators are not necessarily men and the victims are not always women; however, the acts of sexual violence are masculine and masculinity becomes a learned attribute. With this understanding, it becomes possible for sexual violence in conflict to be eradicated, through learning a better form of masculinity (p. 22). The next chapter, ‘Rape as a Weapon of War?’, critically examines the literature and discusses why the ‘Gendered’ Story has quickly become the almost universal understanding of rape in war amongst academics, practitioners, policymakers, and the courts.

In ‘The Messiness and Uncertainty of Warring’ (Chapter 3), the authors shift their focus to an analysis of the strategic deployment of sexual violence in war, using their own empirical research in the DRC, as well as research from other conflict and post-conflict settings and insights from the sociology of violence and the military literature. They argue persuasively that the degree to which rape is a strategy or tool of war is highly dependent on the specific context; that military institutions often (in fact, usually) fall short of the ideals of hierarchy, discipline, and control they desire, and that widespread sexual violence can often indicate a collapse in military discipline and control (p. 85) rather than an intentional military strategy. Furthermore, Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern argue that if we are to truly stop rape in conflict, understanding more about the complexity of the reasons for its occurrence is vital.

Chapter 4, ‘Post-coloniality, Victimcy and Humanitarian Engagement: Being a Good Global Feminist?’, might well be the most difficult chapter for those who have been engaged with the conflict in Congo, but also possibly the most important. In it, the authors question the intense focus on sexual violence in the DRC; the ‘othering’ and demonisation of sexual violence perpetrators and the narrative of the colonial saviour come to rescue the Congolese women, once again.

Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War? is crucial reading for  academics, practitioners, and activists. It asks disconcerting questions and picks huge holes in the predominant understanding of sexual violence in war. It is, absolutely, a thoughtful and questioning book: I would be very hard pressed to find a criticism the authors haven’t raised and deliberated themselves – in fact, the final chapter is devoted to this. It doesn’t answer all the questions it raises; however, the questions it asks are essential for us all to consider for an improved understanding of (sexual) violence in conflict. Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War? is a vitally important contribution to the literature on gender and conflict.

Review ©2013 Natasha Price, University of Bristol, UK

Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War? Perceptions, Prescriptions, Problems in the Congo and Beyond is published by Zed Books

Review originally published in Gender & Development 21.3 (2013)