Gender, peace, security, slavery and cigarettes

One year on from the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, the senior UN official on the issue, Zainab Bangura, has said in an interview with AFP that Yazidi and other young women abducted by ISIS in Syria and Iraq are being traded "for as little as a pack of cigarettes".

The summit

Even if it has happened only once, even if it is not actually factual but is just a story she's been told, it tells you something awful is happening. You could not want a sharper reminder about the issue. The global summit on sexual violence in conflict was held in London from 10–12 June 2014. Hosted by the UK Foreign Office under William Hague, it headlined all round the world not only because of the issue but thanks to the presence and work of Angelina Jolie. As the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Bangura co-signed the 'Statement of Action' with Hague and Jolie.

The summit’s focus on sexual violence in conflict could easily be questioned for its narrowness. The issue is wider and deeper: what happens in war is largely a reflection of social and cultural issues that are real before and after war. But then ISIS swaggers in with sexual slavery to accompany beheadings and mass killings and we are reminded what it's all about.

This week is also the first anniversary of the UK's third national action plan on women, peace and security, which focuses British efforts on six countries – Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Myanmar, Somalia and Syria. The government reports annually on progress on the national action plan, so it will be interesting to see what progress it believes it can register in those six, hyper-demanding and dangerous environments. It will be especially interesting to see if progress is being maintained now William Hague has left the Foreign Office.

The report will be available in October, about the same time as the 15th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.

Recruiting ISIS fighters

One aspect of that pack-of-cigarettes story is that it is, so Zainab Bangura argues, part of the ISIS recruitment strategy to have girls available for use, especially to attract foreign fighters. Facing up to that underlines the point that what is going on here – or in any other war where women, girls, and often boys and men, are sexually brutalised – is about more than the war. It is about how boys grow up and what assumptions we carry with us as we do so.

The diversity of men's behaviour shows that in all societies, young men have a variety of models of masculinity. Selection between them is not wholly conscious; we are drawn to one, or another, or a blend. Choice is part of it but not the whole story.

In traditional and pervasive models, there is heavy emphasis on being the provider, the protector, the achiever, the stalwart and the strong. Pondering the Charlie Hebdo killings earlier this year, it seemed to me that these roles are an increasing burden. They simply do not gel with much of social reality and it takes an ever more desperate act to sustain them. Seeking the sexual object to abuse, whether through online grooming in Britain, or with a pack of cigarettes in Syria, or in sexual abuse of children by UN soldiers in the Central African Republic, seems to me to be a perverse response that desperation produces at the margin.

The response: Focus or go broad?

By way of response, there is not really a choice between focusing on sexual violence in war/conflict on the one hand and on broader issues on the other. The perpetrators of crimes of sexual violence in war should of course be arrested, tried with due process and punished if convicted. In other words, there is a policing element in the campaign against sexual violence in war and conflict. The same is true of course for sexual criminality in times of peace. However, to achieve sustainable change over the long term, it is self-evident that much more is needed.

Among the many preparations going on for October's 15th anniversary of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, this week sees the publication of a new book, Gender, peace and security, looking at the implementation of UNSCR 1325. It is available at the eye-watering price of $145, so get a friendly think tank or university library to order it because it is very well researched and a more than worthwhile read, as it tracks the mixed record of 1325 implementation.

There, however – right there in that last sentence – is the source of a necessary reservation. It is about the implementation of a resolution. Do not interpret me as saying it is unimportant when I add that, to quote myself one paragraph ago, to achieve sustainable change over the long term, it is self-evident that much more is needed. Put another way, the change that is registered in implementing a UN resolution makes most sense if it is in a larger context of change.

Gender and peace

In International Alert, our way of approaching this has been to explore what works best for peacebuilding on the ground. For us, it is not just a question of dealing with sexual violence in times of war, but of building a peaceful future. It is not just about getting the UN and national governments to agree, but of energising people to do the building.

The participation of women is important, but what is it that makes it happen, and makes it happen so it makes a difference? So it’s not just a box-ticking exercise or an act of organised hypocrisy in which women are allowed to participate but only in the unimportant things?

The answer lies, surely, in how gender roles are fulfilled, understood and moderated over time. For want of a better term, we call this a 'gender relational' approach. To make progress, it means engaging people in thinking about and discussing those models of masculinity and femininity and seeing what they can do to handle the ways in which those models may encourage violent, victimising and victimised behaviour. Part of that process by which one model of masculinity shape's a young man's identity rather than another is open to choice and therefore to influence. When International Alert explored experience on the ground, we found a perhaps surprising number of peacebuilding activities that address these questions in engaging, creative and nuanced ways.

If we keep on making progress on all these fronts – policing sexual criminality in war and peace, implementing the resolution, working together to build peace – we can have some confidence about two things: our societies will be more equal and fewer young men will act out perverse effects of desperation. It is a big task, of course; all the best ones are.