By Josephine Roele

Guns go hand in hand with sexual and gender-based violence. Where there is armed conflict, there is rape, and this is true the world over. So what is the significance of the presence of small arms in these conflicts? How do guns perpetuate a ‘cult of masculinity’ that finds women and girls as its victims? And how do these weapons end up in the hands of those prepared to intimidate and demean women?

The answer to the last question might be found in the lack of common international standards for arms transfers, standards that could protect against human rights violations as a result of irresponsible and illicit arms trade. Just last month, an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) conference was held at the UN (for more, see this previous post). Unfortunately, talks were delayed and have been postponed until October. But this is not the end of the road for an ATT, and is perhaps a convenient breathing space for reflections on weaknesses in the final draft of July 26, 2012. Gender-based violence, for example, only receives one explicit mention in the text, and yet the link between sexual and gender-based violence and armed conflict is a serious cause for concern. It has become a natural and expected progression from conflict situations, and it exists on a horrifying scale.

The young women of this video have endured physical and psychological abuse at the hands of militia members in the Central African Republic (CAR). The damages done by sexual violence have far-reaching and lasting implications not only for the primary victims/survivors, but also for the families and communities involved. They deserve help with reintegration, medical support, and the implementation of justice, but as of yet the International Criminal Court and the CAR government have done very little.

While the majority of casualties are the men and boys participating in the conflict, an overwhelming and disproportionate number of women are targeted and terrorized daily by small arms. A report by the UN Secretary General states that armed conflict situations sustain violence against civilians, especially sexual violence. The power imbalance between men and women plays an elemental role. In a post titled “Where do men stand in all this?” Lauren Wolfe, Director of the Women Under Siege project, quotes Dean Peacock: ‘the perpetration of sexualized violence is driven by socially sanctioned male dominance over women…by notions of manhood and power that valorize sexual conquest.’ Coupled with easy and unregulated access to arms, counts of rape and sexualized violence soar.

With such statistics and testimonies, the debate surrounding the inclusion of gender-based violence in the ATT seems absurd. Rape was formally recognized by the UN Security Council as a tactic of war and a threat to international security following UNSC Resolution 1820 in 2008 (PDF). If the presence of small arms can be linked so definitively and confidently to acts of sexual violence, why shouldn’t an ATT include criteria against an arms transfer with similar language? The current draft asks exporting Member States to ‘consider taking ‘feasible’ measures to avoid arms being used to commit or facilitate gender-based violence (Article 4.6.c). There is no sense of obligation in this terminology. It does not inspire confidence in the ability of the ATT to protect women from sexual violence.

Still from “Our Plea: Women and Girls from the Central African Republic Turn to the ICC for Justice”

A gun is a tool of domination, and too often this is manifested through rape. Small arms and light weapons are easy to use, and in the current circumstances, cheap and easy to come by. An effective ATT should address the gendered nature of the causes and consequences of armed violence. It would endeavour to track and keep control of the transfer of arms, which is a dangerous factor in the perpetuation of sexual violence in conflict situations. It would demand accountability, ending impunity and ensuring support and compensation for victims/survivors.

Powerful personal stories, such as those of Léa and Joelle (in the “Our Plea” video), provide incentive for positive change. A robust and gendered ATT would lend strength to these testimonies, compelling nations to review their arms exports or imports so as to prevent future incidents of rape. In turn, this would increase women’s security, so essential to human development and economic growth, and thus express a contemporary vision of global peace and security.

Josephine Roele is an intern on the GBV Campaign at WITNESS. She is currently an undergraduate at Edinburgh University, studying English Literature.

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