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Author Aisling Swaine Discusses “Conflict-related Violence Against Women: Transforming Transition”

May 11, 2018

WILPF interviewed author Aisling Swaine about her new book: “Conflict-related Violence Against Women.” © 2018 WILPF

Aisling Swaine is the author of upcoming book, “Conflict-related Violence Against Women: Transforming Transition.” Her research impels readers to examine gendered aspects of violence and gender inequality intrinsically linked to power structures exacerbated during periods of conflict.

WILPF is thrilled to have corresponded with Swaine about her book, and her thoughtful responses are below. Swaine’s careful analysis of conflict’s causes and effects as relate to gender serve an important role in developing effective peace processes. The information and first-hand accounts she propounds not only inform the feminist activist community, but the the public at large. Substantive documentation of the costs of violence on women is essential to progressing gender equality, and is integral to advocacy, policymaking, humanitarian work and public education.

Below you can read about Swaine’s motivations for writing her book, the research process and what she hopes will result from her research.


Interview with Aisling Swaine

When you were doing your research, what was the process of you realising there was an information gap that needed to be filled in the discussion of violence against women? 

The identification of the gap really came from the work I had been doing prior to embarking on this research. I had worked as an aid and development worker in contexts such as Darfur, Sudan, Timor-Leste and Kosovo. It was working in camps for the displaced in Darfur that I noticed how affected communities, as well as the UN and international non-governmental aid organisations seemed to have different approaches to different kinds of violence against women. On the one hand condemning the acts of armed actors, such as the use of sexual violence in armed attacks, while on the other, showing much more ambivalence towards issues such as domestic violence and sexual assault occurring within families and camp communities. There were also different international legal and policy tools applied to each form of violence, and while of course there are specific legal responses required for armed conflicts, we seemed to be paying inordinate attention to some forms of violence, namely sexual violence by armed combatants, over others. This is problematic on so many levels – making some forms of violence more visible in policy and programming than others, while we were still failing to respond to the ways that women might be experiencing all of these forms of violence across all aspects of their lives. So, it was this false division between forms of violence that I wanted to examine, to explore why we approach conflict vs peacetime violence differently, advance understanding of the relations between forms of violence and identify the impact of these differentiated approaches on our ability to develop appropriate prevention and response strategies.

What was the research process for you in publishing this book?

We have had increasing and significant bodies of research on conflict-related violence against women (CRVAW) emerge over the last two decades, both by the academic as well as policy communities. I wanted to ensure that my research contributed further knowledge on the actual physical harms that women are experiencing. There remains need to document those physical harms and ensure that we are not making assumptions about what we think we know on the basis of what policy instruments are stating. For example, while the adoption of the UN Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security have been so important in countering myths about sexual violence and identifying sexual violence as a tactic of war, we need to ensure that while this form of violence is acknowledged and addressed, the broader range of harms that might also exist alongside or separate to that violence in conflict are being given attention too. I thereby used qualitative methods to document rich… descriptions of the kinds of harms that women experience, and in this way, to provide a more fulsome picture of the full landscape of violence that any one woman, or multiple women, might experience within an armed conflict, as well as across pre, during and post-conflict time periods. I was concerned about the ethics of interviewing women who have experienced violence without appropriate service provision available and instead did interviews with service providers who were providing services directly to women. While there are many challenges and drawbacks to this approach, it meant that I could still collect descriptions of violence with lesser overall risk, and explore an approach that allowed for documentation and examination of violence against women (VAW) in another way. Because the research sought to identify connections between conflict and non-conflict VAW, I also spent significant time searching through archival material to identify any documentation of VAW prior to the conflicts I was examining. This unearthed many interesting secondary sources that I could combine with the primary research through the interviews. Overall, the approach thereby was to document harms and analyse the different forms, sites and sources of violence in women’s lives across pre, during and post-conflict contexts, and develop a framework through which to analyse it.

How had your career and life outside of this book lead you to this area of study and this question of conflict-related violence against women?

While I am currently in academia, my previous professional roles hold significant bearing on this research. As noted, I previously worked in conflict and post-conflict contexts with UN agencies and international NGOs. I managed projects focused on women’s rights and on VAW. Working in those contexts exposes you to the realities of armed conflicts, and I spent years listening to women share their experiences of violence. I have always been a women’s rights activist and when I decided to do a PhD, it was because I wanted to understand more about the realities of violence in women’s lives. And it was because of those prior professional experiences in conflict-affected contexts, experiences that could also be considered forms of “research” as I worked in those contexts, that I naturally chose to examine CRVAW.  The more I was exposed to more and more violence in armed conflicts, the more I realised how little we know and understand about that violence and its reality in different women’s lives within and across different armed conflicts. And so that led me to focus on this issue in my research – for the PhD that then led to this book. It is an issue that I wish to continue to examine as I think that we continue to need qualitative exploration of the lived experience of violence in women’s lives.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by “a transformation rather than a transition” in post-conflict power adjustments?

Feminist activists and scholars have done much to push forward the idea of the need for “transformation” in women’s lives i.e that the fulfilment of equality and rights are about significant change to the conditions of inequality that permeate women’s lives.  While we have much discussion of this idea in research and policy, I wanted my research to contribute to the work of so many before me, by furthering some ideas of what we might want “transformation” to look like in relation to post-conflict contexts. The idea of a post-conflict “transition” is widely accepted – and many feminist researchers have pointed out that a movement from conflict to peace is about so much more than simply transitioning from conflict-violence to non-conflict violence in a linear way. I wanted to consider what would a transformation for women in the post-conflict moment instead look and feel like for women?

Transitional justice mechanisms have provided significant opportunities for accountability for the harms that women have experienced during conflict. They have also become the most significant spaces where women’s experiences of violence are being aired and documented in post-conflict contexts. It is through these sites that we can explore more about how to bring recognition to the inequalities and violence in women’s lives, from violence in the home to that associated with public political violence.  One way of thinking about it in relation to VAW is that in transition, there is a move from high prevalence of CRVAW to a society in which these forms of distinctive conflict-time harms do not occur. However, that does not address the broad range of other gendered harms that are still taking place, and which, because of their presence pre-conflict, laid the bedrock for that violence in the first place. In transformation, there is recognition of the fulsome range of VAW that may be present, as well as the history of gendered oppression that results in the ways that VAW occurs across pre, during and post-conflict contexts and their inter-relationship. When it comes to justice measures, transformational approaches would include the ways that law can address the harms that women experience during conflict, but go beyond the narrow definitions of VAW in law, and take approaches that are people-centered, as well as centered on the ways that various kinds of inequalities are at the roots of these violences.  The full study, Conflict-related Violence Against Women: Transforming Transition sets out a table in the final chapter, that proposes ways to make aspects of transitional justice more transformative.  It proposes that employing justice to promote transition and ultimately transformation is not simply just about ensuring legal accountability for crimes. Transformational transition should capture the relationship between the public and private, where the issues ordinarily understood as being within the private realm of women’s lives are recognized as the determinants of much that occurs for women during and after conflict.

What led your research to Liberia, Northern Ireland and Timor-Leste specifically? How do you see the transitions of conflict in these countries applying to other past and future conflicts around the world? 

I used these three case studies as ways to explore CRVAW – the book is focused on violence rather than on the country contexts themselves. I wanted to explore VAW in different kinds of conflicts, which these three represent, and spaces where there has been documentation of mass sexual violence, such as in Liberia, and a context where this has not been documented, such as in Northern Ireland. In that way the study can comparatively compare VAW across three very different kinds of political conflicts which have featured different aspects of associated forms of VAW. I also had had some experience in Timor-Leste and Liberia, and was living in Northern Ireland for the research period, and so my familiarity with the contexts enabled me to undertake the research.

Each conflict and its transition is unique, and the greatest learning from comparative research work is identifying how contextual factors specific to each setting matter and need to be recognised. The Northern Ireland context demonstrates that while mass sexual violence may not be evidenced in that conflict, other forms of VAW took place, and that through processes of dealing with the past, these require recognition and redress. The contexts of Liberia and Timor-Leste, which experienced the presence of large international UN missions, demonstrate that the ways that ideas of women’s rights and new laws and policies addressing VAW post-conflict are designed and introduced, makes a difference in whether and how different forms of VAW become visible and are addressed. All of the three contexts demonstrate that there are pre-conflict inequalities and forms of VAW that set the basis for women’s experiences of conflict-time harms, and that in turn impact on how VAW is understood and address post-conflict. This more fulsome approach to understanding and addressing VAW is what is needed going forward.

What do you hope to achieve from the publishing of this book?

The main aims of the book are to further our understanding of CRVAW. By providing examples of the ways that women experience forms of violence during conflict, I hope the book contributes to expanding recognition of a broader range of harms that women experience during conflict. The book also emphasises the importance of gender as a lens for understanding the violence in women’s lives. With the increasing securitisation of women’s experiences of war, I think it is important to come back to feminist approaches to VAW and demonstrate the relevance of gender to understanding violence in women’s lives.

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