Sexual Violence and Armed Conflict

Book Review

Reviewer: Veronika Váchalová

Publisher: Polity Press ISBN: 978-0-7456-4188-1
Author's page: Janie L. Leatherman

Sexual Violence and Armed Conflict

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Sexual violence has a history as long as the practise of war itself. It has been a part of the spoils of war that represent the gravest abuses of human rights. Nowadays, despite enormous humanitarian protests and efforts it is continuously used as a prevalent war tactic and a tool of war. Janie L. Leatherman looks at the causes and consequences of sexual violence in armed conflicts. Her book Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict is timely. She creates a link between global political economic structures’ involvement in armed conflicts and violent acts (gender-based violence, sexual violence and rape in particular) that come with it. Her main argument is that sexual violence is encouraged by patriarchal system of government and by view of hegemonic masculinity and dominance (not over women only). 

Commonly, sexual assault is seen as an outrage to the husband or the whole family. Therefore, it is very hard to talk to the victims. Many victims of sexual assault do not concede it, which causes lack of testimonies and thus makes it extremely challenging to deal with perpetrator and possibly persecute them. Leatherman argues, that it has been historically difficult to prove rape because of women’s low social standing in many cultures. 

The book begins by emphasising the necessity of ending the silence of victims of sexual violence through conceptualizing sexual violence, explaining its occurrence in armed conflicts through various schools of theoretical approaches; up to the ending impunity and the problematic of consent and proving rape. This introductory subchapters offer explicit definition of sexual violence and the references to rape found in earlier documents of recorded history and early religious texts where she, historically speaking, investigates sexual violence in armed conflicts as a taboo – impossible task of understanding it. 

Leatherman provides a valuable overview of sexual violence used in armed conflicts, its impact on victims and their communities, posing question of why perpetrators do it. This all is supported by her examination of the dimensions of sexual violence in conflict. Despite this book provides focus on warfare, Leatherman did mention the domestic environment and domestic violence including sexual assault as well and virtually linked it to predispositions. By looking theoretically at feminism, Leatherman argues feminity is never discusses in universal way in contrast to masculinity. This universal tone accuses all men of being capable of sexual violence in wartime. 

According to Leatherman, sexual violence is a ‘runaway norm’ because it leaves no sexual taboo untouched, as it is not only affecting women. Impact of sexual violence as a ‘runaway norm’, according to Leatherman, can be described via four thresholds (type of sexual violence, taboo targets, oppressed agency, loss of neutrality and safe space). Throughout the book, Leatherman uses many examples of armed conflicts where sexual violence has taken place, such as the DRC, Rwanda, and the rest of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. She uses Sierra Leone and the Congo as focal case studies describing in depth the consequences on societies. She completes the arguments by further war tactic of destroying safe spaces (churches and schools) and the apparent approval of the government in its support of hegemonic masculinity. 

In the second part of this book, Leatherman focuses on the global political economy and its contribution to this issue. According to the author, propaganda, military authority and a sense of obedience are at the core of promotion of aggressiveness and hyper-masculinity. Soldiers have been forced to take part in the conflict and in return they gain power and control back through wartime rape. 

The most valuable point of this book is that multinational corporations must be held responsible for their part in maintenance of sexual violence during armed conflicts. Rather, they take advantage by supporting repressive governments. In order to end this, Leatherman suggests countries must reduce the gender gap and give equal rights and access to multifaceted centres to women. Citizens of targeted countries should be educated about the consequences of sexual violence and humanitarian aid should be expanded. 

The language used by the author is very clear and concise. Many testimonies are included in order to create the proper feeling of each individual reader – that is most often the anger. Frankly, this book uses many concrete cases that are hard to absorb but it must be considered as an advantage of reading this book because it is eye-opening and honest. 

The book provides possible ways how to deal with sexual violence and how to improve conflict situations. However, they are largely hypothetical and their function in reality is in question. That is not to say the suggestions are not appropriate. The opposite is true. Various organisations are already attempting to educate citizens of targeted countries but it has not shown any positive numbers in decrease of sexual violence.  There clearly needs to be further measures taken.

This book is a welcomed source of knowledge about not only sexual violence in theory, but also about the debate behind this issue. It is honest and provocative at the same time. This book can be used as a textbook for students, but also as a research text for scholars, or even policy makers. I would strongly recommend this book to read before doing any further research because it is clear in giving information and it evokes proper feelings any scholar should have about this topic.

2020 - Volume 14 Issue 1