|Dying of Sadness: Gender Sexual Violence and the HIV Epidemic (UNDP, 1999, 17 p.)|
The term "sexual violence" often appears in the literature but its definition is broad and the term is used to describe rape by acquaintances or strangers, by authority figures (including husbands), incest, child sexual abuse, pornography, stalking, sexual harassment and homicide.
Definitions are inherently normative. Defining sexual violence too broadly can reduce discussion to the level of the rhetorical, and risks obscuring the specifically sexualised nature of the violence and associated trauma. On the other hand, defining sexual violence too narrowly1 may fail to reveal the sheer diversity and scale of the problem and may lead to inappropriate or ineffective policy responses.
1 For example in many legal codes rape is defined exclusively in terms of penile-vaginal penetration. In effect, this reduces other kinds of penetration (and male victims) to the status of lesser offenses.
At its most fundamental, sexual violence describes the deliberate use of sex as a weapon to demonstrate power over, and to inflict pain and humiliation upon, another human being. Thus, sexual violence does not have to include direct physical contact between perpetrator and victim: threats, humiliation and intimidation may all be considered as sexually violent when they are used with the above purposes.
A number of international agreements and treaties, (see Annex 1) legitimise action in relation to gender, sexual violence and the HIV epidemic. However wide disparities persist between universal declarations and local realities. Many societies implicitly (or even explicitly) tolerate and condone sexually violent behaviour under specific circumstances: for example heads of household (usually males) may abuse others (wives, dependent relatives, children and servants) more or less with impunity2.
2 This is especially likely to be the case in situations where migrant laborers are recruited as domestic servants and their legal status in the country is entirely dependent upon their continuing employment. Such conditions may be a virtual license to abuse. Numerous such cases have been documented by international human rights agencies.
The Preliminary Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women
The Preliminary Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (1994) argues that women's vulnerability to violence is determined by their sexuality (resulting, for example, in rape or female genital mutilation (FGM)), from their relationship to particular men (domestic violence, dowry deaths), and from membership of groups where violence against women is a means of humiliation directed at specific groups (e.g. mass rape in conflict situations).
Violence can occur at any stage in the lifecycle ("from womb to tomb") and while some forms of violence are region- specific (e.g. FGM, bride burning, virginity tests), most are universal. Evidence suggests that the earlier the point in the life-cycle at which violence occurs, the more enduring are its effects.
The Report argues that violence against women is reinforced by doctrines of privacy and the sanctity of the family, and by legal codes which link individual, family or community honour to women's sexuality. However the greatest cause of violence against women, it is argued, is government tolerance and inaction. Its most significant consequence is the fear which inhibits women's full social and political participation.
Since the Preliminary Report was prepared, the Special Rapporteur has also conducted country visits to both Haiti and Rwanda.
Furthermore, while sexual violence appears to occur in most societies, it does so in quite different ways which in turn have significant implications for responses in terms of programming and policy. For example, the mass rape of women by soldiers3 during conflict situation is different from mass rape of men, and solitary acts of sexual violence in peacetime may have quite different implications from rape committed by acquaintances or by spouses (still far from universally recognised as a criminal offense).
3 While sexual offenses have been identified as war crimes since the 1940's it was only in 1995 that rape was specifically acknowledged as a distinct and prosecutable crime of war. Ehloe (1998) distinguishes between 3 different types of institutionalised military rape: recreational (the assumption that soldiers need constant access to sexual outlets), national security (when the police and military use rape to bolster state control over a population) and mass rape as an instrument of open warfare. Cynthia Enloe "Does Khaki Still Become You: The Militarisation of Women's Lives, revised edition, Berkeley; University of California Press, forthcoming 1998.