2019 has been a busy year for initiatives, commemorations, and conferences on conflict-related sexual violence. Most notably, the UN is holding a high profile ceremony to mark the ten year anniversary of the establishment of the UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict. Here in the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will hold its second international event of the Prevent Sexual Violence Initiative. It has also been a busy year for scholars and report writers, with some 150 journal articles alone being published on this theme to date.
Despite this political and scholarly activity, there is little consensus about the pervasiveness, forms, or causes of conflict-related sexual violence. Essential questions such as the practices and politics of gendering, “doing gender”, or the intertwined nature of violence and sexuality, have increasingly disappeared from public, political, and academic discourse about sexual violence in armed conflict. Moreover, even though many insights about the phenomenon have accumulated, the perpetration of sexual violence in armed conflicts still continues unabated.
Given these challenges, it is time to carefully reconsider the ‘state of the art’ of the research in the field. We need to consider how to build new ways of approaching this complex phenomenon. What do we know (and not yet know) about the practices of sexual violence in armed conflict? How can we better describe incidences, motivations and responses? What kind of questions do we need to ask to better understand the problem? And what theoretical approaches, methods and forms of communication are appropriate to shed light on these blind spots?
A new collection of essays, In Plain Sight: Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, takes up these questions. The book provides a timely evaluation of the ‘state of the art’ of the field and offers new directions for research, developed through an interdisciplinary and comparative exchange between leading scholars and practitioners; the use of case studies from different geopolitical, social and cultural spaces; and multifaceted theoretical approaches and methodological frameworks. The book will be launched in London on 4 November 2019. In keeping with the dialogical approach of the book, the launch event speakers include Professor Joanna Bourke; the editors of ‘In Plain Sight’, Gaby Zipfel, Regina Mühlhäuser, and myself; followed by Dubravka Zarkov and Urvashi Butalia in conversation.
The collection is compiled by the International Research Group ‘Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict’ (SVAC), which has been working on this issue since 2010 (see www.warandgender.net). This work has shown the importance of comparative exploration together with international and interdisciplinary exchange. To enable this exchange across different approaches and disciplines in the collection, we developed a framework identifying key perspectives for understanding the research field and its current problematic. This is reflected in the organisation of the papers in the volume into four key perspectives: War/Power; Violence/Sexuality; Gender/Engendering; Visibility/Invisibility.
In the course of our collaboration in the SVAC network, we realised that it is crucial to go beyond conventional ways of working in order to grasp the potential of different disciplinary approaches, new empirical findings and artistic reflections. In the volume, we chose different formats to catch and represent the richness of experiences and methods. ‘Intervention’ articles introduce and discuss key concepts, debates and problems. These are followed by more open reflections on approaches and case studies. We have also included a continuing self-reflection in the form of a group conversation on how we generate knowledge on this subject. This conversation represents the key conclusions of the discussion of the SVAC network and also demonstrates how different disciplinary approaches communicate with each other.
Having worked in this field for twenty years, I have become dismayed at the narrow disciplinary focus, apolitical framing, and academic over-production that is increasingly visible in the field. In Plain Sight, and the work of SVAC, points to an alternative approach to knowledge production, which is collaborative, interdisciplinary and reflective. As the book shows, the results of this working together across our disciplines and regions produced important new directions for research, as well as identifying traps and gaps existing in the field for researchers and practitioners. Our exchanges have shown the necessity of recognising the complex and mutable factors involved, and of situating sexual violence in armed conflicts in the broader historical, social and cultural context of gendered social conditions, cultural ideas and attitudes; and political strategies and power relations.
The long-term cooperation in the SVAC network reveals the importance of understanding research in this area as a work in progress because of the scope and breadth of the topic. A critical self-reflection in the research process is necessary in order to minimise traps in the epistemological process. What do we assume when we deal with this subject? Which gaps in our knowledge are left unexamined? What are the ideational underpinnings of our knowledge? And what are the political formations that these ideational frameworks structure and support? In Plain Sight aims to be a first step in exploring these questions, and we hope that the dialogue at the forthcoming book launch will open further conversations about how much we know and how much more we have to learn about conflict-related sexual violence.
SHaME and SVAC are holding a book launch on Monday 04 November 2019 to mark the publication of ‘In Plain Sight’. Please visit our Events page for more details on the programme and how to register.
*Opinions expressed by guest bloggers are their own and don’t necessarily represent the views of the SHaME Research Hub.