Those who work in refuges for women escaping from domestically violent men become accustomed to seeing certain injuries, like signs of strangulation, bitemarks, bruises, bald patches where hair has been torn from the head. Refuge workers with Women’s Aid in Northern Ireland, interviewed as part of research conducted in 1992 by Monica McWilliams and Joan McKiernan, spoke of a particular mark they had been shown by some of the women they were protecting. “This was a circular bruise on the neck,” recalls Professor McWilliams. “It was caused by the muzzle of a gun.” The political conflict known as the Troubles was intense at the time, and police, British soldiers and republican and loyalist paramilitaries were all armed. What Women’s Aid was witnessing was one of the gendered impacts of armed conflict – there were men who were using weapons to which they had access for purposes they variously described as being to wage armed struggle, to protect the community, to keep the peace, or to deal with terrorists – to terrorise, dominate and harm women. This was “militarised masculinity” in action.
When the Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP) consortium, led by the Global Justice Academy at the University of Edinburgh, set out to investigate the gender dynamic of political settlements, it did so with the awareness that it would need to dig deep in order to uncover what co-ordinator Dr Catherine O’Rourke calls “the gendered and sexed nature of the basic concepts”. First and most obvious among these is the term “violence”. This, O’Rourke reports, was understood to be something that happened between armed factions. The PSRP had a feminist approach, which is to say applying itself to work aimed at ending women’s inequality, and taking it as well established that violence against women is both a symptom of such inequality and a cause of its persistence.
It was obvious, then, that a key area of work would involve looking at violence against women in the context of the other violence, the violence that was recognised as conflict and deemed to require political settlement. The former takes place largely in private, the latter in public. The PSRP identified an “implicit conception of the political settlement as a public sphere phenomenon, insulated from private sphere gender relations.” This had to be challenged. As O’Rourke comments, “The personal is political is a powerful feminist mantra, but it is also a defining tenet of feminist research design.” The programme adopted an innovative structure which looked at the issues in a global context and crucially drew in the voices of community based organisations as well as those of individual women, some of them scattered by conflict as refugees. Funding from the UK’s Department for International Development with a remit to benefit developing countries enabled the gender project to do ambitious work, and the Programme also cooperated with UN Women with regards to its Middle East and North Africa focus.
Dr Aisling Swaine did a comparative study of conflict related violence against women in Liberia, Timor Leste and Northern Ireland. She found that any understanding of the issue had to start with an investigation of the degree and range of such violence that was regarded as “normal” in pre-conflict society. “During the wars in Liberia women experienced mass violence including rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage. This did not emerge out of nowhere. Before the war men practised polygamy and marriages were agreed among men without seeking the consent of women. In Timor women were “given” in marriage by men. The country has a history that includes Portugese occupation for 300 years, the Japanese occupation, the Indonesian period, and the presence of UN peacekeepers. These were 4 patriarchal iterations, all characterised by violence against women including sexual abuse. Women were shamed and ostractised. They had children as a result of rape,” she says. “In Northern Ireland domestic violence and rape were occurring before the conflict. What happens is that when a conflict erupts, the “norms” get corrupted.”
In Liberia, rape has been recognised as a war crime which was used strategically. In NI, because there was no evidence of widespread “strategic” rape within the conflict, insufficient attention was paid to the opportunistic use of all forms of violence against women in their homes and within families and communities. It wasn’t just that men had guns – it was also that, for example, women were largely unprotected in a society that had traditionally turned a blind eye to gender based violence. Many saw the police as partisan and not to be trusted, or were unable to go to the police because they were regarded as an enemy force by the male combatants within her community.
McWilliams was able to make a particularly interesting contribution to the PSRP. Assisted by Jessica Doyle, she replicated her 1992 research in 2016 and compared the outcomes. Globally, the highest rates of inter-personal violence (IPV) are found in countries recently affected by wars. A study from Uganda showed women in conflict areas were 37% more likely to have experienced it than women in peaceful areas. In Northern Ireland there were 5,903 incidents reported in 1995/6 compared to 29,000 in 2016/17. However, McWilliams cautions that statistics cannot measure the extent to which such a dramatic increase may be to do with increased trust in and ability to have recourse to the justice system in a post conflict society. Comparing her 1992 findings with those in 2016, she found a 40% increase in the proportion of women who described the police as “helpful.” The 2016 study noted a decrease in armed violence against women after illegal weapons were decommissioned and legal ones were regulated.
The PSRP addressed the stability of peace processes and their inclusiveness, the process of making sure that peace and justice are aligned. Professor Christine Bell who heads the Global Justice Academy says that while women are often now included in processes, it can by no means be assumed that their participation is meaningful, or that the women most impacted by the violence are at the table. Furthermore, even if commitments to equality for women after a conflict are made, that does not mean they will be delivered. She reflects on her own experience as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland during the period when the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated. “When we got human rights written into the Agreement we thought our work was done,” she says. “Then we discovered how hard it was to get it all into the legislation that followed.” There is a risk of attrition at every stage, since inclusion is not necessarily welcomed by those accustomed to having the power to exclude. “Typically some things change for the better, others stay the same, and others mutate or go backwards,” says Bell. “When it comes to women’s equality, there is a constant need for vigilance.”
About the Author: Susan McKay is an author and journalist whose books include “Bear In Mind These Dead” (Faber 2007) and “Northern Protestants – An Unsettled People” (Blackstaff 2000). She was one of the founders of the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre in the 1980s and was CEO of the National Women’s Council of Ireland from 2009 to 2012.
Image Credits: Global Justice Academy. All Rights Reserved.