The 2012 Human Security Report caused some consternation when it was released recently. The report, bearing the full title Human Security Report 2012: Sexual Violence, Education, and War: Beyond the Mainstream Narrative, focuses more than a hundred pages on the topic of sexual violence and armed conflict, an issue that tops the agenda of many academics and policy advisors working on what could broadly be termed ‘gender and security’ concerns.
It was intriguing, therefore, that the report was greeted not with endorsements but with tweets calling it ‘irresponsible and sensationalized’ and blogs that systematically engaged with the ways in which the report might ‘end[…] up hurting the very people [it] could actually help.’ Having read the report carefully, I think both of those critiques are largely valid. I would add a third: this report ignores decades of feminist academic research on gender and security and, in doing so, puts into question the relationship between academia and policy advice, a topic of core interest to this website’s creators.
Megan H. MacKenzie wrote a blog response to the Report titled, ‘War Rape is Not Declining’, to challenge the sensationalist headlines that were derived from its publication. As suggested by the title of her piece, MacKenzie refuses to accept the terms of debate as set out by the Report, which claims that ‘indirect evidence suggests’ that the incidence of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) ‘has declined worldwide over the past two decades’ (HSR 2012, p.4) in line with the decline of conflicts more broadly. Andrew Mack, the director of the Human Security Report Project and editor-in-chief of the Report, recently reiterated this position, stating that ‘there is no credible evidence to suggest that it [sexual violence] is increasing, as many major reports and senior officials – all cited in the Report – have claimed’ in response to MacKenzie’s critique.
MacKenzie argues, and I agree, that this position is untenable if we are seeking to engender thoughtful policy-oriented discussions about conflict-related sexualized violence (CRSV): stating such a claim as the foundation for a report that purports to be, at least in part, about sexualised violence and war is indeed irresponsible. The idea that Mack’s position – that ‘If it is indeed the case that conflict-related sexual violence tends to decline when wars stop, then seeking to stop wars may be an effective way to reduce such violence’ – is a serious response to the issue of CRSV would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic an issue that we are addressing. It makes not one jot of difference whether rates of CRSV are increasing, decreasing or holding entirely steady: as long as there are still incidents of war rape then the issue demands serious scholarly attention rather than soundbites.
And what of the claim that it may have unintended consequences for sound and gender-sensitive policy? A recent blog commented, in support of the Report, that ‘policies based on repeated slogans and incorrect statistics means that too many aid dollars may be directed to victims who don’t need that much help, while money is unavailable to assist those who do.’ I agree with aspects of this position, and recently published a short think-piece in International Studies Today on how assumptions about gender function in the context of conflict-related sexual violence to produce flawed policy frameworks in this area. Where I depart from this position, however, is in the assumption that there might ‘victims who don’t need that much help’. I simply can’t imagine what kind of survivor of rape or sexualised violation might not need help.
Further, it’s ironic that the Report critiques what it calls the ‘mainstream narrative’ of conflict-related sexual violence on the basis that it is ‘partial, misleading, and has negative implications for policy’ (HSR 2012, p.3). In backing the claim that ‘in the majority of countries in conflict the reported levels of sexual violence are far less than the mainstream narrative suggests’ (HSR 2012, p.2) and propounding the view that ‘The mainstream narrative tends to treat the impact of war on the worst affected countries as if it were representative of all countries in conflict. It is not’ (HSR 2012, p.3), the Report lends itself to acting as evidence for those that would seek to direct resources away from research into, and appropriate treatment of, conflict-related sexualized violence. We have to hope that this is a negative implication of the Report’s potential usage in policy advice or formulation that the Report’s authors have some way to combat.
Mine is not an argument against the use of evidence in policy formulation, but a plea for awareness of the many ways in which all evidence – especially in relation to something as sensitive and traumatic as war rape – is partial. The blogger I quoted above states that ‘it’s hard to find grounds on which to dispute most of these claims. The evidence is solid.’ I would suggest that the evidence cited in the report is no more solid than, for example, Will Storr’s ethnographic engagement with male rape survivors in Uganda, the recent report from Heal Africa that identified 2517 survivors of CRSV in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the first half of 2012 alone, or the data collected by Women Under Siege regarding the prevalence of rape in Syria. I am not alone in pointing out this tension; the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom asks, ‘What is “indirect evidence” when juxtaposed against the testimony and data collected from women’ (and, of course, men)?
It worries me that the Report allows only some forms of evidence and ignores others, and it worries me that the Report implies that we only need to retain a focus on war rape if it is increasing. With regard to the relationship that the Report implies between policy advocacy and academia – well, that worries me too. I was frankly astounded to see that the report’s engagement with academic scholarship was so limited. The Report could have engaged, for example, with any or all of the following: Alison 2007; Aranburu 2010; Banwell 2012; Bedont and Hall Martinez 1999; Boesten 2012; Buss 2007, 2009; Copelon 1994, 2000; De Brouwer 2005; De Londras 2007, 2011; Eboe-Osuji 2010, 2012; Farwell 2004; Gabriel 2004; Hansen 2000; Jones 2002, 2006; Kirby 2012; Lewis 2010; MacKenzie 2009; Majnoo and McRaith 2011; Mertus 2004; Onyango and Hampanda 2011; Pedersen 2011; Schott 2011; Sjoberg 2011; Trenholm, Olsson and Ahlberg 2011.* This issue cuts both ways, of course: how can academics make sure that their research is reaching the desks of the people writing policy and advocating on the issues with which they are concerned? But that is a topic for another post; here I simply want to make the point that in this instance the onus was firmly on the authors of the Human Security Report to seek out and engage with this literature, and they did not.
This report is both framed and defended as evidence-based discussion. I cannot comprehend how the authors of this report did not see fit to engage with at least some of the pieces of scholarship I have mentioned above. To be quite clear: I find it distinctly problematic that this report, on conflict and sexualised violence, did not address the research findings of any of the 233 articles on this topic published in International Feminist Journal of Politics alone. To my mind, that casts doubt on the evidence base of this Report and, by association, its findings. Moreover, it casts doubt on the credibility of the Report as a whole, given that its authors did not care to add to the existing debates on the topic of conflict-related sexualized violence but instead presumed that the cursory scan of the field that they conducted was representative of the field itself. Such a dereliction of academic duty is, frankly, insulting to the many hundreds of scholars whose work was ignored in the production of the Human Security Report 2012. These slights do, of course, pale into insignificance when compared with the damage that could be done to survivors of CRSV and policy initiatives aimed at bettering their situation using the catchy soundbites that were enabled by the wilful marginalisation of feminist research. In a study aimed at disrupting mainstream narratives, I would like to have seen further acknowledgement – some acknowledgement, in fact – of all the efforts that others have made in this area.
Laura J. Shepherd, University of New South Wales, Australia.
Twitter: @drljshepherd #FemSecSt, #sexualizedviolence
* Apologies that the majority of these pieces are behind publisher paywalls. That’s material for another post.