Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and the International Policy Level: Why Resilience Matters

By Professor Janine Natalya Clark

At the international policy level, many discussions about conflict-related sexual violence place a strong emphasis on some of the myriad ways that such violence leaves deep imprints in the lives of survivors, including psychologically. Relatedly, there is a heavy accent on the needs of victims-survivors (and in particular women). Such needs, including access to healthcare and psychosocial support, are of course extremely important. Primarily accentuating needs, however, puts the focus on what was done to these women and men, deflecting from what they are doing now – and from some of the many ways that they are dealing with their experiences and actively seeking to move on with their lives. Indeed, it remains striking that international policy discourse on conflict-related sexual violence (as well as scholarship on the issue) has significantly overlooked the concept of resilience. At best, the latter is cursorily mentioned but not given the attention it merits.

The 2020 report on conflict-related sexual violence by the United Nations Secretary-General, for example, states simply: ‘A survivor-centred, rights-based response aims to create a safe and participatory environment, including through contextualized solutions that build resilience and address the diverse experiences of all survivors’. Both the meaning of resilience and the question of how to ‘build’ it, however, are left unaddressed. More importantly, the idea of building resilience detracts from some of the many ways that victims-survivors of sexual and other interrelated forms of violence are already building resilience in the context of their own everyday lives. Even when such resilience is acknowledged (directly or indirectly), albeit briefly, the use of accompanying adjectives such as 'remarkable' and 'exceptional' is unhelpful. First, it risks potentially creating new 'hierarchies of victimhood' based on degrees of ‘remarkableness’. Second, such adjectives convey the idea that resilience is to be found in the extraordinary, but this is to misconstrue what resilience actually is. As Masten has argued, ‘What began as a quest to understand the extraordinary has revealed the power of the ordinary’. Fundamentally, resilience is about the everyday and about getting on with living life, despite significant and sometimes cumulative adversities.

However, individuals do not exhibit resilience in isolation. They do so through the connections that they have with the worlds around them – their social ecologies. These ecologies can include children, families, communities, land, animals. Part of the originality of the CSRS project – which focuses on victims-survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia and Uganda – lies in its development of a connectivity framework for thinking about resilience. In short, resilience can be analysed as a story about connectivities – how do multi-layered connectivities support resilience in diverse socio-cultural contexts; how do victims-survivors actively utilize them; what does sexual violence and conflict more broadly do to these connectivities; how do individuals actively build new connectivities?

Yesterday, in a workshop organized in collaboration with the Dr Denis Mukwege Foundation, we had the opportunity to interactively discuss some of the main findings from the CSRS project with a small group of women (all of whom referred to themselves as survivors) from SEMA: The Global Network of Victims and Survivors to End Wartime Sexual Violence. All of them, in different ways, affirmed the significance of connectivity, including in their relationships with each other. Their delight at being together again, albeit via a Zoom screen, was obvious; they greeted their fellow ‘sisters’ with beaming smiles, deeply connected at an emotional level through their shared experiences. One of the women explained: ‘Hearing the voices of my sisters and their encouraging words gives me a new lease of life’. Another emphasized that she had gained strength from being a member of SEMA and from sharing her story with others whom she knew would understand. For her, this was an important part of her journey.

Their shared experiences, however, extended beyond just their experiences of suffering and pain. All of the women led their own organizations for victims-survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, or were closely involved in them, and this is where something particularly interesting emerged from the discussion. The basic concept of connectivity can be visualized as a spider's web, the different strands of the web representing the potential multiple connections in an individual’s life. The SEMA members participating in the workshop spoke relatively little about supportive ‘webs’ in their lives; some had lost their families, some had faced/continued to face stigma from their communities. What they emphasized much more was their role in actively spinning and ‘building’ these webs, in order to connect and support fellow victims-survivors. One of women reflected on how she had started to build connections after speaking out about her own experiences, and how she made a choice to use those ‘bad experiences’ to help other women and girls. Another member of the group described how she made the decision to finish her education and get a Bachelor’s degree, as a way of fighting for – and with – the women in her organization.

In short, there is a need – and yesterday’s workshop confirmed this – for much more discussion about resilience in the context of conflict-related sexual violence at the international policy level. To be clear, this is not about conveying the message that all victims-survivors should exhibit resilience. Nor is it about promoting resilience as part of a neoliberal agenda and simply leaving victims-survivors to ‘deal with’ adversity alone. Rather, it is about recognizing the important work that some victims-survivors, including the members of SEMA, are doing to support each other and their social ecologies more broadly. It is also about highlighting the need for policy initiatives – and not grand political gestures like the 2014 Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict – that bring victims-survivors together (even if virtually) from across the globe to share experiences and to develop mutually supportive cross-cultural solidarities and connectivities. Of course, not all victims-survivors are involved in organizations and not all of them are able to, or have opportunities to, help fellow victims-survivors. Moreover, this is just one example of resilience. The bigger point is that resilience, in its myriad forms, is one of the important and neglected legacies of conflict-related sexual violence that, until now, has remained significantly in the background. Bringing it into the foreground is necessary, not least  because resilience is partly about hope and giving hope. One of the women in yesterday’s workshop held up a mug that she was using. On it were the words: ‘Another world is on her way’.