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Hommes armés, femmes aguerries

Fenneke Reysoo

Les douleurs invisibles après conflit

Gender Violence, Health and Healing in Situations of Ethno-national Conflicts: The Cases of the Former Yugoslavia and Tajikistan

Violencia de género, trauma y tratamiento en situaciones de conflicotos etnico-national. Los casos de ex-Yugoslavia y Tajikistan.

Annemiek Richters


Cette intervention parle des expériences que l’auteure a vécues en ex-Yougoslavie et au Tadjikistan en travaillant sur la question de la violence du genre. La violence du genre est étudiée dans toute sa complexité interpersonnelle, socioculturelle, économique et politique. La complexité du phénomène demande des réponses thérapeutiques et préventives qui tiennent compte du spectre entier de ces facteurs. La mise sur pied des approches et des projets de santé pour le traitement des traumatismes causés par un conflit nécessite une vision holistique. La promotion de la santé dans ces cas ne peut se faire sans les aborder comme une question de droits fondamentaux des femmes.

Texte intégral

1My contribution will focus on the presentation of a gender perspective on the violence specifically conducted against women in all phases of a conflict. Specific issues to be addressed will be the function and meaning of the various forms of this kind of violence, its consequences for women and for society, and ways to prevent it and care for its victims. The article consists of two parts: the first discusses general issues, while the second elaborates on these issues in the context of the conflicts in the Former Yugoslavia and Tajikistan. Both countries went through a conflict at about the same time. While the conflict of the Former Yugoslavia stood in the spotlight, the one in Tajikistan remained ignored from the outside world.

2These two countries were chosen because I have had an experience in both. This made me read more about developments in the two countries than I would have done otherwise. During the war in the Former Yugoslavia I worked 9 months (1994) for Doctors without Borders in Sarajevo in order to develop and co-ordinate a community mental health program. Back home, in the Netherlands, I was involved as a consultant for different psychosocial projects in the Former Yugoslavia. In 1999-2000 I worked as a consultant for the World Health Organization (Regional Office Europe) and the Swiss Development Co-operation in a study on violence against women in post-war Tajikistan. I was particularly interested in the gender conflicts in both countries. For this study I build on the knowledge about gender violence that I gained from a literature review conducted in 1993 about violence against women in the South (Richters, 1994). In 1993 literature on violence against women related to conflict situations was scarce. In the following 7 years, however, literature on that theme increased tremendously. Yet, as my article will show, much empirical and analytical work remains to be done. Within the scope of one article I cannot discuss the issue of gender violence in the context of two conflicts in detail. My purpose is merely to raise some issues hoping that others will take them up in their own studies in countries around the world where conflicts rage or have raged recently. I will stress the complexity of issues related to gender violence in conflict situations, but as a physician and anthropologist I am interested in health and healing approached from a cultural comparative perspective and I will highlight issues of health and healing in particular situations.

I. Gender violence: forms, definitions, causes, consequences and responses

1. Gender violence in peace and war

  • 1 In every country where reliable, large-scale studies have been conducted, results indicate that bet (...)

3Gender violence is an almost universal phenomenon. Only a few societies seem to be exempt from it (Levinson, 1989; Counts et al., 1992). It takes many different forms. Some of those forms, like male violence against an intimate female partner, can be found in almost any society1, while other forms, like female circumcision and dowry murder, are culturally specific. Gender violence occurs in every war, but only in particular wars is one particular form of gender violence, sexual violence in the form of rape, part of the war strategy and can be called “war rape”.

4A problem in addressing gender violence cross-culturally is that as yet there is no uncontested definition of gender violence. Violence is a broad concept, lending itself to various definitions and theories, significations and categorizations. On the whole violence is seen as an act carried out by one person with the intent, or perceived intent, of causing pain and injury to another. In addition to physical injury, however, violence in a fuller sense includes sexual and psychological abuse. The latter is generally experienced by women as the most painful. It is therefore important that a definition of gender violence is not restricted to physical violence. Women in developing countries have stressed that economic violence should be added as a fourth form (Hof & Richters, 1999). Examples of economically disempowering acts include preventing someone from working, not providing support when money is available, and forcing a woman out of the house where she lives.

5When the act of violence is directed against a woman because of her sex, or affects women disproportionally, one generally speaks of gender violence. At times gender violence may be consciously used to perpetuate male power and control; at other times that intent may be missing, but the effects are nonetheless harm or suffering in a way that reinforces female subordination. Accordingly gender violence then comprises any act of force or coercion directed at an individual woman or girl that jeopardizes her life, body, psychological integrity, or freedom and that perpetuates female subordination (Heise, 1994).

6A more comprehensive definition of gender violence would move beyond discrete acts to include forms of ongoing, institutionalized sexism, such as discrimination against girl children in food and medical care, lack of access to “safe” contraception and abortion, and laws and social policy that perpetuate subordination without necessarily leading to physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering. The appeal of such an all-embracing definition is that it would permit many violations of women’s rights to be addressed under the rubric of violence. But a drawback is that it is so all-embracing that one loses focus (Heise, idem).

7In 1993 the United Nations General Assembly adopted at its 48 th Session the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. This Declaration was the result of worldwide women’s activism against gender violence. It was drawn up in order to stress that violence against women occurring across the world should finally be acknowledged and addressed as an issue of human rights. The UN definition offers a list of abuses that represents a compromise between a desire to be inclusive and the need to keep the definition specific.

8In the Declaration, violence is defined to include “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life”. Article 2 of the Declaration states that “violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to the following: a) physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation; b) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere; trafficking of women and forced prostitution, c) Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs”.

  • 2 Sexual violence as a war strategy may include more than rape defined as physical vaginal penetratio (...)
  • 3 See for a criticism of feminist analyses of rape in war, analyses that disregard the ethnic dimensi (...)

9In this article my main focus will be on a) various types of domestic violence and b) rape as part of the organized violence of war (war rape). The limited definition of gender violence – violence as a disc rete act directed at one person – does apply to domestic violence. While discussing this form of violence I will emphatically conceptualize it as an act embedded in the socio-economic, political, and ideological context of power relations between men and women, as violence which reflects power imbalances inherent to patriarchal society. War rape asks for a different definition in cases where it is executed in the context of organized violence (in the guise of state violence, ethnic conflict or civil war). Organized violence can be defined as the inflicting of significant and avoidable pain and suffering on others by an organized group according to a declared or implied strategy and/or system of ideas and attitudes (Richters, 1994). The definition of “rape” adopted by the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia is “a physical invasion of a sexual nature, committed on a person under circumstances which are coercive” (quoted from Haydn, 2000: 27)2. War rape, however, is not simply an action of one individual person on the body of another, but a social action. In situations of ethno-national conflicts rapes are committed because both the perpetrators and their victims see themselves as components of larger social entities, and rape would have a serious impact on the relations of those entities (and thus of their members) to each other (Haydn, 2000: 28). Thus rape is not used in the first instance to regulate power relations between the sexes and perpetuate female subordination, but rather to regulate power relations between two competing groups3. Thus, in the ethno-nationalist conflicts of the Former Yugoslavia and Tajikistan, women’s bodies are used as a prominent battleground on which the conflicts have been waged.

2. The causation of gender violence

  • 4 See also Heise et al. 1999 in which the content of Heise’s model is reproduced in adapted form.

10The various forms of gender violence need to be understood in the particular contexts in which they occur if one wants to work towards the prevention of gender violence and the treatment of its victims. There are many factors to distinguish in the social environment that may be conducive to gender violence. Increasingly, researchers use an “ecological framework” to understand the interplay of personal, situational and socio-cultural factors that combine to cause abuse. Heise (1998) used the model as a framework to understand partner violence. Based on a wide range of studies she identified the factors that increase the likelihood that a man will abuse his partner4.

11At the individual level the relevant factors with regard to the perpetrator include being abused as a child or witnessing marital violence in the home, having an absent or rejecting father, extreme use of alcohol or other substances, ownership of weapons and loss of status.

12At the level of the family and relationships, cross-cultural studies have cited male control of wealth and decision-making within the family and marital conflict as strong predictors of abuse.

13At community level women’s isolation and lack of social support, poverty and low socio-economic status, together with male peer groups that condone or legitimize men’s violence, predict higher rates of violence.

14 At societal level studies around the world have found that violence against women is most common where gender roles are rigidly defined and enforced and where the concept of masculinity is linked to toughness, male honor, or dominance. Other cultural norms associated with abuse include tolerance of physical punishment of women and children, acceptance of violence as a means to settle interpersonal disputes, and the perception that men have “ownership” over women.

15The more risk factors are present and the stronger the interaction between the various risk factors, the higher the likelihood of violence and the more complex the necessary interventions to prevent violence. What the specific risk factors are and how they interact may vary with the situation and society. When I discuss gender violence in Tajikistan I will show that in this country we can distinguish a few culturally specific risk factors not listed above. Furthermore I will indicate when I discuss gender violence in the Former Yugoslavia that we should be aware that the presence and prevalence of certain risk factors and the nature of their possible interactions may change over time, for instance in the pre-conflict, conflict and post-conflict phase.

16Conversely, it can be illuminating to focus on factors which are predictive of little or no gender violence. Possible protective factors within the immediate social context for partner violence may include community characteristics such as women’s involvement in groups or their mutual support, possibility of land ownership and resources mobilization, or possibility of maintaining custody of their children upon separation. In cross-cultural studies, whether the society under study is matrilineal or patrilineal is a criteria singled out as relevant. A number of studies have shown that in matrilineal societies relationships between husbands and wives are not as tense and adversarial as in patrilineal ones.

17It has often been postulated that the systemic daily violence inflicted upon women and children in the family in times of so-called peace is a predictive factor for gender violence in the context of the organized violence of war. Whether a close relationship between both forms of gender violence does exist or not is a question that has not been answered yet. Nor do we know much about the precise nature of the possible connection between the two. Answers to these questions should be sought first of all by studying both forms of violence in specific socio-cultural and historical circumstances. Only recent has some attention finally been paid to the linkage of domestic violence and war rape in the context of the ethno-nationalist conflict of the Former Yugoslavia (see below), following the last decade’s exclusive focus on war rape in that part of the world.

18Mass rape in the war fought in Bosnia gave a sudden impetus to the appearance of a body of literature discussing the function and meaning of rape in war (Richters, 1998). In that literature mass rape is often presented as a universal occurrence in war. Haydn (2000), however, defends the thesis that indeed mass rape is common in ethnic or nationalist conflicts, but it is not a universal occurrence. Using South Asian and Bosnian data, he argues that mass rape is likely when such conflicts take place during the partition of a territory or a population, when the state itself is liminal, both its territory and control over it uncertain. These factors can thus be conceptualized as risk factors for mass rape during the conflict. In the cases presented by Haydn, perpetrators and victims of mass violence often speak the same dialects of the same languages and frequently were neighbors, at least acquaintances, before their communities were disrupted. Violence is then used to ensure that there will be no future coexistence, and rape seems to be a powerful weapon, even more powerful than murder, to bring about that end. Rapists rape in order to make the victims not want to return. The message of rape is particularly effective when the adversaries are groups for whom the honor of the group is determined by the honor of its women and by the masculinity of its men. This cultural norm can thus be conceived as a further risk factor. Studies of cases where rape is intentionally avoided are rare. There is some evidence, however, that rape is avoided in conflicts in which the state is not itself threatened, and thus groups feel that they will continue to coexist.

3. Gender violence as a comprehensive issue requiring a comprehensive response

19Gender violence is a complex issue, being an issue of human rights, health and development (Richters, 1994). It is an issue of human rights in so far as violence is a threat to women’s life, liberty or security. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women refers to all the former human rights instruments that should in principle be sufficient for the elimination of violence against women. However, this form of violence never got any detailed attention. One of the important steps forward is that domestic violence, which has always been considered a private affair, is placed by the Declaration within the context of international human rights laws and practices; this makes governments responsible for the elimination of this kind of violence. Another matter is the frequent lack of political will to implement the Declaration. A recent victory of the women’s movement is that the Yugoslavia Tribunal in the Hague has convicted (23 February 2001) three war criminals because of their involvement in the rape of women in 1992 in Foca (Bosnia-Herzegovina). This verdict is historic. For the first time in history sexual violence was included in the reasons for a verdict as a crime against humanity. Instead of feeling guilty and ashamed, being ostracized from their community and deprived from their dignity, women who have experienced this terrible crime as well as their families and communities can now perceive war rape as a crime against humanity and demand that justice be done. The courts are obviously only one of the possible arenas for this to occur.

20Justice is a crucial element in healing from some of the wounds resulting from gender violence. Considering the many consequences of gender violence, however, justice is generally not sufficient. The health consequences can be many. They can be non-fatal in the form of physical injuries, ranging from minor cuts and bruises to chronic disability, or mental trauma. They may also be fatal, resulting from either intentional homicide or injuries sustained or from AIDS. In the case of mental trauma, women may commit suicide as a last resort to escape violence. The physical consequences include: death, serious injuries (bruises, fracture, chronic disabilities), injuries during pregnancy (low birth weight, low maternal weight gain, infections, anemia), unwanted and early pregnancy (with adverse health outcomes for mother and child; illegal abortions with fatal outcomes), vulnerability to disease (severe mental problems, sexually transmitted diseases, urinary tract infections). Gynecological consequences of childhood sexual abuse are: inflammation of the ovaries or uterus, urethritis, vaginal infections, discharge, menstrual pain, irregularities of the menstrual cycle or pelvic pain. Some of the major psycho-somatic consequences include chronic headaches and chronic backaches, gastro-intestinal problems, loss of appetite, sleep problems, fatigue. And finally, major psychological long-term consequences include: anxiety and panic attacks, feelings of shame and guilt, depression, abuse of medication, alcohol and drugs, suicidality, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders (see e.g. WHO, 1996).

21Seeing the long list of health consequences, it will come as no surprise that those women burdened with the physical and psychological scars of violence cannot fully devote their labor or creative ideas to development. Violence drains women’s energies, and may undermine all their efforts to further their own, and their community’s development. Development policies should thus support women’s efforts worldwide to end gender violence and help create the conditions of development and justice for all humanity, including women. One of those conditions is good health services in which the various health consequences of gender violence are identified as such and given the appropriate treatment. One of the consequences of war, however, is that appropriate health services together with other key institutions (like the justice system) instrumental to the reconstruction of society are lacking.

22In conclusion, the issues related to gender violence are complex, multifaceted and structural. Health, justice and development with regards to gender violence are interlinked. In order to address them effectively, multidisciplinary, multisectoral and multilevel interventions are needed. No single intervention will cure the problem. By the same token, Anderson (1999: 19) argues, “any intervention can affect the system. So choose one you know about, you feel passionate about, and can do something about.”

4. Gender violence and posttraumatic stress disorder on individual psychological and socio-cultural level

23An Indian woman says about the battering she experienced: “In fact the body mends soon enough. Only the scars remain… But the wounds inflicted upon the soul take much longer to heal. And each time I re-live these moments, they start bleeding all over again. The broken spirit has taken the longest to mend; damage to the personality is the most difficult to overcome” (quoted in Richters, 1994). It is common practice nowadays among mental health specialists to diagnose the psychological problems the Indian woman refers to as “posttraumatic stress disorder” (PTSD). This diagnosis acknowledges that many mental problems suffered by women are the consequences of abuse and not something inherently wrong with the woman in question (Richters, 2001).

24The characteristic symptoms of PTSD involve 1) re-experiencing the traumatic event, 2) numb responsiveness to or reduced involvement with the external world, and 3) hyper alertness or exaggerated startle response. Not only for psychotherapists but for all health workers as well it is important to be knowledgeable about these symptoms. During a vaginal examination by a gynecologist, for instance, a woman may be re-experiencing the sexual violence she experienced as a child. Her reaction should be understood as such. The second and third symptom can be a risk factor for violence. Numbing may, for instance, make the woman be indifferent to her husband’s violence who then continues without any resistance from the woman. And a startle response may, for instance, result in violence conducted by an abused woman against her children or in violence by a man who relives a war trauma.

25Survivors of concentration camps, labor camps, chronic sexual assault and the like develop symptoms which are more complex and diffuse, and last longer than the ones described under the label of PTSD. They develop drastic personality changes, particularly relational and identity problems. Herman (1992) uses the term “complex PTSD” for these changes. One of the symptoms of complex PTSD is that one’s basic assumptions are shattered by the chronic traumas women have experienced. These assumptions may include the idea that the world is benevolent, the idea that the world is meaningful, the idea that other people are trustworthy, the idea that I am worth, the idea that I am in control of my life, and the idea that I am invulnerable (it will not happen to me).

26War in the Former Yugoslavia in particular started debates in the literature about the validity of the use of PTSD to diagnose people’s state of mind in conflict and post-conflict areas around the world. The discourse in the West about violence, loss and trauma is focused on long-term effects of what happens inside the body and psyche. Western psychological concepts and methodologies are products of a globalizing culture and may risk an unwitting perpetuation of the colonial status of the non-Western mind (see e.g. Summerfield, 2000). In other cultures, for instance torture (including rape), may be perceived not so much as an assault on the “individual self”, but more as destruction of family and group relations and disruption of the moral order. Relational, socio-cultural wounds have then priority over individual wounds, or are at least of equal importance. In such cases we can speak of psycho-socio-cultural trauma, a trauma which next to healing on an individual level asks for the healing of the posttraumatic stress in the fabrics of culture and society, for instance by rituals in which the whole community takes part.

27Even though in the past I focused on the importance of a non-individualistic approach to traumatic stress disorder (Richters, 1994 & Richters, 2001), I do value a person-centered approach, particularly in health care for women who have suffered from gender violence. The emphasis on, for instance, the effects of war rape on individual women may, however, not be appropriate in every context. Haydn (2000: 35) refers to a Bosnian Muslim woman who said during an international conference on Bosnia held in early 1993 that she felt that the international emphasis on rape was inappropriate, because all Bosnian women were victims: they lost their homes, their sons, their husbands, their jobs, their lives, and whether they had been sexually assaulted or not was not really the most important problem. In the Netherlands social workers who work with female refugees from Bosnia told me that they often hear this same “complaint”. In other words, what these women suffer from is “multiple trauma” or “massive trauma”, rape being just one element of that trauma.

28Robben and Suarez-Orozco (2000: 23-24) argue that Western psychology and psychiatry have placed such an emphasis on the manifestation of trauma in individual psychopathologies that the term “massive trauma” is little more than a quantitative concept to date. The question to be answered is whether massive or collective trauma is more than the sum total of the individual suffering. Populations subjected to massive trauma are affected as groups even though each person works in a particular way through the effects. This raises a subsequent question. How do individual and socio-cultural healing relate to each other? To date there is some evidence that women who recover best from gender violence are those who give meaning to their experiences which surmount the boundaries of personal tragedy. This meaning is often found in a collective struggle against the violence suffered (Herman, 1992). These struggles are now taking place in the post-conflict societies of Tajikistan and the Former Yugoslavia. They are discussed in the next part of this article that focuses on various aspects of gender violence in the changing sociocultural contexts of those countries.

II. Gender violence and women’s responses in trajectories of societal change in the former Yugoslavia and in Tajikistan

1. A comparison between the former Yugoslavia and Tajikistan

29The term “transition” is commonly used to describe the processes experienced by socialist countries of East Central Europe and the USSR following the collapse of the Communist Regimes after 1989. The use of this term however, Cockburn (2000) argues, suggests too similar a past. The Former Yugoslavia differed in many important ways from other countries governed by Communist parties in the second half of the twentieth century and certainly from Tajikistan. The characteristics of Tajikistan are, for instance, more “East” within the East-West dialogue than the characteristics of the Former Yugoslavia. Furthermore, in contrast to the Former Yugoslavia, Tajikistan shares with many countries in the South historical experiences of post-colonization and characteristics of “underdevelopment” which do not apply to large parts of the Former Yugoslavia.

30The term “transition” also suggests a predetermined destination, but who knows whether the Western powers’ vision for the region (Western-style democracies, neo-liberal free market states) will come to be? So instead, when considering the continuities and discontinuities in the pre-war, war-time and post-war moments of the Former Yugoslavia’s and Tajikistan’s experience, it might be better to accept Cockburn’s proposal and use terms like change, transit, pathway, trajectory, choice. They leave more possibilities open. Besides the women and men of both countries are undergoing change not of one kind but of several kinds simultaneously.

31Next to substantial differences between Tajikistan and the Former Yugoslavia, there are a number of similarities, particularly with regard to the gender regimes in both countries, the honor-and-shame complex being a significant element of those regimes, as I will show below.

32Both Tajikistan and the Former Yugoslavia went through a period of conflict. Tajikistan became independent from the Former Soviet Union in 1991 and subsequently experienced a civil (ethnic) war in 1992-1993. Between 1991 and 1995 the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia collapsed and between 1992 and 1995 an ethnic war raged in Bosnia, one of the six former Republics. In both countries the war resulted in a great number of refugees and internally displaced people. In Bosnia as well as in Tajikistan, a peace treaty was signed (respectively in 1995 and 1997) but is there really peace? Even today infrastructures are barely functioning in many parts of in Tajikistan and Bosnia and the impoverished population experiences extreme physical and psychological hardship. Killings are continuing, together with civil unrest, harassment and corruption. In both countries rape of women was part of the war strategy and in both countries various kinds of gender violence, in particular domestic violence, seemed to have increased significantly after the war. Also in both countries new kinds of non-profit, non-governmental organizations are burgeoning, many of which are women’s organizations. The latter, however, do not make a women’s movement, certainly not a movement strong enough to effectively challenge the gender regimes which promote and facilitate gender violence (Cockburn, 2000; Harris, 2001).

2. The role of gender in both conflicts

33Recently two Ph. D. theses were completed in the Netherlands, each focusing in their own way on a number of gender aspects of the different phases of the conflicts in respectively the Former Yugoslavia (Zarkov, 1999) and Tajikistan (Harris, 2000). Without knowing about each other’s work, both authors discuss in detail the gender regimes in the two countries that function (ed) as risk factors for various forms of gender violence. Summarizing some of the points made by both authors, I can do little justice to the detailed descriptions and analyses of the two books.

  • 5 Mladjenovic (1999: 85) claims (contra Rejali, see note 3) that “the enemy of first resort is Woman; (...)

34Dubravka Zarkov describes how in the Former Yugoslavia traditional notions of femininity went hand in hand with the new, modern, socialist female images. Despite the obvious and widely publicized progress in many spheres of women’s lives, realities were much more problematic. In this respect the Former Yugoslavia’s past resembles Tajikistan’s. In the Former Yugoslavia, in the 1970s a process of depolitization of women took place. In the mid 1980s however, as nationalist forces became increasingly effective, groups of women in particular parts of the country seemed to be returning to the political life. Their sudden presence was both highly symbolic and utterly physical. During the 1987 fall season Serb and Montenegrin women from Kosovo (one of the six Republics) demonstrated against the accusation by a prominent Albanian politician from Kosovo (Hoxha) that they would be ready to prostitute. The reason was that the Albanian men were, at the time, charged by the Serbian press and politicians of raping Serb and Montenegrin women. Hoxha was reported as saying that the problem of these inter-ethnic rapes could be solved by bringing in women to work as prostitutes. That would, presumably satisfy the Albanian men and reduce the incidence of rape. The fury this statement caused was further aggravated by the alleged suggestion that Serb and Montenegrin women, unlike Albanian women, would be ready to prostitute. The resulting demonstrations were a significant watershed in the production of ethnicity in the Former Yugoslavia. Since then gender and sexuality became the core issues around which nationalist forces consolidated and battled5. After some time a “media war” started as a nationalist practice of producing ethnicity through media images. Parallel to the “media war” a different war started: an “ethnic war” which produced ethnic groups through violence. In both the “media war” and the “ethnic war” gender and sexuality became central to the production of ethnicity. However, Zarkov argues, stating that these two wars engaged in the same productive process does not entail that they did so in the same way. The “media war” achieved its objective through textual and visual representation, the “ethnic war” through physical violence. The texts in the press per se did not produce sexual violence against women in the “ethnic war”, but rather the norms of gender and sexuality through which specific types of violence against women were rendered justifiable or even acceptable. Ethnicity is not only produced, however, by the “media war” and the violence of the “ethnic war” but, Zarkov demonstrates, also through women’s personal narratives as well as feminist texts.

35In the context of these two wars Zarkov addresses the relationship between the symbolic, metaphoric and the material, lived female body. She selected three categories of the female body as specific sites of production of ethnicity, the maternal body, the victimized body and the armed body. These categories are equally significant for all fields of production of ethnicity that Zarkov defines: the two wars, women’s experiences and feminism.

36The outcome of the war is that ethnicity did emerge as an important feature. Large parts of Bosnia are now “ethnically clean”. Sarajevo used to be a modern city where ethnicity played hardly any role and tolerance between the various religions existed, but it is not any more. National identities and conservative gender relations have been established. In parts of Bosnia, the influence of Islam has become stronger and has made women turn to the veil again, and traditional gender norms have become a stronger element in people’s identities.

37Colette Harris states that in Tajikistan throughout the Soviet era gender norms and relations, the practices of Islam, and the form of Soviet socialism were in a state of flux (also Tadjabakshsh, 1998). Changes in any of these inevitably impinged on others. At moments of strength the Soviet regime tried hard to suppress religion and to encourage changes to local gender norms. But these changes took place first of all at the top political levels and it is far from clear what their real effect was at the grass-roots level, particularly in the rural areas where the vast majority of the Tajiks lived. The main significance of the intersection of Islam and socialism with Tajik gender norms was, according to Harris, that it was the central battleground between the Soviet regime and the local population. This battle is still going on today, albeit on slightly different ground. It is now being fought between the secular state represented by the post-communist government of Rakhmonow on the one hand, and the more radical factions of the Islamic opposition on the other.

38Summarizing Tajik history of the twentieth century as far as gender relations are concerned, Harris argues that both the Soviet regime and the Tajik people found gender norms to be the most important facet of cultural identity to be attacked, or conversely, preserved. The Bolsheviks endeavored to penetrate Tajik culture and modernize it, chiefly by forcing its women out of seclusion. As this was viewed by men as an attack on their masculine identity there was strong resistance. In fact the Tajik people were able to subvert the might of the Soviet State by their refusal to make significant changes to their gender norms. What comes out of a long history is that women (still) suffer, in particular from the constraints their family and community force them to live under. Despite all the changes over the last hundred years, the dominant set of gender norms perpetuating the subordination of women remains apparently unchanged. Harris argues at length that this subordination is neither monolithic, nor unresisted. However, resistance has not led to significant changes in the dominant gender regime yet.

39Right now the situation is such that despite a Soviet-based legislation stating the equality of rights and treatment between men and women, women in the new Tajik state have lost many of the achievements of the Soviet Union in terms of gender equity. Women are particularly discriminated with regard to income generation, access to education and health services. Especially in rural areas, women are more and more bound to “traditional” domestic roles with increased difficulties to access public positions. The various societal developments have also resulted in an exacerbation of the various forms and scope of gender violence. Most of the now recognized forms of gender violence were probably there before the war. However, we do not know much about them because of a lack of documentation. Many people told me that gender violence in Tajikistan has definitely escalated after the war. In this respect Tajikistan differs from post-war countries, where domestic violence was not more of a problem as a result of the war. The war merely made women “denaturalize” and delegitimate the problem. Like in other post-war countries, however, what was once “normal” and acceptable in Tajikistan because of prevailing norms and values is now increasingly seen as something abnormal and illegitimate, as clearly a gross violation of human rights, and as something to fight against.

3. Gender violence over time

40The case of the Former Yugoslavia shows that one must understand the constructions of gender violence in peacetime in order to understand the meanings of wartime sexual tortures (Olujic, 1998). Wartime gender violence highlights preexisting socio-cultural dynamics. War rapes in the Former Yugoslavia would not have been such an effective weapon of torture and terror if it were not for concepts of honor, shame and sexuality that were attached to women’s bodies in peacetime. War rapes became such an effective weapon in the Former Yugoslavia precisely because the ideology of honor/shame was shared by Croats, Muslims, and Serbs.

41In peacetime control of women by men and protection of their sexuality were means of justifying the domination of women by men. Men placed high value on women’s chastity, monogamy and fertility. Because a woman’s body is a microcosm of her lineage, and the body’s weak points are its orifices (openings), the rapist symbolically dishonored the entire lineage of the raped woman with sexual violence. Through the penetration of a woman’s corporeal body the social body of her family was permanently and irretrievably damaged.

42In wartime, violation of female honor was a weapon used by the men of one ethnic group against those of another. Men suffered from the shame of their failure to protect their property that includes women, family, bloodlines, and soil. Women suffered from having to endure the private stigma of shame. By acting as a group and by systematically imposing their methods through acts and words of brutality, rapists were a social body that acted against another body. In short, one purpose of ethnically organized rape was to destroy another ethnic group. War rapes in Bosnia symbolized an assault on the Muslim social body. The rapes of individual women were also microcosms of the larger invasion of territory (cf. also Zarkov, 1999; Haydn, 2000). After the war, sexual violence of women became almost a non-issue in the Former Yugoslavia. Mainly women’s NGOs keep paying attention to it. As far as I know studies of the pre valence of the various forms of gender violence in the postwar situation and the complex of risk factors involved are scarce. One such study is conducted by the local NGO Medica Zenica (1999) which shows that gender violence is a deep rooted and widespread problem in the Bosnian town of Zenica.

43What precisely happened in terms of gender violence during the conflict in Tajikistan has not been studied systematically (yet). We do know, however, that women became the “honor” victims of war crimes between communities (Tadjbakhsh, 1994). I was regularly told that in certain villages in various parts of Tajikistan, virtually every woman was beaten and raped. Harris (2000: 193) writes that what happened was “raping with bottles and other objects, some of them large and/or sharp enough to cause very serious physical damage indeed; shooting in the pelvis or the abdominal area, burning them alive; taking them captive and subjecting them to humiliation and violence over long periods”.

44Some figures concerning women’s experiences with gender violence are available thanks to a nation-wide study done by the local NGO Open Asia with support from the international organizations WHO, SDC and UNDP. During womanhood (age 15 +), approximately 50% of women experienced physical, psychological and/or sexual violence by a family member; 47% of women experienced sexual abuse by their husband. Most of the risk factors listed in the ecological model for partner violence (see above) appear to apply to Tajikistan. There are also risk factors, however, which are specific to the Tajik situation. For instance, traditional and polygamous marriage instead of civil marriage, low level of education/information, refugee status, living in a rural area, living in a region that suffered a great deal from the civil war, and traditional Islamic religious surroundings. To what extent all these risk factors also play a role in the Former Yugoslavia we may only guess since there are no studies available to confirm or refute this.

45In Tajikistan the problem of the universality versus cultural relativity regarding individual women’s rights comes clearly to the fore. What is considered to be acceptable and unacceptable forms and amounts of aggression can differ from one (sub) culture to the other. Psychological violence which, I am told, is considered to be acceptable in Tajikistan is for instance: isolation and restriction of freedom of behavior by husband or in-laws; restriction on freedom of dress by husband and in-laws; need to ask permission to husband and in-laws to go out and do things; husband refusing to collaborate in house-work and upbringing of children. Another issue is that Tajikistan knows forms of domestic violence that are not universal. It is for instance common that a woman is forced by her parents to marry and is abused by her mother-in law or her brother. What the specific risk factors are for these kinds of violence would need further elaboration, together with what the risk factors are for the various types of violence in the community, like: abduction of girls, rape by a stranger, use of women for drug traffic, women being forced into prostitution, etc. All these issues seem also relevant in the various contexts of the Former Yugoslavia.

46The serious social crises Tajikistan went through during the last decade are clearly reflected in an increase of gender violence. Women assign the increase after the war (1992-1993) in particular to deteriorating socio-economic conditions. According to the survey, women attributed economic difficulties (93%), lack of education (77%), commonly held attitudes towards women (56%) and low status of women in society (86%) as major causes of gender violence. Harris (2000) stresses that Tajik society in all aspects of life, particularly gender norms, is very much shaped by the honor-and-shame system. The pressures of maintaining appropriate masculine gender performance highly contribute to gender violence. In this respect Tajikistan seems to be very similar to The Former Yugoslavia.

4. Women’s responses to gender violence: women’s rights, empowerment and health promotion

  • 6 An interesting finding to mention in this context comes from a study carried out in the summer of 1 (...)

47As I have showed, gender violence is a complex issue when it comes to its various risk factors, its impact on society and its impact on individual women. Gender violence thus needs comprehensive responses for effective prevention and care for its victims. For instance, treatment of some of the health consequences may require gynecological in combination with psychotherapeutic services. And treatment of posttraumatic stress may require psychological help in combination with the provision of income generating activities6. From a public health perspective the prevention of gender violence will be most effective if one focuses on the societal and cultural roots of gender violence in the pre-conflict, conflict and post-conflict situation, like militarism, nationalism, and sexism resulting in abuses of all sorts (cf. Richters, 1998).

48History has taught us that forced fast-time track, top-down approaches of development (for women) often meet with enormous resistance in the mentalities. Socialism in Tajikistan and the Former Yugoslavia was in essence a human rights movement wanting equality for men and women, but it failed in its implementation. The question is now what other approaches towards the development of a human rights climate might be more effective.

49Long term experiences with the failure of top down development approaches have taught us that one thing we need is systematic, interdisciplinary research which can show whether the abstract formulation of external definitions of human rights can chime with indigenous, cultural specific norms that are based on human dignity without being detrimental to women. Social sciences seem to be equipped to focus on the analysis of the meaning of social and cultural conditions and evaluate the possibility of introducing human rights (including women’s rights) in such a manner that they are observed de facto and not predominantly acknowledged in a merely normative-rhetorical way. So they may help devise the most appropriate strategies for promoting and protecting human rights. Some sort of decentralization seems necessary to escape the power of the State and the corporation at the local levels. At the same time, however, we need international coordination and cooperation of groups and social movements interested in human rights and democracy. Thus, struggles for democracy and rights at the local level must be coupled with an institutional recognition of the global implications of these struggles at the international level. The question is how development or other agencies can act as some sort of mediator in this process.

50The health promotion strategy within public health takes starts with the importance of empowerment. The strategy itself is to facilitate the behavioral, societal and environmental changes necessary for health promotion in communities as a whole. At the heart of this process is empowerment and capacity building at community level. Communities should be empowered to ownership and control of their own endeavors and destinies. Projects around the world have taught us that community empowerment, especially empowerment of women, is the key to successful programs for social change that affect the quality of life and health of poor and powerless families and communities.

51A meta-analysis of 40 case studies across the world with regard to bottom-up “empowerment of women for health promotion” found that all grassroots movements began with a strong discontent and motivation for change among victims (Kar et al. 1999). It was not necessary to persuade or motivate them; they needed empowerment opportunities and organized support in their struggle. They received support from their fellow victims, concerned professionals, community and/or religious leaders and organizations close to their struggle. Such support promotes psychological empowerment of the innovators and enhances their self-efficiency. External recognition and support enhance institutionalization and wider adoption of landmark local initiatives. Recognition from credible national and international organizations legitimizes a struggle that empowers those involved. It also helps generate resources, stabilize and expand the program and enhance its diffusion.

52In the Former Yugoslavia and Tajikistan a number of women’s NGOs and informal women’s groups have responded in various ways to the different kinds of gender violence I have discussed. Which (complex of) risk factors and root causes and which (complex of) health consequences are addressed may differ between the various groups and organizations. Some of the groups and NGOs I have met or read about seem to have been successful in their own field, albeit within a limited scope (cf. e.g. Richters, 1998).

53One of the lessons learned from the operation of women’s projects addressing gender violence in the Former Yugoslavia is that most of them could only operate on the scale and intensity they did thanks to financial and moral support from abroad and various kinds of expertise offered by foreign women’s organizations. While the manipulation of women’s assault by the media for political ends contributed to women’s victimization, that same media attention resulted, for the first time in history, in special programs to help survivors of wartime rape cope with their war traumas. The Dutch NGO ADMIRA, for instance, was founded to provide information, advice, support and training for NGOs in the Former Yugoslavia working with multi.-.traumatized women from different ethnic and religious communities (Foeken, 1999). The regular welfare and health care organizations and also many foreign IGOs and NGOs proved to be rather insensitive to women’s sexual traumatization, and did not know how to approach it. Therefore ADMIRA chose a multi-track policy: support to institution building and training and advice with regard to work with traumatized women and girls, specifically in relation to sexual abuse. What proved most welcome was knowledge about modern forms of psychotherapy and counseling, since in the Former Yugoslavia psychiatric care was very traditional and dogmatic. Nevertheless, understanding of and respect for the professional ability of local colleagues in their own socio-cultural context was very much acknowledged and respectful listening was practiced by the ADMIRA trainers. In the process approaches and working methods were developed which aimed at enabling women (and others) to find their own solutions, rather than telling them what they need and what they should do.

54ADMIRA’s experience confirms what many other authors have observed. What women in former communist systems need to learn is how to play active roles rather than passively wait for the government to act, as they were trained to do by a system in which everything came from above. They must begin to define emancipation in their own terms, defend their already existing rights, and prevent the manipulation of women’s bodies and minds. This is why support to training processes aimed at democratic institution building and conflict resolution became such an important element in the ADMIRA project. Perhaps this is what wounded societies and cultures like the Former Yugoslavia’s and in Tajikistan’s need most, not only with respect to the healing of the wounds of war but also to prevent further sexual violence and future wars.

55Incidental women’s projects promoting empowerment at grassroot level like they exist in Tajikistan are an important step towards the realization of women’s rights and the eradication of gender violence. But eventually these first steps should lead to mainstreaming gender policies. Only a powerful women’s movement may succeed in keeping (in The Former Yugoslavia), c.q. bringing (in Tajikistan) the issue of sexual violence and other kinds of gender violence on the agendas of welfare organizations, media and authorities. Real changes require patience and persistence, the implementation of universal human rights in a culture-sensitive way, individual care and political projects.

  • 7 In this article I left the vulnerability of men for sexual violence in war out of consideration. Se (...)

56General guidelines for intervention in gender violence should be adapted to particular socio-cultural contexts on the basis of long-term action and participatory research. In this action and research the gender dimensions of the culture and society concerned before, during and after the war should always be taken into account. However, privileging gender as the unifying element of the community of all women should be avoided, since issues pertaining to class, nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexuality usually intersect with those of gender. They all influence the role the various forms of gender violence play in the different phases of conflict and the experiences of women with gender violence7.


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1 In every country where reliable, large-scale studies have been conducted, results indicate that between 10% and 50% of women report that they have been physically abused by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Population-based studies report that between 12 and 25% of women have experienced attempted or completed forced sex by an intimate partner or ex-partner at some time in their lives (WHO Fact Sheet, n.d.). Data must be compared with caution, as research methods used to compile data vary across studies.

2 Sexual violence as a war strategy may include more than rape defined as physical vaginal penetration. The definition given by the Tribunals of sexual violence is “any act of a sexual nature which is committed on a person under circumstances which are coercive… not limited to physical invasion of the human body, and may include acts which do not involve penetration or even physical contact”. Examples are compulsory nudity, electroshock to the nipples and vagina, the squeezing or binding of the breasts, suspension of the breasts, being threatened with the above.

3 See for a criticism of feminist analyses of rape in war, analyses that disregard the ethnic dimension: Rejali (1996). The relation between sexual violence and war is complex and has been conceptualized in different ways. Skjelbaek (2001) presents three different conceptualizations based on her literature review (1999) of 140 scholar texts published mainly during the 1990s.

4 See also Heise et al. 1999 in which the content of Heise’s model is reproduced in adapted form.

5 Mladjenovic (1999: 85) claims (contra Rejali, see note 3) that “the enemy of first resort is Woman; ethnicity comes in a distant second”. She writes about the “post-TV news violence syndrome”. Mladjenovic explains that the daily war propaganda television broadcasts in Belgrade had the unintended effect that men who watched the programs would become agitated and angry, and start hitting their wives or children as a proxy for the “enemy” that was far away and not as easy to reach. For many women, according to Mladjenovic, it was the first time they had been struck by their husbands, and they would call the SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence (founded in Belgrade in 1990) asking, “What happened to him?”

6 An interesting finding to mention in this context comes from a study carried out in the summer of 1994 in Bosnia that suggests that women highly distressed by the war derived greater benefit from group therapy than from occupational activities (Schei & Dahl 1999).

7 In this article I left the vulnerability of men for sexual violence in war out of consideration. See for a discussion of this issue e.g. Zarkov 2001.


Leiden University, Holland


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