The missing group of victims in conflict-related violence
By— December 11, 2014
At the age of 18, Leyla’s three-year lesbian relationship was discovered. She ran away to Baghdad from her home in the conservative Iraqi city of Basra, though her girlfriend wasn’t able to escape. Staying behind turned out to be deadly.
“My girlfriend’s family locked her in the house and after the tribe found out about her, the men in the family slaughtered her,” she explains in an interview with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “She was only 17 years old. I have not heard about any reaction from the police.”
Then in 2008, while on her way to work at a local nightclub where her colleagues had recently discovered her relationship with another woman, she says, men from a paramilitary group called the Mahdi Army kidnapped her. In a place “covered with blood,” the men tortured Leyla and other gay women and men over the course of a week, she told the commission. When she was finally released, she was forced to sign a piece of paper saying she would not have sex “unapproved by Islam,” she says.
Iraq is just one of eight countries in which homosexuality is punishable by death. More than half of those nations, including Iraq, Iran, and Nigeria, qualify as conflict and post-conflict countries. Yet it’s rare to see media mention of this kind of violence, which is also gender-based, when it covers war and iniquities. Little has been formulated in the way of action plans to stop this type of violence, either, despite efforts like those of the commission and organizations like MADRE. To date, there’s not much out there in terms of a nation’s stepping up to respond to this violence in Iraq or elsewhere around the globe. International protection measures to address LGBT-targeted violence—which, as in Leyla’s case, can be state-sponsored—require a response that recognizes that gender-based violence includes cases like this.
There are consequences to the lack of inclusion of LGBT violence prevention and treatment strategies, ones we are seeing with deadly results for some in the LGBT community right now in Iraq and elsewhere.
Back in 2009, Human Rights Watch reported that violence against the LGBT community in Iraq was on the rise: “While the country remains a dangerous place for many if not most of its citizens, death squads started specifically singling out men whom they considered not ‘manly’ enough, or whom they suspected of homosexual conduct. The most trivial details of appearance—the length of a man’s hair, the fit of his clothes—could determine whether he lived or died.”
Now, as violence continues to flare in the country, a few scattered NGOs are keeping an eye out for increased cases of targeted killings, violence, and harassment of the LGBT community yet again. It’s a cycle that repeats itself again and again, though this homophobic and transphobic violence doesn’t have to.
Women take center stage
If you hear the word “gender” and think women, you are not alone. Gender, by definition about structural characteristics of masculinity and femininity, is often used inappropriately as a placeholder for the word “women.” This misunderstanding has deadly consequences for LGBT individuals who experience gender-based violence that goes undocumented. Any call to protect those likely to be targets of gender-based violence must consider all those marginalized for their gender identity, including members of the LGBT community who may be viewed as a threat to traditional gender norms and masculinity in their community, advocates argue. Currently marginalized and ostracized as members of the LGBT population because of their gender and sexual orientation, these individuals are often overlooked or erased by efforts that focus solely on the category of “women and girls” as those who become victims of rape during conflict and during post-conflict.
But there is a solution: Civil society organizations that work to include women in peace talks and gender equality in post-conflict are well placed to document, report, and ultimately end this violence against the LGBT community.
It’s nothing short of revolutionary that after decades of exclusion from international conversations, in September 2000, an open session was held at the UN where more than 40 women shared how violence in conflict impacted them. This marked a groundbreaking moment for the women’s rights movement as noted in an article by Felicity Hill, Mikele Aboitiz, and Sara Poehlman Doumbouya (who all have engaged with this issue as advocates working with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom): “At last, women would be walking into the Security Council chambers to give their own accounts of the impact of armed conflict on their lives and societies and to present their own appropriate, effective strategies for conflict resolution and peace building.”
The hard work of women’s rights NGOs dedicated to post-conflict peace building culminated that year in the landmark achievement that is UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325), the first Women, Peace, and Security UN document to call on states to address the impact of conflict on women as well as recognize the important roll of women to successful post-conflict reconstruction and peace building. No small victory.
Several related resolutions passed in the following decade. Much work on behalf of civil society has been conducted to monitor the efforts states take to embrace political and social opportunities for advancing gender equality during post-conflict. Importantly, the resolutions have highlighted and criminalized the role of gender-based violence. But the current method of gender mainstreaming and monitoring sexualized and gender-based violence analysis can result in an absence of the LGBT experience.
An ongoing absence
In a momentous event, the UN declared gay rights as human rights in need of protection through its international Free and Equal campaign in 2012. At the same time, according to the campaign, “Official data on homophobic violence is patchy and official statistics are scarce,” attributing this to lack of monitoring and victims’ unwillingness to report violence to police. However, the scant national statistics available from countries like Honduras, Kenya, and Iraq suggest a pattern “of widespread, brutal violence, often committed with impunity.”
The report that tells Leyla’s story contributes to the little we do know about violence against the LGBT community, explaining: “The most common threats to gender non-conforming Iraqis come from their families, communities, and tribes.” For example, two lesbians reported being forced into heterosexual marriages with older men for fear of bringing shame onto the family otherwise. The report also documents cases of LGBT individuals in Iraq forced into therapy for being homosexual as well as killing sprees against LGBT Iraqis. Finally—and crucially: “Those who translate societal hostility towards LGBT compatriots into violence, today do so with near total impunity.”
To fully understand gender-based violence during conflict, it’s necessary to also consider how LGBT individuals become targets of rape and sexual assault, whether at the hands of people in their communities or the military, as part of a larger response to targeted violence against the LGBT community.
What we do know is that in many parts of the world LGBT individuals fear a backlash for being perceived as taking on a foreign, Western identity. Often those who flee this persecution are unable to find asylum in neighboring countries because those countries also persecute LGBT individuals. Though these human rights violations are ever-present in some countries, they are likely exacerbated during times of conflict if the violence documented in Iraq is any indication of what is happening in other conflicts.
Increasingly the UN’s Women, Peace, and Security framework is referred to as the gender, peace, and security framework, and while this is an encouraging transition, without any inclusion or documentation of the voices, needs, and stories of the LGBT population, the use of gender here is inaccurate. One example of the invisibility and erasure of the LGBT community is evident in proposed global indicators to monitor related resolutions. These indicators lack any attention to the LGBT community or gender-based violence as it impacts sexual minorities.
What are we missing?
In all social justice work, there’s a key question to ask first and foremost: Whose voices don’t we hear? And another: Which populations are already targeted and may experience increased violence when conditions deteriorate?
The coordinator of UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict, Nadine Puechguirbal, sees patriarchy as the driver of much of this gender-based violence. Puechguirbal explains, “There is plenty of evidence that shows how gender is factoring in sexual violence in conflict. Sexual violence is one of the only crimes for which a community’s response is more often to stigmatize the victim rather than prosecute the perpetrator.” Those who don’t fit into traditional gender norms or challenge patriarchal gender roles become a particularly vulnerable population during times of post-conflict, when livelihoods are no longer secure and the social power structure is uncertain. Transgender individuals face insecurity in terms of threats to their physical safety as well as difficulty in finding basic public health needs. For example, according to the UN Women’s website Center for Knowledge to End Violence Against Women and Girls, “Gender-segregated shelters, bathrooms, health facilities and other facilities exclude those that don’t fit neatly into male/female genders, or those who are not legally or publicly recognized as their identified gender. Transgender women may not ‘pass,’ or be perceived by the general public, as women.” Lesbians who embody feminine masculinity and challenge traditional patriarchal roles may also be viewed as particularly threatening, but their stories are absent in current Women, Peace, and Security monitoring, so we just don’t know the full picture of discrimination and violence.
Until we monitor for violence driven by homophobia and transphobia, we can’t know for sure what violence we are missing. Figuring that out requires actually seeking out and amplifying LGBT voices to more fully embrace the power of peace whether during the fighting, or when it ultimately ends.