Law and the Post-Conflict Protection of Women from Violence

1 September 2017, 1208 EDT

The following is a guest post by Dr. Jillienne Haglund, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Haglund is a contributor to a forthcoming special issue in Conflict Management and Peace Science on gender and political violence. All of the articles in the special issue are now available on Online First and several are currently available to download for free.


In her 2015 statement, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bungura noted that conflict-related sexual violence is “not about sex; it is about violence and power,” further noting that the effect of such crimes is to silence victims. If one effect of sexual violence during conflict is to silence women victims, what efforts can states make to break the silence and address this devastating crime? After her 2015 mission to Colombia, Bungura released a statement detailing progress made in Colombia’s response to nearly 50 years of civil conflict plagued by widespread sexual violence. Particularly notable is Colombia’s adoption of groundbreaking legislation, including Law 1719, aimed at enhancing the status of sexual violence survivors so they can receive reparations, psychosocial support, and free medical care, as well as explicitly recognizing that sexual violence constitutes a crime against humanity. While challenges still remain, including the consistent implementation of laws and policies on the ground, legal reforms represent an important step in addressing conflict-related sexual violence against women.

My contribution with David Richards, as well as an article by Laura Huber and Sabrina Karim, are two contributions in a Special Issue of Conflict Management and Peace Science that explore women’s participation in conflict, conflict-related and post-conflict processes. Our two articles explore issues such as those raised in the Colombian case: the importance of legal and policy reforms in the post-conflict period. In our article, Richards and I argue that post-conflict enforcement of violence against women (VAW) legislation is necessary for ensuring security for women, particularly in the post-civil conflict period. Using our original data on the strength of VAW legal protections related to rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment, as well as the level of enforcement of legal protections for post-conflict countries, we show that post-civil conflict countries with stronger VAW legislation have greater VAW law enforcement. We also find that post-civil conflict countries with strong national VAW legal protections, strong enforcement of VAW legal protections, and a longer commitment to CEDAW are more likely to have a lower prevalence of rape.[1]

Huber and Karim’s contribution to the CMPS Special Issue highlights the importance of another post-conflict policy reform necessary for combating VAW: gender-balancing reforms in the security sector (increasing the proportion of women relative to men in the state security organization). They argue that highly patriarchal security institutions are often unwilling and ill-equipped to address VAW post-conflict. Huber and Karim’s article points to the importance of an international presence, finding that an international peacekeeping presence promotes security sector gender reform post-conflict.

Important policy implications emerge from research in the Special Issue, including the importance of the national legal regime in ensuring better law enforcement and women’s rights outcomes for post-conflict countries. States must write full, explicit, high-quality legal prohibitions on VAW to ensure enforcement and lower levels of VAW in society for countries recovering from conflict. This finding about the importance of explicit legal guarantees in ensuring better outcomes for women is important politically as UN Women and the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women are currently soliciting comments and perspectives related to the necessity of an international treaty specifically addressing VAW, given that CEDAW does not specifically address VAW.[2] This does raise the question: If explicit legal protections are necessary for law enforcement and better outcomes for women, under what conditions do post-civil conflict countries adopt strong VAW legislation?

Perhaps the most important factor for adopting strong VAW legislation is the involvement and participation of women. In Colombia, the work of the Gender sub-Commission at the 2016 Peace Talks brought women’s voices into the peace process. The Commission worked to ensure the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women, including access to justice and reparation of women victims of the conflict. Beyond participation in the peace process, women’s political participation post-conflict is important because female legislators behave differently than male legislators, that is, they are more likely to collaborate with one another on women’s issues, as well as prioritize bills and legislation related to children, family, and women (gated), health care and social services (ungated), and gender equality (ungated) more generally. Importantly, civil war termination (ungated) and post-conflict peace durability (ungated) are often associated with an increase in female representation. The post-civil conflict environment can provide important opportunities for change. Where women gain greater political representation, as a result of changing institutions and international pressure, countries are more likely to adopt strong VAW legal protections, which contributes to stronger law enforcement and better women’s rights outcomes post-conflict, placing the state on a gender egalitarian path moving forward.

[1] Features of the conflict (intensity and number of peace years) are also associated with VAW law enforcement post-conflict.

[2] While not specifically addressed in the text of CEDAW, VAW is addressed in General Recommendation 19 (made by the CEDAW Committee to offer guidance on the application of the Convention).