Violence Against Women and International Security

Why Assault by Intimate Partners Deserves Greater Focus

United Nations Security Council members vote to approve a resolution condemning the use of sexual violence against women in conflict during a Security Council meeting on women, peace, security, and sexual violence in conflict at UN Headquarters in New York, June 2013.  Lucas Jackson / REUTERS

On October 6, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law a bill for which feminists had long campaigned: the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017. This law recognizes how critical women are to achieving global security and aims to increase their participation in U.S. conflict mediation and negotiation efforts around the world. Yet the act, although laudable in and of itself, fails to acknowledge the most widespread threat to women and girls: domestic violence, especially violence perpetrated by intimate partners. By focusing explicitly on conflict-related sexual violence—defined as crimes committed by armed organizations—both the Women, Peace, and Security Act and the broader agenda it advances prioritize violence perpetrated by combatants, as opposed to intimate partners. Such a focus sends the wrong message—that violence occurring over the course of a war is somehow more egregious than the violence that over one-third of women experience inside their homes.  

The shocking narratives of wartime rape and sexual slavery perpetrated by combatants are certainly attention grabbing. But social scientists have found that violence committed by intimate partners is the more pervasive threat to women’s physical security.

The World Health Organization estimates that almost one-third of women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical or sexual violence by their intimate partner. And 38 percent of female murders are committed by a boyfriend or spouse. By comparison, sexual violence done by armed groups is much less prevalent. According to the best available data set on sexual violence in armed conflict, between 1989 and 2009—a 20-year time span that included the civil wars in the Balkans, central Africa, and West Africa—7,331 incidents of sexual violence by armed groups were recorded (against both male and female victims).

Even in some conflict settings, new research suggests that the frequency of sexual violence by armed actors is significantly less than that by intimate partners, acquaintances, and other caregivers. According to a survey of 12 rural communities in Côte d’Ivoire during the 2000–2007 conflict, only four percent

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