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How can feminist ethics help us with the study of violence and war?

by Jenny Hedström on October 11, 2017
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Feminist ethics can help us with the study of violence and war because of two reasons. First, by drawing attention to everyday activities that has an impact on conflict. This will help connect the dots between private experiences of violence and the public sphere of war.  Second, by highlighting the relational aspects of both the lived reality of and knowledge about violence and war. This will demonstrate the failure of conventional approaches to the study of war and peace that understands violence as abstract and individualistic.  For me, feminist ethics matter because it adds important bits to the puzzle that is the war in Myanmar.

My research is focused on women’s experiences of and reactions to the conflict in Kachin State, an area in Northern Myanmar where a conflict is being fought between the Myanmar government and an ethnic armed group called the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). The conflict has been intensifying since 2011. Right now, the UN estimates that about 100 000 people have fled their homes for the relative safety of displacement camps.  The majority of the people in these camps are women and children.

Many observers of the conflict over the past years indicate that the conflict is being fought over resources: Kachin State is rich in timbers, jade and other minerals. Some say the war is about political discrimination and issues of ethnic rights. The KIO calls the conflict ‘genocidal’. Yet most women I speak to don’t care. They can’t care. They don’t have the energy. Their focus is on everyday survival: the majority of households in the camps are headed by women and they must make sure that not only themselves but their extended families survive. Women have endured unspeakable horrors in fleeing the conflict, running from attacks, their smaller children strapped to their backs, hoping their older ones will make it. Living for years without knowing what the future will hold, the war dragging on, in displacement camps.

What does it mean to focus on the experiences of women, the everyday experiences of women living through conflict? What can a feminist ethics applied to this research add to our knowledge of conflict?

Approaching the study of the war in Kachin State from the perspective of women teaches me how someone’s identity, someone’s location within structures of the broader political-economy, has real – material, physical, symbolic –  implications. Approaching fieldwork with the aim of enabling trust and closeness, rather than objectivity, broadens my understanding of what violence and war means and does to people. By listening with empathy, I learn about the terrible and intimate violence enacted on the bodies of women outside the recognised theatre of war.

I did not set out to ask questions about gender-based violence, such as rape and beatings. It is knowledge that is not easily held. Yet this violence is omnipresent: it seeps into all my interviews, my research plans, even my travels. In narrow spaces, open spaces, a group of women nodding and prodding and sharing, sometimes merely hinting at experiences I do not wish to imagine; other times setting out the details: the coldness in the air, the light filtered through the bamboo walls woven tight. Babies nursed by mothers looking almost too young to be mothers and toddlers running around in the dirt surrounding us. I learn this through listening, sitting close, breath held, heart fluttering. It leads me to put a chair under my door handle at night; discuss ways in which a torch could usefully be handled to hit someone in the soft of their temples if need be. It leads me to have discussions with women living in displacement and young female soldiers working in military camps about their strategies to keep themselves, their girls, their friends safe at night: sleeping in shifts, leaving doors open, keeping watch throughout the night.

Problematically, this violence that the women experience in their home or within their communities is not talked about in terms of security but in terms of the realities of everyday life: as something to endure, at best negotiate around, rather than something to be identified, verbalized and stopped. This is not surprising. So much of the reporting is focused on sexual violence in Kachin State as perpetrated by the State army. But only seeing ‘public’ violence such as rape and killings committed by State actors undermines the violence women endure locally and in the home. This risks abstracting gender-based violence from its wider socio-economic and political context.  Understanding violence, and importantly, knowledge about violence, as relational helps to situate such experiences within a continuum of violence that spans the peace and conflict divide.

This is important because the less visible forms of violence, such as discrimination, domestic violence, and women’s poverty relative to men normalize and facilitate the more visible forms of violence, such as sexual violence perpetrated by military actors. Feminist ethics can help make the connection between women doing the bulk of unpaid housework, including cooking and washing (as in the set image for this post) and women’s susceptibility to suffer violence.

For example, being responsible for the survival of near and extended families means that women may lack the time and income to participate in public decision-making processes. There is then a link between gender, material insecurity at the household level and political marginalisation. And being excluded from participating in political decision-making processes constrains women’s ability to address the violence they face. In Myanmar, there are no laws criminalising domestic violence or rape within marriage, no legal definition of discrimination and impunity for sexual violence committed by State actors in conflict areas, such as Kachin State. Speaking to women I learn that lack of women in local decision-making positions contributes to displacement camps being designed without the needs of women and girls in mind. As a consequence, the toilets and the showers in the camps may not be sex segregated or have proper locks or lighting. I hear how this increases women’s insecurity within the camps.

Speaking to women I learn that different forms of gender-based violence reinforce each other. This means that domestic abuse and violence within camps and local communities relate to the conflict and the occurrence of sexual violence perpetrated by the State military. Listening emphatically with women challenges my understanding of what is relevant in war, and teaches me about experiences obscured by most research on the war which focuses on male experience and knowledge; on the thoughts and decisions of army generals, battalions, state policies. Listening emphatically with women adds bits to the puzzle that is Myanmar by connecting women’s experiences in the home to the frontline conduct of soldiers. Feminist ethics can then help make visible different aspects of violence and war experienced outside the battlefield and broaden our understanding of what is counted as relevant.  Importantly, it can teach us how to hold knowledge not easily held.

Jenny Hedström
Jenny Hedström is a third-year doctoral student in International Relations and Politics at the Monash Gender, Peace and Security Center, Monash University, Melbourne. Jenny’s research interests concerns feminist political economy, Myanmar/Burma studies, militarisation and conflict.

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