Mediated voices: nation/state-building, NGOs and survivors of sexual violence in postconflict Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina
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Mass ethnic violence, including genocide and ethnic cleansing, can take a variety of forms, but sexual violence often remains a key and defining feature. In the Bosnian war of 1992-1995 following the break-up of Yugoslavia, it is estimated that between 20,000 and 60,000 rapes were committed; and estimates are that between 250,000 and 500,000 rapes were committed during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. And yet the experiences and needs of these survivors of sexual violence can often remain marginalised through post-conflict reconstruction processes and beyond. Drawing on ethnographic and multi-method research, this dissertation explores and contrasts the post-conflict experiences of women who suffered from wartime sexual violence in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina and the programmes offered by key NGOs that continue to work with them. Focusing on policies and experiences of re-integration and the creation of a sense of social belonging, I show that these women represent a distinct category of civilian victims of war, whose postconflict needs and experiences are often marginalized by both their states and their communities. The thesis’ empirical core draws on ethnographic fieldwork, which included participant observation of ten key NGOs, four focus groups with HIV-infected individuals and women survivors of sexual violence, semi-structured and unstructured interviews with 17 survivors, 23 NGO staff and a Rwandan government representative, as well as informal conversations with all of these actors and members of the local communities. This ethnographic data was complemented and contextualized with official statistics, as well as government and NGO documents, and with interviews conducted at UN Women and the UN Trust Fund. The main substantive findings of this dissertation are that following the end of the ethnic violence in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the two states embarked on very different post-conflict reconstruction efforts. Rwanda has been characterized by an important process of nation-building, with the state outlawing ethnicity in favour of national unity, and implementing gender-sensitive policies to promote women’s rights. In contrast, the Bosnian-Herzegovinian state implemented policies mostly geared towards state-building, based on the rationale that the institutionalisation of ethnicity could only truly be accommodated through strong state institutions. The dominance of ethnic politics however overshadows other political agendas, such as gender policies, policies that have still not lead to transformative changes at the local level. These macro-policies importantly influence post-conflict experiences, most especially those of women who had survived sexual violence. My findings are suggestive of the complexity of the post-conflict experiences of the women I met, mostly in terms of social reintegration, where the macro-policies of post-conflict reconstruction continue to powerfully shape both their everyday lives and the work done by the NGOs. In Rwanda today, the women I interviewed mostly wish to be fully socially accepted and treated as part of their communities, with the NGOs offering them holistic support. But in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the women I interviewed today mostly demand legal recognition by the state, with the NGOs actively lobbying for this on their behalf. And yet, due to a shared experience of continuing everyday marginalization within both societies, as civilian victims of war, in both places the women often rely on NGOs to negotiate their social position within their states, nations and communities. This mediation role is structurally complicated by the NGOs’ relationships to donors and to the pressures of the state in which they operate. The impact of this is that through their mediation role NGOs reconstruct the women’s experiences in order to align with the priorities of the international donors and states in which they operate. Consequently, the contrasts between the work done by NGOs in each country are clearly visible, despite the similarity of the war crimes experienced: Rwandan NGOs actively seek to increase women’s empowerment within their social community, while the Bosnian NGOs actively aim to increase the women’s voices within more explicit political agendas. The thesis’s key theoretical or intellectual contribution, therefore, concerns its relevance to intersectional scholarly work on post-conflict and gender studies. More specifically, my findings suggest that a shift occurred immediately following the end of the armed conflicts, where the women who had experienced wartime sexual violence and who were socially located outside the scope of justice of their ethnic enemies, suddenly found themselves outside the scope of justice of their own ethnic or national communities. Extending Mann’s (2004) and Opotow et al’s (2005) typologies of ethnic violence and moral exclusion, I then develop a specific framework for understanding the underlying moral shifts experienced by the survivors of sexual violence. In doing this, I seek to capture this gendered moral and social relocation and its consequences on the everyday lives of the women and the NGOs that work with them. This forms the basis for my theoretical contribution that the women moved from ethnic women to moral outcasts in the aftermath of the ethnic violence, and that this exclusion is contextually shaped since the priorities for social reintegration are different in Rwanda to BiH. Addressing these priorities then requires different forms of post-conflict inclusion.