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The Nexus of CVAW and Peace and Security

The Nexus of Violence Against Women Justified in the Name of ‘Culture’/Religion (CVAW) and Peace and Security

By Edna Aquino

The following are excerpts from a paper commissioned by WELDD for the International Consultation Meeting on Culturally-Justified Violence Against Women (CVAW), Peace and Security which was held in Lahore, Pakistan on 4th, 5th and 6th November 2013.  The meeting interrogated how the continuum of peace-security meshes with deeply-embedded discrimination against women including gender-based violence, as well as the implications for activism.  

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What is CVAW?

Violence exists in various forms in all societies and is present in everyday life.  Women are beaten, burned, sexually abused and rape.  Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) and its Violence is not Our Culture campaign  defines CVAW as those acts described in the UN Declaration on violence against women (VAW) that “result in, or are likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life” and which are explicitly justified or condoned through a misuse of cultural, religious, or traditional beliefs, values, and practices that are meant to impose a patriarchal control over women and girls. This includes control over her body, her sexuality, who to love, when, whether and who to marry, how to express herself, what to believe and exercise of her own free will. 

Legally binding human rights norms, especially the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)[1] explicitly state that no custom, tradition or religious consideration can be invoked to justify violence against women. Despite this, some of the most pernicious manifestations of gender-based violence are committed in the name of ‘culture’. Female infanticide, dowry deaths, marital rape, acid attacks, female genital mutilation/cutting, forced early marriage, and literal witch-hunting are examples of the most abhorrent forms of CVAW.  Cruel forms of punishment such as whipping, lashing, honor crimes and killings, as well as death by stoning are carried out to punish women who transgress cultural norms (sexual and `moral'). These must also be considered as forms of CVAW.   The most extreme forms of CVAW are particularly widespread in impoverished and marginalized communities where illiteracy is high and lack of economic opportunities are rampant. Women and girls are deprived of their right to education and information and are strictly controlled by fathers, brothers, partners and husbands and even by women within their families and communities.

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Farida Shaheed, Speical Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights.

According to Farida Shaheed, regardless of where or when it occurs or how it manifests, of its manifestation, VAW is always legitimised by arguments of ‘culture’ because: “(1) no society is devoid of culture, (2) the dominant culture throughout the world is patriarchal and, (3) patriarchal culture inevitably validates violence as an acceptable, even desirable, attribute of masculinity while it simultaneously de-values women and all attribute.”[2]Yakin Erturk, in her United Nations Special Rapporteur on VAW 2007 report on Culture and VAW reminds us to be mindful about the notion of culture that is often defined as a only characteristic of non-Western persons and the mystification of ‘culture’ which reduced it to symbols, rituals or supposedly “traditional”.  In fact, cultural norms in the West that define gender relations and seemingly trivial cultural practices actually complement gender ideologies that prioritize women’s reproductive roles and reinforce in discrete forms.  Women’s subordination in these practices are often not questioned or even perceived as culture. She also pointed at non-gendered practices, such as gun culture, which also have consequences for gender-based violence.[3]

Liz Kelly’s concept of a ‘continuum of violence against women’ has critiqued the interrogation of VAW especially of extremes of horrific cruelty and violence, including those that may be justified by reference to culture (CVAW) that could lead to a tendency to focus on these manifestations in isolation of the broader context of such violence. The worst acts of VAW should be considered as extremes at one end of a spectrum of socially sanctioned male aggression, coercive behaviour and patriarchal norms which inevitably validate violence as an acceptable, even desirable, attribute of masculinity.  Such norms simultaneously de-value women and all attributes considered feminine, such as nurturing - not just of persons but also of relationships.

In other words, patriarchy in itself is a form of violence that thrives on inequality and domination.  So rather than focusing on the different forms of violence and abuse as discrete issues, the continuum framework recognizes commonalities between them in women’s experience. It is also about differences: the different forms of sexual violence, their differentiated impacts, and the varying community and legal responses to dissimilarly positioned women within and between cultures and through history.[4]

The CVAW/Conflict, Peace and Security Nexus

Conflict takes diverse forms, manifests multiple dimensions, and involves a multitude of actors and causes or triggers.  The demarcation lines between imminent, protracted conflict, transition and post-conflict are blurred.    In most situations, even when the military offensive, armed conflict or ‘war phase’ has formally ended, conflicts continue to be reproduced in many ways. While post-conflict resolution is still underway, new conflicts may emerge. The broad range of actors involved include: the State, non-state actors, armed forces and other members of the security sector, private security contractors, and private militia. But, there are less obvious actors such as transnational corporations engaged in extractive industries.

Patriarchy underpins the continuum of violence in the private sphere as well as broader large-scale conflicts including wars.  While all civilians are affected by armed conflict and situations of political instability, women suffer disproportionately because of their race, ethnicity, sex, class and other sources of ‘identity’ and as a result of pervasive pre-existing gender inequalities. Many experts including the UN Special Rapporteurs against VAW and Cultural Rights have already established the strong link between wartime/conflict violence and patriarchal gender hierarchies.


Under a patriarchal order, women are often assigned the role of the bearers of culture. They not only physically reproduce the community by giving birth to new members; they are often also tasked with reproducing the dominant culture of these communities. This can include norms and practices assigned through unequal gender roles and rights which are projected as essential core values of a particular community and of their collective identity. Those contesting or transgressing prevailing norms and practices to promote gender equality may be condemned as “cultural traitors”. Matters concerning women may remain bound by tradition even after the community or society at large have undergone significant change. Alternatively, cultural traditions that granted women certain rights, such as rights to/over land, may be weakened or discarded. Embodying `tradition' and `cultural authenticity', women's bodies have become the arena for arguments to support cultural relativism.


Conflict situations almost inevitably reaffirm these patriarchal attitudes and values at every level. Women’s bodies become battlegrounds for power struggles for domination among factions in conflict reinforcing pre-existing sexual regulation of “one’s” women, the sanctioning of sexual violence against transgressors as well as women perceived or suspected as belonging to the “other”.  

In many conflict situations nowadays, new and revived fundamentalisms, both secular and religious, are behind armed non-state forces responsible for creating a stifling climate of social, economic and cultural vulnerabilities amongst the poorest especially women and children. While the central aim is to assume and maintain power, they leverage existing patriarchal norms for traction including the control of women’s lives – both their minds and bodies. Fundamentalist armed groups invoke and impose extreme versions of patriarchal norms and values that are even more restrictive than existing traditional practices and introduce harsher punitive measures against those who transgress these norms. There are also knock-on effects For instance, in an atmosphere of insecurity, families are forced to marry their daughters off at a much younger age than they would have done a generation ago and even exert pressure to conform to prescribed ‘dress codes’.  Under these circumstances, women’s rights such as their security, safety, freedom of movement and right to education are severely threatened. 

The risks and vulnerabilities of affected communities, most especially women and children, are also heightened by the proliferation of small arms; the collapse of law enforcement mechanisms; the general breakdown of law and order; and the lack of attention to violations of human rights committed by agencies and institutions mandated to protect the rights of civilians, heighten. At the same time, conflict creates conditions of severe economic deprivation where the civilian population, particularly women, becomes almost totally dependent on certain authorities (whether occupation forces, peacekeepers, or humanitarian workers) for survival. Having to constantly negotiate with these entities for survival leaves women acutely vulnerable to sexual and other forms of exploitation. 

Women’s experiences of armed conflict and post conflict contexts are further shaped by their multiple identities. Discrimination against women is compounded by other intersecting forms of discrimination. This included but is not limited to: discrimination on the basis of race, socio-economic status, color, ethnic or social origin, disability, religion, sexual orientation, age, refugee or other immigration status.

The repercussions of conflict persist long after open violence ceases, with devastating impact particularly in terms of an increased tolerance for and expectation of violence within communities.  Post-conflict situations often result in a rise in the levels of violence against women in general including of women taking up leadership or high profile peace-building roles in their communities.  This can be attributed to several factors: 

There is an overall increase in the number of individuals and groups that continue to pose a potential threat in the community. This includes: national armed forces; non-state armed groups that retain territorial control; remaining international military intervention forces; private military contractors; army deserters, demobilised fighters returning to communities or being recruited into state security forces; more criminal gangs, with links to international organised crime networks.

During and after a war or armed conflict, traditional roles and the power structures are weakened and women move into roles previously closed to them could mean an expansion of certain forms of violence in addition to the violence committed during the armed conflict. The cessation of open armed conflict means women face significant ‘backlash’ from men threatened by these changes in previous gender-normative rules. In her mission report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UNSRVAW cautions against addressing sexual violence associated with war in isolation from gender-based discrimination that women experience in times of “peace”.[7] Increasing rates of domestic violence often follow the formal cessation of hostilities because often violence is transferred to the family sphere. Social normative behavior that insists on controlling women intensifies when insecurity leads to anger and frustration on the part of male relatives thus frequently resulting in increased acts of VAW.  Women in camps of displaced populations in Pakistan, for example, reported an increased violence for a number of reasons including their men have nothing to do and so devote far more time to monitoring women’s every action. The presence of many more ‘male strangers’ in camps deepens suspicions. 

The disruption of the rule of law in times of war/armed conflict situations promotes an atmosphere of impunity. This is sometimes compounded by amnesty agreements in post-conflict periods which signal that previously committed crimes will go unpunished. Hence, as in ‘peacetime’, women continue to suffer violence and opt to  remain silent out of fear of reprisal or ostracism, especially as perpetrators often hold powerful positions within their own government, community or family.

The culture of violence becomes part of the very fabric of society: it trickles down from the State, to the community and to the family unit, and also ascends from eh family to the State.  Addressing violence against women is rarely prioritized, leaving millions of women at risk.  Therefore ending violence against women and achieving peace are interdependent, inseparable goals.

The official cessation of hostilities and transitional justice mechanisms instituted in the immediate aftermath of conflict, have little or no accountability and redress for the full range of human rights violations suffered by women. There is ample evidence confirming that, despite the numerous global commitments to end impunity for human rights violations and to address the gender-specific challenges related to post-conflict participation, women continue to be marginalized from conflict resolution. The militarization of society and fragile peace agreements /negotiations thwart the options available for women and communities caught up in these conflicts to participate in meaningful peace-building processes. 

Implications for Women leadership and activism

Women as activists and leaders are pivotal in the resistance, survival, recovery and rebuilding of their communities; more so in times of conflict.  They are seldom passive by-standers.  In the diverse conflict and post-conflict contexts, women have historically and continue to express their agency including as combatants, as part of organized civil society, as leaders in their own communities, human rights activists, as members of resistance movements and as active agents in both formal and informal peace-building processes. They respond to the immediate needs of their communities, securing the safety and well-being of the most vulnerable members including women and girls who are exposed to gender-based violence. Most women are also obliged to take on the role of primary income earners in ‘conflict economy’ where income opportunities are severely reduced. Women become more visible in the public (militarized) space, in an environment in which human rights abuses occur with impunity and where truth and justice is denied to victims of rights abuses. Their critical role in peace-building has been embraced by the international community. 

However, women’s role and presence are deeply marked by a history of discrimination coupled with a struggle for gender equality.  Patriarchal structures, institutions and practices make their tasks more difficult, and in many instances, more dangerous. The intensified social control of women and the enforcement of strict gender norms make women activists a target for backlash. State forces and non-state armed groups involved in identity-based conflicts impose restrictions and their own particular brands of codes of conduct on women and women leaders are particularly at risk because of the contentious issues they advocate for such as ending gender-based discrimination and violence.  They are also compelled to defend themselves against defamation and outright attacks on their life and liberty because of their gender and their visible presence in the public domain seen or perceived as defying cultural norms and values. 

As Hina Jilani, the UN Special Representative for Human Right Defenders wrote in her 2002 report to the Human Rights Commission: “…they may arouse more hostility that their male colleagues because as women human rights defenders they may defy cultural, religious, or social norms about femininity and the role of women in a particular country or society.”[8] 

As activists and/or leaders, women in the community are attacked and their homes and villages destroyed.  Like the rest of the members of their communities, women as well as their family and community members are displaced due to the conflict, but women and families may be particular targets because of their activities. When the male head of the family is killed or forced to hide or is missing, women assume the responsibility for the care of dependents such as children, the elderly and the disabled under conditions of deprivation and insecurity. They themselves may be widowed, orphaned or abandoned.

Women activists operating in times of conflict are at a much greater risk of experiencing fatigue or ‘burn-out’ due to prolonged period of intense work characterized by unrelenting pressures and stress and the daunting tasks of reconstruction and reform. This is the stage when they are most vulnerable, yet, precisely at this moment, international support has usually waned as the violent phase of the conflict is perceived to be over.

Today more and more women are realizing that the struggle for women’s rights is a larger struggle which is inextricably intertwined with just peace, therefore reframing personal security issues and embedding this in the advocacy towards democratization of the state, state organs and of non state forces. These activists are pushing for end of rights violations, they want truth, justice and accountability and they want lasting peace to rebuild their lives.

[1] United Nations Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women


Shaheed, Farida.  Violence Against Women Legitimised by Arguments of “Culture” – Thoughts from a Pakistani Perspective  


Erturk, Yakin, Intersections between Culture and VAW, Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on VAW A/HRC/4/34, 17 January 2007.


Kelly, Liz. Surviving Sexual Violence, 1988.


The CEDAW committee is currently finalizing a General recommendation on women’s rights in conflict situations.


Shaheed, Farida.   Cultural Rights. UN Special Rapporteur Report to the UN General Assembly, 10 August 2012. http://bit.ly/Sxt7Ug


Country Mission Report on the DRC A/HRC/7/6/Add.4. Summary


UN Special Representative of Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, Hina Jilani’s 2002 report to the 58th session of the Commission on Human Rights (E/CN.4/2002/106, 27 February 2002, para 91)


Edna Aquino
Published Date: 
Peace and Security
Culturally Justified Violence Against Women