Women's rights activists

Women, Peace, and Victimhood

Women's rights activists, wearing black bands in front of their eyes, protest against gender violence at the National University in Bogota in November 2019. (RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images)

Both the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda and feminist analysts of it have a complex relationship to victimhood. The frame of “victim of war” is a key way through which the WPS agenda addresses the role of women in peacebuilding. As is evident in the United Nations Security Council resolutions that constitute the WPS agenda ,and in the programmatic interventions that have stemmed from those resolutions, the construction of victimhood often relies on associations of vulnerability with femininity. In this context, “woman” often becomes synonymous with “victim,” which can become synonymous with violation and lack of agency.

As Laura Shepherd writes, alternate ways of understanding women’s experiences in war and peace in the WPS agenda include the framing of women as agents of change, as subjects of (predominantly economic) empowerment, as decision-makers, and as local peacebuilders. Each of those frames relies on gendered, racialized, and colonially-informed ideas about agency, power, authority, and subjectivity during transitions from violence. These ideas shape the content of trainings and workshops about peace, security, and rights, the designation of certain people as trainers and others as subjects of training, and the definitions of peace and security that inform these interventions.

I analyze here how a feminist approach to victimhood can inform our understanding of the WPS agenda—and of the lowercase meanings of peace, security, and women’s roles in them. Drawing from fifteen months of in-depth ethnographic fieldwork in Colombia between 2016 and 2018, I analyze the meanings of victimhood as a political status and a potential site of power and agency during transitions from violence.

Victims, Survivors, and Subjects of War and Peace

In feminist scholarship, advocacy, and practice, the word “victim” is a source of discomfort. When sharing the results of my research on the politics and hierarchies of victimhood in Colombia, audiences frequently ask: “Don’t you mean ‘survivor’? Isn’t that the more feminist term?” As a researcher and peacebuilding practitioner, I do not have the authority to declare a hierarchy of terms for describing people’s experiences. When I write and speak, my intention is to reflect the language by which my interlocutors know and describe themselves.

In the Colombian context, “victim” has emerged as a powerful legal category that organizes access to reparations, authorizes inclusion in public policy initiatives, and directs attention from the state and other actors engaged in peacebuilding. “’Survivors’ became victims not just through their engagement with the realm of the law,” Juan Pablo Vera argues, but through the complex political meanings of the “victim” category and the claims one could make on the basis of it. The over nine million people the Colombian state officially recognizes as victims of the conflict have varied experiences of violence—in terms of forms of violence, alleged perpetrators, and effects of harms—and relationships to the label “victim.” At the same time, as Angelika Rettberg reminds us, the status of “victim” represents a source of power and strategic activism for many of them, in ways that feminist scholars and advocates ought to take seriously.

Taking victimhood seriously requires moving away from a view of it as always synonymous with vulnerability or lack of agency, or as entirely reduced to the experience of victimization. The status of victimhood, Marie Berry writes, is “produced within systems of power.” As my own research suggests, strategic engagement with or rejection of the category of “victim” during transitions from violence shapes and is shaped by politics and power as well.

A key implication, therefore, is that, rather than encouraging WPS scholarship and advocacy to move away from a focus on victimhood because that frame minimizes women’s agency, we ought to ask instead what kinds of agency, political claims, and advocacy the label of “victim” permits or forecloses during transitions from violence.

Victimhood and Agency: Beyond Either/Or

During my fieldwork in Colombia, I observed how the Colombian state implemented the transitional justice program for those it recognized as victims of war. Transitional justice refers to the series of measures that states put in place to address large-scale human rights violations during transitions from violence. These include symbolic and material reparations, as well as a range of measures aimed at guaranteeing the rights of victims and investigating the crimes perpetrators committed during wartime.

In practice, observing the implementation of the transitional justice program often meant accompanying state officials as they delivered workshops and trainings for those recognized as victims, on subjects ranging from “sensitization on the rights of women” to “comprehensive reparation for women victims.” Though the primary responsibility for these activities lies with the Colombian state, they unfold in partnership with other actors, including UN agencies and other international organizations, foreign governments, and Colombian or international non-governmental organizations.

The WPS agenda was explicitly and implicitly present in these encounters. “The Women, Peace, and Security resolutions have been invaluable tools as we work for justice,” a Colombian state official declared at the opening of a workshop on women’s reparations. Even when WPS was not named, the underlying logics of the agenda and its emphasis on women’s participation in peace, ideas about agency and empowerment, and the complex relationship of these to vulnerability and victimhood shaped the delivery of reparations programs.

Echoing María Martín de Almagro, the WPS agenda and the peacebuilding interventions that spring from it bring into being particular kinds of subjects. The agenda shapes how women understand themselves and are understood by others in the context of peacebuilding. In the Colombian context, transitional justice programs often encouraged this subject to be economically-minded, resilient, and ready to leave victimhood behind.

The focus on economic empowerment of victims of war in general, and of women in particular, risks uncritically replicating principles of neoliberal economic development. There are also critiques of resilience itself, a concept that, in the words of Malaka Shwaikh, “can become a tool of further oppression.” In light of this, it is now helpful to focus attention on the third pillar of the WPS subject: the woman who is ready to leave victimhood behind.

“Being a victim is a condition. This training is about how to manage it, how to construct something from it, how to frame matters in another way and focus on moving on,” a state official declared at a workshop for women recognized as victims jointly carried out with a UN agency. My interviews with representatives of international organizations supporting the implementation of the Colombian transitional justice program further highlighted this point. “We need to convert ‘victim’ into something positive,” an international organization official who worked on gender told me, “into a more active subject and citizen, a subject more prone to negotiation, more of a subject of politics.” From the stage of a public event about the role of victims in the post-conflict, a Colombian state official echoed: “The actions of reparation ought to accompany Colombians who suffered in the war to return to feeling like citizens, like part of this country, to become political subjects.”

Collectively, these narratives frame full citizenship and political subjectivity as something that lies beyond and after victimhood. They sketch a timeline of violence wherein identifying as a victim means being something other than a political subject. According to this timeline, participating in programmatic interventions, like trainings and workshops, can put an individual on the path to full citizenship—but achieving recognition as a political subject almost always requires leaving the victim label behind.

Yet, for many of my interlocutors who identify as victims, the label of “victim” is not stopping them from participating in public life as political subjects. On the contrary, it is a powerful basis of political subjectivity. “Doing politics means to claim, demand, argue, propose, and organize,” a leader of a victims’ association told me. “It means to exist publicly, to be in conversation. ‘Political subject’ requires a collective understanding, not individual leadership.”

Women who identify as victims echoed that the label of “victim” is a site of politics that allows particular kinds of claims to emerge. “Victim” indicates that someone suffered harm, that there is a victimizer, and that there ought to be a process for remedy and reparation. “Victim” makes people legible as particular subjects of state attention, codifies rights, and allows for organizing under a common, legible umbrella. Experiences of victimhood vary, as do relationships to the term. The key point, however, is that the category of “victim” can itself be a political status, rather than a passive, depoliticizing label that automatically forecloses all agency.

Looking Towards the Future

Until now, many have rightly critiqued the WPS agenda for locking women into a position of only being seen as victims. Moving forward, rather than seeing “women as agents of change” as fundamentally different than “women as victims,” our analysis and advocacy would benefit from examining victimhood itself as a potential site of agency, change, and politics.

This means that, instead of orienting programmatic interventions towards encouraging women to resist identifying as victims, we can instead reorient our curiosity towards exploring what identification as a victim means to those who embrace or refuse it. This curiosity can lead to a more nuanced feminist understanding of politics and power during transitions from violence.

Dr. Roxani Krystalli is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) at the University of St Andrews, where she is also a core affiliate of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. Her research and teaching focus on feminist peace and conflict studies, and on the politics of nature and place. She can be found on Twitter @rkrystalli