Gender wars: the emotional strain of researching sexual violence during conflicts

Anne-Kathrin Kreft tells Matthew Reisz how interviews with Colombian women’s activists left her mentally and physically exhausted – and ideologically transformed

January 9, 2020
Anne-Kathrin Kreft
Source: Evgeny Postnikov

In an unpublished paper, Anne-Kathrin Kreft pays tribute to the women who “dedicate their lives – sometimes at considerable risk to their own safety and wellbeing – to improving the situation of women in Colombia. They have done more for women and women’s rights than I have or ever will. Moreover, I have learned a lot from these women, for my research, but also for my own self-understanding as a woman.”

Yet the focus of her research – for which Kreft was recently awarded a PhD by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, leading to a three-year postdoctoral grant from the Swedish Research Council – on conflict-related sexual violence proved very emotionally demanding. This, she believes, raises a number of questions about the kind of support universities can and should supply.

In the 1990s, the wars in Bosnia and Rwanda called attention to the prevalence of rape during armed conflict, leading to a series of UN resolutions addressing such abuse. More recently, the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege and the Iraqi Yazidi human rights activist Nadia Murad “for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”.

So the issue is now very much on the international agenda. Yet, says Kreft, “there is a tendency to view victims of conflict-led sexual violence – and women more generally – as passive and lacking agency. My motivation was to look at the political agency women do have and exert.”

Colombia is located in a region of high gender inequality and gender-based violence. Yet it also has a strong civil society sector, including a number of well-established, “home-grown” women’s groups. Their involvement in the country’s recent negotiations to end 50 years of civil war – resulting in a Nobel Peace Prize for its former president, Juan Manuel Santos – ensured that gender issues were given unusually close attention.

After conducting interviews in Scandinavia with former diplomats who had been involved in facilitating the negotiations, Kreft carried out a month-long scoping trip to Bogotá in 2017, and then returned to Colombia for three months in early 2018 to visit the cities of Medellín and Cali, as well as Bogotá again.

During this time, she carried out 27 interviews, mainly with women’s and victims’ organisations. Some, she explains, are “mobilised around women’s rights and enhancing women’s political participation”. Others are “engaged in working with victims, [giving] psychological support [and promoting] collective healing”. They provide “psycho-legal support for the process of reporting and in the court proceedings, because there’s not a lot of gender sensitivity in the judicial system”, and also help victims of sexual violence process the pressure they are often under to accept what they went through as a “bitter pill” that they just have to swallow in the broader interests of peace and reconciliation.

A number of the activists that Kreft interviewed had endured a great deal: from vandalism of their offices to online abuse and even assassination attempts. But since she was keen to avoid the dangers of “retraumatisation”, she opted to speak only to “women who are already mobilised against conflict-related sexual violence and are used to speaking about it”. She also avoided asking her interviewees about their own experiences of abuse. However, some chose to speak about them anyway.

The emotional strain of conducting the interviews was only one of the challenges that Kreft faced, however.

Perhaps the most basic cause of stress was working within a still-dangerous country. Although “the conflict [between the government and the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc)] in the major cities is essentially over”, according to Kreft, “locals tell you: ‘Don’t walk around in this area. Don’t walk around after dark. Always wear your backpack on [your] front.’ It’s easy to get the impression that everything is unsafe. You always have to be on your guard.

"It’s a strange situation. Sometimes you don’t subjectively feel unsafe, but everybody around you tells you it is unsafe, so you are constantly tense and you can’t rely on your experience of growing up [to assess where danger may lie]. That is exhausting.”

After her initial stay in Colombia, Kreft returned to Sweden and “went back to the literature” on sexual violence. During that time, the #MeToo movement began in the wake of the allegations of serial sexual misconduct by film producer Harvey Weinstein. “So I was at work reading about [sexual violence] and came home to read about it [in the newspapers], and also making connections with experiences of my own – not sexual violence as such, but minor things such as men just grabbing whatever part of your body they feel like at a party: things that we used to consider unpleasant but didn’t realise fall into a whole spectrum of violence,” Kreft says.

According to Kreft’s blog, “the excitement of traveling to different places in Colombia, speaking to so many fascinating and courageous women – and collecting so much data – kept me on my toes” during her research trips. It was only when she got back to Gothenburg that she realised “how physically and mentally exhausting the fieldwork trip had been. For two months, I was absolutely drained, unable to focus and got very little work done.”

Despite the great kindness and help Kreft received from women in Colombia, some of the interview material was obviously harrowing. One of the women, she tells Times Higher Education, “was attacked by the Farc. Her husband was killed, she was raped, she and her children were displaced, so she lost everything in the course of one day.” But although she was sometimes disturbed by such accounts during the interviews themselves, “it was a lot worse” when she returned to Sweden: “It felt very painful to be at home alone typing up the data and to be reminded of the extent of sexual violence, the forms it can take and the effects it can have on women: even on those who are not victims but just have a fear of this violence.”

Anne-Kathrin Kreft

One of the key themes of Kreft’s research is that because conflict-related sexual violence is experienced as an attack on women as a group (and linked to other forms of violence and abuse), it spurs women to mobilise politically. Her 2018 paper in the Journal of Peace Research seeks to establish a causal link between the level of “wartime rape” and the levels of “women’s civil society involvement” and “nonviolent protest activities…in which women or feminists were explicitly mentioned as actors”. A detailed statistical analysis in the paper, “Responding to sexual violence: Women’s mobilization in war”, even leads to the startlingly exact conclusion that “countries with systematic rape have on average 2.37 nonviolent women’s protests for every protest in countries experiencing conflict with no reported rape”.

“As horrifying as such violence is,” argues Kreft, “you do see resistance and some hope coming out of it. That is one of the core motivating forces behind the dissertation…I was horrified by a lot of what I read but inspired by the activism. I learned a lot about the perseverance, strength and agency of the women that I interviewed – more than from all the academic literature that I’ve read.”

The 2018 Nobel prize citation’s reference to the use of sexual violence as “a weapon of war and armed conflict” reflects a widespread international understanding that such violence is in essence caused by the fighting. Yet, as Kreft points out, this is in some ways convenient for UN agencies and Western diplomats, “because then you don’t have to address the gender inequalities which exist in your own societies”. Yet while her interviewees in Colombia acknowledged the significance of the conflict, they also argued that “you cannot talk about conflict-related sexual violence without considering the societal context…They think the primary cause is gender inequality and patriarchal structures, so that even without conflict you have a lot of sexual violence.” Several interviewees cited evidence that, even in areas of conflict, more sexual violence is perpetrated in the private sphere than by armed actors.

However outsiders interpreted it, in other words, the women on the ground saw conflict-related sexual violence through what Kreft calls “the prism of patriarchy”. They put it on a spectrum with “street harassment and all the things which objectify women…They also brought up sexist jokes and [the way] you are expected to accept that they are normal. You’re put in a situation where you constantly feel objectified – every single woman has experienced that in her life.”

As this may imply, her interviews in Colombia led Kreft to rethink some of her fundamental assumptions, and she came to see the world in darker colours.

“I grew up in small-town Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, where feminism was and is a kind of fringe phenomenon,” she says. “It wasn’t really an issue. I always believed that women should have the same rights [as men] but I didn’t see the structural problems. Harassment was considered normal. Teachers made sexist jokes. You didn’t question it. I didn’t grow up with a feminist ideology. It was really only when I started working on these issues that it really developed.”

In particular, her interviews in Colombia were “a major turning point in realising how strong a force these gender inequalities are – and how important it is to adopt a more structural view”.

So what is it like to carry out a research project dealing with such difficult material and leading to such painful conclusions?

While working on the data, as Kreft notes in her blog, she “got hung up on what two women said about the toll [their] work takes on the civil society activists. Both of them quit working entirely for a while because they could no longer handle the suffering and the cruelty to which they were constantly exposed; one said she experienced a profound depression.”

Researchers can also clearly experience some of this emotional strain at one more remove. Although Kreft refuses to describe herself as “traumatised”, she admits that she experienced significant distress for three to four months of her four-year PhD. Yet academic publications, as her blog points out, “generally do not reflect how strongly the researcher can be affected by doing difficult research and how these reactions may have impacted the research process itself…Fieldwork courses and guidelines too are often silent on the potential negative effects of doing difficult research on the researchers themselves.” Furthermore, “In the cut-throat environment that academia sometimes is, none of us wants to be perceived as whiny, fragile or difficult. But speaking openly about the challenges we face is important to identify those areas in which institutional and discipline-wide responses could be improved.”

The traditions of immersive fieldwork in anthropology have led to much reflection on the emotional and ethical issues involved. Political science, by contrast, because of its recent turn towards quantification and big data, suggests Kreft, is “particularly bad as a discipline at dealing with trauma”. Her own department had seldom been involved in research projects such as hers and so had “no experience of insurance, security protocols and emergencies”. Although individuals were sympathetic to her, there was “no institutional response”. When she asked an administrator for help, she was “given contact details for a mental health service line, but they didn’t pick up the phone – I tried a few times and gave up”.

It is surely important that researchers investigate major human rights abuses, celebrate those who are mobilised against them and help publicise their distinctive perspectives. But Kreft’s experience suggests that universities may need to think far more carefully about the support they offer to those who do this sometimes harrowing work.


Print headline: War on women

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