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Urbanization and Insecurity: Crowding, Conflict, and Gender

“Sexual violence plays a special role as a form of violence and as a form of terror and torture,” said Alison Brysk, a Wilson Center fellow and Mellichamp chair of global governance at the University of California Santa Barbara. Yet the connections between gender-based violence and urbanization – observed in Kenya, India, and countries around the world – are not widely recognized.

Date & Time

Feb. 18, 2014
12:00pm – 2:00pm ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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“If there was a perfect slum, Kibera would be it.” The notoriously overcrowded and underserved settlement in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi captivates the public imagination, engendering visions of urban violence, poverty, and hopelessness, said Caroline Wanjiku Kihato of the University of the Witwatersrand at the Wilson Center on February 18. The area was ravaged by ethnic violence that erupted across the country following Kenya’s disputed 2007 elections, pitting neighbor against neighbor in tribal clashes that killed more than 1,000 people, displaced many thousands more, and provoked an alarming surge in sexual violence.

Clichés aside, however, Kibera is also one of the most well-researched slums anywhere – a characteristic that has revealed critical insights on the relationships between space, conflict, and gender. “Sexual violence plays a special role as a form of violence and as a form of terror and torture,” said Alison Brysk, a Wilson Center fellow and Mellichamp chair of global governance at the University of California Santa Barbara. Yet the connections between gender-based violence and urbanization – observed in Kenya, India, and countries around the world – are not widely recognized.

Kibera’s Militias         

While conventional analyses typically attribute Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence to state-centered power strugglesstructural inequality created by global economic forces, or local historical disputes and social relationships, these explanations are gender-blind, said Kihato. “They are really unable to tell us how the unequal distribution of resources, power, and access to government institutions at global, national, and levels, differentially affect men and women,” she said. They fail to explain, for example, Kibera’s dramatic post-election spike in rapes and forced circumcisions.

“The quantity of gender-based violence that happens in political contexts; it’s mind boggling, but during that time nobody looks for it,” said Alfred Omenya of Eco-Build Africa. Structural gender-based violence, which can be embedded in culture and condoned by society, “is often not conceptualized as such,” he said. “Even when this type of violence becomes widespread, becomes epidemic, nobody still sees it, as compared to, say, political violence.”

Kihato sought a deeper understanding by comparing gender roles in Kibera during normal times and times of conflict. “In normal times, the notion of the aggressive male is criminalized,” and “ethnic divides are not seen as sources of conflict and division.” During the conflict, however, male aggression was “decriminalized and even idealized,” and men faced pressures from both sexes to engage in tribal violence. “Men had to be out there, meting out their violence on ‘the other,’” in order to avoid being seen as cowards.

Similarly, women are seen as passive nurturers during peacetime, whereas “during times of conflict women became part of the conflict,” serving as spies, feeding militias, keeping watch, and actively killing. Gender roles can become “scrambled” during conflict, said Kihato, and relationships between men and women can fuel violence that is initially triggered by political events.

“What looking at gender really allows us to do is understand that the conflict and its production is broader than the battle lines,” she said. “Most policy responses are around trying to save women. And I argue that the stereotypes of women as peace-loving, feminine, and the male as the macho, aggressive violator can really prevent us from understanding conflict generally and developing appropriate long-term responses for it.”

Invisible Violence

“There is always a tendency to isolate gender-based violence and look at it as a very specific type of violence,” when in fact it is linked to other forms of violence, said Omenya. In a comparative four-year study examining all forms of violence in Nairobi; Santiago, Chile; Dili, Timor-Leste; and Patna, India; Omenya and his colleagues found that “domestic violence always showed up, whether we were looking for it or not.”

Gender-based violence in the private domain generally receives far less attention than that in the public domain, he said. “We found that there was so much violence in private spaces, but of more concern was that this violence was also privatized. So a lot of people owned the violence and did not want to speak about it.”

In India, where shocking attacks on women have recently made international headlines, “if you look on paper…the rate of rape is actually not that high,” said Brysk. Yet such figures belie the scope of the problem. In 2010 roughly 14.8 percent of women reported violent sexual abuse in India. Given India’s massive population, that means at least 60 million people were affected. “At a local level, in case studies, people are reporting this, but at a global level we’re tending to focus on rape as a weapon of war, and we’re tending to focus on street crime as a criminological issue,” she said.

Certain forms of gender-based violence – structural gender-based violence, gender-based violence that occurs in private spaces, and gender-based violence that occurs outside of low-income households – are “invisible or invisibilized,” said Omenya, and are consequently overlooked by conventional research and policy.

In Santiago, Omenya’s team was shocked to find high levels of gender-based violence across all income levels. Yet, “the higher you went in economic classes, the less visible it became.” Higher classes associate gender-based violence with lower classes, said Omenya, and the aspirations of the upwardly mobile prevent them from speaking openly about it. “The assumption is that people have power and control over their lives because of their economic status, and our research actually discounts that.”

“Run With It Into People’s Homes”

Though underreporting makes it difficult to quantify gender-based violence, researchers are working to create a more accurate picture of the problem. A recent study published in The Lancet estimated 7.2 percent of women worldwide experienced non-partner sexual violence in 2010. Data from the WomanStat project shows high rates of sexual violence in conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East, but also Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, and India – countries that, according to Brysk, “are not only not conflict zones, but they’re not [in] extreme poverty and they’re not extreme patriarchy either.”

High rates of sexual violence in such diverse settings cannot be attributed to culture alone, she argued. “It’s not just the static features. It’s not just, for example, poverty. It’s changeIt’s economic change. It’s inequality.”

Brysk is working to better understand the drivers of sexual violence in these countries by identifying key correlates, including economic growth and urbanization rates; population dynamics; social and gender inequality; and corruption. Early findings suggest that sexual violence may be linked to displaced young men due to youth unemployment; large numbers of vulnerable young women due to labor migration; crowding and resource competition; urban governance crises and transportation issues; law enforcement capacity; and patriarchal attitudes that brand women as “disposable people” or “acceptable targets.”

Omenya proposed improving policy responses to gender-based violence by framing the problem around “visibility-invisibility continuums.” Though the current focus is on the visible ends of these spectrums, he said, “you need to push these continuums into the socially and culturally sanctioned structural aspects of gender-based violence.”

Understanding the complex relationship between urbanization, insecurity, and gender requires challenging conventional thinking about gender-based violence. “As researchers, we need to figure out tools that you can use to effectively unveil and unmask violence that happens in dark, private places,” said Omenya. “We need to chase violence from the streets and run with it all the way into people’s homes and bedrooms.”

Event Resources:

Sources: IRIN, The Lancet, The Urban Tipping Point.


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

Urban Sustainability Laboratory

Since 1991, the Urban Sustainability Laboratory has advanced solutions to urban challenges—such as poverty, exclusion, insecurity, and environmental degradation—by promoting evidence-based research to support sustainable, equitable and peaceful cities.  Read more

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