(Photo courtesy Dr. Kimberly Theidon) Following an event at Georgetown University hosted by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Department of Anthropology, and Center for Latin American Studies, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Dr. Kimberly Theidon, a writer and medical anthropologist whose work focuses on Latin America, to discuss her research on sexual violence and how it should be addressed moving forward.

GJIA: How has the academic discussion about sexual violence in combat zones evolved over time?

KT: In Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (1975), [journalist and feminist activist] Susan Brownmiller argued, to offer a somewhat facetious summary, that since the dawn of time, men have raped, and in war they rape a lot. Sexual violence, according to Brownmiller, is an inevitable and unfortunate byproduct of war. About 35 years later, [Yale University political scientist] Elisabeth Jean Wood made the groundbreaking statement that rape is not inevitable in war. The implications of this are extraordinarily important. When we challenge arguments that sexual violence during wartime is inevitable, we hold people more accountable. We can study patterns that generate higher levels of sexual violence and those that rein it in. When something is not inevitable, it means it can be stopped. So the conversation naturally shifted toward conflicts in which we see high levels of violence and very low rates of sexual violence. The three cases that Wood looked at were the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador. She cites a number of factors that influence the inverse relationship between the following two variables: the presence of a really good vertical command structure—commanders who have the motivation and capacity to ensure that raping doesn’t occur, strategic reasons why a commander would not want troops engaging in massive raping—and social taboos against touching women of an enemy group. So there are different reasons why rape is not always inevitable. That was a really important statement in terms of protective mechanisms and holding people accountable when it does occur. So while the question of rape and war goes back to the Greeks, our understanding of it has differed across time periods.

Another point I want to make very clear is that men and boys are victims of sexual violence too. They are victims at rates that are far higher than what we currently recognize, and if we think that the stigma and the silencing around female survivors is enormous, imagine what is entailed for men to come forward to speak about these forms of violence. It is very difficult. In the future, I don’t want the conversation about sexual violence to turn into these horrific binary arguments that leave men as eternal perpetrators.

GJIA: In general, what is the response of a community that experiences, is victimized by, or participates in war to victims of wartime sexual violence, and to children who may be born as a result of such violent acts?

KT: This is one of the areas on which we do not have very much data. There are many reasons why, but mainly it is because this is an extraordinary difficult topic to study. I have never asked a woman if she was raped. I am not working with a human rights organization per se, and I am not promising justice. Whenever I hear about these forms of violence, it is only because someone seeks me out and wants to talk about it. The ethical dimensions of this research are extraordinarily important. How can you ask a child who was born as a result of sexual violence questions without further stigmatizing him or her? It’s an incredibly tricky endeavor. I think that is part of the reason why we lack data in this particular area. The work of Charli Carpenter [a human security analyst and international law expert at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst] has laid out a very important research agenda regarding this issue. Right now, we have more questions than we do answers. When are children conceived out of wartime sexual violence stigmatized? When are they not? When are these children left to die? When are they kept and loved, just as any other child? How can we move to answer some of these questions?

One of my real concerns is how to protect the rights of these children, either in utero or at birth, while respecting the rights of the women who bear them. Some women do not want to give birth to these children. There need to be reasonable abortion options available for these women. Abortion options need to be safe for women in the event that they choose to terminate these pregnancies. I do feel that it is grossly unfair to expect women to carry babies to term if the children themselves are such painful reminders of what happened. Now, you can imagine how messy it gets once a child is born. Do we want to be the ones who go after the women and throw them in jail for committing infanticide, which does happen in some cases of children born of wartime sexual violence? One of the most important questions is thus how to provide protection for women and their rights while at the same time protecting these children. In answering this, we need to have a clear understanding of what happens to these children when they are born, and what we can do to protect them that is respectful to the people who are asked to raise them.

GJIA: What can be done on the international policy front to effectively strike a balance between the rights of victims of sexual violence and the rights of their children?

KT: One way to approach this is to look at what it means to provide services in a way that can be accessed by victims. In other words, how can a woman access these services without everyone knowing that she is going to the doctor’s office because she has been raped by a combatant? This is a major problem. How can we provide services to women as they are making these complicated decisions, frequently with tremendous pressure from the fathers of the children or from their own families? Sometimes their children are not accepted. So policymakers will need to account for the social complexity inherent in this problem.

If there are services in place and if a woman does not want to keep her child, I think she has the right not to. Some people would not agree with me, but I think victims have a right to simply say, “I cannot love that child in the way I wish I could.” Women in this situation have spoken about this and have asked, “Can you help me figure out how to love this child? I just don’t know how to love her.” That is a very painful and poignant reality. So in the event that a woman or her family cannot assume responsibility for a child, we need to ask ourselves what can be done to keep the baby safe. We need to look at the fact that women are always situated within families, communities, and societies. We need systematic research instead of anecdotal evidence to understand those sorts of complexities. I did not ask these questions myself when I was working with the Truth Commission in Peru from 2001-2003.

GJIA: What are some of the principle challenges that remain for responding justly to sexual violence in affected communities, both on the local and national level?

KT: One of the things that has always amazed me is the question of who the guilty are and what people want done with them. Even in contexts where I have assumed that the answer to this is very obvious, I have found that people have much more nuanced ways of understanding and reconciling who they consider to be ultimately responsible for violence that has happened. One of the great conundrums is what to do with the thousands of local-level perpetrators of violence that exist in many communities affected by war or conflict. You might have trials for the main leaders of an armed movement, and going after them is very important in terms of creating a deterrent effect. However, that is simply not feasibly replicated for the large number of local-level perpetrators following conflict in many communities affected by war. Sometimes the big perpetrators that get put on trial are very distant. Sometimes people on the local level don’t even know that there was a trial at all. It’s the local-level perpetrators that they frequently rank as most heinous, the ones they see all the time. This has become a big problem with the countries of Latin America’s Southern Cone where, even after all of those amnesty laws, nothing has really been taken care of in the eyes of the people. Torturers are still walking casually in the streets.

[A trial] may also not be what satisfies the community’s demand for justice. I have found in many contexts that people don’t necessarily want all the perpetrators rounded up and sent to jail. Maybe they need to do community service or work to put roofs on the houses of the widows instead, because that’s what the community wants. We need to be open to a broader repertoire of justice and more creative about implementing it. My point is that we need to look at alternative forms of justice because amnesties and impunity have the potential to be very corrosive. We need to understand a much broader repertoire of justice than solely criminal law, for that may not even be what people are asking for.


Dr. Kimberly Theidon is a medical anthropologist whose work centers on Latin America and the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University. She serves as an international faculty member in the Community Psychology Graduate Program at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, a faculty mentor in the Security, Drugs and Democracy Program, sponsored by the Social Science Research Council and the Open Society Institute, a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Human Rights, and a member of the Standing Committee on Ethnic Studies, the Committee on Degrees in Women, Gender and Sexuality, and the Policy Committee at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard. She is also the executive director of the Praxis Institute for Social Justice. She has authored numerous books, including Entre Prójimos: El conflicto armado interno y la política de la reconciliación en el Perú and Intimate Enemies: Violence and Reconciliation in Peru.

Dr. Theidon was interviewed by Jacob Haberman and Ian Philbrick on 12 February 2015 in Washington D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.