Sex and International Tribunals: The Erasure of Gender from the War Narrative

Sex and International Tribunals: The Erasure of Gender from the War Narrative

Sex and International Tribunals: The Erasure of Gender from the War Narrative

Sex and International Tribunals: The Erasure of Gender from the War Narrative


Before the twenty-first century, there was little legal precedent for the prosecution of sexual violence as a war crime. Now, international tribunals have the potential to help make sense of political violence against both men and women; they have the power to uphold victims' claims and to convict the leaders and choreographers of systematic atrocity. However, by privileging certain accounts of violence over others, tribunals more often confirm outmoded gender norms, consigning women to permanent rape victim status.

In "Sex and International Tribunals," Chiseche Salome Mibenge identifies the cultural assumptions behind the legal profession's claims to impartiality and universality. Focusing on the postwar tribunals in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, Mibenge mines the transcripts of local and supranational criminal trials and truth and reconciliation commissions in order to identify and closely examine legal definitions of forced marriage, sexual enslavement, and the conscription of children that overlook the gendered experiences of armed conflict beyond the mass rape of women and girls. In many cases, a single rape conviction constitutes sufficient proof that gender-based violence has been mainstreamed into the prosecution of war crimes. Drawing on anthropological research in African conflicts, and feminist theory, Mibenge challenges legal narratives that reinscribe essentialized notions of gender in the conduct and resolution of violent conflict and uncovers the suppressed testimonies of men and women who are unwilling or unable to recite the legal scripts that would elevate them to the status of victimhood recognized by an international and humanitarian audience.

At a moment when international intervention in conflicts is increasingly an option, "Sex and International Tribunals" points the way to a more nuanced and just response from courts.


During my first year as a student at the University of Zambia, when I was seventeen, I left campus one Friday for a weekend with my family. It was not yet dark, and the Lusaka Central Market was busy. the lines for the minibus to Kabulonga were extremely long, but I waited patiently for my turn to board. I actually enjoyed the commotion all around.

Then two young men approached me. I recognized one as Chitumba, a friend of my cousin Natasha. They joined me in the line, and we chatted briefly before they invited me to join them in a taxi ride home, at their expense, as they lived beyond my parents’ home anyway. I agreed readily, and we walked together, one on either side of me, stepping over vegetables and past vendors until we got into a parked taxi. As we did so, an old woman shouted after my young men, “You’ve done well. Take her away from here. They were going to strip her naked!”

I remember my shock at realizing that the commotion—whistling and shouting from the young men loitering around the market—had been directed at my legs and thighs. My cotton floral summer dress, a gift from my mother, was apparently attracting mob justice. It is an infrequent occurrence, but an occurrence nonetheless, that an “indecently attired” young woman in Lusaka is pursued by a gang of vigilante youths ostensibly trying to preserve the dignity of Mother Zambia and traditional African values. If she is captured, the woman is normally stripped naked, groped, and roughed up as an appreciative crowd gathers to witness the spectacle. the woman might escape the mob if she is rescued by a shopkeeper and his workers, who will barricade her in their shop until the police arrive to disperse the party.

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