The reality of sexual violence in Peru during the armed conflict shows in a raw and terrifying way how war demanded combatants to become machos, men capable of raping women without remorse, guilt, or ethical impediments.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Peru (CVR) was created in 2001 to investigate the human rights violations committed in the country between 1980 and 2000. One of the most shocking findings was, precisely, the systematization of sexual violence against a majority of indigenous, rural, poor, and young women – 75% of them, quechua speakers.
The testimonies and data collected by the Commission also reveal a reality that hides behind these rapes: that the perpetrators were men. Men in a war-torn context, which promoted and awarded those who adopted a war-like, violent, and dehumanizing masculinity. The Commission reminds us that seeing war through a gender perspective it is not only about identifying and recognizing victims, but about studying the perpetrators and the context that facilitated the victimization.
“When you have a man by your side, you are in some ways more respected” concluded female victims during the CVR sessions. And indeed, as anthropologist Kimberly Theidon* carefully documents, Peruvian women felt that they were less at risk of being raped when they had a protective man nearby.
This is why many of them decided to get married and get pregnant with men from their community. They did not want to be as vulnerable in a hostile context that threatened them if they were alone and, in addition, demanded men to assume a protective masculinity if they did not want their women to pay the consequences. Strong, protective, warrior-like men. These were war’s demands.
The logic of the Peruvian conflict also demanded machos. Men who raped to publicly ratify their masculinity. Hence the frequency of gang rapes: these “blood rituals”, as Theidon calls them, complied with the functionality of preparing men for war by promoting the group’s cohesion, camaraderie, and the dehumanization of what was considered transgressive behavior.
Gang rapes had the effect of bringing combatants together, of making them comrades. As long as they all shared the experience of raping women in public spaces, shame was lost and cruelty was validated in front of others.
In that context, sexual violence was an implicit mandatory practice. Those who refused, received a public punishment: they were raped by their compañeros.In this way, it was thought, they would remove any trace of feminine weakness in dissidents.
War needed machos and through rapes they became exactly that: “that poor man screaming…they said his voice was changing. With so many screams his voice became low-pitched, he was no longer a woman,” described someone who witnessed a soldier being gang raped after refusing to rape a woman.
The Commission’s findings make an urgent call: to notice that behind cruelty and brutality and of men who publicly take pride on systemically violating vulnerable women, there are gender codes and arrangements, unique to each context and war. In the case of Peru, these demanded men would hyper masculinize themselves in order to become macho warriors. This war educated violent masculinities in which sexually attacking another person was a practice that legitimized men as subjects as opposed to making them feel ashamed.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Peru was not the first to incorporate the gender perspective. Previously, Guatemala and South Africa had recognized the importance of seeing the conflict through the experiences of femininity and masculinity. Through these efforts, the reality of sexual violence came to light after being invisible. For the first time, female victims were heard and could deal with their pain on their own terms.
But in addition to this, the Peruvian case offers us lessons and challenges that we can no longer ignore. It invites us to strongly question our current gender roles and the violence that lies underneath them. If Truth Commissions around the world are meant to establish a truth in order to generate transformations for a post-conflict scenario and peace, then one of the great challenges to overcome war and its logic is that of formulating new non-violent masculinities that promote more equitable gender relations.
The duration of violence and conflict heavily depends on male education. A peace context should demand new men. Men for whom sexual violence is unthinkable and for whom their validation as subjects does not depend on imposing violence on others. Ultimately, peace requires new masculinities.
*Margarita Martinez is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).
**The testimonies and blog come from Theidon, Kimberly (2007). “Gender in Transition. Common Sense, Women, and War”. Published in: Journal of Human Rights. 6:4.