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Alumna Kerry Crawford gives Speech on Sexual Violence, National Security

On March 5, Dr. Kerry Crawford returned to her alma mater to give a lecture for the Phi Beta Kappa 20th Year Celebration Lecture.  Crawford graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) in 2007 and has since gone on to obtain her doctoral degree and become an assistant professor in political science at James Madison University.

The focus of this talk was the intersection of advocacy groups and foreign policy, following in the footsteps of her recent book “Wartime Sexual Violence: From Silence to Condemnation of a Weapon of War.” Crawford began her lecture by exclaiming that SMCM “still feels like home, a lot of years later,” and thanking the College for welcoming her back, before diving straight into her research.

Crawford explained that her field is a “study of change,” meaning the politics surrounding everything, including her focus of sexual violence and conflict, is ever changing. She began by describing the importance of framing and the rhetorical frames we use to alter how events are portrayed. She emphasized that no matter what, “persistence was and still is the key to keeping this issue alive and to expanding its scope,” noting that this formula was useful to anyone working to bring about a more just and civil world.

The framing of sexual violence as a weapon of war, as opposed to just something that happens in general, was not accidental according to Crawford. Instead, this framing was the work of dedicated advocates who urged the redefining of the issue, in order to allow it to stand out as horrific and in need of urgent attention. Though she admits frames can be limiting, because the idea of a frame is that it includes certain aspects while excluding others, she argues that how we speak about things matter. In this case, the ‘weapon of war’ frame is essential for understanding of sexual violence, as it allows the issue to be proposed to those who can shift policy, and effect change.

Crawford cites former Yugoslavia as the beginning of the discussion of systemic rape during conflict. She reads off a quote from her powerpoint from Roberta Cohen stating “Yugoslavia. That was the real opener,” explaining that before the devastating effects of conflict there, rape and systematic rape were not talked about, especially not in the context of war. This however was the galvanizing moment for the international community, especially governmental bodies whose job titles conveyed the protection of dignity, human rights and safety. Crawford also stated that “international law was largely silent before the 1990s. Sexual violence was too taboo to talk about, or not considered as high of a priority when you have, say, a genocide happening.”

Not only was the framing of sexual violence as a weapon of war useful for headlines, it also allowed advocates to link sexual violence back to the Geneva Convention. This link allowed activists to argue that as stated under the Convention, there were certain things in war that were off limits, and for their argument, it was the systemic rape of women in conflict. This framing was above all else, a strategic effort in order to make powerful leaders listen and care.

Crawford also went over some of the notable United Nations (U.N.) Security Council resolutions, regarding sexual violence as a weapon of war, such as Resolution 13.25, which noted that war has a disproportionate impact on women and girls. She also mentions Resolution 1820, which made sexual violence a tactic of war, as well as linking war more directly as a women’s issue.

These resolutions, Crawford noted, were the work of advocates who lobbied, campaigned and worked together in a coordinated effort to ensure that the issue was brought to light.

The distinction between ‘ordinary rape’ and ‘war-time rape’ was one that needed to be made, and though Crawford acknowledges the problematic nature of this wording, she explained that it had to be fit into this language so that the Security Council could be convinced that rape was not just an ordinary occurrence, but something that was making war worse.

Above all other factors, Crawford points to powerful allies, and what she terms embedded advocates, as the most essential factor driving the campaign to recognize the impact of wartime sexual violence. She pointed to the likes of William Hague, a British former Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who stated that “sexual violence in war is the 20th century slave trade.” She also gave much credit to the U.N. Security Council members spouses, who read about sexual assault in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and spoke continuously about it at breakfast, lunch and dinner until it became so annoying their spouses took it seriously. Crawford says these women, and some men, “effectively brought a Security Council Resolution to the table.”

Embedded advocates were most useful because of their inherent status as being embedded within the state and thereby able to take up a cause they are passionate about and give it a voice in the political arena. She also noted the effectiveness of grassroots activism such as a letter-writing campaign to sway the opinion of a judge during the International Criminal Tribunal.

Crawford noted that international lobbying is a give-and-take process, so when campaigning for a cause citizens may not get all of what they want, but they will still get some. She explains that how people speak about things, how they frame them, decides what traction they get within the complicated political world. She also noted that this framing of sexual violence as a weapon of war is not perfect, and that states still have ‘outs’ regarding holding their allies accountable.

At the end, there was a brief question-and-answer section where Crawford was asked about the future of women’s issues around the globe given the perceived animosity towards women under the Trump administration. She replied by stating that “the signs are troubling” and that “there would be some backsliding.” She explained however that she remains positive, stating, “If the leadership doesn’t come from the U.S., I’m confident it will come from somewhere.”

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