Research Series 1: Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict 13th October 2020

Reflecting about Positionality and Research Objectives in the Study of Sexual Violence in Conflict

Reflecting about Positionality and Research Objectives in the Study of Sexual Violence in Conflict

There is so much to consider when thinking about the theme of this Research Series: “Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative” (PSVI). The series takes its name from the UK Government initiative, established in 2012 to end sexual violence in conflict, and aims to raise awareness and generate a platform for young people to engage with the issue. PSVI has been challenged for not being sustainable in the long-term (ICAI, 2020) and for remaining Western-centric and disconnected from the realities on the ground (OGIP, 2020). Building on these insights, for this Research Series I first had the idea of exploring a human-centric and intersectional approach to policy and practise, as a transformative way to prevent and tackle sexual and gender-based violence in conflict. However, I became aware that, perhaps, I should slow down, begin somewhere else, and use the space that OGIP has opened up as part of its Research Series differently. At a time when we are expected to be continuously producing and competing to fit into a system that praises individualism (Motta y Bermudez 2019), slowing down to attend to the ethics, as well as the messiness, of studying sexual violence in conflict seems to me to be a necessary feminist practise.

With this in mind, I asked myself: what motivates me to write about the topic of sexual violence in conflict? And, most importantly, who would benefit from a piece of this kind: who is it for? Feminist scholars and activists have told us for decades that addressing conflict and violence (of any kind) requires taking a complex approach. Drawing on the idea that the research and knowledge we produce can only be partial and situated (Haraway 1988), it is important to recognise how one understands and senses the world is connected to and determined by one’s surroundings, experiences and social position. It is through this practise of reflexivity that I am willing to (hopefully) deal with the politics and difficulties of my/our writing. Although this can feel uncomfortable at times, as noted by Enloe (2016), “[e]xercising genuine reflexivity … should not be easy. It should not be comfortable” (p.259).

In my role as a student, I am urged to be reflexive about how I come to know (from a distance) about sexual violence in conflict. I am able to do research about this topic (even though at times it has been overwhelming to study it) in part because my life has not been disrupted by war. The safety of distance, of living in the Global North, signifies a privilege. Indeed, this very exercise of reflexivity is in itself a luxury (Enloe, 2016). I am afforded the time and space to read, reflect, and write, in a way that somebody who has actually experienced and been exposed to armed conflict may not have the ability to do so. The irony of all this is that it is precisely the distance of the researcher that tends to be valued by governments and other organizations as the condition to make rational, “objective” and useful knowledge claims. It is important as well to reflect on whose voices and knowledge count as legitimate in the study of sexual violence in conflict.

In light of this, at the same time, I have come to wonder: is it enough to do the now common exercise of situating oneself as a white, able-bodied, cisgender woman studying gender, violence and conflict (Henry 2013)? Acknowledging one’s positionality is crucial because it makes you take responsibility for the impact of your actions or inaction. Indeed, it allows whoever reads your work to better understand from which position you are speaking. Yet through this practise you can also convince yourself that this is sufficient. It risks becoming a strategy to make you feel good about yourself, thus absolving you of further responsibility.

I join this space through an exercise of ongoing interrogation. These questions around positionality need more elaboration and often do not lead to clear answers on how to move forward. However, they are important and have to be raised early when addressing the subject of sexual violence in conflict. It becomes particularly relevant to reflect on and define the position from which we are speaking and how this relates to the position of those we are writing about, considering that those producing the knowledge and participating in this reflexive space are often not the people who have been exposed to sexual violence in conflict. As mentioned earlier, there is a need to be reflexive about why the researcher is often granted the privilege to speak, while research participants are only subjects to be “commented on”. Accordingly, it is vital to be mindful of the power structures at play and break down the binary subject/object of research when attempting to understand experiences of violence in war. I encourage those contributing to building this feminist project for peace aimed to be more inclusive, intersectional and decolonised to join this collective dialogue. I contend that one of its principles should be holding each other accountable for the violence we may be complicit in and actively take steps to recognize and dismantle, rather than reinforce, the power inequality between researcher and “researched”.

When I address the first question that I posed above - what motivates me to write about this subject - I know the answer: what drives me is my refusal to ignore violence and my commitment to building more just realities. Nevertheless, I am warned that addressing such a topic risks reproducing a ‘damage-centred narrative’ based on consuming the ‘other’s pain (Tuck y Yang 2014). There is a tendency to insist on the need to know the spectacular instances of sexual violence in conflict that reinforces colonial logics of voyeurism (Henry 2013). That is not only disturbing, but it also objectifies the lived experiences of individuals and communities (portraying them as broken); it silences other forms of violence, such as those happening in peacetime or everyday life; and it usually perpetuates gender essentialisms about who is the perpetrator and who is the victim-survivor (Henry 2013). These problems are also manifested in the PSVI agenda. Although it has recognized sexual and gender-based violence against men and boys, it continues to be narrow in its focus (Kirby, 2015), situating women as “victims” of sexual violence and men as perpetrators with little nuance. It also reproduces a singular and rigid narrative about the exceptionality of sexual violence in conflict that fails to recognise the pervasiveness and complexity of violences across conflict and peacetime. I am not arguing for denying the gravity of sexual violence in conflict but against simple and often harmful research.

Following the feminist critique that tells us that violence exists in a continuum (structural and daily manifested) (Cockburn 2004), invites reflection on “the violence we can do in the name of fighting sexual violence” (Phipps 2020, 3). Choosing to write about one issue or another already involves rendering other stories invisible (Mehta y Wibben 2019). What are the politics and power relations that operate in our decisions to focus on one topic over another? Whose stories are left out of the conversation, and whose stories we continuously focus on in our work? Am I looking outwards (to the Global South) or inwards (in the detention centre located at the outskirts of Barcelona)? Looking abroad often serves as a way to distance oneself of the violence taking place closer to one’s reality.

Furthermore, in the context of my studies, many times I have taken gender as the point of departure in my analyses thus, privileging it above other hierarchies of power (race, class, ability, and more) that intersect with it. My own experiences, privileges and positionality shape what I prioritise. Indeed, sometimes, I have struggled to negotiate and consciously identify to what extent my interest and confrontation with violence can end up being a mere attempt to contemplate or confirm “[my] own humanitarian character” (Razack 2007, 376). This makes it all the more pressing to reflect on who is benefiting from accounts of violence in my/our research as part of the OGIP Research Series and elsewhere.

This Research Series and the collective efforts of OGIP and other feminist organisations, when addressing sexual violence in conflict, need to ask these kinds of questions to avoid making assumptions, reproducing stereotypes or even producing more violence. There is a need to acknowledge and be reflexive about one’s positionality. Embracing discomfort provides space for dialogue, for noticing how where we are situated relates to how we see and make sense of the world. I think that keeping a curious, dynamic and collective conversation on the motivations, the ethics and the directions of what we do in our work and our studies is a way to start thinking and building peace otherwise.

Rita Trias Prats

Rita has recently finished a Masters Degree in Gender, Violence and Conflict at University of Sussex and holds a BA in Global Studies from Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona). She has been actively involved in youth-led local and global projects on non-formal education. She is interested in doing research on gendered experiences of war, violence and resistance from feminist and decolonial approaches to the study of world politics.

Follow Rita on Instagram: @ritatrpr


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