This special ASR forum, “The Case of Gender-Based Violence: Assessing the Impact of International Human Rights Rhetoric on African Lives,” grounds itself in the notion that gender relations (and, indeed, gendered social norms) can undergo significant transformation in zones of conflict or in other contexts of extreme socioeconomic and political instability. Individuals actively reconfigure moral landscapes of power and sexuality amidst the everyday chaos, violence, and deprivation that constitutes the experience of war for most people, thereby formulating new normative frame-works of appropriately gendered norms for social interaction and sexual expression. These norms, of course, are rather dramatically cross-cut, for all actors involved, by an extensive list of factors that include one's ethnolinguistic or religious affiliation, citizenship status, gender, and myriad other allegiances that are all too frequently brought to the fore by conflict or other forms of instability. War and instability, it seems, force individuals to think of themselves, and others, in ways that might not otherwise have seemed imaginable.
The case studies in this issue are based upon research in Rwanda, Congo, Uganda, South Africa, and Liberia. One unifying theme is the frequency with which human rights rhetoric divorces conflict-related gender based violence from the peacetime normative framework. The authors illustrate the cultural restrictions and patriarchal oppression that encourage violence within different dimensions of the socioeconomic and political context (home, culture, political authority, economy, and military), and they analyze gender-based violence as a form of structural violence. Nonetheless, as Sharon Abramowitz and Mary Moran caution us, gender-based violence in conflict and postconflict zones is not simply an enhanced version of “traditional” gender oppression. We would be severely remiss, the authors remind us, to read conflict and crisis as culture.