Research Project

Elizabeth O’Brien, Psychology & Women’s and Gender Studies

Advisor: Julie Rajan, Women’s and Gender Studies

Mothers who perpetrate rape subvert every moral norm and ideal of woman’s parenthood such that to imagine “mother” and “rapist” as one person staggers the conscience. Yet, my research explores how during periods of violent conflict women have perpetrated rape against other women under the banner of ‘motherhood.’ In my case studies of the Rwandan Civil War and Sierra Leone Civil War, I find that women-rapists during periods of Civil War perpetrated sexual violence by deploying distorted cultural and biological notions of motherhood that had been reappropriated by patriarchal forces beyond their control. I contend that while women in these contexts may have sexually victimized other women of their own volition, their agency was constrained by social hierarchies of patriarchal oppression and overwhelming needs for basic survival. I also explore a contrasting case wherein notions of motherhood were used to eradicate rape during conflict in Sri Lanka, calling attention to ways that motherhood can be deployed to resist patriarchal hierarchy and sexual violence, and even to dismantle it. Thus, women, rape, conflict, and motherhood engender complicated dynamics of oppression and power that cannot be understood through an absolute moral binary based on liberal notions of individual agency.