Feminist Legal Studies

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 149–165 | Cite as

International Criminal Law as a Site for Enhancing Women’s Rights? Challenges, Possibilities, Strategies

  • Kiran Kaur Grewal


Many scholars and activists have argued that the International Criminal Court (ICC) holds potential for advancing the rights of women and girls, leading to extensive feminist engagement with and investment in the Court. As the ICC enters its second decade of existence, this article offers a reflection on both the possibilities and the challenges facing feminists. Can the international criminal law really offer a site for enhancing the rights of women? And if so, how? To explore these questions I focus on the interaction between feminist activism and international criminal law institutions in relation to crimes of sexual and gender-based violence. I argue that some of the feminist strategies deployed to get sexual violence onto the international agenda have resulted in perverse outcomes. This should lead us to greater critical reflection regarding how international law conceives of sexual violence and direct our future engagements with international legal institutions. In particular feminist activists and scholars need to move away from focusing on the number of prosecutions towards challenging the international criminal law to characterise the nature of the harm in accordance with a recognition of sexual rights.


Feminist activism International criminal justice Sexual rights 


  1. Amnesty International. 2005. Stop violence against women: How to use international criminal law to campaign for gender-sensitive law reform. AI index: IOR 40/007/2005, London, UK: Amnesty International and publication.Google Scholar
  2. Amnesty International. 2011. Rape and sexual violence: Human rights law and standards in the International Criminal Court. AI index: IOR 53/001/2011, London, UK: Amnesty International and publication.Google Scholar
  3. Askin, Kelly Dawn. 2003. Prosecuting wartime rape and other gender-related crimes under international law: Extraordinary advances, enduring obstacles. Berkeley Journal of International Law 21(2): 288–349.Google Scholar
  4. Bélair, Karine. 2006. Unearthing the customary law foundations of ‘forced marriages’ during Sierra Leone’s civil war: The possible impact of international criminal law on customary marriage and women’s rights in post-conflict Sierra Leone. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 15(3): 551–607.Google Scholar
  5. Buss, Doris. 2009. Rethinking ‘rape as a weapon of war’. Feminist Legal Studies 17: 145–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chappell, Louise. 2014. Conflict institutions and the search for gender justice at the International Criminal Court. Political Research Quarterly 67(1): 183–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cole, Alison. 2008. Prosecutor v Gacumbitsi: The new definition for prosecuting rape under international law. International Criminal Law Review 8: 55–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Coomaraswamy, Radhika. 1996. Report of the special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, submitted in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 1995/85. UN document E/CN.4/1996/53, 5.Google Scholar
  9. Copelon, Rhonda. 2000. Gender crimes as war crimes: Integrating crimes against women into international criminal law. McGill Law Journal 46: 217–240.Google Scholar
  10. Coulter, Chris. 2009. Bush wives and girl soldiers: Women’s lives through war and peace in Sierra Leone. New York: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Eaton, Shana. 2004. Sierra Leone: The proving ground for prosecuting rape as a war crime. Georgetown Journal of International Law 35(4): 873–919.Google Scholar
  12. Engle, Karen. 2005. Feminism and its (dis)contents: Criminalizing wartime rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina. American Journal of International Law 99: 778–816.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Engle, Karen, and Annelies Lottmann. 2010. The force of shame. In Rethinking rape law: International and comparative perspectives, ed. Clare McGlynn and Vanessa Munro, 76–91. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. Frulli, Micaela. 2008. Advancing international criminal law: The special court for Sierra leone recognizes forced marriage as a ‘new’ crime against humanity. Journal of International Criminal Justice 6: 1033–1042.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Grewal, Kiran. 2010. Rape in conflict, rape in peace: Questioning the revolutionary potential of international criminal justice for women’s human rights. The Australian Feminist Law Journal 33: 57–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Grewal, Kiran. 2012a. The protection of sexual autonomy under international criminal law: The International Criminal Court and the challenge of defining rape. Journal of International Criminal Justice 10(2): 373–396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Grewal, Kiran. 2012b. International criminal justice: Advancing the cause of women’s rights? The example of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. In Conflict-related sexual violence: International law, local responses, ed. Tonia St. Germain and Susan Dewey, 71–87. Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press.Google Scholar
  18. Grewal, Kiran. Forthcoming 2016. The socio-political practice of human rights. Surrey: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  19. Halley, Janet. 2008. Rape at Rome: Feminist interventions in the criminalization of sex-related violence in positive international criminal law. Michigan Journal of International Law 30(1): 1–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Kapur, Ratna. 2005. Erotic justice: Law and the new politics of postcolonialism. London and Portland, OR: Glass House Press.Google Scholar
  21. Kapur, Ratna. 2006. Normalizing violence: Transitional justice and the Gujarat riots. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 15(3): 885–927.Google Scholar
  22. Kendall, Sara, and Michelle Staggs. 2005. Silencing sexual violence: Recent developments in the CDF case at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Berkeley, California: UC Berkeley War Crimes Studies Center. Accessed 1 March 2013.
  23. Kiggundu, Jacqueline. 2007. How can the International Criminal Court influence national discourse on sexual violence? Early Intimations from Uganda. Eyes on the ICC 4: 45–64.Google Scholar
  24. Kinsella, Helen. 2006. Gendering grotius: Sex and sex difference in the laws of war. Political Theory 34(2): 161–191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kouvo, Sari, and Zoe Pearson (eds.). 2011. Feminist perspectives on contemporary international law: Between resistance and compliance? Oxford and Portland, OR: Hart.Google Scholar
  26. Kuo, Peggy. 2002. Prosecuting crimes of sexual violence in an international tribunal. Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 34(3): 305–322.Google Scholar
  27. MacDonald, Alice. 2008. ‘New wars: Forgotten warriors’: Why have girl fighters been excluded from western representations of conflict in Sierra Leone? Africa Development XXXIII(3): 135–145.Google Scholar
  28. MacKinnon, Catharine A. 1987. Feminism unmodified: Discourses on life and law. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  29. MacKinnon, Catharine A. 2006. Are women human? And other international dialogues. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Manjoo, Rashida. 2011. Report of the special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences. UN document A/66/215.Google Scholar
  31. Marcus, Sharon. 1992. Fighting bodies, fighting words: A theory and politics of rape prevention. In Feminists theorize the political, ed. Joan Scott and Judith Butler, 166–185. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  32. McKay, Susan. 2004. Reconstructing fragile lives: Girls’ social reintegration in northern Uganda and Sierra Leone. Gender and Development 12(3): 19–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Mibenge, Chiseche. 2010. Investigating outcomes of a limited gender analysis of enslavement in post-conflict justice processes. Journal of Peacebuilding and Development 5(3): 34–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Mohanty, Chandra. 1988. Under western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses. Feminist Review 30(Autumn): 61–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Nesiah, Vasuki. 2011. Missionary zeal for secular mission: Bringing gender to transitional justice and redemption to feminism. In Feminist perspectives on contemporary international law: Between resistance and compliance?, ed. Sari Kouvo and Zoe Pearson, 137–157. Oxford and Portland, OR: Hart.Google Scholar
  36. Nowrojee, Binaifer. 2005. Making the invisible war crime visible: Post-conflict justice for Sierra Leone’s rape victims. Harvard Human Rights Journal 18(1): 85–105.Google Scholar
  37. Oosterveld, Valerie. 2009. The Special Court for Sierra Leone’s consideration of gender-based violence: Contributing to transitional justice? Human Rights Review 10(1): 73–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Otto, Dianne. 1999. Sexualities and solidarities: Some thoughts on coalitional strategies in the context of international law. Australasian Gay and Lesbian Law Journal 8: 27–38.Google Scholar
  39. Petchesky, Rosalind P. 2000. Sexual rights: Inventing a concept, mapping an international practice. In Framing the sexual subject: The politics of gender, sexuality and power, ed. Richard Guy Parker, Regina Maria Barbosa and Peter Aggleton, 81–103. Berkeley, LA and London: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  40. Petchesky, Rosalind P. 2005. Rights of the body and perversions of war: Sexual rights and wrongs ten years past Beijing. International Social Science Journal 57(184): 301–318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Peters, Jane, and Andrea Wolper (eds.). 1995. Women’s rights, human rights: International feminist perspectives. New York, London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  42. Rajagopal, Balakrishnan. 2002. International law and social movements: Challenges of theorizing resistance. Columbia Journal of Transnational Law 41: 397–433.Google Scholar
  43. Scharf, Michael and Suzanne Mattler. 2005. Forced marriage: Exploring the viability of the Special Court for Sierra Leone’s new crime against humanity. In African perspectives on international criminal justice, ed. Evelyn Ankumah, Edward Kwakwa and Africa Legal Aid, 77–102. The Hague, Accra, Pretoria: Africa Legal Aid Special Book Series.Google Scholar
  44. Shepherd, Laura. 2006. Veiled references: Constructions of gender in the Bush administration discourse on the attacks on Afghanistan post 9/11. International Journal of Feminist Politics 8(1): 19–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Shepherd, Laura. 2008. Gender, violence and security. London, New York: Zed Books.Google Scholar
  46. Sharratt, Sara. 2011. Gender, shame and sexual violence: The voices of witnesses and court members at war crimes tribunals. Farnham Surrey, Burlington, VT: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  47. Vance, Carole (ed.). 1984. Pleasure and danger: Exploring female sexuality, 1st ed. Boston and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  48. William, Schomburg, and Ines Peterson. 2007. Genuine consent to sexual violence under international criminal law. American Journal of International Law 101(1): 121–140.Google Scholar
  49. Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice. 1999. Recommendations and commentary for the elements annex: Submitted to the July 26August 13 1999 Preparatory Commission for the International Criminal Court. Accessed 25 February 2013.
  50. Young, Iris Marion. 2003. The logic of masculinist protection: Reflections on the current security state. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29(1): 1–25.Google Scholar
  51. Yuval-Davis, Nira. 1997. Gender & nation. London: Sage.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Social JusticeAustralian Catholic UniversityNorth SydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations