Porträtt av Maria Eriksson Baaz.

Maria Eriksson Baaz, Professor of War Studies at the Swedish Defence University. Photo: Anders G Warne.

With a focus on sexual violence against civilians

Maria Eriksson Baaz's research revolves around violence against civilians, particularly with a focus on sexual violence in both war and peace contexts.
"In situations where sexual violence occurs, there are often many other types of violence against civilians. We try to understand how they are interconnected and in what contexts they occur," she says.

Since the beginning of the year, Maria Eriksson Baaz has been a new professor of War Studies at the Swedish Defence University. She comes from a position as a Professor at the Department of Political Science at Uppsala University, where she has been active since 2017.

"The Swedish Defence University has long been on my radar because it is an environment where many people work on the same issues as I do. I like to go to new places, learn something new, and be challenged, and I hope to contribute with my experiences. It's also exciting to connect with new groups of students, such as those in the Higher Joint Command and Staff Programme. It feels very rewarding and stimulating," she says.

Researching sexual violence against civilians

Maria Eriksson Baaz earned her doctorate in global studies from the University of Gothenburg just over 20 years ago and has since conducted research in a variety of areas. In one of her first research projects, she focused on gender, militarization, and violence, with particular attention to sexual violence.

"I have spent a lot of time in the field, primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first project I was involved in aimed to gain a deeper understanding of sexual violence by conducting in-depth interviews with perpetrators, many of whom were soldiers in the Congolese government army. We used ethnographic methods to understand the issue from within."

The relationship between different types of violence

Since then, the research questions and methods have evolved, but the focus remains partly on sexual violence in war and peace. In an ongoing project funded by Riksbankens jubileumsfond, she examines how the boundaries between sex and violence are drawn in peacetime and wartime.

"Our research aims to develop a better understanding of the dynamics and logic behind the vast variations of sexual violence committed against women, girls, men, and boys in conflict environments."

Sexual violence is often viewed as an isolated incident, but in contexts where sexual violence occurs, there are often many other types of violence against civilians.

"We try to understand how they are interconnected and in what contexts they occur."

In recent years, her research has also problematized clear distinctions between war and peace, coercion and consent, violence and sex.

Research ethics in field-based war studies

Maria Eriksson Baaz has also been interested in defense and security reforms in countries after conflicts. In recent years, she has also worked on a project on research ethics, primarily in relation to field-based war studies.

"A large part of the research conducted in the field could not have been carried out without the assistance of researchers on site, who often contribute significantly to the work and operate under uncertain conditions. This is something we try to highlight in our research."

Wanting to understand how acts of violence can be committed

A career in research was something that appealed to her during her studies.

"When I was writing my master's thesis, I started thinking about pursuing a doctorate. I love delving into different issues and have always been interested in understanding the sometimes indiscriminate violence against civilians and the boundary between victims and perpetrators. How is it possible for humans to commit these types of acts, and could I do it myself?"

It was the interest in this type of boundary issue that, among other things, contributed to her interest in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the boundary between victims and perpetrators was not always so clear.

"In addition to being recruited at a very young age, many perpetrators themselves had been subjected to various abuses and lived in a very vulnerable position."

Research that has significance for policy and development

One of her motivations in her work is for the research to be useful and contribute to change.

"We have been fortunate because our research coincided with an international focus on the issue of sexual violence. We were one of the first groups to start researching in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and our research had an impact, including in policy dialogues with the UN, EU, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Africom, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency."

But all attention is not necessarily good. Maria Eriksson Baaz has also experienced how research can be used by various actors with their own agendas, in a way that she may not have wished for.

"An example is when one of our conclusions – that there was too much focus on sexual violence in relation to other types of violence and other problems that women in Congo themselves identified – seemed to be used by actors to support the idea that we should not focus on sexual violence in war at all."

Another example is when the conclusion that sexual violence also affects men was celebrated in anti-feminist blogs.

"But even though you can never control how your research is interpreted and used, it still feels meaningful to try to get it out there. It is through communicating research that one can hopefully contribute to change."

She is also driven by curiosity and challenging herself.

"It's incredibly exciting to be surprised by the results and to step outside your comfort zone, such as collaborating with other researchers. I enjoy being challenged in my own perspectives and have learned a lot, not least from interdisciplinary collaborations."

Josefin Svensson

At a glance

At the Swedish Defence University since?
January 1, 2024.

New Professor of War Studies at the Swedish Defence University, as well as with the book Facilitating researchers in insecure zones. Towards a more equitable knowledge production (Bloomsbury, 2023) edited by assistant researchers as part of the field-based war studies project.

When I'm off duty?
"I spend time with family and friends, and in recent years, I've become an avid canoeist after receiving an inflatable canoe as a birthday present."

Last book read?
"I'm one of those who discovered audiobooks and consume about one audiobook a week. The last one was Anders Tegnell's Thoughts after a pandemic.

Like to discuss?
"I 'm not really a fan of small talk and enjoy discussing more political and philosophical life questions about why humans are the way they are."

My drive as a researcher?
"My personal drive is curiosity, and the thrill of not knowing what one will discover. It is also important for me to challenge myself and step outside my comfort zone, both in terms of familiarizing myself with other types of research fields and methods, and collaborating with researchers holding different perspectives."

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