For women’s full participation in conflict resolution and peacebuilding

An initiative from Kvinna till Kvinna

Women and armed conflict

Sydossetien_Veronica Zelenska

A woman in South Ossetia discusses peace alternatives with soldiers. Photo: Irina Yanovska.

Women are in many ways affected differently by war and post-conflict than men. But because of the exclusion of women in peace processes this is seldom talked about, and therefore not attended to when drafting peace treaties and new constitutions. To understand why a gender-equal approach is necessary, you need to understand women’s situation.

Women’s roles

Tradition assigns different roles in society to women and men. Conflicts often bring about a temporary change in these predefined gender roles. Usually men take up arms and leave home and women are left to take care of the community. For many women this means becoming breadwinners, entrepreneurs, activists – areas where they haven’t been allowed to participate before, but that they now prove more than capable to be responsible for. Even under severe conditions.

For example, during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 90’s, women’s peace organizations arranged for aid to war-affected women, took care of widowed refugees and their children, helped women organize income generating activities, organized the schooling of children and took care of the basic needs of the elderly – at the same time as they were powerful advocates for peace and reconciliation. Women’s organizations were the first to initiate meetings with people from ”the other side”, to try to find common grounds and ways to stop the violence. Women are important actors for peace, but when it comes to having the official peace negotiations they are not welcome.

Rights and decision-making

Sometimes women manage to change their positions permanently after a conflict, but generally everything returns to as it was before – or the gender roles become even more conservative. In the name of religion or political beliefs, women can suddenly be denied rights that they previously held.

One example of this is Egypt, where the military council that took over after Mubarak quickly abolished the political quota system. The result was evident when the new parliament held its first session in January 2012. The number of women had fallen from the already low 64 to 8 of the 508 members. Many of the political parties have also declared themselves opposed to women having the same rights as men when it comes to matters of family law (like the right to inherit and to be able to freely decide if to marry/get a divorce).

And, as experience has shown, the fewer women that are holding positions of power in a country, the easier it becomes for that country to”forget” issues concerning gender equality and women’s rights.

Sexual violence

During armed conflicts there is one type of violence that especially targets women – sexual violence. Mass rape and sexual abuse is used by armed forces as a strategic weapon of war, to punish, inflict fear, eradicate the future of the enemy and humiliate men by sending the message that they cannot protect ”their” women. An estimated 20 000-50 000 women were raped during the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina and more than ten times as many women have been raped and mutilated during the on-going conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Besides from the severe physical and psychological injuries and fear of unwanted pregnancies or being infected with hiv/aids, the victims also have to battle with the stigma attached to rape. Many women don’t dare to speak about the attack or seek help, in fear of being abandoned by their husbands or ostracised by their communities. And when the war is over, they often have to live with the trauma of having to see their attackers living their lives as if nothing had happened. Even meeting them in the streets of their own communities.

November 1998 was the first time in history a prosecutor defined rape as a crime under international law, stating that rape on its own can be a crime against humanity (at the International Criminal Court for Rwanda). With the Rome statute from the same year the International Criminal Court was permanently established and rape, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy and forced sterilisation can now be labelled as crimes against humanity and war crimes.

But having a way of getting justice and actually getting it are two different things. Impunity for crimes of sexual violence during conflicts is still widespread. And although there are UN Resolutions clearly stating the obligation of states to provide the victims with the healthcare they need, most post-conflicts reproductive health facilities are far from getting enough resources allocated. A grave violation of women’s human rights, but also a severe hindrance for the countries when trying to get through the necessary reconciliation processes and thereby achieving a lasting peace.

Post-conflict violence

The gender-based violence is often continuing into the post-conflict societies. A new wave of domestic violence is common, when men act out the war traumas they have not been able to heal. For example five years after the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina ended, as many as 80 percent of the women seeking help at the Center of Legal Assistance for Women in Zenica indicated that they had experienced domestic violence. As a woman in Mostar described it: ”The war finally stopped, but it was replaced by a war within the family.” The use of violence becomes more socially acceptable after a war and the availability of light weapons facilitates it. This makes the disarmament of the post-conflict society especially important.

There are many other ways that conflicts and the aftermath of conflicts affects women in a different way than men. In the Learn more box to the right you find more material on this subject.