Conflict and women – ten facts about conflict and its impact on women
War has catastrophic impacts on humanity – regardless of where it takes place, and regardless of the nature of the armed conflict. Mass displacements, large-scale crimes, disruption of normal civilian lives and the inadequacy of resources are only a few of the myriad issues that challenge people during and after war, until a state of peace is restored.
Arguably the impact is greater on women – although this is not with any intent to discount the adversities that men face. By choosing to say “greater”, it is to suggest that the triple role of women in society, i.e., the fact that women tend to work longer and more fragmented days than men, as they are usually involved in three different gender roles – reproductive, productive and community work. The impact of conflict in these three roles, coupled with the purportedly “sacred” notions of honour, social encumbrances and chastity that women are subjected to in peace-time makes them the greater of the genders in terms of the impact of conflict and violence.
It is vital to account for this triple role and the basic impact of armed conflict on women so as to be able to sensitise humanitarian aid and post-conflict reconstruction approaches. In doing so, it is vital to incorporate women’s voices in the process of determining concrete solutions that culminate in durable and lasting peace for a community that has just dealt with war. That said, it is also vital to account for the myriad inter-sectionalities which inform the impact of an armed conflict on women all the more. Some of the core truths that underlie the state of affairs women face in an armed conflict are as follows:.
75% of the world’s population in need of humanitarian assistance comprises women and children – According to the United Nations Population Fund, of the world’s population that is currently in need of humanitarian assistance, which numbers at 125 million, 75% are women and children. The UNFPA estimate includes non-conflict affected populations, although it is important to understand that this statistic reflects a truth that rings just as accurately with armed conflict situations. Women tend to remain behind during armed conflicts, to maintain the home and take care of the family. Men are either away looking for jobs or are conscripted. Women remain in the eye of the storm, with little to no support to run their families, and remain exposed to a range of vulnerabilities: death, torture, sexual violence, disability, hunger, exploitation, cultural practices and trafficking. Everyday living becomes a dangerous prospect, with such things as accessing livelihood resources becoming impossible.
Rape and sexual violence in conflict is a calculated war strategy and not a by-product of conflict or war – for a long time it was believed that rape and sexual violence were by-products of war, where it was perceived as occurring incidentally to conflict. However, as Rwanda, Guatemala, Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo (among a host of others) show, rape and sexual violence have been adopted as carefully constructed strategies to pivot action against the enemy. Evidence showed that in Libya, sexual violence was deployed as a war tactic, where armed soldiers were given Viagra to be able to keep the number of rapes high. The use of sexual violence and rape in conflict is done with the aim of dominance over the enemy, and in communities where blood lines are considered sacred, to defile the enemy’s bloodlines. Rape and sexual violence are also used as instruments of torture, and ethnic cleansing. It wasn’t until the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia effectively evaluated the scope of International Criminal Law that it was expanded to interpret rape and sexual violence as being tactics of genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Although it is believed that rape and sexual violence occur at the hands of enemy forces, there is data to prove that the nation’s own army and non-armed forces, and peacekeeping forces are also perpetrators – it is often a misconception that most people – laypeople and policy makers alike – tend to hold onto, that rape and sexual violence in armed conflict take place by the enemy’s armed forces. However, reports suggest that the spectrum of perpetrators is rather wide and includes within its fold civilian men, the armed forces of both sides and even peacekeepers.
Today, more than half of refugee women and girls live in cities, not in refugee camps (UNFPA) – in contrast to a refugee camp, cities can present opportunities to remain anonymous, earn money and build a better future. But instead, many refugees find themselves isolated, impoverished and discriminated against – without access health and support services. Women and girl refugees in cities require information and health services, opportunities to earn an income and safe spaces to socialize with peers, learn new skills and make connections to the wider community. The very nature of conflict and the tendency to perceive women as targets by the enemy make the women vulnerable to the dominating and lustful proclivities of the other men who may not even be enemies to start with. It is possible that civilians or armed forces of communities rape their own women out of a need to reassert their “masculinity” among their control circles, or to cultivate a mindset that reinstates that they are still in charge – never mind the enemy.
Conflict tends to exacerbate child marriages – In many communities, child marriages tend to rise in a conflict setting out of a need to protect young women from sexual violence at the hands of the enemy or other actors. It is also sometimes done in a bid to facilitate the entry of men into the territory of the bride, for marriage allows access. In some communities, marriage is a way to protect the girl’s “honour”. For example, in Syria, according to statistics from UNICEF, in 2011, 12% of registered marriages involved a girl under the age of 18. This figure increased to 18% in 2012, 25% in 2013 and just under 32% in the first quarter of 2014.
Refugee Women are doubly vulnerable to sexual violence  – Refugee women have already lived through the horrific impact of civil war in the lands they flee – and risking everything they have in their lives, they up and leave in the pursuit of a safe terrain. Having already faced violence, they are vulnerable to more violence – among their communities, at the hands of those they encounter, and also run the risk of trafficking and exploitation. From the lack of access to basic facilities and resources for their health and other needs, to the other extreme of blatant violence, refugee women bear the brunt of armed conflict even after leaving it behind.
Cultural practices such as FGM, Honour Killings and Breast Ironing are exacerbated during and by conflict – cultural practices such as female genital mutilation, breast ironing and honour killings, among others, are often performed from a belief rooted in that the sexuality and sexual relations of a woman are tied to the honour of the family. Therefore, the family – particularly the patriarchy – has a say in its existence, subsistence and wields a right over it. In conflict, the vulnerability of women to sexual violence tends to make families seek out ways to protect the “community’s honour” – the vehicle of which, it appears, is the woman’s body and virginity – by taking on such practices as female genital mutilation, honour killings and breast ironing. It is, perhaps arguably, an extension of the rationale that underlies a choice of child marriage to “protect” the girls.
Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights take the greatest beating during conflict – Women’s needs are exceptionally specific – and there is no exception in the context of sexual and reproductive health. A pregnant woman, or a woman menstruating in conflict, faces an incredibly overwhelming number of challenges: from finding medical and sanitary resources to being able to deal with the changes in her body during each of these events. Conflict ensures that women are already in a place of vulnerability for the lack of resources such as clean water and the lack of medication and medical resources puts her at a disadvantage. When public infrastructure fails, or is taken over by the enemy, or is simply not accessible without having to run the gauntlet of violence while accessing the resource, women who need these resources bear an unfortunate consequence.
Trafficking of women for forced prostitution is augmented during and by conflict – Armed conflict causes administrative machinery and public infrastructure to break down. The harsh living conditions that conflict creates, and the demand for sex trade that exists in the rich countries of the world, makes trafficking all the more profitable for smugglers. Moreover, trafficking is also a carefully structured war strategy in certain conflicts, where the idea is to enslave women of the enemy to assert dominance.
In conflicts involving indigenous communities, women caught in the crosshairs of conflict face rape and sexual violence that reaches genocidal proportions. If one were to look at the example of Guatemala, where the Maya Ixil community bore the brunt of sexual violence and rape that was nothing short of genocide at the hands of Efrain Rios Montt’s leadership, it is as clear as day how rape and sexual violence were used to all but wipe out an entire community of people. By raping indigenous women, or impacting them with sexual violence, perpetrators destroy their reproductive capacities – which effectively reduces the chances of the community’s survival.
Askin, Kelly Dawn (1997). War Crimes Against Women: Prosecution in International War Crimes Tribunals. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.
Author: Kirthi Jayakumar