Women and Conflict: How peacebuilding efforts can benefit us all

An image of five women from the Malaysian army in army attire and holding guns

This article was originally published on the SCRAP Weapons website, a SOAS initiative.

“It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict.”

When reading this quote by Major General Patrick Cammeart, it seems unfathomable. But in fact, during times of warfare and conflict, women often hold the heaviest burden when it comes to violence. The patriarchal structures that are currently in place worldwide mean women do not have the same resources, authority, and political rights as men, leaving them vulnerable on ‘the battlefield.’ Is this just a natural outcome of conflict that is impossible to escape? Or can these political and power structures be broken down when the right policies are put in place?

It is no secret that women are continually used as targets of sexual violence and rape during times of conflict. Not only does this leave traumatising physical and emotional scars, but also seeks to destroy communities and terrorise local civilians. Sexual violence is also often used as a weapon to terrorise which blocks women’s social, economic, and political participation at all levels. Additionally, the gender norms in place discriminate against women and obstruct access to education, opportunities, and resources and poor access to markets. The idea of gender norms is crucial when understanding how violence during times of conflict is integrated through and within social violence, primarily intimate partner violence (IPV).

What these women suffer is not an isolated phenomena concentrated in conflict, but is a glimmer into the wider domestic and interpersonal violence they experience. It’s important to recognise how gender-based violence during wartime or of wider conflict processes are often continuous as a phenomenon with social forms of violence. It’s suggested that this is in fact the most common form of violence in conflict-affected countries, and is primarily inflicted by women’s own family members and partners. Sexual violence is continually used as a tool to harm and humiliate women; it’s reported that 50,000 women were raped during the Bosnian war and 250,000 during the Rwandan genocide, while 90% of Afghan women are said to experience domestic abuse during their lifetime. So why is this happening and what can we do to prevent it?

Women of War data
https://twitter.com/TRTWorldRC/status/1073872805115027457

Most significantly, the effects of conflict such as economic insecurity, increased levels of crime, destroyed infrastructure, and weakened rule of law all directly impact the heightened risk towards women. However, the role of gender norms is increasingly beneficial when understanding how violence during times of conflict is interlinked to domestic and social violence. It appears we see this when the notion of militarisation and masculinity are interconnected. This can be known as ‘Militarism.’

So what does this mean and what are the implications for it? Militarism is the way that military structures and practices are turned into a system that affects everyday lives. It’s the means by which the values and beliefs associated with ideologies of hegemonic masculinity are eroticised and institutionalised.

Masculine traits that naturalise men as soldiers – so they are seen as brave and a form of protection – legitimise war and conscription. Likewise, women and children are naturalised as civilians who are in need of male protection. The narrative of women being portrayed as weak and vulnerable plays into the idea of femininity being a negative thing. The socialised gender norms we see surrounding us are part of a ‘bigger picture’ incorporating international politics and national security. Militarism has been seen to affect post-war reconstruction efforts, primarily when laws are often framed in gendered terms which as a result marginalise women. On top of this, feminisation can be used as a form of humiliation in instances such as Abu Ghraib against male prisoners.

What this shows us is how the effects of militarisation can be interlinked to the domestic and interpersonal violence women experience during times of conflict. These gender norms heighten the unequal relationship between men and women which can more than often lead to intimate partner violence (IPV), as mentioned above. IPV is a violation of women’s rights and constrains human development. It is for this reason that post-war and peacebuilding policies must seek to prevent IPV, by changing the way we deal with harmful gender norms on an individual and community level.

So where do we go from here? In theory, these ideas are progressive and hopeful, but can they realistically be put into practice? For so long, peacebuilding initiatives and violence against women in times of warfare have been overlooked in international law. Rape and sexual violence is still yet to be mentioned in the Genocide Convention, the Convention on Torture or the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It’s for this reason that bringing in a gender lens into conflict analysis can be extremely effective when determining peacebuilding interventions. Eradicating these gender norms at play not only gives women the opportunity to get involved in decision-making, but restricts their exposure to violence and abuse.

Integrating gender relations into the discussion not only promotes gender equality, but enriches understanding and engagement and brings in new entry points, opportunities and agents of change.  The UN Security Council resolution 1325 is one example where women are able to participate in finding solutions to conflict and maintaining peace, and therefore calls for a greater integration of a gender perspective in order to create a more benevolent outcome for ALL of those affected by the consequences of conflict.

India Achilles is currently studying towards an MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development at SOAS, and a research team member at SCRAP Weapons.

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