Recognizing Women as Active Stakeholders in War and Peace

Historically, war is something that has been seen as a predominantly male affair. Women are considered, at best, secondary stakeholders in wars. This narrative had prevailed from the days of Greek mythology to American literature in the 20th century.  Discourses continue to change around women’s roles, and there is increased inclusivity of female standpoints in these conversations. However, there is not enough analysis and consideration given to seeing women as recipients of war crimes. Their roles are readily pushed to the side because the established narrative suggests “men fight wars on the ground” or armies largely comprise male enlisters. There is a need to situate women within the concept of war and see them as active participants in both impacts of wars and conflict resolution and peacebuilding.      The importance of discussing the impact of war on women did not gain eminence at the level of the UN till as late as 2002 (Brittain, 2003), but gradually the approach of studying war zones with a focus on women’s experiences is entering mainstream discourses. Women face the brunt of armed warfare in many ways. Women now comprise army officers and soldiers; women have increased participation in the armed forces (Robinson and O’Hanlon, 2020). In countries like the US, women are no longer excluded from participating in any combat groups. This development puts into perspective that women are active participants in the war zones. Placing women within the overall context of war does not necessarily mean seeing their contribution in war zones themselves but rather the overall impact on women of the social landscape created in the wake of an armed conflict. Evidence put forward by the United Nation’s Security.

Council (2003) suggests that women suffer disproportionately during the war because war magnifies women’s already existing discrimination and marginalisation. Since there is also evidence suggesting that modern warfare affects far more unsuspecting civilians than before, modern wars are more likely to cause “civilian deaths than military deaths” (Epps, 2013, p. 309). Apart from casualties and physical injuries, there are numerous ways in which women face the atrocities of war; these include displacement, trafficking, rape and sexual abuse, loss of homes and property, loss of economic stability, separation from family, torture and terrorism. A study aimed at investigating the impact of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah on Lebanese women showed that incidents of domestic violence faced by women increased in times of conflict and had a subsequent impact on women’s psychological functioning (Usta et al., 2008).

Image Description: Women in War | Female soldiers in DR Congo
Source: The Economist

Sexual abuse is commonly considered under the gender-specific collateral damage of war that disproportionately affects women (Mckay, 1998). Although available statistics show the prevalence of the sexual abuse women face during the war, war crimes are far too easily brushed under the carpet and ignored as an inevitable consequence of war. In fact, often rape has not been seen as a violation of international law. Similarly, evidence provided by the UN (1995) suggests that women mainly face displacement and trafficking, stating that 80% of internationally displaced people comprise women and children.

   These incidents faced by women can have long-lasting psychological consequences that may affect their functioning. So effects of war on women are neither limited to the duration of the armed conflict itself nor are they straightforwardly physical. This dilemma makes the negative impacts on women much more complex and irrepressible. During wars, women are often left behind as sole breadwinners in families; this is an addition to their roles as caregivers and can make women struggle in the face of financial crises created by wars.

Image Description: Victims of sexual violence in east Congo
Source: The Conversation

As it becomes clearer that women cannot be seen as isolated from the ground realities of war, it is important to identify women’s role as peacekeepers. There are many instances where women assume the role of peace activists in times of conflict. Female political leaders have been had militant approaches in times of conflict and led their followers into physical violence; hence it is misguided to assume that women are innately more peaceful than men or naturally less aggressive. Nevertheless, it is important to aim for representation of women at security policymaking levels not because of any reason other than the fact that women are equal recipients and stakeholders (and in many cases more vulnerable) in the tragedies of war. Research also suggests that women’s results in peace negotiations tend to be positive (Charelworth, 2008). Their experiences in war can make them useful at making more informed decisions if given the opportunity. Apart from being employed at policymaking levels, women can contribute to other areas of conflict-stricken zones, such as in leadership roles serving as a mobilisation force for peace activism. For example, during the conflict in Bougainville in 1988, women organised peacekeeping conferences at grassroots levels and contributed enormously to achieving peace in the region (Charlesworth, 2008).

   Moreover, women can work as journalists, civil representatives and health workers etc., in war-stricken zones. This mainstreaming of women in the roles mentioned earlier has not been achieved adequately. The agencies and intervening organisations that aim to integrate women in essential peacebuilding roles face many challenges in sensitising people about the importance of women in these positions (Frerks, 2002).

This article exclusively represents the author’s views and research, not the position of The Youth Center for Research.  YCR’s Habib University Chapter facilitated the curation, editing, and publishing of the article. However, the article is not an official reflection of the beliefs, views, and attitudes of the organization.


About the Author: Rida is a Visiting Researcher at the Youth Center for Research


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Author: Rida Fatima Ahmed

Date: 1st August 2021