Women and conflict: An uphill battle

March 9, 2022
Photo by Abbie Trayler-Smith

Conflict is gendered. It affects women, men, girls, and boys in starkly different ways; ways that often reinforce existing inequities that go beyond gender. Women are frequently at risk of gender-based violence, even more so in conflict. This makes everyday activities like going to the bathroom or collecting water potentially dangerous due to the increased risk of rape or sexual abuse.

Even if women aren’t attacked, they aren’t safe. According to the UN, the maternal mortality rate in conflict and post-conflict countries rises to 2.5 times higher than the average. Struggling and alone, women often turn to negative coping mechanisms, such as marrying their young daughters to much older men in hopes that it will ensure their daughter’s safety and financial security, and reduce the burden on the family. It’s a complex situation no matter the circumstances. Here’s a brief  breakdown on the uphill battle of women and conflict, as well as what Concern is doing to help. 

Learn more about Concern's gender-transformative work in 24 countries around the world

Women play key roles in conflict that are often different from men

Those roles can change depending on the roles that women play during peacetime in any given society. We can point to this happening in the United States. Prior to World War II, the majority of American women remained out of the workforce and stayed in charge of domestic labor and raising their families. When American troops entered the conflict, however, 6 million women took on jobs that, until then, had been exclusively the domain of men. Rosie the Riveter is an enduring symbol of this shift. 

Today, there is no fixed role for women in conflict settings. As conflict has grown more localized since the 20th Century, the way that women participate in conflicts is also more tied to local gender norms and traditional roles. However, a 2007 USAID report groups women’s roles in conflict into five different categories: 

  • Active participants and combatants
  • Support providers for participants (either forced or voluntary)
  • Victims and spoils of war
  • Newly-responsible care providers
  • Agents of change

Ultimately, these roles, the vulnerabilities women typically face even in peacetime, and the specific contexts of each community and culture lead to different experiences of conflict between women and men (and different needs in response). 

Concern’s nutrition programs target children under five years of age and pregnant and breastfeeding women in the Ombella-M’Poko region of Central African Republic.

Regardless, conflict is inherently gendered

 There’s no way to view violence and instability as a uniform experience for women and men. Even these aren’t homogenous groups, and even gender power relations can remain invisible. 

In the Central African Republic, a protracted crisis has been even less favorable for women and girls who, despite policies and legislation designed to protect them, face increased amounts of gender-based violence and sexual assault. As violence in one area increases, more vulnerable people (including women, girls, the elderly, and disabled) are more likely to be left behind. 

In Kouango, a town in southern CAR of approximately 8,000 people, Bernadette*, a mother of two with a preexisting disability, was among those who were unable to flee. “I had to hide my daughter under the bed,” she recalls of an attack on her village. “They committed abuses and raped girls.” 

Gender-based violence is a weapon of war

“We are still far away from being able to draw a red line against the use of sexual violence in war and conflict,” says doctor and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Denis Mukwege. Dr. Mukwege was referring to a similar situation in his home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo when he explained this last April at the UN Security Council. 

This coincided with the UN’s latest report on sexual violence in conflict zones, including the DRC where “sexual violence [is used] as a tactic to dehumanize and displace populations.” Such violence disproportionately affects women. 

Violence continues in displacement

Women and girls who are able to take refuge in a host community, either in their own country or abroad, are also not free from gendered violence. Many report that women are exposed to sexual exploitation and abuse at the hands of host communities. One woman in Kpangba I, a village near Kouango in the Central African Republic that was a host for many in the region, explains that “food was sometimes exchanged for sex… Host populations want to have sex with women before they are hired.” 

One man in nearby Yangouasso recalled similar patterns of behavior: “The host community often takes the girls forcibly to have sex with them. Our children are raped.… Women take on temporary work to survive, as their husbands do not have money. The owners of the fields make them work for crumbs and seek to have sex with them.” 

Ibrahim in his home.

Ibrahim seated in his home in Lebanon, recounting the stresses of being a refugee.

In high-stress situations, GBV is just as likely to happen at home

“I remember him as so nice before, so affectionate,” Khadija*, a Syrian refugee tells us from her temporary home in Lebanon. “I know life has been hard, and he’s under a lot of pressure. But this became too much.” 

This is a common refrain for women who live through war and conflict with their husbands or partners. Khadija’s husband, Ibrahim*, cries when he talks about the atrocities he witnessed in their hometown of Qusayr. This trauma, along with the stress of losing routines and familiarity — especially his ability to work when they entered displacement — became too much to bear. Ibrahim began to beat Khadija. 

“The war changed our life from — I don’t want to say heaven, but it definitely became hell,” Ibrahim says of the change. “We used to argue, my wife and I, but we could make things work. After we left Syria, it wasn’t working any more.” This is an all-too-common pattern for men and women living with the uncertainty of displacement, especially those coming from cultures like Syria, where traditional manhood is associated with being able to provide for and protect one’s family. Men are just as much a victim of circumstance in this equation, but women bear the brunt of this burden as well. 

Conflict is an intersectional issue for women and girls

Some women are forced into displacement camps or host communities due to compound or intersectional vulnerabilities. At 19, Nyabila* had to flee her home in South Sudan due to increased violence in the area. “I had no option,” she explains. “I had to leave.” 

She stayed with a relative in a protection of civilians (POC) camp for some time. She was forced to leave when she became pregnant out of wedlock, owing to traditional gender and sexual values around marriage and having children. She lives in a makeshift tent with her daughter, Athieu*, who was two years old when we first met. “When she is playing, I laugh. We have fun together, we laugh together,” Nyabila says as Athieu flashes a winning smile. However, the lack of support means that the young mother is on her own when it comes to learning how to be a parent in the middle of a decade-long conflict. “I don’t have hope for the future,” Nyabila adds. 

These situations can exist independently of conflict, however the situation has made things more dire, especially for Athieu, who has been in and out of Concern’s nutrition program in South Sudan, receiving treatment for severe acute malnutrition. 

Nyabila* (21) and Athieu* (2) in the mother and baby room at the Concern Worldwide Nutrition Clinic in a POC in Juba, South Sudan (Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Concern Worldwide; names changed to protect the identity of individuals)

Challenges persist for women who return

Social roles and statuses follow women through displacement into their return. Women who survive violence associated with war may also face particular stigma, as they are often seen as responsible for the violence they experience. 

“A lethal combination of impunity for perpetrators and deep-rooted inequality and discrimination means that gender-based violence, including sexual violence against women and girls, is not taken seriously as a crime, nor is its devastating impact addressed,” Caroline Atim, director of the South Sudan Women with Disabilities Network, said to the UN Security Council in 2021. 

Gender equality is a challenge in South Sudan, where even before the current conflict violence against women and girls was considered socially acceptable. This means that ending the epidemic of GBV that accompanies conflict in the country means first shifting mindsets and undoing centuries of harmful traditions so that South Sudanese people can first agree that perpetrators must be held to account. 

Gender equality is the key to lasting peace

A 2015 UN Women report provides several links between gender equality and conflict, concluding that “women’s participation is key to sustainable peace.” When women are witnesses, signatories, mediators, and/or negotiators in a peace process, the agreement is 20% more likely to last at least two years. Even better, this likelihood increases over time: Peace treaties that include women in the process in a meaningful way are 35% more likely to last 15 years.

Women and conflict: Concern’s response

Concern knows that because war affects women and children disproportionately, we have to focus on their needs. In countries that are hosting large numbers of refugees — such as Lebanon and Turkey — we provide refugee women with psychosocial support, address shelter needs, and build resources for communities to promote gender equality and reduce gender-based violence. 

In countries of conflict like South Sudan, we are distributing food and vouchers to families, treating malnourished children, building shelters, and providing clean water and latrines. We remain committed to working with women — especially single parents — to provide them with skills training so that they’re able to work toward a better life for themselves and their families.

Women in Conflict