Recovering from Conflict: Does Gender Make a Difference?

By Sorensen, Birgitte Refslund | UN Chronicle, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Recovering from Conflict: Does Gender Make a Difference?


Sorensen, Birgitte Refslund, UN Chronicle


Many discussions on relief to countries in armed conflict and post-conflict reconstruction have not considered gender. Among relief practitioners, the issue of gender has often been seen as a secondary priority and postponed to the development phase. Academics have failed to incorporate a gender perspective, as they have relied on gender-blind theories and conceptualizations of war to peace transitions. However, over the past few years, a steadily growing body of field studies has demonstrated the salience of gender in conflict and post-conflict situations, and forced gender and women onto the international agenda.

Existing material on gender can be divided into documentation of the gendered impact of war and of how women make a useful contribution to post-war political, economic and social reconstruction.

The internal wars that have followed in the wake of decolonialization and the dismantlement of the bipolar cold war world order share the feature that they all involve civil populations in an unprecedented manner. But in our dismay over the cruelty with which these wars are being fought, we should not forget to analyze more carefully the way in which their actions and implications are gendered. The most obvious example of this is the way in which women have become targets of politicized sexual violence, because they are regarded as the embodiment of a group's cultural identity. As an indication of the general militarization of State and society, women are also exposed to violence and abuse by members of their own communities. This, for instance, happens when they transgress established gender boundaries, even when this is done in an effort to assist in the restoration of livelihoods. But violence is not the only example of gendered impacts. We know that gender is important in defining people's entitlements to resources and their social mobility. And this means that displacement and disintegration of communities may hit women harder.

Why? Because they lose access to resources essential for their survival and well-being. Apart from determining the vulnerability of women during crisis, such experiences of course also play an important part in defining the issues that women would like to see addressed during the reconstruction period.

The documentation of the gendered impact of war has tended to reinforce a perception of women as helpless and passive victims. But experiences from war-affected countries give ample evidence of women's engagement and perseverance in the rebuilding process. As individuals and as members of the communities and grass-roots organizations, they have played a significant role in political, economic and social reconstruction. While women have been largely excluded from formal peace negotiations, they have been a dominant force in grass-roots movements, working for peace and human rights. At the local level, women have organized, sometimes across ethnic divisions, in order to put pressure on male relatives to seek a political solution. At the national level, they have tried to hold the political leadership accountable for human rights violations and fought against the conscription of their sons and the army's culture of violence. But, at this point, their political activities have mostly taken place outside the formal political structures.

In the economic field, women have also played a prominent role. Wars always impose new hardships and constraining factors, but they have demonstrated an amazing capability to adjust to the changing conditions of a war economy. Many women of a rural background have sought to meet their new responsibilities for the household and other dependants by staying and cultivating the family's land. But landmines, the lack of seeds and tools, destroyed infrastructure and disappearing markets have constituted severe constraints.

And for women who used to be employed in the urban areas, hardships have been no less, as companies have closed down and employers moved. …

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Recovering from Conflict: Does Gender Make a Difference?
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