Women’s voices must be heard in conflict and post-conflict zones
3 Nov 2023|

In July 2023, amid the sectarian violence that ravaged India’s Manipur state, a harrowing video emerged of two women being paraded naked and sexually assaulted in Manipur’s Kangpokpi district. Despite a registered police complaint, no investigation was initiated into the incident that happened in May, until the video caught attention worldwide two months later. Manipur’s chief minister, N. Biren Singh, defended the delay in taking action against the perpetrators by claiming that ‘hundreds’ of such incidents had happened on the ground.

It is well documented that conflicts aggravate pre-existing discrimination against women and girls. Seventy years since the end of World War II and the infamous system of ‘comfort women’, the largest case of government-sponsored sexual slavery in modern history, gender-based violence is still used as a deliberate tactic in conflicts. This article attempts to address the use of gender as a tool in conflict when women are placed in the centre of conflict arenas instead of at the periphery.

The bodies of women have been systematically targeted to impose political agendas and to terrorise and discipline the enemy. Besides being subjected to physical exploitation, women also experience psychological, reproductive and overall harm in times of conflict. During and after conflict, women stay in overcrowded shelters that lack essential provisions such as food, water and privacy. Incidences of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, and unwanted pregnancies increase manifold during conflicts. Post-conflict, loss of livelihood, housing and land also disproportionately impact households headed by women and widows.

Hundreds of women were reported to have been detained by militia members during the conflict in Sudan, held in inhuman or degrading conditions, subjected to sexual assault and vulnerable to sexual slavery. Often, the capacity to reach these victims of violence was severely limited by a lack of access to the affected areas. Essential services, such as medical facilities, on which women heavily depend for their wellbeing are greatly disrupted by armed conflicts, adding to the impact of violence inflicted on women.

Women also increasingly suffer persecution on ideological grounds. During the conflicts in Afghanistan under the Taliban, women were subjected to extreme misogynistic persecution and denied basic rights to education and livelihoods. Because persecution on ideological grounds is committed by both state and non-state actors across the globe, the scope of legal instruments needs to be expanded to encompass actions of both elements.

Around the world, women also play a role in regular armed forces, armed groups and support services in conflict zones. The presence of women on front lines has been instrumentalised by armed groups in an effort to humanise and legitimise their cause and to garner external support.

As combatants, women have been abused by their own comrades and, in cases where they were held prisoner, abused by the enemy. Various reports based on interactions with women in combat have shown that even in groups with gender emancipatory platforms, gendered issues take a back seat to political concerns.

While traditional militaries today are much more integrated along gender lines than at any time in the past, women continue to suffer inequity and sexual discrimination of varying degrees. Several studies have found that women leave the military at greater rates than men, with sexual harassment, gender-based bullying, sexual abuse and unsatisfactory responses by the military cited as reasons.

It is also notable that local women human-rights defenders and officials have been deliberately targeted during conflicts. In 2020, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights verified 35 killings of women human-rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists in seven conflict-affected countries with retrievable data.

Given the impact that conflict has on women, it’s paradoxical that those who sit at peace-negotiation tables are predominantly or even exclusively men. In post-conflict situations, all too often, women don’t have equal footing with men in peace negotiations. Studies of women in conflict zones show that we rarely see the affected women speak for themselves; instead, journalists, politicians and officials speak on their behalf.

Post-conflict rebuilding processes often fail to adequately consider how the conflict affects women. The percentage of women involved and consulted in post-conflict policymaking is alarmingly low. Limiting women’s narratives restricts the points of view of women from being fully integrated into foreign-policy contexts.

There’s no doubt that women can be powerful agents of positive and sustainable change if they’re brought onboard the peacebuilding process. Women also bring alternative perspectives to post-conflict reconstruction, often focused on the grassroots and community levels. This underlines the absolute need for a humanitarian response based on a gender-focused needs assessment and gender analysis.

The need to address the issue of women in conflict gains traction with the ongoing Israel–Hamas war. UN Women estimates that the conflict has so far resulted in close to 493,000 women and girls being displaced from their homes in Gaza. That number is expected to rise if no ceasefire is achieved. The violence has also increased the number of widows, with an estimated 900 women becoming heads of households following their male partners’ deaths.

International humanitarian law addresses the issues faced by women in conflict through several declarations and protocols. In recent decades, the UN has given special attention to the issue of human rights and particularly women’s and girls’ rights. In 1993, the UN adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the first international framework that explicitly defines the forms of violence against women. In 2015, the UN General Assembly declared 19 June as the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, recognising rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict settings as grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

However, the challenge lies in translating the law into practice and ensuring the rules are implemented. Steps that can maximise justice for victims include appointing women as special representatives, monitoring and ensuring respect for the law, and strengthening protections for witnesses who testify in trials related to women involved in conflict. Ensuring safe and easy access to humanitarian workers in conflict areas and sustained funding to non-governmental women’s organisations dealing with peace issues is also essential to ensure effective interventions.

Assuring women a means of economic welfare should be considered a primary goal in post-conflict zones. Only that can lay a base to their participation in state building. Ensuring meaningful participation of women in leadership of political and decision-making processes will facilitate their say in gender-impartial planning and policymaking in conflict and post-conflict zones.