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Analysis file Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

, Grenoble, May 2009

Gendered cycle of conflict

Impact of conflict on roles, power structures and gender ideology.

Keywords: | | | Afghanistan

Mainstream conflict analysis does not show how gender relations are affected by war.

  • What the different roles of men and women are in the different conflict phases

  • How power structures change during conflict.

  • How gender ideology changes during conflict

This article therefore tries to draw a gendered cycle of conflict. For each of the conflict phases we will look at the different impact conflict has for men and women and how their relationship changes as a result of violent conflict.

Pre-conflict phase

Before violence has broken out as a result of the conflict, there is already heightened tension that can be felt in a society and indicates that a situation is escalating. Changes in relations between men and women are an important indicator for escalating conflict. We look what changes are taking place at the level of roles, attitudes and power structures in a period leading up to conflict.


Not much change?


  • Gender stereotypes become stronger: Ideas of what men and women are supposed to be, become stricter and further apart. Men are supposed to be like this and women are supposed to be like that. Often they are identifying themselves as opposites of the other: they are what the other is not. It is more difficult for both men and women to fit this ideal picture of what men and women are supposed to be like. Example: For men it becomes increasingly difficult in conflict situations to be the provider and protector of the family and they therefore might feel humiliated.

  • Increase in nationalism that identifies men as the protectors of the nation and women as the bearers of the nation.

  • Homophobia. For men the amount of characteristics they are allowed to identify with also decreases. Men who oppose to fighting are identified as cowards and are called « sissies, homo’s » or even « faggots ». Words that are condescending towards men and homosexuals in particular. A proof of this is the opposition to allowing open sexuality in the military in both Britain and the US.

An illustration of above point comes from Kosovo. Here, the Albanian people were victim of the ethnocentric rule of the Serbian government. In response to their oppression, Albanian men were choosing between non-violent action or joining the newly formed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a force whose leaders exhibited little desire to give up any of the privileges of patriarchy. As more men chose guerrilla warfare in the KLA, more ethnic Albanian women had to decide how they would relate to the expressions of Albanian masculinity and how to respond to the devastating militarization of Belgrade’s (capital of Serbia) ethnocentric rule. (from: C. Enloe, Maneuvers, international politics of militarising women’s lives, University of California Press, London, blz150)

Power structures:

  • Increase in militarism. Governments spend more money on the military and give these costs priority over other needs of the society, in order to ‘protect the safety of the people’. Example: Bush’s increase in military spending after 9-11-2001

  • Decrease of individual liberty.

  • Pro-natalist policies: women are stimulated to get more children as being responsible for the future of a people.

“Women in the late 20th century in countries like Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Rwanda and the Sudan can testify that gendered militarization radically shrinks the spaces available for women to craft their own domestic, national and international politics against rape and other forms of violence against women.” (C. Enloe, Manoeuvres, international politics of militarising women’s lives, University of California Press, London, blz150)

Action that women can take in the pre-conflict phase.

Women are critical sensors for conflicts going on and of violence . Because of their different roles in society, women have different experiences, priorities and perspective on conflict. Women should establish/make use of existing structures to make their observations about the threat of violent conflict known to the international community. In this way the local, national and international level can be linked. The Swiss organisation Fewer is involved in creating local information networks.

The fact that women can provide conflict indicators that otherwise may remain unseen can be illustrated with the following example. In times of increased violence women in e.g. Southern Mexico give their children little puppets to protect them. This can be an indicator of increasing political tension in an area. Other indicators are: social in/exclusion and if women don’t go to market alone any more this also indicates a deteriorating safety.

Conflict phase:

During the conflict phase, both the violence of warfare, and its consequences - displacement, impoverishment, and demographic imbalance - give rise to changes in gender roles at the household level. This leads in turn to limited increases in women’s decision-making power and political participation: however, the ideological bases underpinning gender relations appear to be unchanged or even reinforced by conflict.

During the conflict phase, we should give special attention to:

  • How women and men are differently affected in the conflict phase due to their different roles in society.

  • How they are differently affected by power structures

  • How attitudes about who women and men are, are affected by armed conflict.


Both women and men can be targeted because of their public role in society as fighters, military, community, student, or religious leaders, or, as in the case of Latin America, union organizers. Women are also targeted for a variety of other roles they play in society as a woman of a specific ethnic, racial, or religious group. Women are significant targets: “If the aim is to destroy a culture, they are prime targets because of their cultural position and their importance in the family structure” (Seifert 1994, p. 62).

An illustration of above point can be found in the genocide in Rwanda. Upon being driven by their Hutu captors to a roadblock manned by members of a Hutu militia, Tutsi women reported that the other men shouted to their captors, “Kill them, you have to kill them. They will make Tutsi babies” (Human Rights Watch/Africa 1996, p. 54).

Furthermore, demographic imbalance resulting from higher male deaths and family splits, affects the personal and reproductive life expectations of both men and women (see, for example, Panchavichetr, P. 1993). It also promotes changes in the division of labour as women compensate for the absence or incapacity of the male labour force by learning new skills and adapting new economic and reproductive roles, for example, in self-defence and protection. These changes may or may not be permanent, and may themselves lead to new relationships between men and women being negotiated. Greater sharing of gender roles, higher rates of divorce, a breakdown in mechanisms for socialisation of children, may all figure among the results.

Power structures:

Existing structures break down, like economic systems and transportation systems. This makes place for the law of the strongest/most powerful. War is considered a man’s thing, which results in women’s decreasing decision-making power at the political level. Women become increasingly unseen in the political picture and so is their suffering. While it has become more and more known that sexual abuse is a weapon of war, it is not recognised as political act. Women feel shame and guilt, feelings that imply personal responsibility as opposed to political acts. Find an example below of how women’s organisations have acted against this invisibility as soon as power structures opened up after the conflict situation.

Example: Women’s suffering made public in Truth and Reconciliation Committee

In South Africa, women’s organisations have worked hard to make gender suffering under apartheid publicly visible by means of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The definition of ‘victim’ in the Truth and Reconciliation Act of 1995 includes relatives and dependents of victims. This is important because it locates wives, mothers and children in centre stage as having suffered ‘gross violations of human rights’ (Meintjes and Goldblatt 1998:34). The effort of women’s organisation can be seen as successful because it has made the suffering of women visible in a political process.


Idealised views of how men and women should behave are critical in perpetuating the cycles of violence. Social roles people are expected to play can be blocked or thwarted in conflict situations, and this can be an important factor leading to new cycles of conflict and violence. For example, adult men whose roles as providers and protectors of their families have been undermined by lack of access to the necessary ressources, may respond by joining rebel forces, by harming themselves and others (through alcoholism, domestic violence, or suicide, for example) or by criminal behaviour as a livelihood strategy.

If women are unable to maintain norms of femininity appropriate for their age and class, this may be interpreted by others as being the result of deliberate undermining of the culture by opposing parties, and this interpretation may then contribute to further alienation and violence. Because a masculine stereotype prescribes that men should be able to protect the women in their family and community, women become targets in the fighting. Abuse and in particular sexual abuse sends a message that men are unable to protect “their” women and therefore not ‘real’ men. “In former Yugoslavia, Serbian forces sent buses full of Muslim women pregnant by rape back over enemy lines with texts on the buses about the children to be born.” (Seifert 1994, p. 59).

Post-Conflict phase:

In the post-conflict phase, people will try to return to normal while everything in fact might have been affected by the violent conflict. Will men and women occupy the roles they had before the conflict or will the changed roles during a conflict situation have a lasting impact on the relationships between men and women? Will ideas about what kind of behaviour is allowed for men and women go back to ‘normal’ as well? However horrible the period of conflict might have been, the breakdown of structures might present an opportunity for women to increase their power position at a very local level. This gain might be lost in the post-conflict phase, unless national and international authority structures take steps to introduce and implement new policies and legal frameworks.


When the violent conflict has stopped to be violent, men that have been fighting in the war, have to give up their role as soldier and combatant and return (if possible) to their villages. This has a large impact one the roles men and women have been playing during the war. Men often return to a damaged community where economy has been destroyed and unemployment rates are very high. Women have often –in the absence of their husbands- been the decision makers in the household and have been responsible for providing for their families. Women are confronted with husbands who expect to return to the old division of roles and often have to give up the power they gained within the local context. Men are confronted with a changed situation where women have been independently trying to survive and where it might be difficult to become provider again as a result of the changed economic situation.

Power structures:

Official power structures at the public level have been very closed off for women in a conflict situation. Although power structures at a family level have temporarily changed. What happens with power structures at the national and international level depends for a large extent on the views of the new people in charge. (More info Judy on Rwanda example)


As a result of the changed economic situation men might not be able to live up to the expectations that he and the community has about him. He no longer can identify with the hero-image that is attached to being a soldier. He might have to identify with being an unemployed male who has not been able to protect his family and is now not able to provide for them. Ideology about gender stereotypes remains most of the time unchanged over the course of a conflict situation, though roles might have shifted back and forward.


This article helps the reader to distinguish between the different phases of conflict. How to recognize in which phase a conflict is in and to see the opportunities for action in each of the phases. It also helps to see that the dynamics happening at the conflict stages are not targeted against men or women personally but are part of conflict dynamics. Addressing gender inequality cannot go without addressing causes for conflict and vice versa.


The text of this article is an adaptation of one of the many drafts of the online course on Gender and Conflict Transformation. Judy el Bushra provided the most substantive contribution to this part. Other contributors were Shelly Anderson of WPP/IFOR, Eleni Stamiris of Kegme and Ancil Adrian-Paul of Alert.