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Ficha de experiencia Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

, Grenoble, mayo 2009

Women in the Aftermath of War and Armed Conflict

Outcomes of an international conference.

Keywords: Libertad y solidaridad | Acuerdo de paz | Organizaciones ciudadanas y líderes por la paz | Ciudadanos por la paz | Actores Políticos. Autoridades políticas y militares. | Autoridades y Gobiernos locales | Reformar las relaciones políticas para reconstruir la paz | Africa

In order to develop a gender analysis of post-conflict recovery and rebuilding, a conference was held in 1999 about “Women in the Aftermath of War and Armed Conflict”. Ten years later the outcomes are still very relevant and merit to be better known. Gender sensitive reconstruction is too often misunderstood as building schools for girls as the example of Kabul, after the allied forces gained control over the city, demonstrates. In this file you can find a selective summary of the conference outcomes.

Who organised the conference?

The conference brought together 75 activist and academic participants from 16 African countries and from national and international non-governmental organizations as well as United Nations agencies. Organiser was Meredeth Turshen of Rutgers University. Co-chairs of the conference were Anu Pillay, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and Codou Bop of the organisation Women Living under Muslim Laws . Yasmin Sooka, a human rights lawyer who chairs the Human Rights Violations Committee of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Judge Albie Sachs of South Africa’s Constitutional Court delivered keynote addresses.

What is gender?

Gender is an English word that does not translate well into other languages. The conference organisers used it to talk about power relations between women and men as well as the roles women and men are socialized to play in family, community, and national life. Many speakers confirmed that gender roles can shift dramatically in times of conflict (including armed struggle and liberation wars) and under authoritarian and fascist regimes. These shifts often challenge power structures, especially patriarchal power structures, and they can destabilize interpersonal relations between women and men and between generations.

How are gender relations affected by conflict?

Some power shifts in gender relations give women new opportunities to train, learn skills, and imagine new-more equal-relations with men as comrades, fighters, and lovers. Yasmin Sooka, Albie Sachs, and Thandi Modise (Deputy President of the ANC Women’s League) all described ANC comrades as breaking out of old molds during the anti-apartheid struggles. Sondra Hale, professor of anthropology and women’s studies at UCLA and a guest speaker, described a near-idyllic world within the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front-so paradoxical at the heart of armed conflict.

Speakers also talked about women stepping into violent roles traditionally played by men-women who became accomplices to rape, murder, and torture. These are not examples of power shifts, though they may involve changes in gender roles. Women who participated in the genocide in Rwanda and women who were instruments of state violence and partisan violence in South Africa were not changing or challenging the relative power of women and men. In these situations, women were instruments of an old order. …

The speakers raised several questions: why are the positive gender shifts so fragile? Why in many cases are women’s new economic, social, and political roles unsupported and so easily denied? Why are their war « gains » reversed in the aftermath of armed conflict and is the reversal inevitable? …

Sub-themes of the conference

The theme of the conference was split into five sub-themes:

1. Violence Against Women

2. War as Loss and « Gain »

3. War/postwar Shifts in Gender Relations

4. New Identities of War

5. State and Society Relations

Below we will discuss the discussions of the last three topics:

War/postwar Shifts in Gender Relations

The third workshop pursued an understanding of war/postwar shifts in gender relations by looking at several other dimensions of reconstruction and transformation, in addition to the demobilization and integration of fighters discussed by Sondra Hale. The participants examined the impact on gender relations of the dramatic demographic shifts that occur in wartime. For example, the ratio of men to women changes as more men than women die; the age structure of the population alters as more younger than older adults die; the number of widows and women-headed households increases; and in the aftermath there is often a rise in polygamous marriages and the birth rate. Economic changes can be equally dramatic-changes in the Gini coefficient showing greater inequality, the growth of landlessness especially among women, and the expansion of the informal sector as the formal sector and the number of jobs shrink. This terrain is especially fruitful for socially imaginative policy making.

The group noted that, while common practices and experiences united women, positive transformations occurring during war did not necessarily continue in the postwar period. Several factors acted as obstacles to the transformation of wartime experiences into peacetime empowerment. First, women’s issues were not on the national agenda; second, war compromised women’s ability to communicate and be represented; and third, bureaucratic sabotage hindered women’s advancement. The participants confirmed what others have noted- that education is a key to empowerment-but they found that, while information could be empowering, male control of information can negatively affect women. A related issue is men’s misunderstanding of security-it is not protection from harm but rather encompasses development. Women’s access to productive resources is therefore as much a security issue as landmines, which affect reconstruction and healing initiatives.

To combat the observation that women’s organizations are not prepared to meet many of the postwar challenges, the group developed a set of strategies focusing on making women agents of change. They recommended leadership workshops, certification of skills gained during war (such as learning to drive trucks), the creation of women’s empowerment units in government, and new land legislation that would give women equal property rights. They wanted to see campaigns led by national anti-landmines committees to implement and ratify the new international treaty, and they debated a new framework for human security based on human needs, the environment, human rights and dignity.

New Identities of War

The fourth workshop on identity continued the work mapped out by Martina Belic of Croatia and Lepa Mladjenovic of Serbia. Sheila Meintjes (University of the Witwatersrand), one of the South African conference organizers, asked about constructions of masculine identity in war and peace. The South African sociologist Jacklyn Cock has shown how women contribute to the construction of wartime masculinity, even quite traditional women not overtly engaged in the war effort. Tina Sideris, a South African psychologist who has worked with women survivors and victims, especially Mozambican women refugees, asked about alternate male discourses: can we think beyond conscientious objection and community service alternatives to military service? Military structures also imbue the identity of peacetime services-for example, public health workers may carry military rank, and some nursing services are violently hierarchical.

Workshop participants considered a range of issues: gender, ethnicity, and race; women’s solidarity across ethnic and religious lines; psychosocial and political models of healing; and the roles in healing of truth and reconciliation commissions, international tribunals, and national courts. They concluded that identities are not singular or fixed in time and space, but multiple, gendered, and contextual. War decimates men’s as well as women’s identities, and men may have fewer alternative empowering identities to draw on (for example, has recent work on fatherhood provided men with a positive identity in the way that new thinking about motherhood has done?). Women’s and men’s identities are not defined in binary opposition to each other, nor is women’s empowerment a zero-sum game. We should look at how alternative identities are created (for example, by examining aspects of lesbianism).

Context, strategies, and available resources all shape our understanding of violence as well as our comprehension of the parts our identity being violated. The group reconsidered the meaning of violence against women. Understanding violence against women as private and individualized is a formalistic response. This is a crucial point for the whole conference, and it also affects our understanding of feminism. Accepting that violence is socially and structurally produced and sustained can result in politically transformative responses. High levels of violence as in war can hide the effects of gender violence, which predates war and continues in peacetime. As Anu Pillay, a South African conference organizer said, « There is no aftermath for women. »

Healing is a multi-dimensional process and needs a multi-pronged approach. Healing is also anchored in a context, and approaches developed by one society are not necessarily appropriate for others. Women are not just victims of war, as some aspects of their experiences are empowering and can be used as a resource for healing and transformation. Healing should not become an additional burden for women: their role must be recognized as a resource, just as women’s resilience must be acknowledged. Women’s roles in the survival and reconstruction of society should be identified and documented. We need to empower women’s access to different points of healing and to cultural resources. We should also plan for future generations because one consequence of war is that violence leaves scars and shapes the identity of future generations. War’s impact is felt beyond immediate survivors and can become part of a people’s identity (for example, being Jewish or South African or of a « race »).

The group also considered strategies, which must be contextual and cannot rely solely on the model of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The strategies include: different levels of support and solidarity in the country, regionally, and internationally; forming social movements leading to support and solidarity networks at national, regional, and global levels; a feminist consciousness (the term is left open to debate, so long as it raises questions of gender and power relations); tribunals and commissions or any other appropriate techniques that will make women’s experiences visible; recognizing grassroots healing, and recognizing women’s role in reconstruction; and the need for international protocols that can be used.

State-society Relationships

The fifth theme, the relation of state to society in the aftermath, was tied to one of the main conference objectives, which was to develop policies and strategies to influence the process of democratic representation of women’s interests in the aftermath. The South African example, as presented by Thandi Modise, is exceptional in Africa because a strong state emerged from the anti-apartheid struggle. More typical is a weakened state after civil war, or a state with few resources, or in the case of Somalia, no state at all. What are the chances of transforming gender relations in state and society in these varied circumstances?

The participants believed it necessary to ensure the representation of women and women’s organizations in peace negotiations. They pointed out that women living in exile had a role to play and a special contribution to make. The group noted that women’s expectations in the aftermath differed according to their experiences and engagement in the conflict-for example, some women were combatants or had sustained male combatants; many were refugees and internally displaced while others remained in urban or rural areas. Participants emphasized the importance of post-conflict demilitarization of society (not just demobilization of combatants) in establishing a culture of peace, and they identified constitutional and economic issues as part of integrating gender into post-war reconstruction strategies and policy. They considered new legal and service structures such as legal reform of women’s access to land and access to public health services.

The identification of all stakeholders-internal and external, public and behind the scenes-and naming what each stands to gain from peace are necessary if women are to participate effectively in the peace process. Internal stakeholders include warring parties; political parties and opposition groups; combatants (male and female); organs of civil society (for example, women’s groups within refugee camps and internally displaced persons’ camps; traditional groups in rural and urban areas, including religious communities); black marketeers; illegal traders in guns, drugs, and prostitutes; and exiled intellectuals and groups. External stakeholders include companies and corporations, arms and drugs dealers, international mafia, and mercenaries. Regional players include peacekeeping forces and peace brokers, and international players include UN peacekeepers, the UN Department of Political Affairs, the Security Council, NATO, OAU, IMF, and the World Bank. Key countries are (usually) the USA, France, UK, and members of the European Union. The media (local and international) may also be stakeholders. …


The group made the following recommendations: that there be full participation of civil society at the negotiating table, that government transparency be ensured, that user friendly institutions be created, that checks and balances be instituted, that the efforts of groups like the African Women’s Anti-War Coalition be recognized, that all policy reflect a gender perspective on all issues (not just women’s issues), that all laws to protect women and children be respected and enforced, that independent women’s organizations formulate a women’s manifesto at country level and present it to their governments, that there be new mechanisms to train women leaders, that research and theorizing on gender and the interrogation of ideologies of gender be encouraged, and that women be encouraged to find governmental allies (women in government and women in civil society).


For additional information on the conference and related workshops, you may contact Meredeth Turshen, Department of Urban Studies and Community Health, School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08903; Telephone: 732 932 4101 X681; Fax: 732 932 0934; E-mail: