Gender and Armed Conflict

2014 IDoD - Sarajevo

Bojana Djokanovic examines gender roles in conflict, the ways in which these roles are perceived, and the corresponding impact that conflict has on men and women.


To rebuild societies after conflict and to achieve lasting peace, it is imperative that women become active participants in decision-making.

The experiences of women in dealing with war – and with the legacy of war – differ greatly from those of men.

Customarily, men are combatants – and in most conflicts they account for the overwhelming majority of combat casualties and missing in action; historically, men are more likely than women to be in positions of political and military authority before and during conflict, and men are more likely to negotiate peace.

Women often assume the role of principal breadwinner and head of household when husbands leave home to join (or escape from) the military; and women are overwhelmingly more likely to be victims of sexual violence.

One of the first social trends identifiable in post-conflict societies is that males returning to civilian life resume the position of heads of households, reflecting a widespread assumption that any responsibilities taken over by females have been taken over on a purely temporary basis. At the same time, due to the generally small numbers of women who are active combatants and the disproportionately large number of women who are victims of sexual violence, the narrative of women in war tends to be that of victimhood. The experience of war is not only dangerous and painful for women, it is disempowering for many of them.

In cases where women are widowed by conflict, the reassertion of traditional male authority may be absent – but the result is simply that women are obliged to undertake arduous and often dangerous tasks on their own. In addition to fending for families, they have to engage with the authorities (generally male-dominated and often, for communal reasons, hostile) in order to secure basic services for their families.

When it comes to the issue of sexual violence, female victims are often stigmatized and ashamed and may find it extremely hard to talk about their experiences and come to terms with them.

Although we must acknowledge that in recent conflicts the rate of sexual violence against men has increased and has become a serious problem, women remain the primary victims of sexual violence in war: they are dehumanized and their bodies are used by one side to humiliate and de-masculinize the other. And as former UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy argues, “…women also form the majority of refugees worldwide. They are susceptible to rape and sexual violence while running away from combat and on their way to refugee camps, but also within refugee camps…Sex is used for exchange within refugee camps…and medical care for women is scarce. Humanitarian organizations usually depict women as helpless, poor and with children.” [1]

Nevertheless, as Coomaraswamy goes on to explain, while the majority of women are traumatized by their experiences during armed conflict, the “breakdown of traditional patriarchal norms opens new spaces in which women can take control of their lives”.[2] Having to provide for the family makes some women economically independent. Furthermore, there are numerous roles taken up by women during conflict that are often underplayed in the media and in public perceptions, including the roles of nurse, combatant, humanitarian worker, and activist. There are also examples of women being portrayed not solely as victims during armed conflict. For example, Kurdish women have been engaged as combatants fighting in Syria and Iraq.[3]

And there are also some positive trends in women’s participation in peace-making. For example, women were active and crucial participants in the negotiations that led up to Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998;[4] women also played a key role in peace negotiations in Sierra Leone and Liberia.[5]

However, male domination in making peace, as in making war, remains the norm. The Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina for example, was an all-male affair. This exclusion significantly diminishes the capacity of societies to understand the full implications that conflict brings and to sustain post-conflict recovery. As Estella Nelson, founder and President of the Liberia Women Media Action Committee, has pointed out, “Peace means different things to women and men because of their unique experiences as a result of the war, and as a result of how society is structured. Peace to women means putting food on the table, economic empowerment, access to healthcare and education, and that we can speak up against abuse in the home.”[6]

While men still dominate policymaking in most post-conflict societies, women tend to be active in the non-governmental sector, advocating for transitional justice, seeking to assert and secure their rights and their children’s rights, and searching for missing persons – fathers, husbands and sons.

In the 21st century, the aspect and means of armed conflict has changed to what the theoretician Mary Kaldor calls the ‘new wars’[7], especially in societies with weakened or dismantled forms of authoritarian rule. These ‘new wars’, as Kaldor explains, are characterized by a number of changes, including different actors (from state to non-state), goals, methods and forms of finance, and in turn they have different gender implications. In Nepal, for example, violence by state actors against women decreased after the end of the ten-year conflict in 2006, but violence by non-state actors dramatically increased.[8]

These shifts in the nature and structure of conflict open up possibilities for change in the impact of conflict on women and men respectively.


[1] Choomaraswamy, Radhika (99) “The question of honour, ethnicity and armed conflict”. In Giles, W., de Alwis, M., Klein, E., and Silva, N. (Eds). Feminists under fire: exchanges amongst war zones. 2004. Zenska infoteka, Zagreb.

[2] Ibid.

[3] More information on Kurdish women combatants:;

[4] Fearon, Kate. “Women’s Work: The Story of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition”. 1999. The Blackstaff Press, Belfast.


[6] Nelson, Estella.

[7] Kaldor, M. In Defence of New Wars. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development. 2013. 2(1):4, DOI: