ASHEVILLE, North Carolina — The experiences of men and women in conflict situations differ greatly. Conflicts can vary in cause and scale, but the effects of conflict on women have similarities around the world. Despite the horrible effects of conflict women must endure that men don’t, conflict can open doors for women as they take on responsibilities outside of traditional gender roles, decreasing economic dependence on men.
Where many conflicts are begun and led by men, women experience conflicts as civilians and are exposed to different risks. Whether women stay in their homes, or flee as internally displaced persons (IDPs) or refugees, they suffer economic and health issues as well as decreased security because of the conflict.
According to the U.N. Population Fund, women represent a staggering 80 percent of the world’s 34 million refugees and IDPs. In many cases of violent conflict, women are forced to flee from their homes, separating them from their support networks. Often times, they must travel long distances for food, water, firewood and medical care, putting them at risk for attack, exposure to sexual violence or injury from land mines.
In cases where women experience high economic uncertainty before the conflict, fighting can exacerbate this insecurity. Ways in which women were once able to make money, even if it didn’t provide a steady income, may not be available at all because conflict has disrupted daily life so intensely. Fields that previously provided income may no longer be able to be harvested because they are now part of war zones or contain land mines.
Men are often killed, away fighting or disappear during conflicts, leaving women to care for children and elders. Without men’s contributions to the household, women must be resourceful and step into new positions in order to survive.
Conflict puts women at risk for sexual violence, resulting in both physical and mental health effects. Sexual violence can cause women physical harm, mental health effects, risk of sexually transmitted diseases and perhaps worst of all, unwanted pregnancies.
During war and refugee situations, women are more likely to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and increased homicide rates. In many cases, finding quality health care is difficult pre-conflict and can be almost impossible during conflict. The U.N. Development Fund for Women found that in countries that have experienced war and suffer from poverty, maternal mortality rates can be up to 40 percent higher than in developing nations. Particularly when women flee from their homes during conflict, finding physical or mental health care can be extremely challenging.
When women find themselves without the economic or social support of a male in the household, they take on new roles. Particularly in areas of long-term conflict, women’s roles often shift from the private sphere to the public sphere. Women begin to control household finances, find new ways to support their families, learn to drive and play active roles in the community. These changes can continue post-conflict and increase gender equality.
While women suffer during conflict in ways men do not, because of the nature of conflict and how it disrupts nearly every part of daily life, doors of change can be opened for women. With new gender roles emerging during conflicts, life post-conflict can provide new economic opportunities for women and create an avenue toward greater gender equality in both the private and public sphere.
– Kim Tierney