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Experience file Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

, Grenoble, May 2009

Resistance to change

Women’s positions as a result of war in most cases do not structurally improve and apparent improvements during war in terms of women’s rights are often quickly undermined in the period of reconstruction.

Keywords: | | | Afghanistan

The following research, carried out by ACORD during 2000/1 in Angola, Mali, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda and Rwanda, confirms this observation. It explores the gendered impacts of war on gender identities. Based on over 130 testimonies collected from men and women in conflict zones, the testimonies show a ‘reversal of gender roles’ whereby women generally take on the primary role as breadwinners in the family while the value systems (what is expected of men and women and stereotypes about what is masculine and feminine) underpinning gender relations appear unchanged

Women as custodians of culture

Conservative elements and movements in society can be understood in the context of globalisation and modernisation. Members in communities feel threatened by rapid change which they perceive as undermining of the status quo and feel uncertain about its consequences. A habitual response is the desire that all remains the same. They translate this desire into behavior by for example insisting on one’s identities, almost wanting to freeze it and by Increased pressure on women as the custodians of culture. In keeping women’s roles the same, it is as if keeping alive one’s culture while what one in reality does is making is static.

One of the participants of the online course, who comes from Afghanistan, tried to explain the position of “fundamentalist” groups in her society, that wanted to restrict “all the freedoms of women”. She understood the “claim for a divine moral” that should “preserve women’s “sacred” role in Afghan society” as a “strategy in pursuing men’s interest of reaching and keeping the political power in Afghanistan. Men needed women to represent a cultural differential that would justify their privileged status in the Afghan society”.

Despite the fact that people want to fix identities, cultures are always changing. The question is in which direction.

Women as mothers

In war time, the social fabric of a society breaks down and a momentary power vacuum arises, which creates a battle ground for alternative candidates that compete over who will fill the position. When normal rules no longer apply and people feel in extreme danger, new rules will start to apply, that deviate from what is considered “normal” in peaceful times. The sad truth is that women become even more vulnerable. Why, what does this say about our societies?

Several studies have been performed about what happens to identities during war and several conflict situations have shown that gender stereotypes become more traditional in the build-up to conflict. Women, roughly speaking, are pushed into symbols for family and are stimulated to procreate (hopefully sons), while men are pushed into hyper masculine roles and fighting machines. An analysis of media images in the U.S. after the 9/11 and just before the declaration of war against Afghanistan demonstrated how the focus shifted to masculine heroism which was almost a synonym for a fire-fighter or a soldier. [link to fiche care to fight]. You see the same pattern (with different symbols) in non-western countries.

Women as weapons in war

In a prolongation of this theory, women become weapons of war in conflict because they are the future of a people and by raping women an enemy doubly hurts men in their honor. Firstly because it sends a strong message to the men that they have not been able to protect their women, which is their task. Secondly because when these women will become pregnant they bear the enemy’s children. They procreate the enemy, instead of their “own men”‘s blood.


The knowledge that restricting gender identities are linked to societal tensions or conflict escalation can be used as an indicator in early warning systems for conflict prevention. 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 has been involved in creating local information networks.