How gender inequality affects women in times of conflict

In Liberia, women comprise 75 per cent of fatalities in the current Ebola crisis. Because they are expected to do the ...

In Liberia, women comprise 75 per cent of fatalities in the current Ebola crisis. Because they are expected to do the caretaking of infected loved ones, they are left far more exposed to the disease.

As anyone who frequents this site knows, even at the best of times women across the world are routinely deprived of their basic human rights. With so much of the world currently embroiled in conflict, it is worth exploring how this inequality affects women in times of conflict and crisis.

Back in 2003, a report by the UN Security Council revealed that, “Women and girls suffered disproportionately during and after war, as existing inequalities were magnified, and social networks broke down, making them more vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation.”

The widespread use of rape as a weapon of war, the high numbers of war widows left to fend for their families, and the lack of women in leadership and peacekeeping roles were listed among the key factors causing women to bear the brunt of the consequences of war.

Sadly, little has changed in 11 years. Though war remains primarily the domain of men, women shoulder more than their fair share of its burden. Often, as Yvette Zegenhagen, National Manager for International Humanitarian Law at the Australian Red Cross told me, “violations against women were carried out not because of a lack of law protecting them but a lack of respect of that law.”


Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to sexual violence. Although systemic rape, forced prostitution, and trafficking are all prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, sexual violence remains endemic. A 2006 survey of 1,600 women in Liberia found that 92 percent had experienced some form of sexual violence during that country’s 13-year civil war.

But rape is by no means the only injustice women face. As well as the high levels of civilian deaths in today’s conflicts, war compounds already crushing levels of poverty that disproportionately affect women.  

In Iraq, women are largely shunned from the workforce so those who have lost husbands are reduced to begging in front of mosques and selling cheap goods in the streets, only to be arrested and thrown in jail. While a small number of widows receive state aid, this amounts to only $85 per month in a country where average rents are $210. Meanwhile, the breakdown of the health system has led to the highest maternal mortality rate in the region, with 50 percent of pregnant women saying they cannot afford to access government health services.

Ironically, the increased suffering of Iraqi women, like those of their Afghan counterparts, comes in the aftermath of a war that was initiated under the guise of liberating them.

The western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have created power vacuums allowing ever-more radical groups to emerge. Well before the rise of ISIS, the status of women in northern Iraq had deteriorated drastically, whilst in Afghanistan, the rights of women are being bargained away in negotiations. The Shia Personal Status Law, passed in 2009 by President Karzai in order to secure support from powerful Shia clerics, allows men to withhold financial support if their wife refuses to obey sexual demands, and forbids women from working without permission from their husbands.

Of course, men suffer in times of conflict also. “Men are more often forcibly conscripted to join armed forces,” Zegenhagen says, and, “civilian men are more often detained because of the perceived threat their presence poses.” Nor, she says, is it wise to assume women are always passive victims, “women take part in hostilities (and have) diverse coping mechanisms for dealing with the consequences of war.”

But there is no doubt that the already unequal status of women leaves them having to cope with gender-specific problems on top of the general effects of conflict. In the Gaza Strip, for instance, even before the most recent war, the Israeli and Egyptian land, air, and sea blockade, which has been in effect since 2007, has crippled the local economy, causing an overall unemployment rate of 41 percent, with women’s unemployment hitting 52 percent in the first half of 2014.

Subsequently, with very few permitted to leave the Strip to seek employment elsewhere, most of Gaza relies heavily on aid. While men and women suffer these problems equally, the dependence on food aid has resulted in higher levels of malnutrition in women, leaving Gaza’s pregnant women, like those in Iraq, particularly vulnerable. In 2012, more than a third of pregnant women were anaemic, with the condition contributing to 20 percent of maternal deaths.

During the recent war, maternity wards in the Gaza Strip overflowed with women suffering miscarriages, premature labour, and stillbirths brought on by the stress of war (Israeli doctors reported similar problems in women living in southern Israel as they came under fire from Hamas rockets).

Compounding these problems, Hamas, the group that swept to power in 2006 in Gaza’s first and only free elections, has instigated strict Islamist rule enforcing “modest” dress and gender segregation.

But it’s not just the explicitly gendered violence of war that leaves women suffering disproportionately. In Liberia, women comprise 75 percent of fatalities in the current Ebola crisis. Tolbert Nyenswah, Liberia’s assistant minister of health says women bear the brunt of the Ebola mortality burden because they are expected to do the caretaking of infected loved ones, leaving them far more exposed to the disease.

Likewise, in sub-Saharan Africa, 60 percent of all AIDS cases are women. According to David Tigawalana from the Uganda AIDS Commission, gender inequalities such as economic dependency, lack of personal assets, and lack of protection against sexual violence and exploitation, leave women more vulnerable to HIV and AIDS:

“Most women in African societies are subjected to discrimination right from their youth and denied access to education and gainful employment. Women end up being engaged in subsistence farming or low paying jobs. Economic pressures lead women to engage in…sex work and transactional sex. In urban settings, cohabitation and temporary sexual relationships are common because women need support for items like house rent and feeding… Social construction of masculinity and femininity renders women powerless to demand for their rights, including not questioning infidelity of their husbands. The patriarchal system in Africa affects women directly by legitimisation of male dominance.”

So, how do we tackle problems of this magnitude? As well as legal provisions, groups like the Red Cross have been instrumental in addressing the specific needs of women in times of conflict, with for instance, additional food allowances for pregnant and lactating women. But ultimately, it all comes back to the role and status of women in society. When I asked Zeganhagen what needs to be done, her answer echoes the findings of the UN more than a decade ago, “The international community (must) include women in decisions-making bodies and positions of power at all levels in prevention, management and resolution of conflict.”

Because as long as women are viewed primarily as homemakers and caretakers, as long as their bodily autonomy is not respected, and as long as they are shut out of power, they will continue to experience discrimination, and this will only be amplified in times of crisis.

Inequality hurts women, in so many more ways than most of us realise.