Conflict-related sexual violence affects all genders, but there is a peculiar dimension to the way it affects women.

The National Monument to the Women of World War II, situated in Whitehall, LondonThe National Monument to the Women of World War II, London. By Flapane/Wiki Commons
Voices Gender Tuesday, March 08, 2022 - 10:40

The images and news reports from Ukraine seem to have caught many middle-class Indians by surprise. They did not expect Russia to invade, it would seem. But even more surprising is that they seem to be shocked at what war can wreak. The accounts of flight, as documented by Indian students, seem to be acquainting news-watching middle-class India with the trauma of displacement for the first time. Let us kindly presume that our strife-torn environment has so desensitised us so that we no longer notice the conflicts that wage around us nor the humanitarian crises they perpetuate. Never mind.

International Women’s Day is an apt occasion to reflect on war and its impact on people’s lives. When I say ‘war’, I do not just mean the hostilities between two sovereign countries. I mean the spectrum of conflict, including militarisation. In this rubric, I include insurgencies and their counters, riots, and certainly, the everyday violence that is made possible because we inhabit such an unequal world. By militarisation, I mean the growing presence and easy deployment of police, paramilitary and armed forces beyond their original remit; the increasing appetite for surveillance and civil rights limitations in the name of security; the eagerness for forceful actions and responses to a range of situations, and finally, to the creep of military language and metaphors (like surgical strikes) into civilian life and popular culture. What I am saying is, we now live, to varying degrees, in a state of war, and we do not notice it anymore.

War affects women differently from men. Men are called to fight, willingly or unwillingly, and are more likely to be killed, wounded or forcibly disappeared. Women are usually left to manage the household and family, often dealing with the world outside for the first time. They may have not been permitted to do so before this and may lack exposure, experience, education, and access to assets they can encash for survival. As we are seeing in Ukraine, they may also be the ones organising the flight for refuge, along with their children. Displacement and conflict both break down their support systems and long-term conflict can erode trust within a community, as it is divided along the lines of local hostilities.

When men, and other family members, are abducted or forcibly disappeared by any party, women are also the ones searching for them. In the interim, they can neither move on as if the men were dead nor does anything remain as before. They sink their savings and energy, not to mention time that they need to be working, into these endless quests. These are only the logistical and financial costs; the emotional scars can result in inter-generational post-traumatic stress disorder. We see these effects in every single conflict zone.

Conflict-related sexual violence affects all genders, but there is a peculiar dimension to the way it affects women. In the rhetoric of war, women come to embody the nation, its identity, and its honour, and when they are raped or forcibly impregnated, the violence is also intended to break the spirit of the community, nation, or state to which they belong, in a conflict. Yet-unproven rape allegations have already been made against the Russian Army by Ukrainians. But we know this to be true anyway from history. However, conflict results not just in rape and forced pregnancies but also in increased forced and child marriage (seen also during the pandemic in India), more common child sexual abuse, and vulnerability to trafficking.

The gendered impact of conflict is not confined to women. Men are brutalized by their experience of fighting, come back to find their families gone, their homes unrecognisable, and are poorly reintegrated into society. Post-war processes take years and so they are also in limbo — waiting for amnesties, waiting to be released, or waiting for a job. We have sought to document the impact of war on women only in the last few decades. LGBTIQA+ persons are still mainly invisible — not just in studies and ground reports, but also in policy documents, relief arrangements, and rehabilitation projects. A feminist, gendered lens on conflict takes cognizance of its impact on all genders, and while we have fought for the entirety of human history, we are only now beginning to take stock.

Are women merely victims in a conflict? No. Women are often the first to sound the alarm bells ahead of a crisis: for instance, for over five years in Afghanistan, women have spoken out loud and clear on what would happen if the Taliban returned. Living close to the ground, facing reality, they have a largely ignored role in early warning and conflict prevention. In Ukraine, we hear that they are entering or preparing to enter war. Women make the decision to go to war, they lead the war effort (either through policy or through volunteer efforts) and they may fight on all sides. They document war, as reporters, as historians, on their phone cameras and through their social media accounts — both the mostly male, official, public version as well as their own experiences. Ukrainian women’s magazines are sharing information on how to manage everything from menstruation to childbirth in the bomb shelters where women are crowding. Women homestead, holding on to their homes, lest someone else squat and claim their properties. They take over the job of providing for their families which may have hitherto been forbidden. Women’s roles in conflict are as diverse as women themselves.

Women are also peace activists. The patriarchal belief is that women are more nurturing and as mothers, they naturally seek peace as a way to protect their children and families. However, women are also peace activists because they live more intimately with the impact of war well beyond war zones. War is devastation of life as we know it and away from the battle-field, women see it every day.

International Women’s Day is apt, I said, to be thinking about war and its gendered consequences. The origins of the day were in the labour movement as a single day to rally support for better working conditions for women. Support for the right to vote was a natural extension. But as Europe moved inevitably to war in the second decade of the 20th century, the early observances of a special day for women’s rights, also mobilised support to prevent war. Women’s transnational peace efforts for over a century have resulted in normative changes that are dramatic in light of human history —an example of the same is that we now regard, at least on paper, the use of sexual violence in conflict as a crime against humanity. Support at the UN, at least at the level of rhetoric, for the inclusion of women in conflict prevention and resolution as well as peace-building, is also a hard-fought normative gain for women’s peace movements around the world.

What Ukraine reminds us of is the horror of war, brought to you by student videos and news reporters. It should remind us that bombing, fighting, and flight have been the experiences of people in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan in the last few decades, to name only a few countries. When our primetime generals urge us to go to war, we should remember these images and stories. When refugees show up in misery at our frontiers, we should remember how we cried to hear of our children trying to leave a country where they were foreign students.

This International Women’s Day, let us recognize the lessons of history and the legacy of peace activists by taking to heart what feminist scholars of war and women’s movements for peace have persevered to communicate: war is not glamorous but terrible, and it resolves nothing. Not roses, not sales, not awards that have to be dusted — but from this point on, invest in human rights, in equality, in justice, and therefore, in peace.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training and a peace educator by vocation. She tweets @swarraj  

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