Women and Intractable Conflict

Angela Nyawira Khaminwa
Cate Malek

August 2004

Over the past century, the landscape of war has featured many intractable conflicts that have taken millions of lives, destroyed communities, displaced populations and destabilized economic infrastructure. By definition, intractable conflicts stretch out over long periods of time and resist resolution. The obstinacy of these conflicts creates a culture in which conflict, both violent and non-violent, becomes ingrained in the fabric of society.

Both men and women suffer negatively from violent conflict and both participate as aggressors[1]. However, women are more susceptible to harm and abuse in environments racked by violent conflicts whether or not they are engaged in the conflict.

Even in the absence of war, women's lives are often subject to neglect and exploitation. Commonly, female lives are valued less (e.g. infanticide), they have fewer opportunities for education and training, they do not have access to critical health information, their decision-making capability is non-existent, and they suffer as victims of domestic violence. In the workplace, disadvantages include unequal pay, less access to jobs and promotions as compared to equally positioned men, difficulty participating in politics, and invisibility in public affairs.[2],[3],[4] Overall, there are threads that unite women's experiences around the world. These threads include lack of access to social networks, powerlessness, lack of voice, and a tendency to be negatively stereotyped. Women's participation in war, either voluntary or involuntary, adds an additional level of complexity to their already complicated lives.

The following are some ways in which women are affected by war.

Susceptibility to violence. Women are at greater risk of violence. As men leave to wage war outside their community, or are targeted for mass detentions, executions, or abductions, the demographics of communities shift. Villages and towns are populated predominantly by women, children and the elderly, and are often poorly defended. Community resources such as water and food sources become targets for terror.

Psychological and physical harm. Women are routinely terrorized, raped, mutilated, abducted into slavery, murdered, and exploited. This physical harm is likely to impact the victims psychologically. In addition, there are cases in which women who have been harmed by enemy forces may be viewed as bringing shame to their communities. These women are sometimes afraid of being ostracized or, in extreme cases, killed by their communities.[5] This might lead them to disguise or hide their injuries, leading to grievous mental or physical harm (e.g. refusing counseling, concealing symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases, and avoiding prenatal care).

Increased poverty. In times of peace, women make up the majority of people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. The environment of conflict places them in even more jeopardy. Inflation and the scarcity of necessary items such as food and medicine place women at a greater risk of malnourishment, starvation, chronic disease, and death.[6]

Increased rates of domestic violence. In addition, there are indications that during times of war the rates of violence inflicted against women by members of their own community increases.

Sublimation of women's issues. During long-term conflicts, problems that directly affect women are often ignored as the larger conflicts take center stage. These larger conflicts are deemed more important, thus requiring more attention and more resources than the conflicts that affect only women.

Mainstreaming complex conflicts. When women's issues aren't ignored, these complex conflicts are often simplified into conflicts that are more palatable, more accepted, and may have a ready-made solution that denies their intricacies.

Role shift. In most cultures, women shoulder the majority of the burden of raising children, managing households, and caring for aging relatives. During intractable conflicts, women become more visible within the family and community as men are absent for long periods of time. Women may become breadwinners and primary decision makers in the home and in the community. In addition, women may fill other roles within the conflict including supporting pro-or anti-war movements. They may engage in the conflict in more active ways, such as carrying out covert measures, engaging in actual combat, supporting rebel/guerilla movements, providing humanitarian relief, and lobbying politicians and other key stakeholders to either escalate or de-escalate the conflict.

Cooptation of conflicts. During war, women and the conflicts they face within a community can be co-opted. This co-optation can occur to raise the profile of the parties' cause or to gather sympathy from outsiders. During this process, women's issues may receive more attention in an effort to get military, humanitarian, or financial support, without any real change being addressed.

Women and peace

However, an understanding of women in conflict should include more than just an understanding of women as victims. Throughout history, women have been shapers of conflict as well. They have both contributed to conflict and been very effective at resolving it.

There is a tendency to view women as peaceful because they are less likely than men to initiate or participate in violence. However, they do often fill supporting roles that prolong or escalate intractable conflict. Joshua Goldstein argues that, "masculine war roles depend on feminine roles in the war system, including mothers, wives, and sweethearts."[7] Examples of this occur throughout the first and second world wars. In World War I, more than 25,000 US women served, nursing the wounded, providing food and other supplies to the military, serving as telephone operators, entertaining troops, and working as journalists. Mary Borden, who set up a hospital unit at the front from 1914 to 1918 wrote: "Just as you send your clothes to the laundry and mend them when they come back, so we send our men to the trenches and mend them when they come back again. You send your socks ... again and again just as many times as they will stand it. And then you throw them away. And we send our men to the war again and again ... just until they are dead."[8] Furthermore, women have actively shamed men into violence. In Britain and America during World War I, women organized a large-scale campaign to hand out white feathers to able-bodied men found on the streets, to shame the men for failing to serve in combat.[9]

However, there are also extremely compelling examples of women successfully working towards lasting peace and reconciliation. One example of women reacting to intractable conflict is the women of Rwanda.

Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe (women together for women) is an example of a successful and innovative Rwandan women's group. Their peace action campaign is designed to give women the resources to create a more peaceful society. Their efforts include constructing houses, creating local women's dialogue clubs and training and educating women. One of the organizers, Suzanne Ruboneka said, "The Minister gave us the field, and we are going to plant seedlings and then we will harvest the results."[10]

Many conflict resolution researchers and practitioners are calling for women to take an even more active role in peacemaking. Cheryl Benard, research director at the Boltzmann Institute and a consultant with the RAND Corporation, said:

The discussion concerning women's roles in war and peace also tends to focus largely on the issue of how war affects women and on the role they can play after the termination of wars and conflicts. One issue that should receive greater prominence is women's potential role in preventing wars and avoiding rifts, social inequities and mismanagement. Assuming women are more peace-oriented, more risk-aware and better at communication, women's increased participation in politics and in decision making should have a salutary effect and should be given more weight."[11]

Elise Boulding, however takes a different view. She argues that women's traditionally marginalized role has given them the space to be creative and inventive, especially in the field of peacemaking. But, she also argues that their contributions have often been overlooked.

Boulding points out women such as Margaret Mead whose Cooperation and Competition among Primitive Peoples was a major contribution to peace research. Other notable women are Kamaladevi, who organized a peace army for Ghandi, and Marie Montessori, a peace educator. In addition to individual women, Boulding writes about international networks of women. For example, ISIS, an organization that networks over 50,000 individuals from grassroots to policymakers' works to empower women through networking, information, and skill sharing.

Boulding writes:

The constraining effects on women of their relegation to the household and the private spaces of society have been overstated. What tends to be ignored is the historical reality that women's work of feeding, rearing, and healing humans---building and rebuilding communities under conditions of constant change, including war, environmental catastrophe, plague, and continual push-pull migrations---has produced resources and skills within women's cultures that have been critical not only to human survival but to human development. [12]

Indeed, perhaps because women tend to be victimized by intractable conflicts more than men, and gain less from their continuation than do men (who gain jobs, prestige, honor, challenge, excitement, travel, in addition, of course, to mortal risk), women may be in a particularly strong position to work for peace.


[1] Women and War, ICRC


[2](Fallis, 2000)


[3](Fiske, 1993).


[4] Examples of these assertions can be found throughout Olympio Barbanti's essays on development, but especially in his essay on gender and development.


[5] Bumiller, 1999


[6] See Olympio Barbanti's essay on maternal health.


[7] Goldsten, Joshua S.War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa. Cambridge University Press, September 2001


[8] ibid.


[9] ibid.


[10] Hamilton, Heather B. Rwanda's Women: the key to reconstruction. The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. http://www.jha.ac/greatlakes/b001.htm May 10, 2000


[11]Benard, Cheryl. "Assessing the Truths and Myths of Women in War and Peace." The United States Institute of Peace Conference Perspectives on Grassroots Peacebuilding: The Roles of Women in War and Peace, September 14, 1999.


[12] Boulding p. 109


Use the following to cite this article:
Khaminwa, Angela Nyawira and Cate Malek. "Women and Intractable Conflict." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2004 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/women-conflict>.


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