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Gender expectations play an important role in violent conflict. In the aftermath of genocide, ethnic cleansing and other types of violent conflict, normal expectations for men's and women's roles may become unworkable. This may lead to frustration and humiliation—and so feed back into the cycle of conflict—or it may provide new foundations for social relationships. New gender roles and social relationships may lead to new bases for alternatives to conflict.
 

How does gender factor into genocide, ethnic cleansing and other types of violent conflict?

There is no simple answer says researcher Judy El-Bushra.

Studies of violent conflict in six African nations find that, among other effects, violent conflicts tend to bring about dramatic changes in gender relationships. These changes, in turn, may either reinforce the cycle of violence or may provide bases for moving past the conflict.

Gender and Violent Conflict

El-Bushra maps out the complex relationship between violent conflict and gender in the following way (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Relationships between Violent Conflict and Gender Expectations

Immediate Impact: Breakdown in Social Fabric

What is obvious is that violent conflicts have immediate effects on the lives of those caught up on the conflict. What might not be quite as obvious is that each of these effects changes the way that men and women relate to each other. For instance:

  • Impoverishment. Men who are not killed outright in violent conflict commonly find it difficult or impossible to return to the work they had before the conflict. Often, roles switch and women become more responsible for making ends meet after the violence and destruction. Men may find themselves depending on their wives for financial support.
  • Displacement. If a family is displaced by violence into a refugee camp or other location, the work that the men did in their home village often is not available (for instance, a farmer can no longer farm without his land). A woman who is separated from her husband or other adult male family may find that she has no choice but to provide for herself and her children (and often, the children of others). Even if the cultural ideal was for a woman to be a mother and take care of the home, she may have little choice but to find new avenues of supporting her family.
  • Physical/psychological damage. Sexual violence frequently accompanies genocide, ethnic cleansing and other types of violent conflict. Women or men may be rendered infertile or so physically damaged that they can no longer have sex. In some cases, if a woman survives an attack, it is assumed that she has been raped. All of these may have dramatic effects on the expectations for “being male” or “being female” that are in place in settled times.
  • Loss of social fabric. Normal relationships between elders and younger members of society, between men and women and between parents and children are often impossible to sustain following violent conflict. Hierarchies that were taken for granted (for instance, the authority of an adult over a youngster or the authority of a husband over his wife) no longer operate well, if at all.
  • Human rights abuses. Women or men who have been raped or sexually assaulted generally carry a stigma. Adding injury upon injury, the victim may find that even if they survived the violence that their status as an outcast can make death look like an attractive option. Suicide is common and interviews with survivors are rife with accounts of life worse than death after the violence.

All of these immediate effects can make it impossible for men or women to meet gender expectations. The man may not be able to work. He may find himself at home taking care of children. The woman may have no choice but to find what work she can. In some cases prostitution may be the only option.

These are not trivial expectations. Gender expectations get to the core of who the person understands themselves to be and make sense of how the world works. Shaking up gender expectations may mean not only a radical break with how the world is “supposed” to work, but also a radical break with a person's own expectations of himself or herself.

Alternative Paths

In El-Bushra's scheme, it is the reaction to the inability to meet gender expectations that, in part, influences whether the cycle of violence will be carried into the future or whether new forms for social relationships will form that may lead out of violence.

The case studies of the six African countries attest to the negative effects of the frustration and humiliation over losing the ability to live up to gender expectations. Depression, drug use and domestic violence are common among men who are unable to live up to masculine ideals. As one Somali man put it:

Now we obey our women. Women sell tomatoes, maize, etc., and men are supported by their wives. They are taking us through this difficult time. There is no other support we are getting.”

And it is not only the men who are frustrated. According to a woman in Kurtunwarey, Somalia:

I maintain my husband plus his father in Mogadishu. He is unemployed. What else can he do if the government service is not available? He has retreated to the house and the mosque, he doesn't come out. He and his father sat and waited for me just like my children for the 10 years of the civil war.”

Children, especially young males raised in the context of violence where traditional means of conflict resolution have broken down, may become militarized. If a young man cannot find his place as a husband, provider, father, etc., he may turn to violence as a way of expressing his masculinity. This can lead to continued conflict and violence.

But, frustration and humiliation are not the only ways people react to changes in gender roles. Both men and women may find the new roles liberating or empowering. This is especially the case with women.

I think people's thinking has changed. We came to Khartoum with different perceptions and traditions. Our old customs and traditions prohibited men from entering certain places such as the kitchen. Men also thought that women could not think, were useless, and had no right to have their voice heard. All these are things of the past; they have changed. This is one benefit of war, if wars have benefits. All family members have to work, both women and men. We cannot maintain the division of labor because there is no room for that.” (Interview with a separated displaced woman in Khartoum, Sudan)

When traditional, male dominated hierarchies break down women may gain new opportunities. As an older woman in Agouni, Mali put it:

Frankly, since these events we women are no longer ashamed, we are no longer cold in the presence of men. I'm aware that the men are not all that happy about this, it makes them nervous, furious, and none of that was done in the past. We came back [from exile] because we were promised consideration and respect. The most notable impact for me was that I learned to read, cook well, that wasn't possible [before].

The new roles that women are able to play in the family and the larger society may open up new roles for them in working for peace. This may provide a counterweight against the destructive outcomes of violent conflict.

Bottom Line

Gender expectations play an important role in violent conflict. In the aftermath of genocide, ethnic cleansing and other types of violent conflict, normal expectations for men's and women's roles may become unworkable. This may lead to frustration and humiliation—and so feed back into the cycle of conflict—or it may provide new foundations for social relationships. New gender roles and social relationships may lead to new bases for alternatives to conflict.

 
Data and Methods:

Data Sources:

Primary data were obtained from approximately 125 testimonies from respondents in five locations: Uganda, Mali, Somalia, Angola and Sudan. Additionally, the study drew on previously gathered testimonies from Rwanda.

Information was gathered using a number of techniques including: oral testimony techniques (asking open ended questions and then encouraging the respondent to narrate their story with a minimum of researcher direction), participatory reflection and action methods (PRA), structured surveys, focus group discussions and transect walks.

Data from secondary and official sources was also used.

Funding Source:

Not reported.

 
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Reference

El-Bushra, Judy. 2003. "Fused in Combat: Gender Relations and Armed Conflict." Development in Practice 13:252-265.

 
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