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Violent Conflict Changes African Gender Relations
Episodes of violent conflict like genocide, ethnic cleansing and civil war shatter normal social relationships. Among other things, this brings about massive changes in the roles available to men and women. In six African nations, women generally gained more economic influence within the household following the upheavals associated with violent conflict, but the greater influence at home did not translate into a change in broader gender expectations.
Violent conflict like genocide, ethnic cleansing and civil wars shatters normal relationships. This is nowhere more evident than in gender relations. In the aftermath of conflict, life as usual is often impossible and men and women are often forced into roles that do not fit traditional expectations.
Judy El-Bushra reports on studies of the aftermath of violent conflict in six African countries: Uganda, Angola, Sudan, Mali, Somalia and Rwanda. She finds that in all cases household gender relations changed. In some cases the changes extended beyond the household.
How do women's roles change following violent conflict?
Even though violent conflict changed women's roles in all the cases studied, they did not change in exactly the same ways. However, El-Bushra finds some common patterns.
Increased Economic Responsibility
Across cases, El-Bushra finds that women take on increased economic responsibilities within the household. There are several reasons for this that vary by country:
These changes varied by location, however. In sedentary communities in Mali neither men nor women were able to fulfill their gender roles because of reduced access to resources. In contrast, Somali women often took over the role as primary breadwinners.
Increased Respect and Decision-Making Power in the Household
Women's greater economic influence may also lead to increased respect and greater decision-making power within the household. However, greater decision-making power for women is not always greeted with approval. As one man from Pabbo, Uganda put it in an interview:
“The difference now is that women have caused a lot of problems. Suppose you do not give her what she wants, she will just sit there and watch. So the problems are on men. If there is money she will go to the market but if not she will stay hungry. In the past women used to struggle in every way to look after the home. They had the responsibility to care for the family. That is different nowadays, so the men are in trouble.”
Changes in Marriage Practices and Sexuality
El-Bushra reports that the changes also brought about a general increase in women's ability to decide who to marry and in some cases lead to stronger legal rights to property as well. This was especially the case in Uganda and Rwanda. Whether because they have lost their husbands or because of their new roles as breadwinners, women were more autonomous. Because of this they were sometimes less likely to think in strictly traditional ways about marriage. For instance, in Rwanda, women who had lost their partners were less “traditional” in their outlooks than married couples.
Breakdown in normal social ties also leads to changes in sexuality. Women frequently marry soldiers, resort to prostitution or remarry. Men often seek to marry richer women. Younger people may become prey to “sugar-daddies” or “sugar-mummies.” Access to weapons allows younger men to obtain sexual partners by force. All of this leads to family breakdown and an increase in sexually transmitted diseases.
Women in Power Structures
Although the increase in women's economic power has brought about changes primarily within the family, in some cases women's influence and involvement has spread outside the household. Although still unusual, women in some cases have taken on leadership roles in the community. With the breakdown of traditional roles, new avenues opened for women to participate in the larger arenas of business and trade.
Women's associations are also a result of the changed conditions and new consciousness, as, for example, in Rwanda. However, the organizational and political influence of women outside the home is still very limited. In general, women have taken on greater responsibility, but have not been granted power.
Women in Armed Struggle
Many people (some feminists included) assume that while men are basically aggressive, women are, by nature, nurturers. But, says El-Bushra, these kinds of assumptions about the “essential” qualities of women are belied by the situations in which women actively participate in the violence. With the breakdown in traditions roles comes the ability for women to participate in violent conflict. For example, in Rwanda, women participated in the genocide. In Eritrea, both men and women joined the armed forces as fighters and support personnel.
Do changed roles lead to changed ideologies? That is, does the changed situation of women lead to a change in the way that people understand masculinity and femininity?
No, says El-Bushra. Traditional expectations about men's and women's roles have not changed to match the new situations. Rather, the mis-match between gender expectations and the roles men and women find forced upon them often causes frustration and humiliation, especially among men. A chief from Paibona, Uganda voiced this frustration in an interview:
“What makes most women not submissive to their husbands is the issue of gender equality or women's rights...Women who are educated and employed are the worst group of people because....after they get pregnant, they throw out the man. They have enough money to look after themselves.”
In fact, there is some evidence that instead of changing the traditional gender expectations, the gap between the ideals and the new reality may actually cause traditional ideologies to become more entrenched.
Episodes of violent conflict like genocide, ethnic cleansing and civil war shatter normal social relationships. Among other changes, this brings about massive changes in the roles available to men and women. Gender roles in practice do not match traditional gender expectations. In six African nations, women generally gained more economic influence within the household following the upheavals associated with violent conflict. However, the greater influence that women often gained in the home did not translate into a change in broader gender expectations.
Data and Methods:
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.
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El-Bushra, Judy. 2003. "Fused in Combat: Gender Relations and Armed Conflict." Development in Practice 13:252-265.
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