Women & girls suffer disproportionately from the effects of conflict. But we also see that they can, and do, take a leading role in post-conflict reconciliation and recovery. In this blog, Margot takes a deeper look at the role of women in the pursuit of peace...
Changes to the nature of conflict following the totally of destruction of the First World War have meant that the frontline no longer is restricted to a legally agreed upon battlefield. Civilian populations have been purposefully drawn into the violence and mayhem that are so often used by enemy forces to annihilate the morale of combatants.
We are desensitised to the brutal violation of civilians and it has become the norm. In a world that survived under the threat of nuclear war the feeling of universal civilian inclusion in the outcome of wars has never been so prominent.
However, they are not passive victims of warfare and many women and girls play crucial roles in the catalysts that lead up to war – even taking part in elements of combat itself - and they are often those who first initiate movements towards peace and recovery.
By being at the forefront of peace movements, the women and girls affected are able to take control of their situation and environment in a way that they had been unable to during the conflict itself.
The unequally burdened civilians
Women and children are disproportionately affected civilians. Various crimes of war such as sexual and physical violence, displacement, forced pregnancies and emotional torture are commonplace. The instability created by sexual violence can lead to further repercussions for the women through their own families and communities. Archaic honour systems and stigmas surrounding women being somehow ‘sullied’ by this act of unimaginable violence further contributes to her emotional trauma.
As culturally determined, women typically are primary caregivers and they are seen as the glue that holds communities together. As civilians in total wars it is impossible for them to hold responsibility for protecting and ensuring the health of everyone in the community. Once conflicts erode the powers and, often, the existence of support services and government agencies, the women and girls are left most vulnerable and isolated.
In these frequently political, domestic and civil crises, the perpetrators of violence can often be neighbours, family members and friends of the women and girls.
Recovering from this personal and intimate betrayal is a virtually impossible ask for those who survived the violence and remained in their homes. They will be reminded on a daily basis of how those in the community used them as a tool of war and how their tore apart families for their so-called ‘spoils’.
Women taking the lead on the road to recovery
However, following the Rwandan genocide, multiple women began taking steps towards forgiveness despite many of them experiencing and viewing horrors perpetrated by those they knew. While in Nairobi for a Peace Conference Immaculee Ilibagiza spoke with NTV Kenya as part of their Women and Power segment about her movement of spreading peace and forgiveness around the world. Despite ninety percent of her family being massacred in the genocide, Immaculee chose to spread a message of peace and reconciliation following the conflict and has helped to educate the next generation about the merits of forgiveness.
Pieter Hugo’s ‘Portraits of Reconciliation’ tell a similar tale of different levels of forgiveness and how personal the act of pardoning can be to the women. As one survivor commented:
“Many among us had experienced the evils of war many times, and I was asking myself what I was created for. The internal voice used to tell me, ‘‘It is not fair to avenge your beloved one.’’ It took time, but in the end we realized that we are all Rwandans. The genocide was due to bad governance that set neighbours, brothers and sisters against one another. Now you accept and you forgive. The person you have forgiven becomes a good neighbour. One feels peaceful and thinks well of the future.”
Meaningful change at the grassroots level
Women are often excluded from the political sphere in post-conflict situations but they are able to enact great change and reconciliation at the grassroots level. Through these communities of women and girls working together to fight against the natural impulse of anger and retaliation by focusing on rebuilding their social, vocational and political worlds the countries affected move slowly towards recovery.
Using their collective voices allows groups of women and girls to challenge those in power and often are able to protest personal complaints and transform them into legitimate social concerns. By building this culture of peace at the local level they are often able to better help the wounds heal in a holistic, delicate and respectful manner and they are more effective in their education and social reconstruction activities.
And so, despite civilian women and girls often being the victims of an unequal burden of the impact of conflict, they are frequently able and willing to translate their emotions and experience into a positive act of reconstruction that not only allows their emotional trauma to recover, but also helps build a stronger and better educated community.
Without women and girls leading the way through grassroots peacekeeping, the wounds of conflict would be far more fatal to the resilience of many communities around the world.