Women in Conflict Zones: Navigating the Complexities

 By Tiya Singh

In the nexus of politics that operates in conflict zones, women and their access to basic rights are often left out. The cascading struggles and complex effects that ensue before, during and after the war significantly alter women’s lives and demand a gendered lens of analyzing conflict.  The conflict zone then offers a curious space for research, one that remains underdeveloped and quite unexplored. This should be viewed in the context that “Over the last two decades, civil conflicts have more than doubled, jumping from 30 in 2001 to 70 in 2016.” Grave statistics of this kind should perhaps push us to redefine our approach towards politico-social landscape of conflict zones and introspect on the difficult path to securing justice for women.

Through the means of this essay, we will analyze the ways in which war affects the lives of women in conflict zones, in the nexus of politics that operates in conflict zones, women and their access to basic rights are often left out. the risks and vulnerabilities it exposes them to, their experience of the gaps in past initiatives of international bodies, how sexual offences are often trivialized in the volatile space that is a war zone and look for possible alternatives that have been recommended to provide women to emerge as equal stakeholders in conflict-ridden zones for ensuring rehabilitation and mitigation. This analysis will be contextualized through the lens of instances borrowed from author Christina Lamb’s experiences (author of ‘Our Bodies Their Battlefields: What War Does to Women’).


Conflict zones are not limited to, but often emerge in countries stricken with “poverty, fragile institutions, inequality, discrimination and social conflict.” [1] Thus the crisis that ensues in such areas often acts as a threat multiplier, accelerating the fragility and exposing the inadequacies of the pre-existing frameworks and structures.

The existing theories on conflict do not offer gender-sensitive takes on post-conflict resolution, wherein women are not simply seen as victims, but as proactive players-the reality thus stands in stark contrast to what the inadequate theories have to offer. “The concept of armed conflict and the practice of warfare are both gendered.”(Alsaba, 1) Conflict zones come with multiple problems at once. The theories so far work in silos, not allowing for the development of a dynamic framework and instead, allow gendered violence to be sidelined. “The changing political economy of the state and how it structures gender relations, before, during and after a conflict, creating particular risks of violence.”(Alsaba, 1) Rita Manchanda quips “The politics of rape are imbricated in women’s bodies being a marker of community identity both as metaphor and a physical reality.”(Manchanda, 5)

At the same time, women are left dealing with gender-based aggression of varying forms in the public as well as the private sphere, which is an indicator of the inherent patriarchal norms prevalent in the arena of the military and security as well. Ann Tickner, who has dedicated her life’s work in providing for a feminist theory to be embedded in the field of international relations, underscores the prevalent biases in the masculinised, geopolitical realist version of security studies. There exists an imperative to analyse the background of the emergence of violence as a systematic tool of oppression, “an investigation of radically historicising view of how bodies have been primed for violence.” (Baaz and Stern, 20)

Review of Literature

Andrew Heywood in his work ‘Global Politics’ points towards realist school’s tendency to see the conflict in terms of binaries “The masculine assumptions about rivalry, competition, and inevitable conflict, arising from a tendency to see the world in terms of interactions amongst series of power-seeking autonomous actors.”(Heywood,79)

Rape is one among these brutal and deliberate manifestations of systematic domination of women. And yet, it remains a largely unquestioned weapon of war – “Rape has been used as a tool of fear and intimidation, a way of devastating communities, but also for soldiers and young men to create grotesque bonds of solidarity, trust, and loyalty.” [2] Tickner examines the psycho-sociological impacts of informal militias and the state’s armed forces alike using rape as an instrument of war, which are twofold- that it not only “terrorises women” but also contributes to male humiliation when men fail to protect their women.”(Tickner, 45)

Journalist Christina Lamb in her book ‘Our Bodies Their Battlefield’ has written that the imperative of writing her book documenting sexual violence in conflict zones raises pertinent questions “Why is it still happening? Why is it so difficult for people to get justice?”[3]

The Middle East

Let us reflect on the persisting effects of, of how entire populations, in particular are made to live in an insecure environment in Syria, while the proxy war rages on- “Even in the territories under the control of the Syrian government there is a high dependence on informal militias to control the population.”(Alsaba, 4) She continues to contend that the subjugation and silencing of women was not always the case-“Women had a central role in the independence movement, and remained politically active in the decades that followed until the political space was shut by the end of 1970s by the militarised state (Alsaba, 5) Similarly, Human Rights Watch reports how daily lives of women are disrupted- “In Iraq, insecurity and fear of sexual violence and abduction are keeping women in their homes and out of schools or away from work.” [4]

In a similar vein, an Amnesty International report also describes the continuing cycle of women in the Middle East who are taken away for “temporary marriage and taken hostage by the fundamentalist armed groups, and subjected to a kind of sexual slavery.” [5] Along with that, the brutal forms of violence that these militias commonly subject the women to are- “sexual abuse, deliberate infection with HIV/AIDS, pornography, sexual mutilation, medical experimentation on women’s reproductive organs, forced marriages or forced cohabitation, forced impregnation, discrimination against children born from conflict-related rapes and their mothers enforced sterilization, forced abortion, strip-searching.”

South Asia

In the populist formulation of the culture of muscular nationalism, the ultimate aim of the defence forces is to secure the nation’s sovereignty, and this comes with certain human costs- As Dinesh K. Singh remarks “post-colonial South Asia, “people’s security has been ignored by policymakers. In India, the militaristic approach to national security propounds the thesis that the army, which defends not only unity and integrity of nation against external aggression but also involves in internal wars/conflict.”(Singh, 651)

For instance, Women as peacebuilders: “After the outbreak of conflict in Nagaland, Naga Mothers Association (NMA) have taken efforts to build peace and credibility. The Naga Mothers Association was in the forefront for brokering ceasefire agreement between Indian Government and NSCN (IM) in 1997.” ( Singh, 659) Thus he concludes his thesis by reiterating the need for sensitisation so that women’s needs are “not subsumed in the chaos of armed separatist, ethnic or Maoist struggles” (Singh, 660) and the need to study the correlation between “masculinity and violence” ( Singh,661) which requires a multidisciplinary approach combining diverse subjects of psychology, political science and sociology, which is somewhat lacking in the present times.

Interventions from International Bodies: Success or Failure?

It is interesting to note how the development of the body of international relations that claims to be ‘promoting gender equality’ seems to approach a halt when it comes to dealing with conflict zones in all their complexities. A skewed international justice system continually fails to offer speedy justice to sexual offences, which are often trivialised in the volatile space that is a war zone.

But at the same time, there remains light at the end of the tunnel, as transnational declarations emerging across time and space have recognised the need for women to emerge as stakeholders. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, “adopted in 1995 by 189 UN Member States, made women and armed conflict one of 12 critical areas of concern- women must participate in decision-making around conflict resolution, and recognized that women have been powerful drivers of peace movements.” [6]

Apart from that, Christina Lamb reminds us through her work that individual acts of bravery have never stopped happening. She narrates an account of the “first place to ever get rape prosecuted as a war crime was in Rwanda, 1998, where a group of women managed to get prosecution of the mayor of a small town called Taba. Five brave women testified about what happened to them at risk to their life, and they managed to get a historic conviction in international law.” [7]

Way Forward

Scholars have offered diverse perspectives on the way forward, on how to navigate the conflict zone in a more equitable manner. Firstly, there exists an imperative to greet the dynamics of a conflict zone in a ‘bottom’s up approach’. Secondly, there is a need to develop a contextual approach to problem-solving in conflict zones, otherwise stakeholders run at the trouble of falling into a trap of employing “homogenous strategies of response that exclude gender-based differences and generally tend to disadvantage women.” (Thompson, 342)


Jasmina Tesanovic, a political activist points through her work (‘The Suitcase) and experience of collecting accounts from Yugoslavia; that when we view war from a feminist lens, mainstream political issues such as “religion or class” take a back seat, rather “The problems flow from those who have the power to impose the sanctions, and from the mainstream rules and habits of their society. Thus, “women’s solidarity in conflict zones is always the major vehicle of peace, reconciliation, treaties, and coexistence.”[8] True empowerment is giving space to women to take control of their own lives, building the key supportive frameworks and interventions in a sensitised manner, that allows restoration of peace in these zones. Here, non-state actors can step in, democratise security and peacekeeping initiatives, and thereby fill the gaps that exist in the actions of the other international actors. Thirdly, as empirical evidence and the lens of case studies militarised response to conflict is not necessarily ideal, and “the everyday theories of participants in war- their notions of gender, sexuality, war, and embodiment should acquire greater significance.”(Paul, 25)

There is also a need to replace the status-quoist approach with an approach that is free of ideology, one that is focused on addressing the ground realities in an inclusive manner so that communities can begin to rebuild the social fabric. As Dr. Denis Mukwege (hailing from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Nadia Murad, a Yazidi activist from Iraq, (who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 to ‘end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict’) have highlighted- “justice is everyone’s business.”[9]




[3] https://time.com/5891185/christina-lamb-new-book-our-bodies-their-battlefield/

[4] https://www.hrw.org/legacy/women/conflict.html

[5] https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/80000/act770502005en.pdf

[6] https://beijing20.unwomen.org/en/in-focus/armed conflict#:~:text=The%20Beijing%20Declaration%20and%20Platform,12%20critical%20areas%20of%20concern.&text=It%20stated%20that%20women%20must,powerful%20drivers%20of%20peace%20movements.

[7] https://time.com/5891185/christina-lamb-new-book-our-bodies-their-battlefield/