Can conflict sometimes create space to challenge gender norms?

Published on 8 March 2017

IDS brought together speakers from Oxfam, the University of Sussex and Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS) to discuss working on gender equality in fragile contexts and what it means for humanitarian workers and researchers. The event was held under the rubric of a new DFID-supported research programme on ‘Action for Empowerment and Accountability’ and drew on research from recently published special issue of Gender & Development, entitled Working on Gender Equality in Fragile Contexts.

This year marks an important landmark as rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) start the process of disarming, after signing a peace deal with the Government of Colombia to end a conflict spanning more than half a century. The challenge the government now faces will be to reintegrate the rebels into civilian life, but interestingly the process also provides an unprecedented opportunity to challenge gender norms.

Former female combatants face different challenges to men when it comes to societal reintegration

More than 30-40% of FARC soldiers are women who fought and trained alongside men based on egalitarian principles, and even went on take up leadership roles. But there are contradicting reports of female soldiers being subjected to sexual abuse, forced abortions and coerced contraception.

Historically, one of the key challenges arising from disarming armed groups around the world is that of changing gender norms.

In the case of Ethiopia, women made up a sizeable part of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, with many wanting to get away from the repressive culture at home as well as fighting for self-determination (PDF),  and their role was perceived as indispensable to the success of Tigrean army. Their political roles and social attitudes underwent transformations as they fought as combatants, and they formed identities different from traditional gender roles in Ethiopia. But when reintegrating with society, female combatants faced far higher rates of divorce and stigma than men and faced challenges such as inequality in household labour.

It remains to be seen how the Colombian government faces the challenge of reintegrating former FARC female members back into society in a way that does not contradict the kind of gender identities they have formed over their years as combatants in the armed group.

So can conflict create space to challenge gender norms and how communities and societies function?

Yesterday’s discussion flagged up many areas around the world where women are heavily involved in conflict and are seen as warriors. These women sometimes go on to occupy powerful positions within government, in recognition of their role as combatants and of their contribution to the agenda of the conflict.

Narrow definitions and approaches to empowerment can backfire for women

Understanding what exactly empowerment means and how it is experienced is an important question that needs to be addressed by aid and development agencies working on gender equality in fragile areas.

One speaker talked about how narrowly conceived programmes which only focus on women’s economic autonomy but neglect broader gender relations can often expose them to social backlash, or, sometimes simply increase the work burden for women, since they are still expected to be entirely responsible for domestic chores and caring for their families.

More research, especially participatory qualitative research, will help us understand what exactly empowerment and fragility means to the women, men, boys and girls with whom we are working, as external organisations and agencies.

In fact, women’s rights themselves are fragile and their claims can easily be taken away. The new Trump administration’s rescinding aid supporting family planning services is an example of this.

Lyndsay Mclean stressed that we need to look into possible perverse or negative consequences of aid and development programmes carried out in fragile contexts. She gave the example of a remote province in Congo where, as part of her research, she held a group discussion with faith leaders who were trained to prevent gender-based violence. One of the faith leaders raised his concerns regarding a woman denying sex to her husband. In his mind, this could be seen as sexual violence as it was a violation of the man’s marital rights. This example can be seen as a negative consequence of the introduction of a term like “sexual violence” by the researchers which was reinterpreted by the faith leaders in a detrimental way for women.

Unpacking who is benefiting from the status quo to a granular level will help humanitarian workers and researchers be more precise, and hopefully more effective, in delivering aid and development programmes in different contexts.

Image: Binational mobilization of the women’s movement against war. Border Colombia-Ecuador. Credit: impermeableazul (Flickr).

Listen again

Audio recording of the event Working on Gender Equality in Fragile Contexts


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