Women in War, Women in Peace

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As wars become less about states and more about societies, women can play a greater role in shaping or ending conflicts. So why do we still think of war as inherently male?

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An Afghan artist removes rubbish in front of her graffiti in an industrial park in Kabul / Reuters

Asked to describe war, most Americans would probably throw out words like troops, tanks, guns, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Our historical and cultural understanding of war is shaped by our focus on the men who fight -- and it is still overwhelmingly men who fight -- and the tools they use, and this has become the prism through which we understand war and its consequences. War is a male domain, says conventional wisdom, in which women play little direct role.

But the idea of war as a male domain is increasingly out of touch with the way that war is fought today -- and whom it impacts. Across the globe, conflicts are primarily fought not by well-trained armies at the behest of their governments but by non-state groups with complex motivations and little incentive to obey the laws of war. In these wars, civilians are often targets, not just collateral damage; 90 percent of conflict casualties are civilians, many of whom are women and children. A 2009 study by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo concluded, "men are more likely to die during conflicts, whereas women die more often of indirect causes after the conflict is over." When our understanding of a given war focuses so overwhelmingly on its male soldiers and statesmen, we miss the larger context -- namely, we underestimate the many roles women can and do play -- which makes it harder to end war and create durable peace.

Our common understanding about what war is and who participates can change, but it's a slow process. For example, the idea that wartime rape is a crime against humanity -- rather than an inevitable byproduct of war -- is relatively new. After the Holocaust, there was little effort to collect evidence of systemic rape; at the Nuremberg trials, no charges of rape were filed. In contrast, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia opened a case devoted solely to sexual crimes -- a watershed moment in the development of international law regarding the intersection of women's rights and conflict. As part of their excellent, five-part Women, War & Peace series, PBS produced I Came to Testify, a documentary that tells the story of Foča, the town in Bosnia that was the site of multiple rape camps during the war there. The site later became central to the International Criminal Tribunal's efforts to prosecute rape as a crime against humanity. Prosecutors were able to collect physical evidence from Foča and gather 16 women willing to testify before the court. The inclusion of women as witnesses, lawyers, and judges was key to the case's success and to the establishment of systematic rape as a crime against humanity.

Through ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has begun to appreciate the importance of gender in war -- and not just as an artifact of political correctness. As the U.S. moved to a strategy of counterinsurgency, they put less emphasis on killing bad guys and more on engaging with locals as a way of de-escalating violence. The military, though a male-dominated institution itself, became increasingly aware of the role of women in society and their influence over the men in their families. The military created Female Engagement Teams, whose members can talk directly with Afghan women (whose culture forbids them to talk to men outside their family). That was a strong start, but the idea that traditionally female spheres are of secondary importance during war and are not a male concern still persists, and may hamper future counterinsurgency efforts.

Men still tend to dominate peace negotiations -- often the same men who were responsible for starting the war -- in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Women are still in the minority at these talks, if they're invited at all. The 2008 documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell tells the story of the women of Liberia, who ended the decades-long conflict there by pressuring dictator Charles Taylor to attend peace talks in Ghana -- then followed him to Accra to keep the pressure on. The women were led by Leymah Gbowee, who, along with Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent work to ensure women's voices were heard in the peace process. In the documentary, Gbowee discusses the talks in Ghana, where the men acted like they were on vacation until the women staged a sit-in and refused to allow the negotiators to leave their conference room until they took their work seriously. The imagery is telling: the men are inside bargaining while the women are outside, with no direct influence over talks that could change their lives until they decide to use their bodies as doorstops.

There are lessons here for Afghanistan, where women are struggling to hold on to what gains they've made since the Taliban was driven from power in 2001. In Liberia, women have helped prevent the return of large-scale violence through their influence over family members and communities, which might be more likely to use violence without this women-led, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Though there are cultural differences between Afghanistan and Liberia, of course, the need to include Afghan women in the peace process is clear when the stakes for women -- and the country -- are so high. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged that she will not bargain away Afghanistan's women, but Afghan women themselves are still not sufficiently represented at international talks, such as the 2010 London Conference on Afghanistan.

Including women becomes even more important in post-conflict reconstruction, particularly disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration efforts. In peace time, women generally bear the responsibility for the health of the family and the education of children; after war, they often take up the added burden of sick and injured relatives. Because women often suffer more in conflict than men, they may have greater incentive to pursue non-violent strategies.

Local women may also understand on-the-ground realities of war in ways that the international community cannot. And yet, outside forces and peace-builders -- NATO in Afghanistan, for example, or the United Nations in Libya -- often fail to seek their input. In an interview, Gini Reticker, director of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, recounted an incident where the United Nations planned to collect guns from former combatants. The UN had expected it to be a symbolic event; when thousands of men showed up to accept a payout to turn in their guns, the UN was unprepared and a three-day riot followed in which 12 people died. If UN workers had engaged the women of Liberia in the planning process, they would have understood that the women were pushing hard for their sons to disarm. These women also knew the communities that the guns would be coming from, and could have told the UN which factions needed to be separated in the disarmament camps. Liberia's disarmament process went as well as it did because women were eventually involved, but it would have gone even better if they'd been included earlier.

By understanding war as a male pursuit, we obscure the suffering, the triumphs, and the contributions of women. We also limit our ability to conduct war and to negotiate lasting peace. Without a dramatic shift in our popular conceptions about war and the roles women can play during and after conflict, we will have a harder time escaping the cycle of war and will be unable to find new ways to limit conflicts and rebuild societies.

War Redefined, the final episode of Women, War & Peace, airs tonight on PBS.
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Diana Wueger writes on international and domestic small-arms topics at Gunpowder and Lead.

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