Identity-based conflict
Lecture 7

Gender and Conflict

Rohee Dasgupta explores how identity markers like gender can create entirely different experiences of conflict.
In times of crisis, such as war or armed conflict, a culture's perspective on gender may shape how the violence plays out.

But how do different types of gender structures interact with conflict, and how can we address women's and men's different experiences of war in a way that promotes equality, respect and healing?
Our lecture starts with a participant presentation about the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria. Nigeria's a country in west Africa bordering Benin, Cameroon, Niger and Chad. Its biggest city, Lagos, is one of the largest in the world and, with Kinshasa, the largest on the continent. It's a diverse society, with perhaps 250 ethnic groups who speak up to 500 different languages and dialects – the three largest groups are the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba and the Igbo. Religiously, the north is mostly populated by Muslims and the south by Christians.

Boko Haram is often described as a terrorist group aligned with radical jihadist ideology, and they've had the largest impact in Nigeria's northeaster regions. In addition to the sectarian religious violence, it's been linked up with various international networks (most notoriously with the Islamic State) and has proved difficult to address.

The presenter says how the typical narrative goes that Boko Haram was founded in 2001-2002 by a man named Mohammed Yusef, but this interpretation is contested. She says that its roots lie in a radical group named Sahaba founded in 1995 – Yusef is thought to have taken this group over and expanded it. According to this perspective, Sahaba eventually became known as Boko Haram, though it was a peaceful movement until a 2009 government clampdown in the north killed 800 people, including Yusef. This is when the insurgency is truly said to have started.
2016 map of the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria.
Ali Zifan | wikicommons
A lot of attention has been paid to the religious aspect of the violence – the phrase "boko haram" can roughly translate to "books are forbidden," which is often interpreted as a wider resistance against Western-style education in favour of a return to traditional Islamic ways of life, including Sharia law. But several analysts also say that more secular roots can also be found in long standing economic disparities between the north and south, as well as a high degree of structural violence and outright government repression.

A number of our classmates are Nigerian, and in previous class discussions much has been said about how some participants in the insurgency may be primarily motivated by their family's economic plight, with less importance placed on ideology. That is not to dismiss, however, the movement's ideological underpinnings. Nor the ways they have manifested themselves.

The group made international headlines after kidnapping 276 schoolgirls in 2014, only some of which have been released. They were targeted because of Boko Haram's traditional view that women had no need of Western-style education, and that it may have even posed a threat to their preferred way of life.

This has led to major outcry, with the global Bring Back Our Girls movement striving to raise awareness of gender-based violence and demand the release of women detained by groups like Boko Haram. The total number of people kidnapped since 2014 may amount to over 2000, most of whom are women and girls. Many have been sold into domestic and sexual slavery both in Africa and, according to human rights groups, to other countries as well.
CEE-HOPE NIGERIA | wikicommons
The presenter wishes to remind us that this is an example of how gender identity can determine whether or not you may become a victim of mass violence or displacement – this is why we need gender-specific interventions in conflict contexts. This may not only concern the particular vulnerabilities that certain groups of women may have, but also the broader educational and cultural attitudes held by groups that result in a higher degree of gender-based violence.

Initiatives striving to limit such violence claim that we not only have to work for the freedom of women and girls abducted by groups like Boko Haram, but also to empower grassroots movements working against the attitudes that allow for these abductions to happen in the first place. This can be controversial, as some see such empowerment initiatives as attempts to "re-educate" cultures that don't share our values, which, especially in contexts like West Africa, carry hints of ideological colonialism in the name of liberal democracy. It's a dilemma that's going nowhere fast.

Another question raised at the end of the presentation was about how we can resist groups like Boko Haram while not reducing the struggle to one against Islam. A number of our participants identify as Muslims and find what Boko Haram does repellent, and so there's a complicated task of opposing certain Islamic initiatives while not descending into a more general Islamophobia.

There might be many ways to approach this question, but some participants (themselves from Nigeria) remind us that it can be hard to make those distinctions in contexts where one has been harmed by violent groups. Even if, in childhood, people didn't think in terms of us-and-them, extended periods of conflict can traumatize people well into their adult lives.

And if that trauma is associated with religious insurgents, then it can be hard to react neutrally to practices like the call to prayer – one's body moves to protect oneself. In some cases, asking people to appreciate nuance or do the work of healing might be premature at best or retraumatizing at worst. These are topics we will discuss more in our class on reconciliation and dialogue.

Conflict and a Gender Perspective

"Much of what goes into whose stories we listen to is the issue of vulnerability," says Rohee Dasgupta, our instructor at St. Paul University, as she makes a link from the presentation to today's lecture topic: how gender and conflict intersect with respect to identity.

Vulnerability is a core aspect of conflict contexts – we are often required to ask who is made vulnerable in a conflict, who can be classified as oppressor and oppressed. This obviously isn't a simple question, as victim and perpetrator roles can be inhabited by multiple sides in a conflict, sometimes all at once. But bringing gender into the question can have the effect of simplifying the question.

This is due to a tendency to frame men as perpetrators and women as victims. It's a paradigm that's been challenged often in previous years, especially with increasing research exploring women's experiences as combatants and male civilian experiences of victimization. This has led to a tension in the literature not to reduce rules to gender while also recognizing patterns of victimization that do indeed exist on the ground. To date, men make up the greater portion of battle deaths while women make up the majority of civilian victims.

All this adds to an interesting approach to the study of identity-based conflict: in our previous lectures, we've mostly explored how identity markers can contribute or intensify conflict. Today, however, we're looking at how identity can determine one's experience of violence and war. We'll be using what's become known in the field as a gender perspective.
Research into gendered factors in conflict have focused on women's experiences as combatants, civilians, refugees or survivors. Much attention has been paid to how women have formed large sections of Kurdish forces, as well as Marxist-aligned battalions like in Nepal, Colombia or El Salvador. This has led to questions of whether men or women frame violence differently when they themselves are the perpetrators.

Another combat-related experience with a heavily gendered element is disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR), the process by which combatants surrender their weapons and go back to civilian life. Research has indicated that, especially with past assumptions that combatants would be male, more DDR support has been traditionally geared towards male reintegration into society.

This ignores unique needs that women may have when trying to go back to civilian life. If their society adheres to strict gender roles, the fact that a woman fought may come with stigma that complicates her efforts to return to her family. She may be considered "damaged" goods, which can affect her ability to build her own family or livelihood. In some cases, women may experience greater autonomy within the army, making it hard to let go of the combatant role.
Gender may also be important in discourses on the responsibility to protect (R2P). Women may be seen as particularly vulnerable (and thus in need of protection), sparking national and international response when women's rights are violated. Since men are often framed as active participants in conflict zones, their protection may not inspire a similar response.

Men also face unique barriers during the post-conflict phase when truth-seeking measures attempt to assess the amount and intensity of human rights abuses. Victimization can come with enormous stigma for men, making it less likely in certain circumstances that men come forward with stories of assault and especially rape. Women can also be used to humiliate their male kin, which can lead to psychological damage among a society's males that may not, for many reasons, receive as much attention as the needs of the women involved.

In different societies, men and women's testimony may also be treated differently, with one or the other group's stories treated with greater suspicion or requiring higher requirements to establish proof. This complicates efforts to find truth in the post-conflict stage, as there may already be incentives to exaggerate one's claims to victimization – how a society frames gendered expectations can add to this difficulty. Therefore applying a robust gender perspective means coming to understand how gender relations are set up within a certain society, and how they are impacted by crises like war or mass violence.

This often requires paying attention to intersectionality. Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s, intersectionality refers to how different identities interact with each other, often producing different structures of power or marginalization. In the context of war, a white woman might experience gendered violence differently than a Roma woman, for example. It can be tempting to categorize a female experience or a male experience of violence or displacement, but doing so may generate blind spots when other factors like class, race, political affiliation or other factors aren't taken into account.

Because diverse communities may coalesce around different identity markers, their experience of gendered violence may vary greatly. In Bosnia, for example, the intersection of race, ethnicity and language may have facilitated the a patriarchal form of genocide in the form of rape as a weapon of war, where women were targeted as a symbol of their group's purity, honour or fertility.

In contexts where women serve in the military as combatants, or where divisions aren't along ethnic lines, gendered violence may take a form that doesn't reduce women to symbols of child-bearing. With regards to men, forced circumcision is one expression of gendered violence that sometimes occurs when the perpetrating side coalesces around certain expressions of Islam.

Patriarchy, generally speaking, is of major interest to researchers interested in gendered violence. Since it refers to the creation and maintenance of a social system in which men hold a greater degree of power, criticisms of patriarchy often focus on the marginalization of women. There is, however, a growing discourse on how patriarchy also leads to the targeting of men for violent acts – the assumption that men are more powerful or are potential combatants, for example, has led to sex-selective massacres where men have been singled out to die. A prominent example of this was in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, where in July 1995 over 8000 Bosniak men and boys were killed in a matter of days.

Along with this growing focus on men's experience of gendered violence, explorations of masculinity within conflict studies are becoming more popular. Questions researchers ask include whether ideologies of mass violence "hijack" masculine cultural tropes in order to manipulate men into committing crimes. And in what way might some societies raise boys so as to more easily create a potential base of soldiers? How can concepts of honour motivate men to fight, and die, for abstract notions of nation or state?

Various actors can tap into discourses of femininity and masculinity in times of crisis in order to produce behaviour that supports a given war effort, and understanding how they affect a conflict requires understanding how these discourses operate in peacetime. A gender perspective looks for this kind of nuance, and is on alert to how gender intersects with other factors when creating a particular experience of violence.

Gender and Stages of Conflict

Practitioners, researchers and policy makers often try to understand how gendered factors manifest themselves differently depending on what stage a conflict is in. Today we'll be framing the process in three stages: pre-conflict, during the conflict and post-conflict. The factors noted below, Rohee says, are just a few examples of how things play out in real life – certain details may be different depending on the context.

Right before a conflict breaks out, there's often a mass mobilization of soldiers. In the vast majority of cases these soldiers are predominantly men, and they may be recruited through forced conscription or through political or cultural campaigns which may appeal to a sense of masculine strength, duty or virility. In cases where one of the parties is a non-state actor, men and boys may be abducted and forcibly brought to training camps. Often, women are left to take care of communities at home, which both provides an opportunity to step out of primarily domestic roles while also adding to their workload.

In the military camps themselves, women and girls may be recruited as sex workers – this can involve child prostitution. As wartime comes with additional economic burdens, some women may willingly take part in the sex trade, though this "willingness" may have been impacted by dire circumstances at home. In these camps, training protocols or hazing rituals may expose men to gendered violence including forms of sexual assault, or in a gradual dehumanization process meant to make them more effective soldiers.

Human rights abuses may also increasing in the pre-conflict phase and extend all through to a war's end – the heightened stress and climate of crisis may diminish focus on women's rights as more attention is paid to "other matters," making it harder for some women to address restrictive marriage roles, domestic violence or educational limits. In cases where one of the parties identifies as culturally traditional, women may be pressured to return home from school and take on more domestic duties in an attempt to culturally, religiously or ideologically "purify" the group in question.

During the conflict, men and women often face different risks of psychological trauma, physical violence and death. As mentioned above, men are disproportionately affected by war deaths, while women face greater risk of sexual assault, displacement, forced prostitution/pregnancy and various forms of humiliation. The degree of difference between these gendered experiences may depend on the degree to which men are framed as "active" societal actors and women are framed as "passive" ones.

When political negotiations and dialogue processes are underway, women may experience exclusion based on the degree to which they were excluded from political decision-making processes before the start of the conflict. This has been a matter of great concern to the international community since the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000, which aims to increase women's participation in these processes. Nevertheless, this participation may be limited to a token presence of women at the negotiating table.

There are nuances here as well – even in cases where women are genuinely invited to participate, some women may find it difficult to overcome histories of neglect, humiliation, denial and suppression, often in institutionalized contexts. If women have been told to be silent for decades, it may be hard to find one's voice when the international community demands it of you.

These dynamics of participation can extend into the post-conflict stage, where ongoing dialogue over implementation can continue to marginalize women and their experiences. This may be due to institutionalized patriarchy, but it may also be out of a desire for quick results that aren't "weighted down" by additional factors like a gender perspective.

This isn't even taking into account the fact that, after a war, it may be incredibly hard to find one's voice, generally speaking. Armed conflict often requires people to repress their voices or feelings, or to regress into archetypal roles – coming back from this can be difficult. Women who had taken on active roles in wartime may be seen as "tainted" by their communities, and men who are seen as having failed to protect their families may not be "man" enough. Even in cases where such factors don't emerge, a community may be so eager to move on that there is no space to publicly mourn, discuss or process what's often a traumatizing experience. As a result, many individuals coming back home have no forum to speak about what happened, or find recognition for experiences that are often gendered.
In many cases, there is no way back. Veterans and survivors face difficulties reintegrating into society, especially when that reintegration (through DDR processes or otherwise) is gendered. Personal or collective feelings of shame may interfere with the rebuilding of the social fabric, or with building one's own family. Child soldiers who had never known civilian life find themselves in a confusing world, one where they're expected to take on eventual roles as brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.

These issues are a greater part of the discourse than ever before, even to the point where countries like Canada promote a "feminist foreign policy" dedicated to promoting gender equality. Peacekeepers receive additional training in cultural sensitivity so as to better respect local cultural practices, many of which can be heavily gendered. This is particularly important, as peacekeepers themselves have proved on many occasions to be perpetrators of gendered violence.

Researchers who go into the field to learn about women's and men's experiences may encounter populations not used to speaking with this kind of language. For women, challenging patriarchal values can come with a sense of betrayal. For men, dismantling masculine stereotypes or speaking about victimhood can lead to experiences of intense shame. Expecting locals to conform to elite, international modes of speaking, framing and describing experience can itself be a form of marginalization.

This has been a source of criticism for such "feminist foreign policies," with a corresponding push against blanket gender policies that are insensitive to context. This is why, Rohee says, a gender perspective is particularly important. By looking at things through this lens, the nuances of a context may emerge, and along with it opportunities to collaborate, explore or journey with a given population in a way that corresponds to their experience of gender, identity and conflict.
Rohee Dasgupta teaches conflict studies at St. Paul University; her research interests include identity, cosmopolitanism, security and anthropology.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied identity-based conflict at St. Paul University in 2021.

Banner photo by The U.S. National Archives on nara.getarchive.net
Be the first to hear about new content!
Peace research, activism, facilitation - it's all coming.
Sign up to receive an email whenever new Summerpax content becomes available.
Further Reading
The Effects of Armed Conflict on Girls and Women
Susan McKay (1998)
Peace and Conflict, 4:4, 381-392
Gender and UN Peace Operations: The Confines
Of Modernity
Tarja Väyrynen (2004)
International Peacekeeping, 11:1, 125-142
Recognizing Gender-Based Violence Against Civilian Men and Boys in Conflict Situations
R. Charli Carpenter (2006)
Security Dialogue Vol. 37(1): 83–103
Women in Post-Conflict Reconstruction: Dilemmas and Directions
Naomi R. Cahn (2006)
William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice, Vol. 12 (2)
The Importance of a Gender Perspective
to Successful Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Processes
Vanessa Farr (2003)
United Nations Digital Library