Women are often portrayed simply as victims of war playing a passive role in the conflict. The truth is that they have a far more crucial capacity in determining the fate of a conflict.
Women are often depicted as a tool of war. Women withstand the worst of war – subjected to sexual violence, rape and oppression, left with little dignity intact following atrocities. Neglected is the fundamental responsibility they have, relegated to running households, provide a livelihood and ensure society continues to function.
However, women play a much bigger role when it comes to war. They become the key resistance against war, pushing for an end or a peaceful resolution at the end of the war.
Many women are essential community builders after conflicts come to end, picking up the pieces of what is left of society. At the end of many longstanding conflicts, women have the potential to reshape their role and agency in a post-war world, if they are heard.
History gives us many examples of women leading resistance struggles in the midst of war.
In 2003, Leymah Gbowee organised a popular sex strike to end Liberia’s brutal civil war. This successfully promoted an agreement from the warlords to end the violence. This tactic has been used in many countries over the years to end a conflict and demonstrate the demands of women in political societies rife with conflict and war.
In the Philippines, a sex strike led to peace in the violence-plagued Mindanao Island, and in 2009 Kenyan women enforced a sex ban to push for the end to political infighting. This shows the unique voice women have in being resisters to war and conflict.
Women have also demonstrated other forms of resistance, in the midst of war, demonstrating the capacity for initiating and championing peace in the midst of violence in their societies.
In Colombia, women were for responsible for forming complex networks as part of pro-peace movements. The Mano River Women’s peace network was an important and a fundamental part of a process that brought together women from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to bring their heads of states to the negotiating table in 2001.
Born and raised in the midst of a civil war in Yemen, Tawakkol Karman, considered the ‘Mother of the Revolution’, responded to political instability using journalism as her trade and means.
In 2005, following the founding of Women Journalists Without Chains, which advocates for the rights and freedoms of journalists and provides media skills, she moved to coordinate on the streets of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. The organisation targeted systematic government repression and called for inquiries into corruption and other forms social and legal injustice.
Despite the incredibly active role of women in resistance to war, and that women have consistently rebuilt their broken and scarred societies, they still often have to fight to have any say in the way their countries are put back together.
The women of Krusha are one example of how the women of a village in Kosovo rebuilt their lives after many of their men were killed. Little Krusha was decimated on March 25, 1999. All ethnic Albanians were killed in a raid by Serbian police, leaving eighty-two women widowed and many children without fathers. The women fled until the war ended and upon returning were left to rebuild their houses, businesses and lives. These women demonstrate the power, resilience and strength many others must find within to rebuild society while healing from the wounds of war.
Women in the midst of war, mentoring and teaching others to earn a living, also lead some entrepreneurship initiatives. There is often an uptake of microloans following a war.
The Nyamirambo Women’s Center was started in 2009 by 18 women to combat gender inequality, gender-based violence and discrimination. There are numerous initiatives led by women that serve as safe spaces and provide personal enrichment for women so that they can generate income supported by other women in the same situation.
There are initiatives led by women that work to rebuild their lives, raise awareness and deal with the trauma they have faced. However, we need to see these embedded into the law, and provided by the state as opposed to civil society.
In the case of Rwanda, if these women were given the independence to trade, work and thrive, they would advance even more – however this requires resourcing and championing from the top down.
If adequate support is not available for women to deal with trauma faced, they become overburdened, left with no option to face or to deal with the pain they have endured. In many cases, this is what occurs.
The Women’s Court was set up for the countries of former Yugoslavia, where women seeking justice was its core aim. It encouraged women to challenge legal practices and influence the institutional, legal system.
When the law within their own countries did not adequately represent women or did not serve the injustice they faced, they took it upon themselves to create a solution. By relying upon the mutual support of networks to build peace, they have successfully created a process that includes them and allows them to move forward and rebuild their societies.
Women can make a groundbreaking change, both in responding to ongoing conflict and in leading conflict resolution and peace talks.
Malawi’s Joyce Banda and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from Liberia, both represent just a few of the recent cases of women breaking the silence both during and after conflict and ending the conflict in their countries. In positions of leadership, they have been able to incorporate the voices of women’s movements and groups into their decision and policymaking.
What cannot be ignored is the significant challenges women face in war and the strength and perseverance they exhibit and embody within these horrific circumstances. They are placed in sudden circumstances where they must lead, organise and support their communities.
Without undermining the pain and trauma inflicted upon them, it is our job to ensure the voice of their strength and leadership is represented.
Women continually show their communities and the world that they are not mere victims, and channel the pain they have experienced into the work they do to support those around them. It is time that we see the rest of society prioritising their trauma and giving women the platform to be empowered as leaders, decision makers and community builders through politics, governance and official means. Doing so, could bring to the fore the entire spectrum of women of war, and correct the singular narrative that currently exists.