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Women, War and Peace in Africa: A Reflection on the Past 20 Years

2 Mar 2015

Women, War and Peace in Africa: A Reflection on the Past 20 Years
This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

This contribution takes the analysis of wartime violence against women out of an individualized context and puts it into the realm of war economies, which are highly criminalized and globalized. Yes, wartime rape was long a neglected topic deserving of our attention. But the protracted wars on the African continent have created a “durable disorder”, wrenching women, children and men from their everyday productive activities, rites and celebrations and pitching them into states of violent turmoil, confused movement, precarious existence and deep grief unrelieved by the normal symbols of mourning. These wars, which include lengthy and intermittent civil strife, ethnic and communal violence, disruptive political discord, internal disturbances, states of emergency and suppression of mass uprisings, occur under global neoliberal regimes in an environment of the so-called war on terror. Their impact on women’s security deserves an expanded feminist analysis that reaches beyond interpersonal violence to encompass the political economy of the “new wars”.

Meredeth Turshen is Professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University.

Women, War and Peace in Africa: A Reflection on the Past 20 Years

Revisiting the literature on wartime violence against women published since the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted in 1995, I was surprised to find the analysis somewhat stuck in accounts of individualized violence in interpersonal contexts. Gender is now part of the conversation, which sometimes includes violence against men, but too often women are the focus of monologues about rape. War-altered relations between women and men are usually framed in terms of husbands repudiating wives or fathers abandoning daughters. We need to be clear about what we still do not know about sexual violence in times of conflict, and the importance of situating sexual violence within the broader social, political and economic structures in which it unfolds. One positive advance: women are no longer depicted solely as victims of abuse, since numerous reports now prove that they are also actors and perpetrators, and sometimes leaders of opposition to war.

Gender, women and “new wars”

And wars continue to rage on the African continent. Of more than 20 conflicts, which actively involved over 36 nations, only eight have been resolved since 1995. The changed character of these “civil” conflicts—the role of international military and humanitarian intervention, their regional character, the involvement of organized crime, the complicity of legitimate global industries—are the subject of intense debates around what are called the “new wars”. New wars—a contested concept—are those funded by sales of local assets like gold, diamonds and coltan to transnational corporations often through international criminal networks. New wars take advantage of financial deregulation to create new economic relations in the era of neoliberal capitalism. When protracted, new wars exacerbate the inability of states already weakened by austerity programmes to ensure human security and protect human rights.

It is disturbing that gender is not part of the vocabulary of the literature on the political economy of war. This omission is unfortunate, both because the new war studies break, in thought-provoking ways, with past understandings of civil war and because they offer us new insights with which to revise and broaden our analyses of women’s wartime experiences.

The new wars research raises many interesting questions about diverse opportunities for women in the informal economies of war zones, including women’s involvement in the financing and arming of conflicts that are, or were, backed by trans-border trade of gems and minerals. Too little research has been done on women’s food production and marketing in wartime, about women’s relation to warring groups that impose irregular taxes, about women’s mobility, work in artisanal mining and participation in smuggling operations, and the effect of the devaluation and dollarization of many currencies on women’s petty trade. How do women’s livelihood activities endanger them and expose them to the likelihood of attack?

In the discussion of the risks and perils of the new wars, there are unanswered questions about the gendered impact of repeated flight and relocation, capture and coerced labour: what are the consequences for marriage, childbirth and caregiving? Vital and health statistics are rarely collected in war zones (and intermittent studies are hotly contested, regarded as propaganda by one side or another). The women’s health services literature is reduced to the important but numerically minor issue of maternal mortality. We know that structural adjustment changed women’s relation to the state but not how the new wars have brought women into contact with new networked forms of parallel—that is, illegal or unofficial—trade. Are women captives, coerced into working in regional, trans-border structures of alternative governance? These activities and networks tie into outright criminal enterprises such as the international drug trade, weapons smuggling, money laundering and human trafficking.

“New wars” and identity

New wars manipulate identity and perpetuate ethnic divisions, invoking colonial legacies of disruptive designations and regional inequities. Women who have intermarried across lines of ethnic or religious divisions that harden in wartime face special challenges, as do their children; analysis of these entanglements demands use of theoretical concepts elaborated by feminists, especially intersectionality, the overlapping of sexism, racism and class prejudice. The key to intersectional scrutiny of identity in wartime is an interdisciplinary analytic approach to social categories inflected by relations of power, an approach that needs to embrace changing world attitudes towards certain political and religious affiliations. New insights about women as actors and perpetrators are also of use in detecting women’s deliberate exploitation of their multiple identities to deal across battle lines and should give us more information about women’s everyday forms of resisitance. We need more studies of nuanced compromising situations, of equivocal acts of consent, of subtle exchanges of favours, of desperate turns to collaboration, of all the shaded ambiguities in the lives of women and men trying to survive in war zones.

Responsibility for the “new wars”

Of utmost importance, the new wars analysis implicates the global North and places responsibility for state failure on Northern policy makers who conceived of the Washington Consensus. They imposed their neoliberal economic programme of structural adjustment on the South, to their own benefit. Structural adjustment has weakened states and caused the loss of public goods and services throughout Africa. Feminist economists have written about the destructive impact of neoliberal economic regimes that the international financial institutions forced on state borrowers. They have highlighted the detrimental effects of austerity programmes that reduced staff (and it was often women who held these decent jobs) and were responsible for the deterioration of state services formerly available to women and on which women depended, perhaps more than men. Many commentators have noted the hollowing out of the state that resulted from the imposition of structural adjustment, which mandated privatization of state assets, often in chaotic circumstances, and installed new levels of corruption and in some cases new criminal networks. Research on global supply chains pinpoints how multinational corporations based in the North have profited from these new arrangements.

How are findings about deregulated economies and the near disappearance of state-provided social services to be interpolated with women’s experiences in the new wars, in networked forms of parallel trade and with the perpetuation of ethnic and religious divisions? Did we really need to wait for an Ebola epidemic to show us how war had destroyed socio-economic infrastructures and how the private sector, with its reliance on nongovernmental organizations, fails to rebuild or replace government?

Answers to all of these questions are imperative if we are to promote the Beijing Platform’s objectives of non-violent forms of conflict resolution and a reduced incidence of human rights abuse in conflict situations.

    Meredeth Turshen, a Professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University, holds a D. Phil. in comparative politics from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. She has written four books: The Political Ecology of Disease in Tanzania, The Politics of Public Health, Privatizing Health Services in Africa, and Women’s Health Movements: A Global Force for Change, and is currently working on a fifth, Gender and the Political Economy of Conflict in Africa: The Persistence of Violence. She has also edited six volumes: Women and Health in Africa, Women’s Lives and Public Policy: The International Experience, What Women Do in Wartime: Gender and Conflict in Africa (published in French as Ce que font les femmes en temps de guerre: Genre et conflit en Afrique), African Women’s Health, The Aftermath: Women in Postconflict Transformation, and African Women: A Political Economy.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.