In military conflicts, there are never winners. Without fail, war brings a devastating loss of life, property and irreparable psychological damage to civilians. Though it is not often brought into the spotlight, the suffering of women can be particularly acute. Major General Patrick Cammaert, a former member of the UN Peacekeepers, was reported as commenting, “It is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflict.”
Women Under Siege has done extensive reporting on the effect of conflict on women, not only where rape is used as a tool of war but in sexual coercion, child marriage and gender-based violence. In the last few years alone, dispatches from the most headline-grabbing conflicts (such as in Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gaza) have included accounts of violence against women, and not solely perpetrated by soldiers, but by men abusing their wives and daughters, families forcing their daughters into early marriages and girls forced into sexual slavery because of economic conditions.
The most recent conflicts have begun to recognize the far-reaching impacts of war on women’s welfare. In the case of Gaza, the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) reported an increase in cases of domestic violence. Syria’s women have been victim to multiple abuses, with child marriages on the rise, sexual violence used by both sides in the conflict and domestic violence at home. Buzzfeed’s Miriam Berger gathered stories from both men and women in Syria who attributed a spike in violence against women to the indirect causes of war, quoting one Jordanian man as saying about his own family: “I’m depressed; I’m short-tempered — I never was before. But here… I beat my daughters — this one I beat every two to three days; this other all the time. I don’t want to; I just — I’m angry all the time.”
In response to the numerous reports of atrocities against women, the phrase ‘do something’ has been thrown around with abandon, though defining that ‘something’ has proven elusive. Providing security for women in conflict is not an easy task, nor is it one that can be accomplished without a continued holistic approach to development.
Addressing inequality and poverty to raise the status of women, ensuring maternal health and education to improve family planning and allow girls’ and women greater autonomy over their own lives, tightening on human rights to prevent crimes such as FGM or child marriage – these will all contribute to a greater potential outcome for women in conflict as well as in peacetime, by elevating the overall status of girls and women worldwide. The suffering of women in war is inextricably tied to the suffering of women as a whole.
More specific interventions could also be integrated, such as more stringent protections for crimes against women. Though recognized as a war crime, the prosecution of rape is not always enforced. The global resignation to sexualized violence as an inevitable fact of war is unacceptable, for both victims and those at-risk in conflict regions.
The UN’s MDGs were wide enough in scope to integrate progress for women under the umbrella of other goals. Increased education for all ensured girls too benefited from greater resources allocated to learning. Decreasing poverty allowed ventures which empowered women to begin small business and generate income. Goals specifically targeting gender inequality and maternal health aided women in both social empowerment and in providing resources for childbearing women.
Now, looking forward, the post-2015 agenda can place a greater emphasis on the issues relevant to the turbulent world we live in. The ugly reality of war is not one that is comfortable to discuss or face, but the escalating crises that surround us make further inaction inexcusable.With Ban Ki-moon recently stating that the world has entered an era of “unprecedented conflict”, now more than ever it is important to focus on ensuring security for civilians, and particularly for women and children, in warfare.
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Cover image c/o the Advocacy Project Flickr Creative Commons