Research Article: Violence Against Women and Post-Conflict Countries

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

Post-conflict countries are working to build stability in various sectors, and they generally face high-stress conditions that can intensify gender gaps and worsen gender based violence (GBV). “Situations of conflict, post conflict and displacement may exacerbate existing violence and present new forms of violence against women” (World Health Organization, 2014). Violence against women can get overlooked and/or misconceived in post-conflict countries. This is because the “post-conflict” label is misleading when it comes to gender. Although the state conflict may have dwindled, it does not mean that violence against women has ceased. “The peace that emerges after conflict is often a gendered peace…an end to conflict does not always mean an end to violence. It is a well-documented phenomenon that post-conflict communities experience higher rates of domestic and family violence” (Bradley, 124 & 125).

It is important to understand different forms of gender discrimination and violence against women for several reasons. First and foremost, violence against women is a humanitarian issue that must be taken seriously, and it is crucial to tackle the issues holistically—from a social, political, economic, and humanitarian standpoint. Outlining different forms of violence provides context for how it can affect various state sectors, the economic sect included. Furthermore, certain forms of gender discrimination and violence may not be as prevalent (although they still occur) in some Western societies and don’t always receive media coverage. In reality, these practices span across all religions, cultures, and family structures. Providing information and insights can help mitigate cultural gaps and misconceptions around gender discrimination practices and clarify GBV challenges.

Gender discrimination can emerge in many capacities including unequal pay, less access to information, technology, education and jobs, and lack of representation regarding policies and laws. Violence against women, or gender based violence, is a form of gender discrimination and is defined by the U.N. as the following: “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life” (World Health Organization, 2014). There are several ways this violence can be expressed within domestic or social settings. One form is called domestic family violence (DFV) that can happen within the home, and the perpetrator may be an intimate partner or family member. “Family violence, also called domestic violence, intimate partner violence, relationship violence or inter-personal violence, is a pattern of intentionally violent or controlling behavior used by a person against a family member or intimate partner to gain and maintain power and control over that person, during and/or after the relationship. An intimate partner may be a married or dating couple or joined in domestic partnership” (Compass Center, 2019).

DFV (like many forms of violence against women) is often underreported and may be justified by certain social or cultural customs. “The patriarchal power structures of privilege and control that develop and thrive during conflict tend to carry over to post-conflict periods, to the overall detriment of women” (Bradley, 125). The former Yugoslavia endured horrible conflict between 1991-1999 and the new state of BiH saw an upturn in domestic family violence post-conflict. “In 2010, a coalition of human rights organizations in BiH found that ‘violence against women, especially domestic violence, continues to be a widespread social problem in BiH’” (Bradley, 126). Furthermore, a report found that DFV was “seen and tolerated as a ‘socially acceptable behavior’” and, moreover “justified by the traditional and patriarchal conceptions of the role and status of women in BiH society. Research indicates that the vast majority of Bosnians believe that DV [domestic violence] is a private matter between a husband and a wife and, as such, the state has no right interfering in the affairs of family members” (Bradley, 126).

In conflict settings, gender roles can fluctuate as males leave for combat and women are responsible for additional duties. Once males return, gender roles may return to their original state and patriarchal norms can persist. “It is normal for domestic abuse to increase in the post-war setting, both from partners returning home from the war, and from partners who remained at home…Domestic violence often increases, and women are expected to return to their traditional gender roles” (Bradley, 125).

Some researchers believe that the rise of DFV in post-conflict settings can be attributed to the stresses of war. Combat and battle atrocities create trauma for soldiers and violence may be used as a coping mechanism. In Timor-Leste many men returned to their homes after the 1999 conflict and DFV rates were reported to be high into the 21stcentury. “In 2001, 40% of all reported crime in Timor-Leste was related to DFV. A 2003 survey also found that 50% of women felt unsafe in their intimate relationships, and furthermore, that 25% had experienced violence from on intimate partner” (Bradley, 127). “High rates of DFV in Timor-Leste are believed to be an echo of the conflict. It is a generally accepted notion in East Timor that the violence of the occupation and the associated trauma has resulted in a more violent society today” (Bradley, 127).

Societies with heavy patriarchal structures can view some GBV practices as social norms. Honor killings is a form of violence that occurs within families and has been accepted in many societal circles as just. “Honor killings are the murder of girls and women who are thought to have damaged the honor of their families. Through premarital or extramarital sexual activity, these girls or women are believed to have brought public disgrace to the family and the mark of their shame must be erased. Girls and women are also killed in cases of rape and child sexual abuse…even flirting or mere allegations of improper behavior on the part of a girl or woman are often enough to defile a family’s honor and ‘warrant’ an honor killing” (Marohl, 20).

The Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, in conjunction with the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, conducted a 2002 survey that researched general Palestinian views on honor killings. The study found that over one- third do condone killing women to defend a family’s honor. “The respondents were asked whether or not a family has the right to kill a female on the basis of family honor, 25.3% of males and 15.4% of females ‘strongly agreed.’ Furthermore, 18.6% of males and 16.3% of females ‘somewhat agreed.’ Together, nearly 38% of the respondents felt that families have the right to participate in honor killings” (Marohl, 14). Honor killings are not exclusive to certain religious factors, and are practices linked to an “inherited culture” (Marohl, 16) found amongst various religions and education levels.

“Inherited culture” that condones honor killings can be better understood through the relationship between honor cultures and strong patriarchal structures. Professor Erik Melander, of Uppsala University’s Department of Peace and Conflict Research, argues: “Individuals who embrace a more traditional honor culture should hold more warlike attitudes as well as attitudes that men should be privileged vis-à-vis women, both in society and in the home. Also, societies with stronger honor culture should as a consequence be more violent and warlike” (Mason & Mitchell, 201). There is a degree of honor culture in every society, and it is a changeable variable. “Honor is not determined by the ‘self,’ but must be recognized by others. Through public challenges and responses, honor is either protected or lost. All the while, this remains a social activity. In other words, the social group determines the victor and the loser in an honor challenge” (Marohl, 2).

Characteristics of honor cultures include the need for males to “gain status and be controlling in relation to women, loyal to male kin (or perceived kin), and ruthless towards outgroup male competitors. Men must prove their manhood by acting tough and warlike – evolutionary arguments. Honor culture trains men that violence is the appropriate way of dealing with affronts and proving one’s manhood” (Mason & Mitchell, 201). In most honor cultures, the males are perceived as dominant and socially obligated to respond if a female is perceived to shame the family. “If you don’t kill a girl who has dishonoured her family, villagers will reject the family, and nobody will speak to them or do business with them. They have to leave” (Marohl, 9).

Child marriage is another custom within families that can be associated with honor cultures. This practice is also constituted as a human rights violation. Although boys can also be victims of child marriage, it is more prevalent for girls and leads to gender discrimination. Plan International reports that “12 million girls marry before the age of 18 each year—almost every 2 seconds,” a rate that could eventually cause “more than 150 million girls to become child brides by 2030” (Plan International, 2019). “Early marriage and forced marriage is most common in Sub-Saharan Africa where 38% of girls become child brides. Among girls growing up in South Asia, 30% experience early marriage, compared with 25% in Latin America and the Caribbean. Rates are 17% in the Middle East and North Africa, and 11% in Eastern Europe and Central Asia” (UNICEF, 2018). Similar to honor killings, this practice can also be associated with a family’s honor and protection. Strong patriarchal social structures are also a strong driver for child marriage.

In addition to various forms of family violence, women can also experience violence “at the hands of government actors, non-state militaries (including rebel forces and dissidents), community members, and even, tragically, the peacekeeping forces that are sent to protect them and restore order” (Manjoo & McRaith, 12). This kind of social violence is often used a tactic to harm a community: “These acts and other acts of sexual violence, such as forced impregnation or forced miscarriages, are often part of an intentional strategy of war, used to destabilize the civilian population and violate the honor of the opposing force”(Manjoo & McRaith, 12-13).

Overall, there are many challenges when addressing gender inequality and GBV, and there are no immediate solutions. However, there are many research recommendations in this field of study, and post-conflict states have an opportunity to create new norms and policies in their reconstruction process:

“The post-conflict period provides an opportunity to advance policy and legal frameworks addressing violence against women and girls. Each case study country has ratified significant global frameworks that address gender equality, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). They have also developed national action plans (NAPs) on women, peace and security, and Sierra Leone and Nepal have developed NAPs on gender-based violence (GBV). Significant legal and policy advancement in each country came after the cessation of hostilities. This suggests that the post-conflict period is a moment where considerable legal and policy progress can be made on VAWG through peace and state-building processes” (Swaine et al., 2017).

Removing legal barriers for women is the first step in achieving gender equality, and it is important for states to review their policies through a gender neutral lens. Laws that are not in support of women must be omitted and new gender inclusive policies implemented. An IMF study revealed that “Namibia female labor force participation rose when the country strengthened women’s legal rights, including the right to sign contracts and open a bank account” (IMF, 2017). New policies should ensure that women have equal property, labor, and financial rights and criminalize violent practices such as FGM, child marriage, honor killings, and domestic violence. Furthermore, protection policies must be put in place and carried out by the state.

Grassroots programs should be implemented to help sculpt new norms and belief systems around GBV. “We know that achieving gender equality requires more than just changing laws. The laws need to be meaningfully implemented - and this requires sustained political will, leadership from women and men across societies, and changes to ingrained cultural norms and attitudes” (World Bank, 2019). Help centers need to be available for victims of GBV, while community and resource centers are integral in facilitating dialogues and learning opportunities around GBV. Educational materials addressing the negative impacts of GBV should be offered through community centers. Males must be engaged in conversations, workshops and dialogue opportunities. “Engaging men and boys can increase the likelihood of success. Rather than engaging men only as potential perpetrators of violence, programs should leverage men’s influence as critical decision makers and potential agents of change, as well as recognize men’s susceptibility to violence themselves. Getting their buy-in is important. In some contexts it makes sense to engage men and boys separately, while in other settings this can be done through mixed sex groups” (Kiplesund & Morton, 3).

Despite many of the studies surrounding gender inequality and violence against women, more research is needed on this issue. Studying GBV in relation to post-conflict countries is important because it can help researchers identify larger social patterns. “It is useful to include GBV measures in interventions that do not focus solely on GBV” (Kiplesund et al., 2014). Identifying social norms and behaviors that lead to overall violent tendencies can help conflict prevention. Furthermore, broader research around gender inequality and violence can help provide links between GBV and post-conflict country economic development factors: “A better understanding of impacts of cash transfers, microfinance, education, leadership training and public works on GBV is needed” (Kiplesund et al., 2014).

Gender inequality and violence against women is an overwhelming issue that requires attention from many different angles. However, establishing how these practices can hinder a developing country’s economy can hopefully help shape new perspectives and incentives to create change. Furthermore, by removing physical, legal, and cultural barriers, a post-conflict state can tap into a woman’s economic potential and rebuild with a more balanced and harmonious social dynamic. Women are able to be strong assets to their societies and as they develop new skills and crafts, they contribute economically to their communities. “They (women) are often among the first to call for an end to conflict and to strive for order and rebuilding. In post-war situations, whether in groups or individually, formally or informally, women probably contribute more than government authorities or international aid to reconciliation, reviving local economies and rebuilding social networks” (Sørensen, 1998).


Citation Index:

Bradley, Samantha. "Domestic and Family Violence in Post-Conflict Communities." Health and Human Rights Journal20, no. 2 (December 2018): 123-36. Accessed April 14, 2019.

"Child Marriage." Plan International. Accessed April 22, 2019.

"Child Marriage." UNICEF DATA. 2018. Accessed April 16, 2019.

"Female Genital Mutilation." World Health Organization. 2018. Accessed April 16, 2019.

"Female Genital Mutilation and Other Harmful Practices." World Health Organization. November 28, 2014. Accessed April 16, 2019.

Rashida Manjoo & Calleigh McRaith, “Gender-Based Violence and Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Areas.” Cornell International Law Journal, 2011. Volume 44, Issue 11.

Marohl, Matthew J. Joseph's Dilemma. James Clarke &, 2008.

Mason, Thomas David, and Sara McLaughlin. Mitchell. What Do We Know about Civil Wars? Lanham (Md.): Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

"What Is Domestic/Family Violence?" Compass Center. July 27, 2016. Accessed April 22, 2019.

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