How Gendered Experiences Shape Processes and Practices of War and Peace

Jennifer Amy Leigh, The University of Law, UK

Jennifer is currently a full-time Civil Servant and part-time Graduate Diploma in Law student at The University of Law. Previously, she graduated from The University of Manchester with a MA in Politics and from the University of Liverpool with a BA Honours in English Language and Literature. Jennifer has studied abroad at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China, and IILM in Delhi, India. 


This article considers the gendered nature of conflict. It argues that war is not a patriarchal preserve and that gendered experience extends conflict beyond its usual boundaries. Women are shown to be affected by war, as the term is broadly understood, in a variety of ways, although the full extent of female experiences has not yet been assimilated into conflict discourse. It shows that the usual demarcations between war and peace do not reflect gendered experience, and the examples of the Congo and Korea are used to illustrate this point. The value of social constructivism in providing a theoretical framework for gendered experience is war is also considered, with reference to female experiences in World War One. The example of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is examined in even greater detail, particularly in respect to women’s experience of violence, sexual or otherwise, and their unwillingness to discuss it. Attention is given to the role of peace, which is defined not as the absence of war, but as the absence of insecurity and other forms of violence not usually associated with traditional conflict. The role of gendered experience in shaping peace processes is also considered, especially women’s participation is peace-building and the secure establishment of peace after conflict. It is suggested that many more connections need to be made if gendered experiences in the narratives of war are to be fully appreciated. The importance of avoiding stereotypes is made apparent.

Recent developments in the nature of warfare have had profound consequences for gendered experiences both during and after conflict. While war has traditionally been defined as either an international military struggle or a civil conflict between opposing forces within a state, it is now increasingly understood as ‘a sustained campaign against something undesirable’ (Concise English Dictionary, 2011: 1628). Indeed, today’s wars are referred to as ‘wars’ against drugs, guns, and terror (Kerrigan, 2017; Winkler, 2011; Rogers, 2004), partly, but not exclusively, fought within civil societies, including women and children holding only a limited knowledge of the war in their streets. This essay will show how war and peace can be viewed through the prism of gendered experience and, more importantly, that a full appreciation of the gendered nature of conflict is vital if the processes of modern warfare and peace-making are to be fully understood. This essay will use theories which stress the role of male elite power interests, as well as those which argue that the end of conflict is merely the prelude to the reassertion of patriarchal, social relations and ‘gendered dynamics’ (Borer, 2009: 1172). It will show how gendered experiences extend war beyond its hitherto geographical and temporal frameworks and bring value to the idea that peace should be ‘built’ rather than simply ‘declared’.

It is vital from the outset to understand the different ways in which women are affected by war and post-conflict situations. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 recognises that, at the most basic level, men and women experience conflict differently. The Resolution encourages international actors to increase women’s participation in peace and security processes and incorporate gender perspectives into post-conflict initiatives. An example of these principles being successfully applied is the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. Yet whilst Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (2016: 275) rightly identifies WPS as “the dominant discourse framing women’s advocacy and action in international affairs”, she also explains that until recently, the types of conflict likely to fall within the WPS agenda’s remit have been narrowly defined as those which lie within the denotation of traditional armed conflict. Presumably, the long-running siege of Mosul (2016-2017) would be included, whereas the 2012 racist murder of Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi woman, in California would not (Sjoberg, 2013; Katrandjian, 2012). Presumably, the 2017 attacks in Borough Market in London would also be excluded. The exclusion of these events, which do not fall within traditional definitions of armed conflict, is significant since it increases the risk of gender essentialism by which the gender is understood according to physical characteristics. This limitation in the WPS agenda’s remit is particularly significant as the terms for inclusion have been defined by male-dominated security institutions. For example, while the first session of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) briefed states on the role of women in combating terrorism and extremism, the CTC has not to this date negotiated with the WPS, leaving the latter playing a peripheral role in the terrorism discourse. Ní Aoláin concludes:

“the superficial inclusion of references to women in the context of addressing terrorism and advancing counterterrorism strategies should not be read as a form of meaningful intersection between the WPS agenda and by now well-established post 9/11 international security regimes […] The parallel reality is that, despite over a decade of intrusion into the peace and security arena, women find themselves (yet again) at the wrong party” (2016: 289).

One conclusion which might be taken from this is that despite the WPS agenda’s attempt to include gendered experiences in conflict and post-conflict narratives, the full range of women’s experiences have not yet been fully accepted into the discourse of conflict prevention and resolution.

Defining War, Defining Peace

It can be argued that the traditional demarcations between war and peace do not allow for the full expression of gendered experiences. To see war as the incidence of violence between two or more states and peace as the absence of such an incidence generally obscures women’s experiences in war. This is the argument of Chris Cuomo (1996: 42), who sees war as “white noise in the background of social existence”. Thus, while certain women in the Congo perceive the motivations of soldiers to commit rape as intimately connected with the conflict, and regarded as the ‘spoils’ of war, other women experience war in less traditional contexts (Card, 1996). For example, Catherine Moon detects war in the behaviour of women prostitutes in the development of the Korean De-Militarized Zone (1997). Indeed, viewed from a broader perspective, events such as the death of Alawadi lay outside the conventional divisions between war and peace. Several feminist scholars (Elshtain, 1987) have argued that to distinguish between war and peace is similar to distinguishing between the public and private roles in civil society. Once such a distinction is removed, the ways in which gendered experiences shape the processes and practices of war and peace become clearer.

As such, it is important to identify a theoretical framework by which these gendered experiences can be more clearly understood. The theory of social constructivism, according to which the thread of gender identity is “woven, moved, stretched” as women and men take their places in the social world (Messner, 1990), has attracted some attention in regard to this issue. Michael Messner explains that “gender identity, rather than being viewed as a ‘thing’ which people ‘have,’ is thus conceptualized as a process of construction which develops, comes into crisis, and changes as a person interacts with the social world” (Messner, 1990: 419).

An understanding of social constructivism allows us to gain a new perspective on gendered experiences. For example, during the First World War, particularly following the introduction of conscription in 1916, women’s gender identity significantly developed; the effects of this development extended far beyond the Armistice of 1918 and the peace treaties that followed. Conventional historical analysis has highlighted the way in which the involvement of women in WWI aided the campaign for female suffrage. Yet social histories of the 1920s shows how pre-war patriarchal societies sought to restore women to their traditional roles, while several women rejected any easy categorisation and certainly any restoration of pre-war complacencies (Vera Brittain and Virginia Woolf are two contrasting examples) (McKibbin, 1998). In this context, peace can indeed be interpreted as a process, one which has an impact far beyond the conventional stereotype. Hanley’s (1991) thesis shows how the widespread perception of the solider on the front line as the main victim of war frequently prevents us from acknowledging other victims and the effect of war on gendered experience. This also:

“discourages questions about war as a continuous condition […] eerily reminiscent of the motel room Patrick Purdy left behind when he set out for the Stockton, California schoolyard where he would spray the playing children with bullets from his assault rifle, killing five and ultimately himself. His room at the motel was empty but for a company of toy soldiers […]” (Hanley, 1991: 31-32).

The fact that Hanley’s analysis stretches from the First World War to the Cleveland Elementary School shooting in 1989 reveals the long history of tensions in gendered behaviour in the context of war and peace. However, detailed analysis of a more recent peace process will allow us to understand gendered experience more comprehensively.

The Example of South Africa

A highly persuasive account of the gendering of peace concerns one of the most famous peace and reconciliation movements. Tristan Anne Borer’s analysis of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SATRC) shows that women were reluctant to talk about the sexual violence experienced during the apartheid era. Indeed, women were far more willing to discuss offences committed against male relatives rather than offences against themselves, a point illustrated by testimony concerning sexual violence (Borer, 2009). Rape, as argued by Diken and Lausten (2005), is a prime strategy of warfare. In their work on the Congo, Baaz and Stern (2009) show women were often raped by soldiers from their own country as well as by peacekeepers who were supposedly their protectors. Yet, among the 21,000 testimonies given to the SATRC, only 140 mentioned rape (Borer, 2009: 117; South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 1998: 296). One explanation for this outcome is that, according to its definition, the TRC was interested in gross violations of human rights (GVHR) confined to killing, abduction, torture or severe ill treatment. Notably, Borer (2009) does not argue that rape surely qualifies as severe ill treatment. However, she does show that in its desire to pursue racial injustices, the TRC underestimated the degree to which “patriarchal power relations were integrated and used to bolster the power of the oppressors within indigenous communities” (Goldblatt and Meintjes, 1998). The TRC was clearly aware of its deficiencies in this area and stated in its final report that the definition of GVHR adopted by the Commission resulted in a blindness to the types of abuse predominantly experienced by women. This evidence indicates how the processes and practices of peace can be misconceived when insufficient attention is given to gendered experience, and to the social constructivist role played by women in post-conflict situations.

The South African example is equally instructive in other ways. Though an understanding of women’s experiences is essential to the process of peace, women in South Africa were reluctant to describe assaults due to a sense of shame. Added to this sense of shame, black women generally feared that testifying against the men who raped them would bring shame on the post-apartheid government. Indeed, many of the alleged rapists held government office positions and some were prominent members of the ANC (Borer, 2009). In this context, it can be argued that truth was particularly dangerous for post-conflict reconstruction. In addition, women who testified to events of rape suffered before they themselves rose to significant positions in the ANC would be seen as ‘weak’ from a male standpoint, assuming they had ‘allowed themselves’ to be placed in such a situation. Ultimately, the TRC acknowledged that women had indeed suffered from gross violations of their human rights, yet did so without undertaking a full investigation of those violations, an inquiry which may have been further hampered by the widespread reluctance of men to acknowledge the acts of sexual violence committed (Borer, 2009).

The South African example is also helpful for understanding present-day South African society. Sjoberg (2013) and other scholars (McEvoy, 2009) have shown that peace needs to be ‘built’ and is “not something that can be imposed from the top down by political elites but something that must be constructed from the bottom up with citizen participation” (Sjoberg, 2013: 180). The absence of such participation in South Africa has led to a failure to implement fundamental changes in ordinary women’s lives, despite many black women now occupying significant government positions. In Borer’s view, the failure of the TRC to address these issues means that the chances of implementing such changes are made “immeasurably more difficult when one key institution devoted to raising awareness about the culture of human rights – such as a truth commission – turns a blind eye, no matter how unintentional, to the plight of women” (Borer, 2009: 1186).

Perhaps a positive conclusion to be drawn is that the absence of a full analysis of gendered experience could enable other post-conflict societies to understand the rigour needed if the process of peace is to be fully completed.

Broader Conceptions of Peace

If gendered experience is to be fully assimilated into the reconstruction of peace in post-conflict situations, a much broader understanding of the nature of peace is needed. As discussed, peace is not merely the absence of war, but also the absence of violence and insecurity. Birgit Brock-Utne (1989) persuasively suggests that peace should encompass justice and equality rather than simply an end to war. The replacement of violence and insecurity with justice and equality can be achieved only if certain areas of gendered experience are addressed. Brock-Utne suggests that these areas include wife-beating, unequal working conditions and free speech, and may also include an end to sweat shop labour and gendered divisions of labour and resources. Women working in factories whose rights are infringed by the demands of war, those forced into prostitution, and those whose domestic safety is threatened, can all begin to shape peace processes by bringing their situation to the notice of relevant authorities. However, such willingness to give evidence may be limited, particularly in societies where war is closely linked to ideals of masculinity.

In societies where masculinity and militarism are particularly intertwined, the proclivity for war can be a structural rather than an incidental issue. Gendered experience can shape the process of both war and peace by showing how war is often perceived as the conventional image of “(masculine) warriors” protecting “(feminised) civilians” (Sjoberg, 2006). Such notions of protection are often far removed from the reality of feminine experience of war. Women are not necessarily protected in such situations and when they are, such protection may be dependent upon a loss of other rights such as the freedoms of expression and self-determination. Susan Rae Peterson has argued that war is a ‘protection racket’ whereby the lives of those ostensibly protected are risked to justify the making of war (Peterson, 1977). Indeed, some people justify the making of war by reference to the protection of the idealised ‘female’, a process which frequently entails the subjugation of women. This is one of the reasons why military propaganda has typically focused on the victimisation and murder of women by enemy combatants in order to motivate men to volunteer for service. Victory can legitimise exploitation and provide an excuse for violence if that exploitation is resisted.

The analysis above underlines the crucial role of gendered experiences in shaping peace processes. However, to take the first steps towards achieving this goal, it is vital that the theoretical positions underpinning peace activism are fully understood. The essentialist position places innate male violence at the root of war, making a clear link between war as it is commonly understood and violence in domestic situations (Kelly, 2000). Moreover, it is argued that attacks on women in war are evidence of a male desire to possess women as property, given that property, if defined broadly, can include productive labour and reproductive capacity (Turshen, 2001). In addition to physical assaults, women in war are made responsible for tending to the injured, caring for the young, and playing their part to ensure that another generation will be produced. This view clearly does not reflect the full range of gendered experiences in either war or peace, and fundamentally limits women to the traditional reproductive and nurturing roles. As Louise Vincent suggests, peace-builders who rely on such stereotypes:

“are reinforcing rather than assisting the fundamental revisioning of prevailing relations of gender dominance which justify women’s exclusion from the public sphere of work and politics on the basis of their putative special responsibilities and proficiencies as mothers” (2001: 5).

There seems to be a double-knot here, in that the evidence of the WPS suggests that women’s roles in peace-building are limited partly because of an essentialist outlook, and such a limitation refers to both male and female failing to be considered when peace processes are underway. It is these deficiencies which clearly need to be addressed if war is to be fully understood and peace built on secure foundations.


Evidence suggests that gendered experiences have shaped the processes of war and peace far more in recent years than has historically been the case. It is now understood that women’s experiences include more than simple nurturing and, just as significantly, that male roles in conflict and conflict resolution can be stereotyped as well. El-Bushra et al. (2005) has pointed out that women engaged in peacebuilding have been described as ‘weaving’ peace or supplying a ‘warm blanket’ of peace. Although such words reflect essentialist preconceptions of women’s roles, gendered experience is generally viewed as more concerning. Social constructivism offers opportunities to reveal the depth and variety of gendered experience. Gradually, an understanding of these two positions is filtering into peace processes. At the same time, the deficiencies outlined in South Africa, the Congo and elsewhere, not to mention the limitations of the United Nations in this regard, reveal that many more connections need to be made if gendered experiences are to be completely reflected in post-conflict contexts. This may change both the lives of everyone involved in conflicts and the complex processes of reconciliation that follow them.


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