What armed conflicts mean for women

**This article contains themes that some readers may find upsetting**

The recent headlines have shocked us beyond the imaginable. Yet another war, just around the corner. Prompted by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Constantina offers us an insight on the impact of armed conflicts on women. Drawing from a different array of examples, she shows that women are not sufficiently prepared for war because they are often considered "vulnerable".

Imagine your country to be suddenly under attack. What do you do? Is your first thought to take your family and flee? What if this is not a possibility? What would you do then? In practice, your choices are limited: either you hide in a shelter and wait for something to happen, or you take arms to defend your life, your home, and your people. Well, if you are a woman, you most likely have one only possibility.


Why? Because as a woman, you would most likely end up in the first scenario, taking care of children, elders, and all those who are not able to join the battlefield. Because, if you are a woman, you will fall into the vulnerable groups. And that’s because society is not fully reconciled with the idea of a woman being active in a battle.


Unless you were living under a rock the past few weeks, I am sure that you have been struck by the recent headlines: Russia's invasion of Ukraine. You may feel shocked, sad, enraged, frightened or all the above. Well, welcome to the club!


The current war in Ukraine prompted me to write this piece about the impact of armed conflicts on women and why it is necessary to protect women's rights and needs, before, during, and after armed conflicts.


You might wonder why I want to use women as a filter: don’t all human beings suffer during war to the same extent? Well, that’s true, but women do experience war in different ways and I am going to show why.


First, only a handful of countries in the world draft both men and women on equal conditions during armed conflict. This means that only a few communities are free from the gendered assumption that a woman is less competent to perform in a military position than her male colleagues.


Even in that case, only a low number of women actually joins the battlefield. And the reason is that only a few women are trained for a military conflict before it happens. For instance, in Ukraine, women occupy the one fourth of the military force, which is a considerable amount if compared to the numbers of other countries.


Moreover, the female Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister, Iryna Vereshchuk has a substantial role in the defence operations of the country. But this is just the last example of a role that women are trying to cut into a sad event like warfare.


Another example is the all-female Kurdish-led militia fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria since 2013. Did you know that today one third of the Kurdish security services is female and that they represent 40% of their autonomous government? These women built a community in Jinwar, northern Syria, where female victims of ISIS live together and protect each other from war violence.[3]


But while in some countries women are trained and fight to protect their society, in other parts of the world things are looking worse. And at this point, allow me to introduce myself: I am a woman who spent one quarter of her life on a military occupied island. That is Cyprus, a country that was invaded almost 50 years ago by the Turkish military. In Cyprus, men must join military training for at least 9 months, while women can voluntarily choose to participate in training for the non-combatant population. I was living in a country receiving war threats from the occupying military force every now and then and yet, women were only optionally prepared on what to do in case of a military attack.


Twenty years ago, a U.S. study showed that men thought to be better prepared to handle a military crisis than women. And since gender stereotypes survive also in times of crisis, while men are expected to join the army, women are expected to be once more part of the “vulnerable” population.


Women stay behind to maintain the remaining threads of community, while they are targeted as members of the civilian population because of their gender... And let’s face it: war today, it’s not like it was 50 years ago. Military training is based on technology and has little to do with physical strength.


So why would women be classified as “vulnerable”, when they are perfectly capable of joining the army, being involved in both political and social groups, participating actively in peace campaigns, providing support in shelters, or even putting aside their psychological trauma for the sake of their children?


Women in wartime show great courage and resilience as survivors, while in most cases have no preparation at all. It is definitely more difficult for them to fulfil their roles during conflict when restraints have been imposed upon them before even the war happens. When society sees women only as victims and believes that they are incapable to fight like a man, then they are more likely to become victims.


And let’s not forget about those women who in times of crisis happen to be in need of special assistance (I can't help but think of pregnant women, just to mention one category). Do governments make arrangements about what will happen in these cases? Research has shown that about 140.000 women die in conflict every year because the medical assistance in war camps is more focused on soldiers than on civilians. Many pregnant women receive no special assistance, protection and in some cases, they are even neglected.


And what about those women who are victims of sexual violence during the war? Not too long ago, sexual assault was an inevitable part and a war tool meant to humiliate the enemy. In Cyprus, in 1974, hundreds of women and girls were victims of mass rapes by the enemy soldiers. Sexual violence in war is not only part of history. It is still a common phenomenon today since the perpetuated perception of women as a weapon in warfare still exists in many cases of conflict.


It is understood that in wartime, extreme measures are taken. However, there is no excuse in targeting women only as “victims”, letting them be completely exposed by disregarding them. Women need to be involved in the war process as much as men.


The international community and the respective national governments need to create strategies that take into consideration the needs of women and prepare them in cases of emergency as well as to provide them with the necessary support during and after conflict.


And what would be the best way to achieve that? That’s easy: by involving women in leading roles since they are the only ones who can better assess, implement, and evaluate what can be best for themselves.


In this piece, I don’t suggest that we all take guns and start training in case of war, but until we live in a world when war ceases to exist, we should start including women in conflict prevention, resolution efforts and especially, provide them with the necessary support when their rights are being violated. And this doesn't only apply to a situation of crisis.


Women should not be considered only “victims” or “vulnerable individuals”. Warfare is a human event, and it is a shared problem among all the victims regardless of their gender. So let women be visible in it and participate without confirming their prescribed and assumed societal gender roles.


Wars are always horrible. Let our thoughts go to all the women in Ukraine, Syria, and all other parts of the world, until one day the idea of war will be only an awful part of our imagination.

 

By Constantina Kyriacou


Disclaimer: this article takes into account only a female perspective, but we acknowledge that war has a profound impact on every party involved.