The Impact of War on Women/Women Waging Peace


We humans have trapped ourselves in a war-based society for thousands and thousands of years. War, as a way of life, is so pervasive and normalized that even capitalism—which claims to be all about efficiency and cost-effectiveness—embraces and perpetuates war. Yet there is no more wasteful, self-destructive, psychotic, and costly human endeavor than war.

The cost of war goes far beyond the money we give to Lockheed or Halliburton to build bombers or military bases, or the money we give to churn out billions of bullets. The real cost of war is what it takes away from us. From the lives lost to the social upheaval, the real costs of war are far greater than the official cost analyses.

Casualties to soldiers are always figured into the cost of war, but the physical and psychological injuries to civilians are not. Yet they have lasting repercussions, from the missing limbs to the debilitating diseases that accompany the sudden lack of sanitation, running water and food; and while former combatants receive counseling for their post-traumatic stress syndrome, in most cases, civilians do not.

The devastation to a nation’s economy—from the destruction of its infrastructure, industries and farmlands to the inability to provide jobs and basic needs to its citizens—can last for decades. And the destruction to the environment can takes generations to overcome.

Even in the U.S.—where we never have to see the mutilation caused by our bombs—our civil economy is steadily drained, our infrastructure slowly collapses, our schools, hospitals, fire stations begin shutting down, social services are withdrawn from the most vulnerable and needy; jobs, homes and lives are lost, as more of our national treasury and our national psyche is devoted to waging war.

But above all, the real cost of war is how it impacts women because ultimately, it is the women who bear the price of the wars waged by men.

Although less likely than men to be combatants, women account for the majority of adult civilians killed in war.1 And for the women who survive, the cost is also far greater.

There is no nation on the face of the earth where women have rights or status equal to men. They are—everywhere and throughout history—considered secondary to, and the property of, men. And that lack of equal rights, equal access to jobs, health care, land, housing, education and legal protections, is made far worse during war.

During wartime, it is predominantly the women who are left behind to care for the children, put food on the table, pay the rent, the utilities, the medical bills, and try to survive in the middle of a war. Wars happen in populated areas, to civilian populations in cities, towns and villages where the women have been left to protect themselves and their children against the bombings, the occupations, and the enemy soldiers.

In any war, the women make up the majority of the civilian population,2 so it is the women who must try to keep their own lives and families going, even when they are denied the same access to jobs and assistance, and even when jobs, along with all aspects of normal life, become nonexistent.

During wartime, as military spending increases, social services decrease or are eliminated. Housing, clean water, basic food staples—all those take a back seat to the war effort. And women are the first to be impacted because the needs of women and children are not considered a priority by the men who run governments and wage wars because these men can’t comprehend that the needs of women are the needs of society.

As combatants receive priority in emergency hospitals and clinics, health care services seen as women’s issues—always considered nonessential—are no longer available: nonessential services like prenatal and postnatal care, breast and cervical cancer screening and treatment, immunizations for children, abortion and family planning, screening and treatment for HIV and AIDS, counseling and treatment for rape, domestic violence, and a range of other crimes that target only women.3

And one thing is always certain during wartime: a curtailment of civil rights which, for women, always means losing what little ground they may have gained. In countries where females only recently gained the right to an education, theirs are the first schools to be shut down, and they’re the first to be fired.4

When civil laws are superseded by Emergency War laws, the rights of women are thrown out with the constitution—in part because those recently-gained rights are still too new to be an accepted and cherished part of society, and in part because a government cannot wage war if empowered women refuse to hold the nation together while the men go off to slaughter or if empowered mothers refuse to send their children to war.

During wartime, while the men are gone to war, it is the women who hold the nation together—who take over the jobs, run the stores, the farms, the factories and the schools. But the women’s new role as sole provider for her family, along with her traditional role of providing food and water become nearly impossible as infrastructures are bombed, sanctions are imposed, curfews and pogroms and ethnic cleansing campaigns instituted, and there is no longer anything left of normal life.

As food—and the means to obtain food—disappears, women are forced to turn to prostitution in order to keep themselves and their families alive. Not only does this make women’s lives even more uncertain and perilous, but it increases the range of health problems associated with prostitution, from unwanted pregnancies to STDs and AIDS. And it also places the woman at much greater risk for sexual violence at the hands of men taking advantage of the woman’s desperation and society’s breakdown in policing and prosecution of civilian crimes.5

By the time invading armies or bombing campaigns force people out of their homes, the majority of those people are women and children. It is estimated that up to 80 percent of people displaced by war are women and children.6 And what happens to female refugees is not the same thing that happens to male refugees.

Despite numerous studies and requests for changes by the UN, Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, and numerous women’s organizations, the services and aid available to refugees are primarily provided by men who have little or no experience in dealing with women.7

As a result, it doesn’t occur to them to provide female gynecologists, if gynecologists are provided at all. It doesn’t occur to them to provide job training to women or any of the same kind of economic aid that is given to the men. And, in any case, men receive aid first.8

In one study of a refugee camp in Bangladesh, Burmese girls under the age of one year died at twice the rate of the boys, while women and girls over the age of five died at three and a half times the rate of males.9 In another refugee camp in Zaire, Rwandan refugee families headed by women were found to be suffering more malnutrition than the families headed by men.10

Like societies everywhere, women are excluded from decision-making and positions of power, and this lack of input from women has dire consequences for everyone. The men who run relief operations often farm out distribution of food and water to local businessmen, who turn around and sell it on the black market.11

It doesn’t occur to the men who run the camps that because it is the women and girls who go out and gather firewood and forage for food and water, they suffer greater casualties from antipersonnel mines.12

And it doesn’t occur to the men who run refugee camps to provide counseling and assistance for rape victims. Nor do they provide special security for women and girls within the camps.13

Of all the differences between the impact of war on men and women, gender-directed sexual violence is probably the greatest and most devastating.

Rape, trafficking and sexual slavery of females is as common a weapon of war as the gun. According to Amnesty International:

The abuse of women in armed conflict is based on traditional views of women as property, and often as sexual objects.…It is a weapon of war, a tool used to achieve military objectives such as ethnic cleansing, spreading political terror, breaking the resistance of a community, rewarding soldiers, intimidation, or to extract information.…Women have long been attributed the role of transmitters of culture and symbols of nation or community. Violence directed against women is often considered an attack against the values or “honor” of a society.14

In the words of a Native American proverb, “A nation is never conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.”15

During wartime, the sexual assaults directed against women and girls is so brutal and widespread, it is often considered a war within a war.

And, in recent years, this gender-directed warfare has taken a particularly horrifying turn: Rape is increasingly being used as a weapon to spread AIDS to the enemy population.16

But it’s not only the enemy soldiers who perpetrate crimes against women during wartime. Local armies and militias are notorious for demanding payment in the form of sex in exchange for protection. The International Red Cross reports that in villages along the borders of war zones, young girls are left in unlocked huts at night for the use of local militiamen, a practice condoned by the entire community in exchange for protection.17

Women and girls are raped, brutalized and murdered by local police, by neighbors and relatives, and by countless others who take advantage of the breakdown of law and order. The number of women and girls being kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery and forced marriages skyrockets during wartime, along with the creation of rape camps.18 Even peacekeeping troops and allied forces take part in raping as well as in the business end of sex trafficking.19

Some of them have set up businesses selling videotapes of local women and girls being raped and then murdered. In Bosnia-Herzegovina alone, it is estimated that as many as 10,000 women have been trafficked into prostitution and sexual slavery since the end of the war in 1995, with the UN peacekeeping troops playing a large role in facilitating these crimes against women.20

Even females combatants themselves face rampant, institutionalized gender-directed violence within their own armies. From Myanmar to Uganda, girls are abducted and forced into conscription, and are also subjected to repeated rapes by their fellow soldiers.21 In the U.S. military, an estimated 41 percent of females veterans experienced sexual assault while serving our country.22 What’s more, the culture of contempt for females is so pervasive that one-fifth of the women believed that rape was to be expected in the military. Among current servicemembers, 37 percent of the women raped in our military have been raped more than once, and 14 percent report having been gang-raped.23

Whether internally displaced or as refugees, women forced to run are at far greater risk than men, and not only because she usually has the added burden of carrying the children. As Amnesty International reports, “While fleeing war in their homelands, women are victims of rape and sexual violence at the hands of security forces, border guards, locals, smugglers, and other refugees.”24

And, while the refugee camps may be a safe haven for men, they are not for women. Although the UN, the Red Cross and numerous non-governmental agencies have reported the rampant sexual abuse of women in refugee camps, the problem remains largely unchanged. As Amnesty International reports, “Unaccompanied woman and girls are often regarded as common sexual property in refugee camps and may face forced prostitution as well as coercion into sex in exchange for food, documents or refugee status.”25

Finally, from so-called modern nations to traditional societies, when a women is raped, the stigma is on her. In many nations, she is considered unclean. If she is married, her husband throws her out; if she is single, she is no longer eligible for marriage. Worse, in some societies, she is considered to have brought such dishonor on her family that she is murdered. These so-called “honor killings” are not only particularly common during wartime, but in recent years have been spreading, as the fundamentalist backlash to U.S. occupations grows.26

Following our invasion of Iraq, women were attacked, raped and murdered at unprecedented levels, not only by criminals and security forces, but by fundamentalist militias. The attacks on women became so widespread that large numbers of women and girls stopped leaving their homes. Families pulled their girls out of schools, as increasing numbers of fundamentalist militias patrolled the streets, attacking women without head coverings and assassinating professional women and women who refused to stop attending university.27

At the governmental level, women were excluded from most levels of power and decision-making. Their demands for fair representation in the newly-created post-invasion government, to be included in drafting the new Constitution, to establish a women’s ministry, to stop appointing increasing numbers of misogynist fundamentalists to key positions—were all ignored.28 In fact, the attitude toward women in the U.S.-appointed Coalition Provisional Authority was summed up early on by one high-ranking U.S. official who said, “We don’t do women.”29

And neither do most other governments, particularly in the aftermath of war. Reconstruction is carried out by men “transitioning” from combat duties or war profiteering, so it’s not their concern that land mines maim and kill 15,000 to 20,000 people each year; it wouldn’t be cost-effective for the corporate victors to remove them.30

It’s not their concern that chemical warfare has poisoned the air, soil and water for generations to come. It’s up to the mothers of Viet Nam to care for children with multiple, debilitating birth defects while trying to make a living off land made barren by dioxin. It’s up to the mothers of Iraq and Yugoslavia to watch their children dying of leukemia from the uranium-tipped missiles dropped on their countries. It’s up to the wives and girlfriends of our country to care for vets whose lives and health has been destroyed by Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome. And it’s up to these women to take the physical abuse from their men suffering post-traumatic delayed stress syndrome.

It’s not up to the men who can’t or won’t plan for the human cost of war.

The “we don’t do women” attitude is why women are excluded from peace talks, treaty negotiations and post-war reconstruction. This hatred and contempt for all things female has led our world to stake our lives and our futures on the Orwellian fallacy that men, because they are tough, uncompromising and focused on winning, are more suited to negotiating a peace than women, who are less egocentric and competitive, and too apt to find a workable solution for all parties.

The fact is, the men who wage war are uniquely unqualified to wage peace. Waging peace requires skills unknown to the men who’ve been raised to thrive on power and supremacy, to establish hierarchies and rule with iron fists, who’ve been socialized to glorify anger and sneer at tears. The fact is, the men who run the world are stupendously lacking in the abilities necessary for the job so they wage wars instead.

Whether the differences between women and men are nature or nurture is irrelevant because the reality is that in our current world—not a future world where all children are raised equally—women are socialized to be less competitive, less ego-centered, less violent, more willing to find a solution for all parties, more nurturing and more apt to approach things holistically. (Of course, if women are the same as men, then there’s no reason whatsoever to exclude them, is there?)

One example of the difference between male-directed leadership and female-directed leadership was described by former U.S. Ambassador to Austria, Swanee Hunt:

[Women] come to the table with a different perspective on conflict resolution. [They] are more likely to adopt a broad definition of security that includes key social and economic issues that would otherwise be ignored, such as safe food and clean water and protection from gender-based violence. This sentiment was expressed to me by South Korea’s Song Young Sun, the National Assembly’s military watchdog. Most of the men she serves with define security as protecting South Korea’s territory against North Korea, she said. [But] she believes that security considerations should also include “everything from economics to culture, environment, health, and food.”31

Meanwhile, an example of male-directed leadership would be how our leaders handled the 1999 Rambouillet peace talks that failed to stop the NATO bombing in the Balkans. After isolating and excluding the popular Kosovar pacifist Ibrahim Rugova and instead supporting the nationalist KLA militia, the U.S. then presented non-negotiable demands that neither the Serbs nor the Kosovars could possibly agree to, including NATO occupation of both countries and the imposition of a free market economy.32 Most tellingly, following the collapse of Rambouillet, a U.S. State Department official told reporters, “We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing, and that’s what they are going to get.”33

While men continue pursuing their wars at any cost, women have always risked their freedom and their lives to meet with the enemy, bring together all parties, include the excluded, mainstream the marginalized, get to the root causes of war, and seek a lasting peace with justice.

In 1915, in reaction to the impending slaughter of World War I, thousands of feminist peace activists around the world risked being jailed for sedition to oppose war, met in The Hague to develop a framework for international peace with justice and formed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).34

In 1916, one of these women, Crystal Eastman, spearheaded a “People’s Diplomacy Campaign” to prevent a war with Mexico following the bloody U.S. invasion of that country. Eastman brought together trade unionists from both countries and convinced President Wilson to appoint a commission. U.S. troops withdrew, and the war was averted.35

In 1979, following the successful overthrow of the Nicaraguan dictatorship, the Sandinista men who took power famously had no plan in place for actually running the country. While they scrambled for several weeks to come up with a new government, it was the women, through their democratically-formed neighborhood Defense Committees, who distributed food, formed health, education and sanitation brigades, kept the economy and local governments going, and actually ran the country from the grassroots level till the men took over.36

In Rwanda, in the words of President Paul Kagame, “After the genocide, it was the women who rolled up their sleeves and began making society work again.” One of those women, Aloisea Inyumba—herself raised in a refugee camp—created the “Each One Take One” campaign to deal with the hundreds of thousands of children orphaned by the massacres. The campaign resulted in huge numbers of Hutu women adopting Tutsi children and Tutsi women adopting Hutu children.37

Even President Clinton, who is quite frankly not known for his respect for women, said after the failure of the Palestinian/Israeli peace talks in 2000, “If we’d had women at Camp David, we’d have an agreement.”38

And even the Nobel Peace Prize committee, which has traditionally only recognized men whose resources and connections put them in the limelight (including men who are famous for waging wars), has begun to look at the extraordinary, far-reaching work of women who actually wage peace and devote their lives to sustainability, social justice, and true change.

Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Prize as a result of her work on sustainable development, democracy and peace, created the Green Belt Movement, a massive reforestation program which provided sustainable economic assistance to the marginalized, impoverished women of Kenya. Since 1977, over 30 million trees have been planted and over 30,000 women trained in forestry, food processing, bee-keeping, and other trades that help them earn income while preserving their lands and resources.39

Jody Williams, another recent Nobel Peace Prize winner, initiated and coordinated the international campaign to ban landmines which resulted in an international treaty that 162 countries have signed as of 2013.a, 40,41

Though most have been written out of history, women have always worked to bring about peace, including Aung San Suu Kyi, Shirin Ebadi, Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkol Karman, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,b Rigoberta Menchu, Sojourner Truth, Jeannette Rankin, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Alice Paul, Rosa Parks, Grace Paley, Swanee Hunt, Coretta Scott King, Helen Caldicott, Barbara Lee, Efua Dorkenoo, Vjosa Dobruna, Stella Tamang, Hanan Ashwari, Yuko Nakamura, Ala Talabani, Medea Benjamin, Cindy Sheehan, and thousands more women who are waging peace around the globe every day.

In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, Alec Guinness’ Prince Feisal says to Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence, “Young men make wars…then old men make the peace.”42 In fact, men in power have never made peace. The truces and treaties made by them have always been nonviolent forms of the wars they continue to wage: wars for territory, for markets, for supremacy. The truces they forge—truces for territory, for markets, for supremacy—are nothing more than temporary cessations of shooting while they sow the seeds for the next war in their treaties.

After thousands of years of being trapped in a war-based culture, women have really had it, and are become increasingly more insistent and involved in stopping conflicts and mediating disputes—despite being officially marginalized and excluded from the mainstream peace talks established by men, despite death threats, personal sacrifice, vilification in the media, imprisonment, beatings, abandonment by their husbands and families, and against odds that few men have to face, these extraordinary women persist and prevail.

Increasing numbers of women everywhere understand that the exclusion of women from participation in decision-making, in government at the highest levels, and from any sort of real power has dire consequences for the whole world. Because women are excluded from resolving conflicts, wars happen. And because women are excluded from attempts to end wars, wars escalate. And because women are excluded from formal peace talks and the forging of treaties, truces collapse, reparations are inadequate and wars begin again.

These women are never welcome at the table, so they find other ways to bring about peace. They use their creativity, their intelligence and holistic approach, and their very outsider status to seek sustainable solutions based on inclusive, participatory democracy rather than hegemony and violence.

From the Sudan to Colombia, from Jerusalem to Bangladesh, women are increasingly taking international matters into their own hands and effectively settling disputes with long-term, broad-ranging solutions. These women are creating a world based on a peace with justice. They are putting an end to the slaughter.43

copyright 2009, Mimi Yahn


Leymah Gbowee of Liberia was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work in bringing an end to the 14-year war in Liberia. She spoke at the 3rd Annual Women in the World conference on March 9, 2012, and said, “As long as we continue to engage from a position of weakness, they [men] will never respect us. It is time for women to stop being politely angry. It’s time for us to get up.”44 Image from Indulgy.com.45


The Notes to The Impact of War on Women/Women Waging Peace

a: Since the landmine ban treaty was introduced in 1997, the United States is one of 35 nations that still refuses to sign.46,47

b: In 2012, three women, Tawakkol Karman of Yemen and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leyman Gbowee of Liberia were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”48 Since it’s inception in 1901, only 44 women have received Nobel prizes in all the categories, compared to 832 men.49,50