Rehabilitating Women in Post Conflict Scenarios: Developing Institutional Responsibility

September 9, 2015 OPINION/NEWS




Anant Mishra


The United Nations has been involved in conflict resolution since its inception after the Second World War in 1945. However, its role as global peacekeeper does not conclude with the end of violence.

In addition to peace-building, it is constantly working towards the economic and social rehabilitation of all people involved in conflict zones. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has a direct stake in this effort as it is currently working towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These international goals are expected to be completed by all United Nations member states by 2015 and include the eradication of poverty, the promotion of gender equality, improvement of maternal health and universal primary education. As is evident from the nature of the MDGs, there is a deliberate emphasis on the rights of women.

There is some form of conflict taking place in most regions of the world today. Even though women themselves can sometimes partake in the violence, they are more often than not among the greatest harm resulting from it. In fact, during violent conflicts, beyond 70% of the causalities are civilians – principally women and children. If women are often cited as the real victims of conflict, it is surprising and rather sobering to note that there are very few rehabilitation efforts that take into account their problems. In fact, most rehabilitation efforts are not only aimed at men but also headed by them. This is why women are often called ‘hidden’ in post-conflict zones.

Women are affected by conflict in several ways. As a result of direct conflict, they may not only face physical injury and mental trauma but also sexual and gender-based violence, such as rape and sexual slavery, both of which increase their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. Within fragile societies currently emerging from conflict, women not only struggle to keep their families together and care for the wounded, but they are also the first ones to be affected by infrastructure collapse and thus forced into survival strategies that, in most of the cases, encompass some form of exploitation. Finally, as IDPs and refugees, women are often forcibly displaced and live for prolonged periods of time in refugee camps where they are subjected to different forms of sexual violence; and furthermore, due to the absence of men, who are often engaged directly in fighting, women assume non-traditional responsibilities and see their domestic tasks intensified in their efforts to secure shelter, food, and security for their children and family.

The crucial point to keep in mind is that armed conflicts not only affect women in distinct ways, but also differently than men. The latter must be recognized in order to devise a framework for rehabilitation of post-conflict zones that would in turn respond to the actual, rather than the assumed, needs of all of those involved: men, women and children. As a delegate, you must also be mindful of cultural differences within society. In protecting the rights of women in post-conflict zones, we must be aware of cultural differences since every society has different traditions and values attached to women. Lastly, delegates must take a broad perspective when it comes to this topic. This topic is interesting precisely because it is so far-ranging. Within this debate you must consider the status and treatment of IDPs, rape and healthcare, education, employment, the changing nature of familial and social relations after conflict and developing a framework for the political participation of women. You must also consider the nature of a rehabilitation project in post-conflict zones, particularly in terms of funding and workers’ safety.


History of the topic

There are many international legal frameworks that are valid in our discussion of women’s rights and rehabilitation. The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination (CEDAW), adopted in 1976 by the General Assembly, commits states to ending all forms of discrimination against women and ensuring equal access to opportunities in political, economic and public life.

The Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) acknowledges the role of women as victims of conflict, and calls for their involvement in post-conflict reconstruction, political transition, and reintegration processes. Its key points are specific to the protection of girls and women during conflict, emphasizing the importance of a gender perspective in post-conflict situations. Additionally, the resolution requests Member States take action to educate and train peacekeeping troops on the impact HIV/AIDS has on women, particularly in conflict situations. Moreover, the issue of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in armed conflicts was addressed in resolution 1820 (2008), while resolution 1888 (2009) emphasizes the need to bring perpetrators of SGBV to justice and calls for the protection of women during peacekeeping missions. Finally, resolution 1889 (2009) focuses on the need to include women in the peace-building and decision- making processes to achieve sustainable peace.


Important issues faced by women in conflict zones:

Internally Displaced People (IDPs)

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement define internally displaced persons as a person or group or persons who have been forced to flee from their homes, particularly as a result of or in order to avoid the outcomes of circumstances of generalized violence, natural or human-made disasters or violations of human rights, armed conflicts, ‘and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border’. According to UNHCR, there are currently approximately 45 million people considered to be refugees, internally displaced or stateless; 80% of which are women and children. When discussing post-conflict zones, it is fundamental to take into account the internal population displacement. In fact, in many conflicts, women constitute the overwhelming majority of the displaced population. Despite the majority, reintegration projects aimed at IDPs often fail to meet women’s needs.


Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV)

As defined by the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action resulting from the Fourth World Conference on Women, the term ‘sexual violence’ refers to the crimes of rape, sexual mutilation, sexual humiliation, forced prostitution and forced pregnancy. In conflict, a culture of sexual entitlement can prevail among armed groups, in which women are exploited as ‘spoils of war’. Sexual violence against women is used as a genocidal strategy to inflict physical, mental and emotional harm that creates conditions for the destruction of a society. Armies and militia groups use systematic sexual violence to demonstrate power and dominance over the targeted community; family members are forced to witness the rape to show their weakness and inferiority. Rape as a weapon of war has been documented in many conflict affected countries, including Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Liberia, Rwanda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A study by Human Rights Watch reveals that 40% of women and girls in Cote d’Ivoire have been victims of sexual abuse and in Sierra Leone approximately 250,000 women and girls – which equals 33% of the total female population – have suffered from rape, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence. The victims of sexual violence suffer from severe physical consequences including infertility, incontinence, sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDS, psychological suffering and fear of stigmatization.

Despite several international agreements, illegal acts continue to be committed, including rape as a method of warfare and terrorizing people into submission or displacement. Rape does not end with the cessation of conflict, it often continues as female IDPs move into camps. A 2003 sample of 388 Liberian refugee women living in camps in Sierra Leone found that 74% reported being sexually abused prior to displacement and 55% reported experiencing sexual violence during displacement. The committee must consider how to deal with bringing the perpetrators to justice; as well as ensuring the full mental and physical recovery of victims.


Health/ Mental Trauma

Sexual violence is just one way in which women are physically affected during conflict and post-conflict situations. At times, sexual violence may lead to HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS charities and international peacekeeping operations both recognize that women and girls during conflict and in post-conflict situations are disproportionately vulnerable to HIV infection. The main reason for this is that individuals from armed groups that carry out sexual abuse often carry sexually transmitted diseases. Furthermore, due to little or mostly no access to health care, the women do not receive adequate treatment. For example, during the ongoing civil war along the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rape and sexual violence is regularly used as a weapon of war. About 60% of the militia believed to be behind the rapes are speculated to be HIV-positive. Literally none of the women have access to health care services to prevent an infection. Today, this area is considered to be on the verge of a major HIV epidemic.

If women are raped in conflict or post-conflict situations, they are also unable to receive emergency contraception in time and are faced with an unwanted pregnancy, comprehensive abortion services not usually being available in such areas. Moreover, another aspect of women’s health is maternal health and pregnancy. The ten countries with the highest number of maternal deaths are all either currently experiencing armed conflict or are in what can be termed a ‘post-conflict’ situation, such as Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Chad, Angola, Liberia, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As a result of conflict, health infrastructure is often destroyed, medical supplies are scarce and health personnel are often forced to leave the area. Most of these countries already lack an adequate health infrastructure and women already have difficulties to access health services. Therefore, when conflict occurs, women face a double challenge: they need to cope with the already limited access to health service and additionally are often targets for sexual and gender-based violence. Furthermore, they often need to travel greater distances (which also means increased personal danger) and spend more money for health services. Women therefore require uninterrupted access to an adequate and functioning health care system to prevent the risk of death, illness and complications with pregnancy and childbirth.

Another challenge that mothers and pregnant women face during conflict is that often they cannot afford health care services for themselves or for their newborns, yet are particularly vulnerable and thus in greater need of those services. To address this issue, in April 2010, the government of Sierra Leone together with Médecins Sans Frontières began implementing a program which provides free healthcare for pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and children under the age of five. One example of its success is that the number of children diagnosed and treated for malaria has increased ten times since the implementation of this policy. Previously, one in eight women risked dying due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth; however, these numbers have already started to decrease and the government and Médicins Sans Frontières expect a further decrease in the following years.

As a refugee or IDP, it is even harder for women to gain access to quality health care. Even if affected, women normally have access to adequate health services; if they are forced to flee they are deprived of access to medication as well as to contraception which leads to a higher incidence of pregnancy and thus a greater need for reproductive health services. Displaced women also don’t have their support systems anymore and it makes it harder for them to share their knowledge or to give advice on childcare and basic health and hygiene. An example of how governments could handle the health care needs of refugees is Guinea. From 1989 to 2004, Guinea has received more than 500,000 refugees and IDPs from the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The government responded to their health needs with the ‘Programme d’assistance aux réfugiés Libériens et Sierra Léonais’ (PARLS) which provides refugees with free treatment from the Guinean health service which are later reimbursed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Providing refugees with free or at least affordable and accessible health care is of the utmost importance, especially for women as they are particularly vulnerable during conflict and very easily become victims of sexual violence.


Planning Rehabilitation and Political Participation

Usually after periods of conflict, there is a period of political transition. This period provides an excellent opportunity to advance women’s rights. The recent revolutions that have affected the Middle East and North Africa are a perfect illustration of transition. Women who had until then been marginalized from society’s key institutions became deeply involved in these uprisings by leading the protests, setting media campaigns in motion and advocating political changes, at times putting their own safety at risk. However, the women that were at the forefront of these movements are now being excluded from the reconstruction process, igniting concern in the international community

During this process of political transition, it becomes imperative to ensure the presence and participation of women in the political process so that their civil, political, social and economic rights are guaranteed. With the creation of new constitutions and ongoing cultural shifts, there is a huge opportunity for women to enhance their participation by paying close attention to certain aspects of the reconstruction process and by ensuring that government officials enforce effective gender equality policies, which will contribute to building stable gender-sensitive governance.

When it comes to the drafting of a future constitution there needs to be a transparent process with the participation of women. This can be done by creating an inclusive legislative commission and increasing talks with civil societies. Constitution builders should also consider women’s rights by including in the constitution non-discrimination policies such as affirmative action or positive discrimination. Furthermore, the electoral system that is chosen may also influence women’s leadership opportunities. Out of the two electoral systems that are used worldwide, research has shown that women achieve better representation under proportional representation systems, in which parties have to provide a list of members and consequently strive to have a list including an important amount of women. Quotas can also ensure the equal participation of women.

Finally, in the aftermath of a conflict, women must be included in the processes of peace-building and societal reconstruction. Indeed, women are often excluded from official peace talks and negotiations which leads to incomplete agreements that do not cater to the particular needs and concerns of women.


Familial and Social Structures

Emerging from conflict zones, women often find themselves in very changed social and familial circumstances. Women are often isolated on account of taking up traditional male roles or for being raped or becoming pregnant. Special attention must be directed to the reintegration of women who have refused to be part of the traditionally patriarchal structure of their societies, or who are isolated because they have been rejected by their families and/or their communities. Furthermore, reintegration programs often focus merely on economic reintegration while victims usually require other types of support, including socio-cultural appropriate psychological trauma therapy and counselling in order to reintegrate to society. This is particularly important from a gender equality perspective as there are often high rates of domestic violence and rape related with times of conflict, and different levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms for female and male ex-combatants. Moreover, the sexual violence and gender-based views that women and girls are subject to during situations of armed conflict often continue in post-conflict transition periods and in some cases the incidence of domestic violence even increases.


Education and Employment

Education is a fundamental precondition for the empowerment of women in all spheres of society. There exists an obvious gender gap in education; women making up for two thirds of the global illiterate. It is thus important to focus post-conflict policies on education in order to strengthen the democratic process. The schooling of girls gets disrupted during conflict periods. It must be ensured that schools are rebuilt if damaged and that students continue with their education as soon as possible.

Post-conflict reconstruction also presents a unique opportunity to reorganize the state and increase women’s capabilities in the economy. It provides the chance to eliminate the gender gaps in employment such as higher levels of unemployment, lower wages, poor working conditions and stereotypical roles, as well as exclusion from economic policy-making positions.


Funding and Protection

Women’s Reproductive Health in Post-Conflict Colombia 

Colombia has been in the midst of armed conflict for close to fifty years, resulting in the displacement of nearly five million civilians. This makes it the country with the second largest population of IDPs after Sudan. While some of them live in rural areas, the majority live in urban areas such as Nariño, Chocó, Cauca, Valle del Cauca and Antioquia. However, regardless of where they live, their access to health services is extremely limited and they face severe health challenges. If one compares IDPs to non-displaced Colombian women, one notices big differences, particularly in the area of sexual and reproductive health. For example, even though domestic violence is rather widespread everywhere in Colombia (92% of female deaths in 2008 were committed by their spouses or boyfriends), the situation is nevertheless worse for displaced women as 52% of them have been a victim of it, as opposed to 41% of non-displaced women. A Colombian woman who is displaced has an average of 5.8 children, which is notably higher than the national average of 3.1 children, thus indicating reduced access to contraception. Furthermore, the rate of unintended pregnancies among displaced women from the ages 13 to 49 is 40% higher than that of non-displaced women.

The Reproductive Health Access, Information and Services in Emergencies (RAISE) Initiative, together with Profamilia, the largest sexual and reproductive health organization in Colombia, tries to improve the current situation by bringing critical RH services to displaced and impoverished people in Colombia. They started to create mobile health brigades in order to provide remote communities with RH who would otherwise receive none. These mobile health brigade clinics offer family planning, antenatal care and general medicine consultations. Furthermore, they offer transportation to hospitals or one of the six Profamilia clinics in case of an emergency or a complex surgery.

Another challenge Colombia faces, is that quite often displaced persons, especially women, do not have extensive knowledge of existing health services to which they are entitled. Therefore, the project also registers them for the national health system in order for them to receive services at any public institution. Finally, the project offers education for women and adolescents on family planning, sexual rights, gender-based violence, and STIs, including HIV/AIDS.


Political Participation in Post-Conflict Afghanistan  

After four decades of ongoing conflict, Afghanistan established the foundations for a new state through the Bonn Agreement in 2001. Many women’s organizations were consulted during these negotiations and as a result, the 2004 Afghan constitution strictly prohibits any form of discrimination against women and calls for the protection of fundamental women’s rights. Additionally, it also implemented gender-friendly policies such as quotas to ensure women’s political leadership. Women now make up 27% of parliament compared to 3.7% in 1990. Furthermore, Afghanistan also set up a Ministry of Women’s Affairs which focuses specifically on gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment. Subsequently, in 2008, a 10-year National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan (NAPWA) was launched in order to ensure the application of commitments made in the constitution regarding non-discrimination and equality for women as well as to guarantee the full implementation of international agreements such as resolution 1325. As a result, while in 2001, there were only one million children in school – most of them boys – currently, more than six million children go to school and over 30% of them are girls. Afghanistan has also tried to increase national security, by implementing the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW).


From the desk

Nonetheless, progress has been hampered by several factors. Despite national commitments towards empowering women, prevalent social norms and customs, mostly patriarchal and clan-based, still contribute to women’s exclusion from decision-making positions and socio-economic opportunities. This is particularly the case in rural areas of Afghanistan where the government has difficulty reaching out to Afghan women. In addition, insurgent groups like the Taliban persist in their attempts at destabilizing communities of Afghanistan which hinders the implementation of law and order. As a result, women are still victims of insecurity which reduces their chances of having access to health care, education and work opportunities.







Anant Mishra

Anant Mishra is a freelance Writer and Journalist having had work published in numerous publications worldwide. He is also a former Youth Representative to the United Nations.


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