One of the hackneyed stories told to us is that, throughout history, men fight wars to protect women and children. Because the unfortunate truth is that we often think of men as protectors and women and children as the ones who need protection. These preconceived notions are attributed to constructed gender identities that minimize the idea that women are agents in conflict or involved in war-making, instead constructing them as victims with limited agency. But delving deeper into the role of women in wars and conflicts and examining the problems they face within the system, can help us understand why such notions exist and what led them to emerge in the first place. But first, as with any dichotomy, it can be helpful to examine the binaries that exist in common perceptions about war and peace.

Gender experiences in Conflict

Masculine notions of militarized security pervade peacekeeping tactics and security-seeking behavior. Qualifications for leadership positions are often more suitable for contenders who are men. This also explains why there is a sparsity of women in top positions of the military. Hence, by extension, women are left out of such discussions (peace building etc…) and are generally excluded from positions of power and decision-making in reconstruction efforts.

During wars and conflicts, women also have limited access to economic resources. Distribution of resources in recovery and medical-aid camps is conducted in consultation with male leaders, and women are often left out of the distribution process. The restriction of women’s access to such resources — such as basic food, housing and education — makes them more susceptible to gendered violence.

Feminists have also drawn attention to issues of wartime rape. In the Rwandan civil war, for example, more than 250,000 women were raped. The result that followed was that the women were stigmatized, cast out of their communities and their children labeled as “devil’s children”. In fact, sexual violence and gender-based violence are not just accidents of war but often systematic military strategies. This includes rape and sexual assault, domestic violence and forced prostitution, as well as those selling sex to alleviate financial insecurity. These types of violence against women often continue in post-conflict periods as well, at rates commensurate or even greater than during the actual period of conflict. Furthermore, all of these aforementioned issues are unfortunately and disgustingly considered ‘soft’ issues, as opposed to the ‘hard’ issues like military security that really matter.

Women are often rendered invisible during conflicts, yet women have been part of armies — as cooks, laundresses, and nurses — throughout history. Since the late nineteenth century, military nursing has involved women serving close to the front lines; such women have been vital to war efforts, although their stories are rarely told, perhaps because they speak of death, injury, and vulnerability, rather than heroism and victory.

Conflict: An evaluation through the theory of the “masculinities of violence”

Gender-sensitive lenses help us see the association between war and masculinity. Militaries work hard to turn men into soldiers, using misogynist training that is thought necessary to teach men to fight. Consequently, such training relies on denigrating anything that could be considered feminine or womanly: such as being afraid or expressing any kind of vulnerable emotions. Another image of a soldier is that of a brave and valiant warrior — savior to women and children by self-sacrificially protecting them. The notion that young males fight wars to protect vulnerable groups who cannot be expected to protect themselves, has been an important motivator for recruitment in the army. In fact, the concept of the “protected” is essential to the legitimation of violence.

In contrast, women’s voices, although, have rarely been granted legitimacy in matters of war and national security, they have been stereotypically associated with idealized versions of peace. Drawing on feminine characteristics such as caregiving and connectedness, women peace groups have frequently owed their success to maternal imagery to relay their message. A great example of such a movement was during the early 1960s, when The Women’s Strike for Peace in the United drew attention to the increasing number of challenges against the notion that war is waged by men to protect women. Yes, granted that peace movements that have relied on maternal images may have had some success, but they do nothing to change existing gender relations and stereotypes.

The images of the masculinities of war also enhance the woman’s role as one of the supportive and patriotic mother/wife/daughter. The rarely-accepted truth is that women should not be seen only as victims because as civilian casualties increase, women’s responsibilities rise. In working to overcome these difficulties, women often acquire new roles and a greater degree of independence — leaving women as the sole family providers. For instance, it was not uncommon for women to take up factory jobs during World War 2. However, once the conflict is terminated, more often than not, women are forced to relinquish their new-found independence and return to their traditional (passive and subservient) roles.

As more women are beginning to be incorporated into the armed forces and since the military remains largely a male institution, the presence of women irks many, particularly with respect to their participation in combat. The image of female soldiers fighting and dying in wars is deeply disturbing in the public’s opinion. The assumption and media portrayal that it is only the men who do the fighting, has resulted in little to no efforts in re-integrating women soldiers back in civilian life once the conflict is over. Additional thoughts about placing women in combat, are that although motivated by the liberal principle of equality, it has also been viewed negatively by radical feminists, who believe that women should not partake in fighting in wars started by and fought by men.

The way forward

In October 2000, the UN Security Council witnessed a special session devoted to “Women, Peace and Security”. Resolution 1325 was adopted as a result and it called upon the inclusion of women in peace agreements, the protection of and recognition for the needs of women and girls during conflicts and the increased representation of women in electoral and judiciary systems. This resolution also called for a gender perspective to be mainstreamed through ideas about military, war, peace and security. Despite large-scale efforts by influential organizations like the UN, men still remain chiefly in control and continue to dominate the agenda of world politics. Women’s voices are still unheard of in matters of security and policymaking.

Ultimately, the root problem lies in our association of masculinity with war and femininity with peace. It reinforces gender hierarchies and false dichotomies that contribute to the devaluation of all women, men and peace. Offering a counter-position that rejects both the masculinities of war and femininities of peace can reduce these hierarchies and make a positive contribution towards the ideas we have about peace and social justice. Likewise, exposing myths and debunking them can help us construct less-gendered and more-inclusive definitions of security that are currently missing from both conventional and critical perspectives.

The Red Elephant Foundation

A youth-led initiative for civilian peacebuilding and gender equality

Vaishnavi Pallapothu

Written by

Reader. Writer. Doodler. Learner. Thinker. Believer. Foodie. Traveller. Intersectional feminist. Story-teller. Friend. Sister. Daughter. Paper-cut survivor.

The Red Elephant Foundation

A youth-led initiative for civilian peacebuilding and gender equality

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade