Women and Power After War

A photo from the 2013 National Dialogue Council in the Rwandan Parliament, which has the highest level of women in parliament in the world. Photo via Rwandan Government.

By Milli Lake and Marie Berry for Denver Dialogues.

Until recently, scholarship on women in war was characterized by a focus on the devastating and disproportionate toll that war wreaks on the lives of women. Research in this vein typically casts women as victims, lacking in independent agency. In doing so, such studies often gloss over the complexity of war.

Pushing back against one-dimensional tropes, more recent studies call attention to the roles women have played in perpetrating violence, thereby challenging depictions of women as inherently less violent than men. Others have shown that women play instrumental strategic combat and noncombat roles in conflict that shape trajectories of war.

Less studied, however, are the openings and opportunities brought about through war, which have the potential to disrupt and fundamentally reorder gender relations in the aftermath. In 2009, Melanie Hughes broke new ground in this area by systematically examining the role of women in post-war politics, showing that certain types of armed conflict are associated with increased numbers of women in national legislatures (also see Hughes and Tripp 2015). We recently reviewed several notable books that further this discussion (see Freedman 2015; Mageza-Barthel 2015; and Tripp 2015). While the literature on female combatants sought to challenge and undermine static depictions of gender binaries in conflict, this new field of work highlights the openings and opportunity structures that allow women to enter new political spaces. Precisely because it is so destructive, war can topple existing sociopolitical hierarchies, thus creating opportunities for new norms, structures, and relationships to emerge. Our own work has also contributed to this field (see here or here).

Research on the gender-based opportunities that arise in the aftermath of war advances our knowledge and understanding of gender and conflict in important ways. However, while remaining attentive to the opportunities for mobilization that are born out of conflict, here we direct attention to two areas in this burgeoning line of inquiry that warrant careful attention. The first is a gap between symbolic (and sometimes substantive) advancements in women’s rights in certain spheres, and the structural and socioeconomic constraints that impede their implementation or equitable distribution. The second pertains to the strategic and deliberate instrumentalization of gender parity for political—and sometimes conflict-related—ends. The political cooptation of women’s empowerment and emancipation is worthy of particular scrutiny, especially where women’s rights are granted selectively against a backdrop of otherwise oppressive or authoritarian practices. These concerns extend to women’s empowerment efforts more broadly as well.

Feminist scholarship has critically explored the limitations of women’s empowerment schemes, arguing that international norms and frameworks promoting women’s inclusion neglect to fundamentally transform the gendered power relations and institutions that produce women’s marginalization in the first place. Further, such frameworks often overlook how rights or inclusion efforts can differentially empower women within inegalitarian social orders, as women from certain ethnic, class, religious, linguistic, political, or educational backgrounds may stand to benefit more fully from their inclusion or rights. Such unequal impacts of rights-based empowerment efforts can create new forms of social inequality, widening the gap between policy and practice and even further deepening some women’s oppression. Women’s empowerment efforts thus frequently face a Masters-Tools problem, to build on Audre Lorde’s famous dictum, in that the same political systems that produce women’s oppression can never be satisfactorily reformed or leveraged to eradicate it.

Indeed, examples from our forthcoming work illustrate these points (see here and here). In Rwanda, for example, despite having the world’s highest level of women in parliament, a gender-sensitive domestic legal framework, and a host of institutions designed to protect and promote women, the vast majority of Rwandan women remain extremely poor, subjected to myriad forms of violence, and unable to take advantage of all the rights they have on paper. Such dynamics highlight the need to remain attentive to the ways in which differently situated women may experience unequal gains from women’s empowerment efforts. Similarly, in DR Congo, while many women have been able to take advantage of new laws, rights, advocacy and outreach concerning women’s protection from violence, these rights are only selectively available to women residing in close proximity to NGO projects or those willing to frame their grievances using very specific language and framing.

In addition to questions about who stands to gain from increased political representation, and which limited forms of gendered emancipation are granted to which populations, questions about some of the alternate political considerations that shape the processes of integrating international gender norms into domestic legal frameworks arise from work focusing on women’s empowerment after conflict. In Rwanda, international norms surrounding women’s equality were not just promoted by women activists, but also by the postwar regime with a more politically expedient motive: to obscure the overwhelming dominance of Ugandan-born Tutsi members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front in parliament and the limited power of any government branch beyond the executive. Promoting women became a fruitful political strategy; President Paul Kagame’s regime garnered good press all over the world while more deeply entrenching its own political control. Moreover, by filling cabinet positions and seats in Parliament with women, Kagame’s regime effectively gutted civil society, depriving it of the women who had done the most to spearhead the grassroots movement for women’s progress and co-opting potential sources of political competition. As Tripp (2015) notes, a similar process unfolded in Liberia, as women who were most involved in the peace movement took better-paid positions in government or with INGOs in the aftermath.

Thus inclusion can have the effect of neutralizing civil society, limiting possibilities for democratic participation, and curtailing the ability of civil society to serve as a counterweight against authoritarian tendencies espoused by the ruling regime. Scholars must remain attentive to the fact that the political incentive structures that shape rights gains in one area may ultimately serve to undermine rights in other areas, thus weakening the transformative potential of those gains over the long term and permitting other forms of oppression to go unchecked.

As the nature of global conflict shifts away from interstate or even civil wars towards more diffused, localized violence characterized by state and nonstate armed actors, it is important to recognize the important gains women have made in securing rights-based emancipation in the aftermath of war. Women affected by violence will continue to play an essential role in rebuilding society in its aftermath and these contributions should not be written out of history. Moreover, it is important to recognize the ways in which the destabilizing effects of war can engender power transitions that give rise to positive and negative repercussions simultaneously.

Yet it is also important to question how shifts in the nature of violence actually affect gendered power relations beyond representation in parliament. We urge scholars to look for opportunity in the wake of destruction, as well as how these openings might be harnessed to catalyze meaningful social change. However, we also urge scholars to remain wary of gains that serve to marginalize and disempower less privileged constituents. Gender scholars—and women’s empowerment champions more general—should be especially concerned with how seemingly progressive reforms can create new forms of inequality and harm.

Note: This piece is adapted from our recent thematic book review:

Marie E. Berry & Milli Lake (2017). Gender Politics after War: Mobilizing Opportunity in Post-Conflict Africa. Politics & Gender 13 (2), 336-349. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1743923X1700006X

Marie Berry is an Assistant Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Beginning in Fall 2017, Milli Lake will be an Assistant Professor at the London School of Economics’ Department of International Relations. Prior to that, Dr. Lake was an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies.

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