Published on Let's Talk Development

The impacts of violent conflict are seldom gender neutral

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While most of the attention to the gender impacts of violent conflict has focused on sexual and gender-based violence, a new and emerging literature is showing a more wider set of gender issues that document the human consequences of war better and help in designing effective post-conflict policies.

In a recent paper, ‘Violent Conflict and Gender Inequality: An Overview,’ Mayra Buvinic, Monica Das Gupta, Philip Verwimp, and I try to organize this evolving literature using a framework that identifies the differential impacts of violent conflict on males and females, known as first-round impacts, and the role of gender inequality in framing adaptive responses to conflict, known as second-round impacts.

First-round impacts of violent conflict include excess mortality and morbidity, especially for men and children, as an obvious direct and indirect consequence of violence and destruction, widowhood, sexual and gender-based violence, asset and income loss, and forced displacement or migration. These first-round impacts often result in reductions in household income and consumption, triggering coping strategies that have gender implications.

Second-round gender impacts are associated with responses that differ by gender, including adaptive responses by households to the violent shock. Second round impacts resulting from excess male mortality include the induction of women into political and civic participation and changes in marriage and fertility behavior.  Women respond to loss of male family members and decline in household income by increasing their hours of work, entering the labor force, or adjusting their time and effort in the home. Women can further cope by migrating and households can curtail (or increase) their investments in children’s health or education. 

The literature review reveals, first, the heterogeneity of impacts across contexts, conflicts, and countries for girls and boys, women and men. Second, the evidence shows that conflict changes households’ demographic profiles and that families’ coping responses include adjustments in marriage and fertility behavior.  For instance, in Tajikistan women of marriageable age who lived in conflict affected areas were one third less likely to be married than women in less affected areas. Third, the literature suggests that the effects of conflict on the labor market by gender mirror those observed in response to economic shocks, and that woman often respond to the absence of working-age males assuming primary economic responsibility for family survival. In Rwanda and Colombia, for instance, women coped with the loss of men’s income by increasing their labor participation.  Fourth, the evidence reveals surprising resilience and adaptability in the responses of many households to the human and economic shocks of violent conflict. For example, follow-up studies found that among Cambodian refugee adolescents, the intensity of posttraumatic stress disorder and depression declined over time.  Factors that have been noted to contribute to posttraumatic resilience include: placing orphans with family members, receiving posttraumatic professional care, and reinstituting normal school life, but much more research is required on the factors that facilitate resilience to traumatic events. One consequence of violent conflict may be changes in traditional gender roles and greater gender equality in the household. Fifth, although many households rebound from the shock inflicted by conflict, women left alone to provide for their families may be particularly vulnerable to conflict-related poverty. For instance, households headed by war widows in Rwanda have higher incidence of poverty and extreme poverty than male-headed households. Targeting widows and their families with post-conflict assistance and resources may halt the reproduction of conflict-related poverty. Finally, the empirical evidence counters commonly held views, such as the pervasive view that sexual and gender-based violence is a phenomenon that affects only girls and women, that rape is primarily a weapon of war rather than a crime of opportunity, or that girls and women are always worse off as result of conflict (when, in fact, they may be comparatively better off because they remain in school or are able to substitute for men in jobs and political positions).

There are several questions for future research to inform the design of effective post-conflict policies. How do gender roles and inequalities affect families’ coping responses to the loss of land, physical and financial capital, and livelihood when conflict occurs? How do these responses differ by gender for the poor and the non-poor? What are the factors that foster resilience by individuals and families to the devastation produced by conflict? When, under what circumstances, and for whom does conflict create opportunities? Gender is an important variable in this research that highlights particular conflict-triggered vulnerabilities, such as infant girls’ nutritional status, boys’ schooling deficits and widows’ burdens, and shapes specific resilient responses to inform the design of these policies


Ursula Casabonne

Operations Analyst, Poverty Reduction & Economic Management Network, World Bank

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