The Invisibility of Women in Conflict Zones

This reading list examines women’s complex experience in conflict zones along with their potential to emerge as equal stakeholders in conflict zones for ensuring rehabilitation and mitigation. This analysis maps the risks and vulnerabilities it exposes them to, their experiences, how sexual offences are frequently trivialised in the volatile space that is a war zone, and more.

As British academic Cynthia Cockburn once observed, “Gender has a curious way of being both simultaneously present and absent in popular perception.” (Cockburn 2004)

Women’s access to fundamental rights are frequently left out of the political discussions, actions and networks that run through conflict zones. A gendered lens must be used to analyse conflict because of the complicated challenges and cascading repercussions that occur before, during, and after the war and the substantial impact it has on women's lives. The war zone presents a socio-political discourse that is still underdeveloped both in India, as well as internationally.

This should especially be examined in light of the fact that "Civil conflicts have more than doubled over the last two decades, rising from 30 in 2001 to 70 in 2016." These grim numbers serve as a reminder to the never-ending conflicts that have pervaded human history. They prompt us to reconsider how we approach the political and social terrain of conflict zones and to reflect on the challenging path to achieving justice for women. 

Sexual violence as a tactic of war

Wartime sexual violence is not just committed by some individuals, but rather it is often deployed as a tool to further political/military gains, to prove a point. This becomes especially challenging in the absence of justice delivery mechanisms and the lack of criminal infrastructure. To that extent, rape has also been normalised as an inevitable outcome of war. In a similar vein, Bharat H Desai and Balraj K Sidhu observed in their 2017 article in EPW, ‘Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: A Challenge for International Law?’:

 The struggle to ensure justice for women victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is aggravated by pre-existing exclusions and discrimination that typifies women’s status in many societies. It, in turn, has a compounding effect in exacerbating gender vulnerability in war-torn societies.

Ann Tickner, who has dedicated her life’s work in providing for a feminist theory to be integrated into the realm of international relations, underscores the prevalent biases in the masculinised, realist version of security studies. She has argued that “Adding women's experiences to the subject matter of our investigations is not enough: feminist perspectives must also expose previously hidden gender relations in order to demonstrate how gender inequalities can themselves be a source.” (Tickner 1995)

Security Concerns

Everyone’s experience of war is different. Structural violence only brings to light the insecurity of individuals trying to survive in conflict zones. Sapna K Sangra in her 2018 EPW Perspective piece titled ‘Transcending Ethnic Differences: Feminist Perspectives from Jammu and Kashmir’ sheds light on the experiences of  middle-aged women in the Kashmir conflicts, for whom, security concerns overshadow even the economic concerns. 

As recurrent migrations, persistent living in inhumane conditions under the constant glare of strangers, with no space for privacy, along with the highly militarised borders, have made them vulnerable, especially to sexual threats. Due to the fencing and the presence of the BSF, their space has been curtailed. They do not have open access to their fields and often feel suffocated within the boundaries of their houses.

Women’s bodies are seen as “instruments of war” in such zones, and as the article points out, violence is directed towards women in various forms. Women’s physical, mental as well as emotional well-being is at stake; they are often displaced from their land, defrauded, widowed, and left to live as refugees. 

Women as peacebuilders

As conflicts and consequent humanitarian crises continue to wreak havoc on communities and impede communities general prosperity and well-being. Women disproportionately bear the brunt of war, yet are given little opportunity to emerge as equal stakeholders in post conflict rebuilding of states. They end up paying the larger price for the destruction; which includes rising gender-based violence and discrimination as well as a decline in gender-sensitive structures.

Rita Manchanda in her 2005 article ‘Women's Agency in Peace Building’  observed that there is a lack of attention to the post-conflict experience of “peace” that in turn produces greater impoverishment of women. 

Dominant reconstruction models involve downsizing government and privileging private sector as the engine of growth. Women are the first to be laid off in wage employment in the public sector. The feminisation of the informal sector is a phenomenon of post-conflict societies. Moreover, structural adjustment programmes reduce the availability of public resources for food security, health and education.

On similar lines, G Amarjit Sharma in ‘Politics of the Informal: Women’s Associational Life and Public Space in the Hills of Manipur’  explains how women foster positive change in ethnic conflict-afflicted contexts-

Women volunteers went from house to house, collecting rice, pulses, clothes, blankets, and charcoal or firewood for cooking. The volunteers aimed to resettle the displaced and empower them to restart their normal lives by working in cultivation, as vegetable vendors, or daily wage earners.

These examples serve to remind one of how critical it is to increase women’s bargaining power in these spaces.

International Law 

Uneven international justice delivery mechanisms persistently fall short of providing swift justice for sexual offences in war zones. Mark Skelden in his 2001 EPW Commentary,On Asian Wars, Reparations, Reconciliation narrates how ‘The Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery’ offers a distinct perspective on handling of war zones.

The Tokyo Tribunal presented the salient facts of violence against women in war as a basis for establishing individual criminal culpability and state responsibility to press the Japanese government to issue an unequivocal official apology and provide restitution to the victims for that nation’s war with Asia.

Moving beyond binaries

In conflict zones, the home-outside binary, or the private-public is often erased in practice as violence enters people’s lives and personal spaces, diluting any distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Samreen Mushtaq in her 2018 article, ‘Home as the Frontier Gendered Constructs of Militarised Violence in Kashmir’  elucidates why “[w]omen cannot simply be placed between the binaries of “victims of violence” and “agents of peace.” Even when seen as survivors, witnesses or frontliners resisting militarised violence in the everyday, the analysis must not fall prey to romanticising a notion of resistance that invisibilises the violence, despair, and resilience of women’s lives in conflicts.”


The diverse set of perspectives presented here are intended to emphasise  the adoption of  a  contextual approach to problem-solving in conflict zones instead of adopting homogenous strategies that exclude women. Advancing their meaningful political inclusion in war-ridden spheres is critical to both fulfilment of human rights and post-war recovery.


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