In recent decades, the devastating and disproportionate toll that armed conflict wreaks on the lives of women has garnered considerable and much-needed attention. 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 of conflict. These processes, neglected until recently in scholarship on postconflict transition, can — and have — resulted in surprisingly positive outcomes for women’s rights and political representation

Not long after Rwanda’s genocide in 1994, for instance, the country boasted the highest percentage of women members of parliament (MPs) in the world. Liberia and Uganda, two other sites of extreme mass violence, demonstrated similarly impressive gains for women in the postconflict era, with Liberia inaugurating the continent’s first popularly elected female president. Countries such as Botswana, on the other hand, which has an impressive record on a range of other development indicators and no recent experience with violent conflict, exhibit strikingly low rates of women’s representation in parliament. Why are women’s rights and rates of leadership improving rapidly in postconflict countries in Africa but lagging behind elsewhere on the continent? Put differently, what explains the puzzling disparity between the status of women in postconflict countries and in countries that have not experienced violent upheaval?

Three important new books on gender and power in postconflict Africa bring these questions to light. Gender, Violence and Politics in the Democratic Republic of Congo by Jane Freedman; Mobilizing Transnational Gender Politics in Post-Genocide Rwanda by Rirhandu Mageza-Barthel; and Women and Power in Post-Conflict Africa by Aili Mari Tripp illuminate the distinct ways in which women’s roles can shift as a result of conflict.

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.