Women’s Rights After War

About the project

In the wake of war, gender equality reforms have become part of a standard toolkit for recovery. The Women’s Rights After War (WRAW) project aims to understand which women benefit from women’s empowerment reforms in the aftermath of armed conflict. The project poses three core questions: (1) Who benefits, and why, from postwar gender reforms? (2) How does the implementation of these reforms shape social divisions, peace, and security? And finally, (3) How are differently situated women able to take advantage of the rights and empowerment opportunities presented? In attending to these questions, the project aims to advance women’s rights and equality in the aftermath of war—vital prerequisites for security and democracy. The project also seeks to question mainstream “women’s empowerment,” which directly informs advocacy, policy, and legal efforts directed at securing women’s rights and equality with men.

Using an innovative multi-stage and multi-method research design – a collection of micro-projects within the overall project – WRAW compares and evaluates women’s rights reforms in six countries that have experienced armed conflict since 1980: Nepal, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and Rwanda. The project uses interviews, systematic analysis of legislation, laws, and polices, participatory workshops, and arts-based methods to conduct embedded fieldwork and to critically and creatively examine reforms across a number of issue areas.

To actually create a gender just world, it will require not only the integration of women into systems that already exist, it will actually require a reimagining and rebuilding of some of these systems in a way that is more inclusive and more just for everybody.

Key findings

There has been a decrease and dilution of international funding and attention dedicated to women’s rights, empowerment, and gender equality over the past five years.

Prior to this project, there was a period of sustained international funding and attention for these issues. However, over the past five years, attention has been dwindling as other significant challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic and global gender backlash emerged. Thus, the dynamics the project calls attention to are even more pronounced given this backlash, resistance, resources shortages, and shift in attention.

A resurgent patriarchal backlash has happened across all countries in the project, but for various reasons.

In some cases, this backlash has been able to emerge in a context where aid programmes and programmes focusing on gender have been done through a narrow lens where they have inadvertently entrenched patriarchal and militarists norms. In other contests, women’s rights have been co-opted for ethno-nationalist objectives and political agendas.

International agendas and programming have taken a narrow lens to women’s rights and gender justice and an intersectional approach is yet to be mainstreamed.

International frameworks, such as the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and its’ National Action Plans (NAPs) are done through a narrow lens that looks at women as one category without thinking of the many different ways that political, social, economic, geographic identities map onto peoples’ collective sense of wellbeing and security. There has been a critical shift to thinking intersectionally about gender work, but this has not yet been mainstreamed and there is less programming and policy work with this approach compared to the work that started in 2000 with the adoption of the first WPS Resolution (1325).

International frameworks are not reaching nor responsive to the reality of life at the grassroots level and remain a fundamentally elitist venture.

The global discourse that has emerged from UNSC 1325 on WPS, and many subsequent global convenings on women’s rights, have been adopted by elites in countries who have internalised these frameworks and see them as effective tools for change. But insufficient work has been done to diffuse these norms and frameworks at the grassroots level, where many women in rural communities have not even heard of these agendas. These frameworks overlook the structural conditions that need to be met first, meaning they become disconnected from their immediate needs.

Global democratic decline and increased militarism is evidence of the failures of post-conflict transitions and programming to lead to sustained peace and gender equity amidst democratic decline.

The international communities’ programmes and UN Resolutions have not held up against the rapid backsliding of rights globally, as evidenced by the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan in 2021, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Sudan, Israel and Gaza and other global conflicts. These global events and militarised responses have exposed the international community’s programmes and resolutions designed to advance women’s rights inability to respond in a meaningful way when there is a backsliding of these rights, and their inability to address and overcome the systems of patriarchy, militarism, imperialism and capitalism that lead to this.

Women’s political participation is conditioned by other aspects of conflict positionality.

In Colombia, Nepal, Rwanda and Sri Lanka for example, women’s access to power is conditioned by their relationship to relevant political elites or power brokers, during and even prior to the war. This speaks to the temporality and adaptability of structures of domination, oppression and violence in the ways in which women’s power is mediated and excised vis-à-vis their relationship to these structures and those who uphold them.

The political instrumentalisation of women’s rights is persistent.

Many political parties or key political actors connected to the conflicts examined in this project benefit from the extension of political opportunities for women. For example, by including women they gain votes and seats while claiming they are committed to democratic principles and practices and an inclusive politics. However, who benefits ultimately is often not the individual women that are supposedly empowered to advance a feminist agenda, but the parties themselves that have been able to navigate a way of gaining more power.

Post-conflict advocacy for women’s rights elevates particular dynamics of conflict violence over other structural forms of violence.

A lot of efforts to advance women’s rights after war has relied on implicit hierarchies of violence, where global advocacy policymaking discourses on women’s rights are structured to focus on singular facets of conflict rather than looking at the different structural layers and dynamics. These overlooked dynamics are often historical forms of discrimination and marginalisation, environmental violence, and harmful gender norms that have reverberating effects, but are not often integrated into advocacy and policy, or oftentimes are not seen as part of the same systems that led to the conflict. These other systems of violence require similar forms of repair.

Conflict affected women and communities hold the expertise when it comes to change and reforms for sustainable peace.

All of the required expertise for sustainable peace does not sit with the people making laws are creating rights in international institutions. Rather, it sits with people who experience the fallout of conflict first-hand. These individuals and communities have the expertise and the knowledge over the things that they need to change their situation and to create and build peace.

When you haven’t built power in communities so that they can articulate their own visions of the future then you don’t have any way of holding the elites accountable.

Recommendations

Policymakers

  • Close the gap between the political rhetoric advocating women’s rights after war and the reality of limited implementation and decontextualised solutions experienced by those most directly affected. There is an urgent need to address the widespread disconnects between the energy, resourcing and formality of women’s right reforms, and the actual lived experiences of communities. These communities need to have a meaningful place at the table to help inform and shape the conversations involving policy changes. Even more critically, policymakers need to ensure that grassroots women – those often far removed from elite politics or institutionalized spaces – are driving forces in efforts to build women’s power.

Academia and researchers

  • The process of research matters just as much, if not more, than the products of research. Researchers should be intentional in their research design to avoid the replication of harmful power dynamics between researchers and the communities they work with and learn from. Feminist research praxis invites us to think differently about what questions we ask, how make decisions throughout the research process, and how we present our “findings.”

I think oftentimes research findings and outputs are very important, and they are also in some ways tied to this productivity mill, in which we tend to value easy, clean talking points over complexity and richness.

Case study: Visions of Resistance: Collage & Political Art

In July 2023, the project held a photographic collage workshop in Bogotá Colombia, focused on amplifying the voices of women affected by the Colombian conflict through artistic expression. Participants were asked to assemble images that have a special significance from their own experience, including family photographs as well as domestic objects with special significance such as flowers, fabrics, stuffed animals, and newspapers.

This initiative engages artists from both Argentina and Colombia as a form of regional solidarity and an amendment to an artificial academic bifurcation. Both countries experienced horrific acts of political violence, often gendered in nature, during the late 20th century, but are seldom put into dialogue. Despite the locus of violence differing between a military dictatorship in Argentina and an asymmetric civil war in Colombia, essential parallels exist between the lived experience of civilians during these periods, particularly for women. Enforced disappearance became a standard repertoire of violence against civilians in both contexts, as did sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence, fracturing families and embedding loss into the countries’ social fabrics.

Women in both contexts during and after war mobilized around a collective identity associated with their gender. This exhibition, as part of the broader WRAW project, serves as a testament to the multi-faceted roles that women have played during war and its aftermath. To explore further regional forms of resistance and activist knowledge production, this exhibition highlights the role of art in fostering a political consciousness of women as not only victims, but also agents of change.

“Art, in its capacity to restructure both the material world and our attention to it, serves a role in preserving the dignity of humans during war and its aftermath. Visual art can contest the silence and complicity that can affect a post-conflict society, promoting memory and attention to the past where amnesia might otherwise take hold. Art can subvert narratives of trauma and paranoia by centring the experiences of victims and survivors in public consciousness. It is with this reparative potential that art can serve as a source of resistance in women’s lives during and after war.”

Women stood at table overlooking collage
Collaged items on a table
Women hands doing collage