Daughters of War

New Wars Through a Gendered Lens of Feminist Theory

(In October 2016, The PPE Society hosted a panel discussion inspired by this article. Click here to see the recording.)

The study of new wars highlights a distinction between traditional warfare, or old wars of the nineteenth and twentieth century, and the “wars of the era of globalization” (Kaldor, 2013). There are prominent differences between old and new wars in their actors, goals, methods and finances. Old wars were between state actor’s, fighting for geopolitical or ideological reasons through structured battles between armed forces and financed through the state, often by taxation of the citizens. New wars transcend these traditional boundaries, they are fought by an array of actors including but not limited to state actors in collusion with non-state actors, mercenaries, jihadists, warlords and others, fought over and for identity using tactics directed towards civilians and financed by “predatory private finance” that includes questionable taxation, Diaspora support, kidnapping, smuggling and other criminal means (Kaldor, 2013).

Feminist International Relations (IR) theory is a multi-faceted paradigm that encompasses a range of different approaches towards IR, wars, conflict and peace resolutions. Liberal feminists concentrate on women’s representation and the impact of female participation in conflict and conflict resolution, radical feminists focus on the notions of difference between men and women, and critical theory feminists look towards the social construct of gender and its implications (Whitworth, 2012).

Just as new wars have changed an array of factors of warfare, so too has there been a drastic change in the role of women in conflicts and the impacts on gender. Old wars saw women as an entity to fight for and protect, a driving force to evoke bravery in soldiers (Sjoberg, 2014) as well as a providing support either “back home” as mothers, wives and placeholders for jobs men have left behind, or as periphery support roles as nurses or administrative roles in the military. The overarching “gender stereotypes that assume men experienced the conflict as soldiers and women experienced it as victims or noncombatants” (MacKenzie, 2009) has scarcely changed for new wars.

Roles for women in an age of new wars diverge into two starkly different directions. The changed the mode of warfare has created an unnerving focus on civilians as recipients of violence which has in turn changed the role of women to intended targets in one direction, and secondly, “provides some women with opportunities to pursue political goals through violence.” (Slyvester, 2013).

Women are used as targets of violence, persecution and other attacks based on their gender in a multitude of ways in contemporary conflict. These can include the systematic use of rape, such as the mass rape by Serbian forces towards Bosnian women in the Bosnian War 1992-1993, the establishment of “rape camps” (Hansen, 2000), women being targets for genocidal rape, where gender crimes such as mutilation, murder as well as  sexual mutilation and rape in the Rwanda genocide of 1994 (Sjoberg, 2013), systematic rape as a military tactic seen in Sierra Leona, often with the abduction of women and forced accompaniment with fighting forces performing a variety of sexual acts, forced domestic labour, forced pregnancy and motherhood (Kaldor & Chinkin, 2013). Women are also being increasingly used through human trafficking and the sex industry as avenues for finance in new wars. Men and boys are also victim to gendered crimes and violations designed to emasculate and humiliate. With the use of a gendered lens provided by a feminist IR theory to new wars, there can be a much needed focus on acknowledging the differences in the ways women and men are impacted by new wars and allow for new avenues of gender based violence prevention and support during post-conflict times. Here, especially liberal feminism calls for increased female representation, which can begin to deliver an alternative to the previous, masculinity centred processes of conflict prevention, resolution and post conflict.

While some of the suggestions of the liberal feminist IR theory offers have been implemented, seen in The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325, formally recognising the differing impacts of conflict on women during and in the aftermath and calling for increase participation of women in the peace processes and peacekeeping operations, there is still a significant void in the changing role of women in conflict. “Common place understandings of war today can still be starkly sex-differentiated: men do war and women suffer, support, or protest war” (Slyvester, 2013). The use of women in combat, not just as observers and victims is also often overlooked, Megan Mackenzie tackles this cleavage head on in her extensive interviews with women battling with the solider/victim dichotomy woman face in a post-conflict Sierra Leone (MacKenzie, 2009). In her study, MacKenzie comments on the “systematic and historical omission of women from post-conflict planning and development activities” (MacKenzie, 2009), referring to the implementation of the DDR in Sierra Leone that catered to chiefly males regarded only as soldiers and women only as victims, bringing to light the contrast in the number of women involved as combatants and the low numbers that participated in the DDR process (MacKenzie, 2009). A mere 6% of the adult combatants that were disarmed were female, and 8% of the child soldiers were girls, despite the estimates of female combatants being from 10% to 50% (MacKenzie, 2009). Women and girls involved in the conflict were responsible for a range of tasks including leading lethal attacks, screening and killing pro-rebel civilians,  poisoning captured war prisoners, killing and maiming pro-government officials, gun trafficking, planning and implementing public attacks, the murder of children, and more (MacKenzie, 2009). These women and girls defied traditional ideas of a soft, nurturing victim of war and now represent the violence women are equally capable of in conflict.

Further challenging preconceptions of women as nurturing and non-violent, there has been increasing numbers of female suicide bombers around the world in new wars. Between 1985 and 2010, over 257 suicide attacks have been committed by females in a range of terrorist organisations, representing about a quarter of the total of suicide attacks in this time (Bloom, 2011). Female suicide bombers are attractive choices for terrorist organisations due to their ability to evade detection of security based on the perceptions of women as protectors and not aggressors.

Radical and critical theory feminists can offer invaluable insight into the discussions of women as aggressors. By acknowledging the differences between men and women and the social constructs that have led to the increased occurrences of women as aggressors, feminist IR theorists can begin to address the motivation and prevention of increased violence, as well as working towards more effective security control that caters to the contemporary mode of warfare new wars have created.

“As the international system and the world change… many of IR’s traditional ways of understanding the sources of war, combatants, and the way war is waged and resolved, must also change” (Slyvester, 2013), this approach being highly beneficial for the analysis of new wars due to their diminishing focus on state actors. While traditional political theories, such as realism and liberalism, tend to focus on a gender neutral approach to conflict, feminist IR theory adds a gendered lens to the study of conflict and wars, new and old. This new gendered lens that acknowledges the differences in impacts felt by men and women in conflict as well as recognises the roles women play in conflicts can offer further, insightful and inclusive ways to resolve and prevent conflict.



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Hansen, L., 2000. Gender, Nation, Rape: Bosnia and the Construction of Security. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 3(1), pp.55-75.

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MacKenzie, M., 2009. Securitization and Desecuritization: Female Soldiers and the Reconstruction of Women in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone. Security Studes, 18(2), pp.241-61.

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Sjoberg, L., 2014. Gender, War and Conflict. Cambridge: Polity.

Slyvester, C., 2013. War as Experience: Contributions from International Relations and Feminist Analysis. 1st ed. New York: Routledge.

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