Women and girls face a range of distinct challenges during conflicts. As law and order break down, women and girls are at risk of abuse and exploitation. War undermines civic institutions, community structures, and legal frameworks that protect women’s rights and enable their social and political participation and opportunities. Women and girls may be preyed upon without recourse to social, physical, and legal protection.
Women and girls are at increased risk of gender-based violence. This violence exploits unequal power dynamics that war intensifies and escalates their vulnerability. The UN defines gender violence as: “physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life. Conflict makes gender violence more common.
Sexual violence can be the most horrific and nasty form. It’s widespread and devastating. Reports from the Democratic Republic of the Congo suggest that up to 40 percent of women and girls were exposed to conflict-related sexual violence. Acts such as rape, sexual assault, and enslavement are frequently employed as weapons of war aimed at instilling terror and undermining the morale of enemies, their families, and communities. The stressful contexts of conflict also lead to increased intimate partner violence.
War results in the widespread displacement of women and girls, with 90 percent of refugees being women and children. However, escaping a conflict zone does not guarantee safety. Displaced women and girls face extreme vulnerability while on the run and in new communities or refugee camps, where they may lack protection and the means to sustain themselves. In many cases, a displaced woman may be the sole provider for her dependents, including children, elderly parents, or family members with disabilities. The experience of women fleeing war zones is characterized by endemic stress, limited access to healthcare, increased risks of infant mortality, and physical danger.
Conflict and displacement also contribute to poverty. Poverty becomes a catalyst for gender-based violence and harm against women and girls. Economic desperation and dependency can push women into exploitative and risky activities, such as engaging in transactional sex, to provide for their dependents. Opportunistic individuals take advantage of the instability during crises to exploit women. Psychological abuse is commonly employed by exploiters, who use threats of separation or harm to dependents as a means of control and exploitation.
Many men experience disability or death due to conflict, which adds burdens on women, who often become the sole caregivers. In low-income communities, traditional gender roles and divisions persist, and women in these communities may have had fewer educational and vocational opportunities than their male partners. This limitation in opportunities hinders their ability to attain stability and provide for their families in the long term. Additionally, due to lower social standing and limited choices, women's autonomy is further constrained, making it difficult for them to support themselves and their families independently.
Protection from violence and poverty is undoubtedly crucial, but long-term action against gender-based violence and inequality requires broader social changes in communities affected by war. Women must participate in conflict resolution and post-conflict rebuilding–too often, they remain excluded from these processes. This lack of representation limits consideration of their needs and participation in community decision-making, which can perpetuate gender-based inequality, discrimination and violence. Evidence is clear that including women in peace processes and negotiation leads to more sustainable and resilient peace.
UN Women and the International Rescue Committee advocate for women and help survivors of gender-based violence and discrimination.
UN Women advances gender equality and women's empowerment through advocacy and implementing supportive programs to protect women's human rights and access to social and economic opportunities. They partner with governments, other UN agencies, and local civil society organisations to provide resources and services to prevent violence against women and girls.
In conflict situations, UN Women works with partner organisations to protect women’s rights and reduce harm to women. Their programs are central to peacebuilding initiatives, advocating and supporting egalitarian social frameworks and inclusive institutions that benefit women and girls. Using their significant political weight, they pressure governments to implement and uphold national legal protections and access to justice for female victims of gender-based violence. They back security institutions in unstable environments and train and equip local community groups with the expertise and resources to support women and girls.
Empowering women is essential in reducing violence against them. UN Women advocates for women’s political participation. They leverage female representation in the mediation process so that negotiating an end to war serves women’s interests and needs. They have supported the development of women mediators networks, such as the African Network of Women in Conflict Prevention and Peace Mediation (FemWise-Africa) and the Mediterranean Women Mediators Network. These mediation networks emphasise women’s needs and perspectives and their important role in lasting peace and post-conflict societies that are more inclusive.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) endeavours to prevent gender-based violence against women and girls experiencing conflict and displacement. They provide psychosocial support, such as counselling and assistance to survivors of gender-based violence when it occurs. IRC programs also minimise the vulnerability of displaced women and girls who have fled to unfamiliar places. Through local partner organisations, they provide resources, facilitate access to healthcare and legal aid, and advocate for victims’ rights and protections.
In refugee host countries, the IRC has reestablished safe spaces for Ukrainian women who have experienced gender-based violence. These safe spaces provide mentoring, educate women on their rights and enable peer support and healing. The stability and safety of these residential spaces offer women and girls a chance to process their experiences, increase their resilience and restore their lives.
Ways we can help protect women from violence and discrimination.
Gender inequality and violence violate internationally established and accepted human rights. It is not solely a women's issue; it affects all nations and societies. Conflict intensifies these abuses and inequalities, necessitating collective action from all of us to prevent their occurrence and respond effectively to support women and girls when they do occur.
We can advocate for and support gender equality, political participation, and the protection of women's rights to education, employment, and autonomy in making decisions about their bodies and life choices. Equality facilitates access to healthcare, education, and economic opportunities, enabling women to contribute meaningfully to their societies and families.
Our advocacy must go beyond good intentions or sympathy; it requires concrete actions. One of the most impactful ways individuals can contribute is through financial support to organizations dedicated to upholding women's rights and safeguarding them from discrimination and gender-based violence. These organizations provide valuable resources and specialized psychosocial services that offer relief and mitigate the long-term consequences of violence for entire communities.
Donations contribute to aid organizations' ability to provide sustainable psychosocial support. Typically, this assistance is integrated into broader social and economic peacebuilding projects that strengthen stable civic and political institutions, empowering local cultural organizations, promoting access to education and healthcare, and facilitating economic reconstruction. Women and girls benefit greatly when communities are rebuilt sustainably and inclusively. Additionally, we can raise awareness about the impact of war on women and girls, thereby increasing the visibility of aid organizations and attracting more donors to expand their reach.
Within our own societies, we can support and advocate for policies and laws that promote gender equality and women's rights, while addressing issues such as poverty, inequality, and political instability. By encouraging women's leadership and representation and advocating for gender equality policies, we can help mitigate the long-lasting psychosocial consequences of gender inequality, discrimination, and violence. We should also advocate for the rights and needs of refugee women exposed to conflict and gender-based violence.
Humanitarian aid must prioritize the needs and experiences of women in conflict responses. The profound harm women and girls face necessitates substantial and sustained intervention from all of us.
THIS ARTICLE WAS CREATED BY TIM MCVICAR