Reconciliation is a long-term process that includes the search for truth, justice, healing and forgiveness. It should be a broad and inclusive process that involves each member of a conflict affected society. In addition, the reconciliation process should be engendered because men and women experience war differently. In this regard, before we examine the nature of reconciliation we must acknowledge how conflict involves and affects women and men in different ways.
The following paper has three sections. The first section explores gender roles and militarization and how the social construction of masculinity and femininity nourishes and legitimizes militarism. In the second section, I highlight why and how gender roles shifts when war starts. Besides suffering, the conflict can trigger enormous strength and agency in women that they would not otherwise have the opportunity to exercise because of the patriarchal structures in their societies. Empowerment moves women from the private to the public sphere, which is usually reserved exclusively for men. Women are not only victims of war but capable and autonomous individuals who play an important role as peacemakers. However, at the end of the war, women frequently loose the gains they made during the war. In addition, women are rarely included in official peace negotiations where they could articulate their needs and concerns. Finally, third chapter will explore the aftermath of conflict and question the role of men and women in peace building and reconciliation. Do women and men have the same interests and concerns in reconciliation process? If they do not, why is that?
Gender and Militarism
Militarism is an ideology structured around creating enemies and perceiving the “other” as a threat to one’s own security. The “other” is defined by making a distinction between people, countries, religions or ethnic groups whereas the “other” is asserted to be “less then” Once distinction is made and accepted the “other” must be destroyed or she/he will destroy “us”.
The enemy is portrayed as both absolute and abstract in order to sharply distinguish the act of killing from the act of murder.
By dehumanizing the other and creating a sense of victimhood, authorities can convince their constituencies that war is unavoidable they must act in defense.
The sense of “manhood” and being male is challenged and manipulated by the state in order to sustain authority and public legitimacy of the military. The state has to ensure that militarization prevails and that men are willing to serve the army and go to combat. Authorities have to “feed” the ego and social construction of men as a brave and strong. Men are made to believe that serving in the military is a “chance of a lifetime” because it will enable them to prove the socially constructed male attributes. In combat, they become warriors.
Furthermore, a soldier is portrayed as a warrior who “self-sacrificially” protects women, children and others who are “in need” of protection. It is very an important motivator for military recruitment. The concept of “protected” is crucial to the legitimacy of force and violence. Moreover, a protector needs to have an object of protection, something worth fighting for.
When men are sent into war to protect their home and country, they are told to protect their womenfolk from defilement by enemy men. Women are usually perceived as objects who need protection but also create pressure and guilt in men if they have any doubt about war. In general, women are often seen solely as victims that men need to fight and even dying for.
Militarism is important during war but also during the peacetime.
Hence, militarism is probably even more important before the war since war cannot be conducted unless militarism is nurtured before the war started. It is a form of structural violence imposed by the state, largely through mass rallies and state controlled media.
However, for women who rather work towards common interests across conflict lines, it is harder to cast the enemy as “the other”. Their concerns about their children and family members give them a social legitimacy and a linkage with women from different sides of the conflict.
Indeed, women who first stand up against the war and sympathize with women across the ethnic lines are usually mothers whose sons are drafted into the war. Without any doubt it is of immensely importance for women to protest against war, hence it is a danger that only women mothers appear to upraise as protestors of a war. Women mothers are deliberately used as a part of militarism propaganda and their protests are presented in a way that justifies claims of the national leaders about necessity of fighting to defend women and children. Media often chose to ignore the presence of some men but also single women in the demonstrations. It is once more denial of selfhood to women.
Women’s identities are reshaped and engaged by authorities consisted of men for the sake of realization their successful national projects. It seems that their identities are only useful as procreators of children, culture and suddenly valued old, almost forgotten traditions. For that reason, reproduction in both biological and social sense is fundamental to national politics and practices. Finally, their heterosexuality has never been questioned. It was taken for granted that all women are heterosexual, fertile and willing to reproduce the nation.
Gender and War
While there is a lot of information about women as victims, we have insignificant records about women’s increase in independence and self-confidence as a result of conflict.
Media repeatedly covers abuses women endure during the war but they fail to focus on the actions taken by women as autonomous actors. Images of women as victims have serious consequences on the public’s awareness of war. It impedes the recognition of unique solutions that women might propose.
Indeed, women are victims of war but they are also survivors. Gender-based violence often exists on a wide-scale before the war but once violence increases, gender based violence does not disappear. Rather it escalates in a size but also in severity of abuses.
Women become battlefields and tools of severe tactics for males, warriors. Multiple layers of discrimination allow women to be targeted and experience violence, sexual abuse or slavery. The pre-existing culture of discrimination is often exacerbated.
As Cockburn said “while men’s lives and bodies are at disposal of the nation, women’s bodies are at the disposal of men.”
In fact, rape of the “other” women is seen as the most effective way of “penetrating an enemy nation’s defences, destroying its property [and] hurting its morale”.
Since women are viewed as possessions of “their” men, when a woman is raped during the conflict it has been perceived as an effective attack on the manhood of “her” man. They are specifically and deliberately targeted to humiliate and degrade the enemy, his culture, the ethnic and the religious group.
On the other hand, women are also empowered in the conflict by sudden shifts in gender roles. Conflict can open up unintended spaces for empowering women to create structural social transformations and produce new realities that redefine gender.
Women step out from their traditional roles in order to meet social and economic demands of war. Some women become for the first time sole breadwinners, active in politics and become leaders. Good example is women of Srebrenica who survived Srebrenica genocide.
The women of Srebrenica were forcibly evacuated from the enclave and today the majority of them live as displaced persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Prior to the war Srebrenica was male dominated society and males were the primary breadwinners and the heads of households. War, as well as the post-war situation, have dramatically changed women’s roles. The role of primary breadwinner has now shifted to women. The majority of these women find themselves in this role for the very first time in their lives since Bosnia and Herzegovina is still very much a patriarchal society. Women from Srebrenica have on average less education then men and the majority were housewives prior to the war.
The challenge to survive in the absence of men, create this sudden expansion of women’s private as well as public roles. They organize formal and informal small local groups with an aim to provide relief to vulnerable populations, primarily women, elderly and children. As many men cannot move freely, in a fear of being hunted by military police and send to front lines, public space is left to women.
All the same, women use their traditional invisibility in the public sphere to create space for their activism. Many women start to work in informal sector, trying to provide minimum income for survival of their families, while men are in combat or hidden home. They are in situations to control their incomes and make decisions regarding distribution of their financial assets.
Women redefine traditional gender roles prescribed by society in order to empower themselves and other women. New, committed women leaders are born and many of them assume leadership roles in the aftermath of war. Since women have multiple roles, it is very difficult to draw the line between women as victims and women as agents of change within the society. They can be at the same time victims but also agents of important change and usually bear these mutual roles. Their roles merge and make complex task set before society: to be recognized not only as victims but also as autonomous individuals who are capable to take action and demand the change.
Gender and Reconciliation
Reconciliation is a complex term that can mean different things to different people.
Reconciliation can entail a variety of activities and actors within one country. They can include public hearings, rituals, retributive justice, symbolic acts of forgiveness or material compensation to be paid by the “guilty” side. However, whatever might be chosen as “traditional” way of healing and reconciliation, organizers and participants are almost universally men.
These practices tend to exclude women from active roles and tend to be about peace building efforts between men. As a result of gendered local politics and asymmetry of gender power women voices are often ignored and marginalized.
The issue of reconciliation has special importance and specific meaning for women that might differ from men. For example, amnesty does not mean the same for men and for women. For men, it relief them from responsibility and accountability for crimes, including those committed towards women. Therefore, they might never realize or comprehend and regret for severity of crimes committed towards women. On the other hand, amnesty leaves women vulnerable for further attacks, particularly when the attacker was a former neighbor, what commonly happen in civil wars. For example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina there are around 10 000 people suspected for committing war crimes who still enjoy freedom, live and work in the country.
All of them live next to their former “enemies” and victims.
In addition, women are sexually vulnerable during a conflict in the way men are not. They suffer abuses that are rarely inflicted upon men such as mass rapes, enforced pregnancies or sex slavering. Their experience of the conflict demands special attention because it is different from men’s. For those women, reconciliation should acknowledge the gender specific violence so perpetrators are appropriately punished. However, punishment does not have to be necessarily retributive in its nature, it could be restorative. Instead of systematic punishment justified on grounds of the wrongdoing committed by a criminal and addressed by the action aganist criminal, restorative justice strives to achieve reconciliation between crime victims and the persons who have harmed them through the use of various non conflict resolution forms.
Also, for war widows’ reconciliation can include compensation and application of inheritance and family laws that recognize them as main family providers.
Women’s suffering should be publicly recognized. However, women often do not have political and social power to address their concerns. Moreover, even when they have space to address their abuses, they do not feel comfortable speaking about sexual abuses in public hearings with males, their family, or community members. Even quite successful, South African model established by Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was not gender sensitive. The debates were weak on extracting the truth about women. According to official statistics of who made statements to the Commission, more than 55 per cent were women; however they only talked about experiences of their menfolk and their children.
Women did not talk about their own experiences, about themselves. In general, men spoke directly about their own experiences while women, for the most part, addressed suffering of others, often men and children. According to some researches, some women did that intentionally in order to “bring out” their “son’s sory” since “men spoke about themselves when they come to the truth commission.” Therefore, they think it is them (women) who should bring these stories, as there is no one else to do so.
Reconciliation can bring relief, but it also can bring stigma and shame for women. By coming forward to testify, in some situations, women and girls bring social shame not only on themselves but on their family members as well. This might have fatal consequences for women’s future. They can become ostracized from community, targeted for the rape or deemed unmarriageable. Moreover, between risking of future and remain to live in their communities and valid prosecution of perpetrator there might exist a big imbalance so women might decide not to talk. In addition, even when they decide to speak up and risk social shame and their safety they can encounter legal difficulties. For example, Bosnia and Herzegovina law considers rape only as being penis-vagina penetration. Therefore, the woman who had an AK-47 shoved up in her vagina was not legally raped. Instead, the perpetrator committed an indecent act.
Furthermore, almost all peace processes do not have women present during the negotiations among conflict parties. Therefore, women’s needs and concerns are left out form final peace agreements that often have long-term impact on future society. Peace agreements are not just about establishing a cease-fire but they are a framework for rebuilding and restructuring a whole war torn society.
Men are involved in creation of reconstruction plans, which are very often gender blind. Men present at the negotiating table are usually interested in distribution of the land and the future power in the state. Who will rule the country and who will have more power in governmental structures are more of a priority than issues women might propose. Moreover, while transitioning from war to peace, men still keep high-masculinized society in which budget and all sources are tend to be allocated primarily to “security issues”. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, both national and international community (read men) have been primarily concerned with establishing the national army and international security forces. In this way, they (again) brought into the country large scale of weapons and military men who cost huge amount of money that could rather be spent for health and education.
Men often do not see or they do not want to see that there is a need for formal recognition and acknowledgement of gender transformation that happen during the war. To recognize the strengths of women might be seen as threatening to the preservation of patriarchal society. Indeed, that would be the first step toward loosening patriarchal structures.
Furthermore, militarism needs militarized masculinity in order to exist. Militarism needs men willing to fight. It nourishes “warrior identity” in men; his “unique strength” and his “courageous” and “protective” role. Still, with becoming a “protector” of the homeland, men loose his primary role as provider and breadwinner. This position can create clashes of masculinity interests and roles, resulting in frustration and anger particularly after the conflict when men have to rely on women who have assumed the role as family provider during the conflict. The effects of militarism are hard for women before and during the conflict but especially in the post-conflict period. Men returning from battlefields transfer their power to commit violence from war zone to their family but also their wider community. Long term separation from women prevented men to observe and rationally accept that women got another, more active role and proven that they are able to undertake male role in the family. The majority of men, after coming form war fields are jobless; their increase in usage of alcohol and practicing domestic violence becomes apparent.
Being dependant on women’s income might be quite frustrating and humiliating for men. Therefore, reconciliation process should recognize gender issues, relationships between men and women, in addition to cross-ethnic and religious issues that might have been the initial causes of the war. Reconciliation should reach all levels of a community.
Reconciliation cannot be imposed by outside actors. Peace builders have an important role to play in any reconciliation process, but only after acknowledging the traditional ways addressing justice and forgiveness within a community. As a long-term process, reconciliation requires time and patience. Rehabilitation of victims and reconciliation between victim and perpetrator cannot be satisfied immediate after violent conflict.
If the need for change and reconciliation is not internalized, there is likelihood that change will be temporary.
As Zehr describes, the heart of reconciliation is “the voluntary initiative of the conflict parties to acknowledge their responsibility and guilt.”
However, acknowledgment of crime does not necessarily have to be linked with accepting the guilt for particular event. In the case of Dragoljub Kunarac at The Hague
, on trial for mistreatment of women in Foca, he did not deny having had sexual intercourse with number of Muslim girls and women. However, Kunarac argued that the woman did not feel severe mental pain or damage because he had intercourse with her after she had been gang-raped by his comrades.
Radomir Kovac, Kunarac’s codefendant, said that he believed that his victims had consented to intercourse because they did not forcefully resisted throughout the act and because he was in love with one of them. Moreover, he did not consider them as slaves since they had the key from his house and could escape at any time. Hence, Kovac did not clarify where Muslim girls could escape without money and clothes in Serb-controlled Foca in 1992.
Therefore, while Kovac
acknowledged that the rape happened there was a lack of guilt associated to the event. There was not a sense of responsibility and regret for the events that had occurred. Moreover, it almost seems that women enjoyed in being sex slaves and gang raped. The fact that Kovac was “in love” with one of them gave him “assumed credibility” to rape. Finally, none of them perceive those events as rapes since there was no forceful resistance on behalf of women. Admission of ones guilt and preach for forgiveness is one of the first steps toward reconciliation. If that is the goal, how we are going to move on with mentioned attitude?
Men from both side of the conflict do not want to be accused for sexual crimes during the war since it happened in both sides. That is something in common for warring parties since sexual violence towards women is a common crime for all of them. Indeed, they would rather forget about it and move on but women cannot forget. They might forgive but certainly after male perpetrators, at least admit their acts and being held accountable in one way or the other. Therefore, for some women the truth as well as the confessional truth on behalf of perpetrators is needed. They need to acknowledge that perpetrator is really aware what he did and fell regret for it. For others, the identification of truth on those who committed the crimes and asking the victims for forgiveness have to happen in order to be able to move ahead.
Looking at the worldwide civil society grassroots projects and who is in majority of them engaged, one might say that women are more interested in process of truth and reconciliation. Indeed, many NGOs emerge at the outbreak of conflict and they are mainly female.
However, there are reconciliation activities initiated by men, former soldiers, in forms of public witnessing through which men in public spaces talk about their experiences and regret for their actions. However, there is a need that in this kind of debates, men besides apologizing to each other for committing the crimes do so towards women as well.
Women’s roles in reconciliation processes are complex, reflecting the multiple roles women have in one society. Their approach and life has to be holistically viewed since women symbolize peace educators within the family, in schools, in women’s and mixed associations, and elsewhere. Their networks and knowledge of local affairs make them effective early warning monitors, alert for increasing tensions and others signs of potential conflict. Their often-extensive kinship relations, social prospects and training can make women highly effective mediators. Moreover, their status as outsiders and the perception that they are not primary stakeholders in conflict also reveals a role of possibly better negotiators and originators of new approaches to peace.
Without devaluation of destructions war brings itself, war also breaks down the patriarchal structures of society that degrade and confine political, civil and other liberties of women. It breaks down traditions and customs often imposed on women in order to control their behavior in society. Hence, war also creates space and opens up the door for new beginnings.
However, with demobilization of combatants, who are most often predominately men, there is a parallel process of “demobilization” of women from their new gained roles during war. With stripping of their military clothes and arms and going back into status prior to a war, men assume that women should do the same. They should be stripped of their painfully gained roles during a conflict: economic freedoms and independence. Therefore, the reintegration of demobilized combatants and demilitarization of masculinity clashes with women acquired mobilization during a conflict and their wishes to preserve it.
To conclude, return to peace for women usually means return to the gender status quo that is irrespective of the nontraditional roles assumed by women during conflict.
How to keep and consolidate the gains made during the conflict is a challenge for women in many post conflict societies.
Building a culture of peace is a process that should involve both men and women to question different types of violence, injustice and discrimination. Also, they should bear in mind that security cannot be measured through arms and guns but by measuring level of understanding among people.
If the men in power continue to perceive women primarily as victims, war widows, or heroic mothers, we have little room for post conflict social transformation.
In order to change this perception women have to play an important role as well. They also sometimes expose only their role as a victim and by doing so, perpetuate gender stereotypes about women solely seen as victims. Indeed, women are victims of the war but they are also survivors. However, women are often perceived as passive victims due to wide range of violence they experience during the war. Media repeatedly highlights information that describes abuses women endure during the war while ignoring the actions taken by women as autonomous actors. Images of women as victims that convey in public have serious consequences on awareness of different impacts war have on men and women and impede the recognition of creative and new solutions that women might propose.
Our common task should be not to abolish but to reshape gender roles. In other words, we should work to disconnect courage from violence as well as ambition from domination and exploitation.
The courage does not mean using violence nor ambition and power have to include domination over other less powered. Both men and women have the potential for peacemaking and the responsibility to build and keep the peace. In order to achieve this, we have to promote peace education not only in schools but also in other arenas such work places, community organizations, labor markets, mass media, science, and within family relationships.
About the author:
Olivera Simic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, LLM and MA, holds LLM degree in International Human Rights Law (Essex University, UK, 2003) and MA in Gender and Peacebuilding (University for Peace, Costa Rica, 2005). Currently, she works as Gender Expert and Consultant for different agencies. For almost decade she has been working on women and children human rights as related to these topics. She worked as legal fellow in Human Rights Watch, one of the biggest NGOs in the USA as well as in UNICEF office in Bosnia and Herzegovina where she was leading projects related to trafficking in children and gender based violence.
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