Women, War and Humanitarian Intervention: Resources for NGOs
by Kitty Warnock, Panos Institute, Women and Conflict Oral Testimony Programme,Co-editor of Arms to Fight, Arms to Protect September 1995

“The agencies helping us refugees gave us gas and stoves, but we could not use them. The gas was very expensive, and the agencies seemed unable to calculate how much gas a family needs to cook three times a day”. This anecdote, related by a Somali woman in Arms to Fight, Arms to Protect, is typical of the stories every emergency situation generates – because agencies still do not consult with women or allow them to define their own needs, sometimes despite a rhetorical commitment to doing so.

There are plenty of “roadblocks” on the way to realising gender awareness in agencies’ peacetime development activities, but in emergency situations there is, in addition, a strong tendency to say: “When the situation is serious you can’t afford the time to stop and think about gender issues”. Essays in Women and Emergencies (Oxfam Focus on Gender 4) make the case – clearly enough to convince the most sceptical and macho logistics or technical officer – that such an attitude is extremely damaging. Recognition of women’s needs and a gender-based analysis of an emergency situation are essential starting points if an aid intervention is to be effective in the short term and have positive impacts in long-term development.

In simple numerical terms, women and their dependents form the majority of the vast numbers of people affected by wars today, so interventions which do not help them meet their basic needs and responsibilities can result in great and avoidable suffering. Because women play the crucial role in sustaining their families and communities in times of crisis, aid which helps them to function effectively is multiplied; it is efficient aid. Though for the agency the crisis is a project with a beginning and an end, for those involved it is part of their continuing lives; any aid delivery system establishes power structures and dependencies which last long after the crisis is over. If these systems – as is often the case – reduce women’s power in relation to men, development can be set back years. Finally, there is a preventive aspect: women are more vulnerable than men to disasters largely because of their subordinate social position, so improving this reduces their future vulnerability.

Accepting the importance of planning interventions around women is only the first step: what kinds of projects are needed, with what aims? The excellent Oxfam Gender Training Manual, Changing Perceptions, the gender section of the Oxfam Handbook of Development and Relief, and Development in Conflict: the Gender Dimension, all contain useful and accessible explanations of a range of recent and current analytical approaches which shape – whether explicitly or not – humanitarian interventions in wars as much as in non-emergency development. Why is the concept of gender a better starting point than biological sex? What issues are raised for agencies by the differences between a welfare approach – aiming to satisfy women’s “basic needs” narrowly defined – and empowerment? Or by identifying women’s needs as either “strategic” (long-term needs to improve their capacity and position in society) or “practical”? Why is it so much more effective to address the positive capacities that even a destitute refugee has than to treat her as a helpless victim?

An intervention with the modest ambition of meeting women’s welfare needs can – if carried out through consultation, with women themselves identifying their needs – have surprisingly far-reaching impacts. A case study reported in a joint UNIFEM/African Women in Conflict publication Reproductive and Mental Health Issues of Women and Girls Under Situations of War and Conflict in Africa, highlights the importance of family planning provision in a displaced camp: women are often unwilling to face childbirth in the difficult camp situation, or fear STD infection. Where no family planning facilities are available, women may refuse to sleep with their husbands – resulting in an increase in domestic violence and social tension. In the same camp, failure to provide sanitary towels was found to be a strong contributing factor to the low self-esteem that affects most women in refugee situations, undermining their ability to carry out their family social functions effectively. Another study in the same collection shows the need to provide psycho-social assistance to women victims of sexual and other violence in Burundi, not just because of the individual suffering involved, but for the communities’ future. Because their culture prevents them from talking about their experiences, many women are repressing powerful anger and hatred against the other side. This anger is easily passed on to the next generation and is a barrier to conciliation and political discourse.

The notion of an obligation on societies to protect women should be even less threatening to the status quo than the notion of providing for women’s welfare. But a conspiracy of silence has kept rape and forced sexual relations off the agenda until very recently. Now this is changing: safety from rape is recognised as a right, and protecting women from rape and addressing its consequences are challenges agencies can no longer ignore. Among the current literature, two books may help agency personnel begin to understand what women have gone through and how their traumatic experiences might affect them. Arms to Fight, Arms to Protect contains some horrifying and detailed personal stories; The Blue Room is a therapist’s powerful, personal presentation of the politically-inspired gender violence experienced by a group of women refugees, and an exploration of how their experiences relate both to society’s ‘normal’ controls over women, and to political violence in general. 

Reproductive and Mental Health Issues contains an account of a project to establish peer counselling for Liberian refugee victims of rape, as well as insights into other psycho-social health needs. 

Moving beyond a welfarist approach, a commitment to empowering women – a real and not just a rhetorical commitment – has become one of Oxfam’s core values, and the arguments for it are well laid out in all the Oxfam publications reviewed here. “Gender-based inequalities directly prejudice the life-chances of half the world’s population” (Handbook of Development and Relief). In war situations, where women are the chief carers and providers and “the most stable element in a strife-torn society”, their ability to make their full contribution to survival and reconstruction is greatly constrained by their lack of power – at psychological, family, community, economic, and political levels (UNIFEM/AFWIC). Many of the interviews in Arms to Fight, Arms to Protect bear this out. There is a great danger that “emergency interventions [will] seriously compromise the long-term future for women by creating further imbalance in their relations with men….[handing] the power over traditional women’s affairs to men” (Women in Emergencies).

On the other hand, wars disrupt relations within society, obliging women to take on new responsibilities and powers, so creating opportunities for permanent change. It is often difficult for women themselves to identify and work towards their long-term “strategic interests”: Marie Aimee Helie-Lucas in Changing Perceptions expresses very forcefully her anger that despite their active participation in the Algerian liberation struggle, women were unable (largely because of the male-dominated leadership) to recognise the significance of what they had achieved and to build on it for a more equitable future. The lesson for agencies today is that they should recognise opportunities for change, and be ready to help women to identify and build on them. Of course, there are both practical and ethical difficulties for an outside agency setting out to change the culture of the society in which it is working. If the dominant culture is against it, empowering women is seen as cultural imperialism. Oxfam’s justification is that addressing the inequities of gender is not different from addressing the inequities of poverty, to which no one objects. It also argues that challenging human rights abuses against women is equivalent to challenging other human rights abuses. This position informs – in theory, if not yet in practice – all Oxfam’s work in conflict situations, and is particularly explicit in Development in Conflict. This contains valuable analyses of types of conflict and of the impacts of conflict on women, discussions of agency interventions and methods of making these gender-sensitive – all in terms of the commitment to empowerment. The authors do not hide from the very difficult issues. There are sections here, as in the Gender Training Manual, on how to introduce gender perspectives to sceptical or reluctant partners, as well as examples of the dangers of provoking violent hostile reactions.

Saying is one thing, doing another.Incorporating gender properly into emergency humanitarian work requires a thorough institutional commitment, with staff trained and working methods developed well in advance of the emergency. The Development in Conflict report contains some practical tools and strategies for working in war situations, but any agency which needs to sharpen its own gender focus more generally, or carry out gender training as part of its work in the field, should turn to the more comprehensive Oxfam Gender Training Manual. Costing only £30, it should be within reach of even the smallest agency. It is based on Oxfam’s experience of sensitising its own staff and partner organisations, but pulls together ideas and materials from a number of different sources. Most of it refers to development work in general rather than specifically to emergency situations, but much of the material is fundamental to both. As well as clear and user-friendly academic background articles – on the history of gender awareness in development, and a guide to different tools for gender analysis – the manual consists of an array of training activities, from five-minute warm-up games for groups to half-day training sessions in the use of particular analytical frameworks. Background papers, facilitators’ notes and handouts are included. The manual is aimed at people who have some training experience but not necessarily in gender, and could be used for training at all levels within organisations, as well as with grassroots groups, female, male and mixed. The Handbook of Development and Relief does not contain the teaching methodologies and materials, but covers some of the same theoretical ground.

Reading these books, one might think that if only all agencies would follow the rules and respond to women’s needs properly, humanitarian interventions in conflict situations would all be successful. Sometimes the Oxfam Handbook’s ideological statements about what development is, and how it must be done, grate on a non-Oxfam reader – but after all this book is in part a giant mission statement, and in part a very useful guide, overview and elucidation of issues facing all development and relief agencies, so it is not fair to expect it also to show Olympian detachment. 

Where can you get hold of publications on women and war?

The following publications are available from:

Oxfam Publishing, BEBC Distribution, PO Box 1496, Parkstone, Poole, Dorset, BH12 3YD, UK.

The Oxfam Gender Training Manual, by S. Williams with J. Seed and A. Mwau, 1994.

Development in Conflict: The Gender Dimension Report of a workshop held in Thailand, 1993, by J. El Bushra and E. Piza Lopez, Oxfam Discussion paper 3.

Changing perceptions: Writings on Gender and Development, edited by T. Wallace with C. March 1991.

Women and Emergencies edited by B. Walker Oxfam Focus on Gender 4, 1994.

Women and Conflict, edited by H. O’Connell, Oxfam Focus on Gender 2, 1993.

Other publications are available as follows:

The Blue Room: Trauma and Testimony among Refugee Women: A psycho-social explanation, by I. Agger, 1994, Zed Press, 7 Cynthia Street, London N1 9JF Fax: +44 171 833 3960.

Arms to Fight, Arms to Protect: Women Speak Out about conflict, edited by O. Bennett, J. Bexley, K. Warnock, 1995. The Panos Institute, 9 White Lion Street, London N1 9PD Fax: +44 171 278 0345.

Reproductive and Mental Health Issues of women and girls under situations of war and conflict in Africa, Proceedings of an expert group consultation. edited by A. Ng’eny-Mengech, 1994, UNIFEM Africa women in Crisis Umbrella Programme and UNICEF. Available from UNIFEM AFWIC Umbrella Programme, PO Box 30218, Nairobi, Kenya. Fax: +254 2 215102/331897.