Aftermath: Women and Women’s Organizations In Postconflict Societies: The Role of International Assistance

Citation:

Kumar, Krishna. 2001. Aftermath: Women and Women’s Organizations In Postconflict Societies: The Role of International Assistance. 28. U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington, DC.

Author: Krishna Kumar

Annotation:

Summary: 
Since the end of the Cold War, intrastate conflicts have increased worldwide. Poverty, the struggle for scarce resources, declining standards of living, ethnic rivalries and divisions, political repression by authoritarian governments, and rapid social and economic modernization—all these factors contribute to intrastate conflicts. All intrastate conflicts share a set of common characteristics that have major implications for women and gender relations. First, the belligerent parties deliberately inflict violence on civilian populations. Second, the intrastate conflicts displace substantial numbers of people, mostly women and children. Third, women’s participation in war contributes to the redefinition of their identities and traditional roles. Fourth, there is usually a conscious attempt to destroy the supporting civilian infrastructure, leading to increased poverty and starvation. Finally, these conflicts leave among the belligerent groups within the countries a legacy of bitterness, hatred, and anger that is difficult to heal.

Both men and women suffer from such conflicts. This study examines specifically the effects on women in six casestudy countries: Cambodia, Bosnia, El Salvador, Georgia, Guatemala, and Rwanda. It looks as well at the rise of indigenous women’s organizations—their role, their impact, their future. Teams from USAID’s Center for Development Information and Evaluation visited those countries during 1999. They found the effects of war on women to fall into three broad categories: Social and psychological. Women often were traumatized by the conflict. After the hostilities, many feared for their physical safety. During the early phases of postconflict transition, unemployed militia continued to pose a serious threat to the lives and property of women and children. Fear of violence and sexual abuse (rape had actually been used as a tool of war, to subjugate, humiliate, terrorize) often kept women from moving about freely. Abject conditions in many postconflict societies contributed to the growth of prostitution.

Economic. A major problem was lack of property rights. Women were denied ownership of land their dead husbands or parents had owned. Rural women who owned no land or other assets worked as laborers or sharecroppers, at minimal wages. Urban women carved out livings mostly by selling foods and household items. During conflict, women could work in many occupations. As ex-combatants returned to civilian life, though, female workers were the first to lose their jobs.

Political. In the absence of men, all six countries witnessed an expansion of women’s public roles during the conflict. Women volunteered in churches, schools, hospitals, and private charities. They often took charge of political institutions, enhancing their political skills—and raising their expectations.

The conflicts created a ripe environment for the emergence or growth of women’s organizations. For one thing, the wars undermined the traditional social order; women found it easier to take part in public affairs. Moreover, governmental reforms after the wars created political space to launch women’s organizations. Another factor was disillusionment. During or in the immediate aftermath of the wars, women’s expectations of increased political participation had risen. Those expectations were never fully realized. Finally, the readiness of the international community to provide assistance to such organizations contributed to their growth.

In the case-study countries, women’s organizations have been active in virtually all sectors: social, educational, economic, political. They have established health clinics, provided reproductive health care, organized mass vaccination programs. They have carried out programs to generate income and employment for women, emphasizing microcredit and vocational training. They have grappled with domestic violence, prostitution, and the plight of returning refugees and internally displaced women. And they have promoted democracy and human rights, supported social reconciliation, and worked to increase women’s participation in political affairs.

International assistance has been important to the development of women’s organizations—and will be far into the foreseeable future. Beyond financial support, international bodies have helped indigenous women acquire managerial, accounting, and technical skills. International assistance has also helped legitimize women’s organizations, for example by sheltering them from government interference.

Attending the emergence of women’s organizations is an array of obstacles. They are social and cultural, imposed from without, and organizational, imposed from within. Chief among the former is women’s low social status. At the family, community, and national levels, women confront a lack of support for their public activities. Another outside encumbrance is the short-term nature of international assistance, which prevents long-term planning. Chief among internal obstacles is the reluctance of women leaders to delegate authority and to train junior staff for future leadership. There is, moreover, a lack of communication and sharing among organizations.

The six individual CDIE country evaluations yielded a number of recommendations aimed at making assistance to women’s organizations more effective. Among them: 
1. Build on women’s economic and political gains. Because the postconflict era provides an opening to build on the progress made by women during conflict, it makes sense for USAID to continue to capitalize on this opportunity. 
2. Pay greater attention to civilian security. USAID can assume a leadership role in publicizing the problem of civilian security and the need for concerted action to protect women. The Agency can also encourage other organizations to carry out programs that can enhance physical security for women.
3. Make concerted efforts with the rest of the international community to prevent sexual abuse of women. Measures might include protecting witnesses, training international peacekeepers in gender issues, and promoting more women to international judicial posts.
4. Promote microcredit. USAID should support microcredit programs but not ignore their limitations. They are not cures for all economic problems facing women in postconflict societies.
5. Support property rights for women. USAID should continue supporting property-rights reforms affecting women. This should include not only constitutional and legislative reforms but also their effective implementation.
6. Consider multiyear funding. The assurance of assistance for periods longer than 6–9 months will help build institutional capacity and boost staff morale.
7. Promote sustainability of women’s organizations. USAID could provide technical assistance, when necessary, to improve management; consider funding a portion of core costs, in addition to program costs, for a limited period; and help organizations become self-reliant by such means as improving skills in advocacy, fundraising, networking, and coalition.
8. Promote greater women’s participation in elections. USAID should consider steps to encourage political parties to field women candidates and assist women candidates on a nonpartisan basis.

Topics: Armed Conflict, Civil Wars, Civil Society, Displacement & Migration, Economies, Poverty, Gender, Women, Gender Roles, Governance, Elections, Health, Trauma, International Organizations, Livelihoods, Political Participation, Rights, Land Rights, Security, Sexual Violence, SV against women, Violence Regions: Africa, Central Africa, East Africa, Americas, Central America, Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, Balkans, Eastern Europe, South Caucasus Countries: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cambodia, El Salvador, Georgia, Guatemala, Rwanda

Year: 2001

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