Women demonstrating

War can both strengthen and challenge traditional gender roles

Today is International Women's Day, a day that aims to focus global attention on the state of women when it comes to gender equality, bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. Its goal is to make the world more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

For International Women's Day, we asked Manuela Nilsson, associate professor of Peace and Development Studies, to tell us about women's role in war. 

War has multiple effects on equality and gender roles

“In many cases, traditional gender roles are reinforced, often requiring women to leave the country in order to take care of their children, while men stay and fight, in line with the traditional gender role that men fight to protect women and children, 'the weak'. This is what is happening in Ukraine right now. In this case, it is requested by the Ukrainian government, but I also think that is what people perceive as the best option in this type of inter-state aggression. Women, in that sense, are seen as victims rather than agents. This extends to the peacemaking process as well; women are usually not seen at the negotiation table”, Manuela says.

War often leads to a limited understanding of gender roles

Manuela argues that armed conflict often contributes to a narrower understanding of gender roles and also sexualize violence, which further increases women's position as victims as sexual violence becomes a war strategy. 

“However, plenty of women in all armed conflicts stay behind and are active in countering the aggression. It’s just that we mostly see the pictures of women and children leaving or staying in refugee camps, which confirms how we think of gender roles in war. Unfortunately, this one-sided view also overlooks male victimhood – after all, most men actually do not want to fight in wars,” Manuela underlines.

Armed conflict can also challenge the traditional gender roles

“In civil wars or internal wars that are going on for a long time, women often assume many different roles that show their agency, not only as fighters on both sides, but as those who take over and continue daily life as sole providers for their families, taking over tasks previously reserved for men. This often leads to a change in gender role perceptions by both men and women, as well as empowerment and more independence for women,” Manuela says.

When armed conflicts end, societies are often eager to return to the normalcy of pre-war gender roles, and many women lose their newfound independence, though others manage to preserve it.

“There is plenty of research looking into this empowerment process. International peacebuilding actors have, for the past three decades, tried to support this empowerment process even during the post-war phase, which, in turn, has created a sense of disempowerment in men which has led to more domestic violence. This phenomenon has attracted much attention in research,” Manuela says.