The long-term impact of war: the urgent challenge of sexual and gender based violence

By Kate Bird*

Societies can shake off some of the worst impacts of war, as demonstrated by ODI’s case studies of progress in personal security in Liberia and Timor Leste. But conflicts have a ‘long tail’. They are often accompanied by dramatic declines in per-capita income as people in conflict-affected areas lose their livelihoods and assets and see their own well-being deteriorate. Those uprooted from their homes by conflict often endure family break-up and the erosion of long-held customs and social norms.

Once conflicts are over, a peace dividend can see a bounce in productivity and the reintegration of conflict affected areas into the national and regional economy, improving well-being for many (although it takes time to return to pre-conflict levels). However, some damage can be irreversible, particularly for people who were children during the conflict and who missed out on the crucial education, health care, nutrition and nurture that act as safeguards against poverty. They may never regain the lost ground, increasing the likelihood of their own poverty being transmitted to future generations.

My own field work in Uganda has identified the intergenerational impacts of the NRM bush war of the 1980s on communities in the east of the country, the incursions from Congo (1990s and 2000s) that affected western Uganda and the repeated waves of conflict and insecurity that plagued the north of the country from the 1980s to the mid-2000s. These impacts have included the trauma of witnessing the deaths of family members, kidnap, rape and the forced recruitment of children as soldiers; chronic poverty as a result of losing land and livelihoods and missing out on education; and the social dislocation and household fragmentation stemming from internal displacement and the loss of income. Girls are often less likely than boys to go to school and women tend to be poorer, even in good times. And such gender-based challenges are thrown into sharp relief in the wake of conflict and the resulting social upheaval.

Social dislocation is hard to quantify, but qualitative research in Uganda identified the long-term impact of conflict that eroded social norms and undermined traditional leadership and land fragmentation, which resulted in male un- and underemployment and drove up crime and alcohol abuse.

Many commentators agree that crime rates rise in post-conflict environments, particularly for sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV). We see this in Timor Leste, where rape remains the crime that is reported most frequently to the National Vulnerable Persons Unit of the police force. It seems likely that the Indonesian occupation and the subsequent conflict normalised high levels of SGBV, given the systematic use of rape by both the Indonesian military and militia groups. High levels of SGBV by strangers have been matched by high levels of domestic SGBV in post-conflict Timor Leste. In 2005, more than five years after the end of the conflict, nearly half (47%) of all Timorese women said that they had experienced physical, psychological or sexual violence at the hands of their partners.

In Liberia, a 2005 survey by WHO found that 80% of women had experienced sexual or physical violence during the country’s second civil war, from 1999 to 2003. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, SGBV remains pervasive in Liberia and is often perpetrated by intimate partners, as confirmed by data from the 2007 Demographic and Health Survey, which found that 44% of women had experienced SGBV. This illustrates the impact that conflict can have on people’s lives, even long after the conflict itself has ended, damaging lives of women and girls and degrading gender relationships.

However, not all SGBV can be blamed on social disintegration as a result of conflict. High levels of SGBV are found in some other developing countries, ranging from 18% in Colombia and 19% in India, up to 44% in Colombia and 48% in Zambia and this violence is driven by different factors in different settings. These include traditional gender norms that prop up male entitlement and superiority; social norms that tolerate or justify violence against women; weak community sanctions on perpetrators; high levels of crime and conflict in society and high levels of poverty. We can see all of these social features in both Timor Leste and Liberia.

This suggests that national actors and their international development partners must widen their focus if they are to generate sustained progress in personal safety, which must include a real reduction in SGBV. They must look beyond the initial peacebuilding processes and reforms of the security and justice sectors to look at society and the economy more widely. It is time for post-conflict reconstruction to deliver effective measures to reduce poverty, to empower women and undermine patriarchal attitudes, to challenge social norms and strengthen sanctions against SGBV.

This broad and urgent agenda challenges those working on security and fragile states to look far beyond their normal activities. To do this effectively they will need to draw on existing evidence about how best to support poverty reduction and pro-poorest growth and empower women in fragile and post-conflict environments. This will pose a challenge to humanitarian and security specialists to work in new ways and but all the evidence suggests that this is vital if women’s personal security is to be taken seriously and if societies are to be rebuilt after violent conflict.

First published on Development Progress on 26 Jan 2015

*Development Progress, Overseas Development Institute