Women and War: Using Gender to Predict Conflicts
By Nir Rotem & Elizabeth Heger Boyle | September 8, 2020
Nir Rotem is a Ph.D. candidate and Elizabeth Heger Boyle is a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.
Is the world marching towards a more peaceful future? The debate over whether wars are declining is a heated one, but one thing is clear: armed conflict is a tragic reality for many people worldwide. Conflicts within states have steadily increased since the end of World War II.
The international community has long worked to develop instruments to prevent and mitigate the harmful effect of conflicts. “Early warning systems” (EWS) are tools that attempt to forecast conflicts, ideally providing policymakers with enough time to respond before the outbreak or escalation of hostilities. Several organizations have established early warning systems. The Early Warning Project, a public system initiated by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Dartmouth College, focuses on genocide and mass atrocities. The European Commission launched the Global Conflict Risk Index, a multi-factors system tailored to policymakers. Hosted at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, ViEWS is an ambitious political violence early warning system that generates highly localized predictions. Academics around the world develop their own projects, searching for innovative approaches to improve prediction.
While sharing the laudable goal of preventing conflict, many EWS suffer from the same critical problem: they fail to incorporate indicators related to women specifically or gender more generally. In doing so, they overlook an important predictor of future conflicts.
The Gendered Dynamics of War
Historically, most work on women and war has focused on the impacts of war on women during and after conflict. Women and girls are disproportionately targeted for sexual violence as a tactic of war, and this phenomenon is widespread. In fact, it is so severe that the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed June 19th as the annual International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. Researchers have also proven time and again the decisive role that women can play in peacemaking and post-war reconstruction. In 2000 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, an attempt to formalize the protection of women during conflict and their participation in peace-building.
These associations between women and conflict during and in the aftermath of war are critically important. But what about the time before a conflict begins?
The associations between women and conflict during and in the aftermath of war are critically important. But what about the time before a conflict begins?
Here, feminist scholars point to a “gender division of war,” in which masculinity is a driver of violence while feminist movements are often associated with antiwar movements. Research by Mary Caprioli demonstrates that domestic gender equality is associated with more peaceful state behavior, both internationally and domestically. Valerie Hudson and others advance a women and peace thesis, arguing that societies that experience higher levels of gender-based violence within households are more likely to engage in violent group interactions. In an empirical investigation, the researchers identified a strong link between women’s physical security and measures of state peacefulness (examined through the Global Peace Index, level of concern to the international community, the type of relations with neighbor states, and more).
Viewing war as gender-free, a man’s game, is clearly misleading and wrong. So how can we implement a gendered perspective towards war within the field of conflict prediction?
Using a Gender Lens to Improve Conflict Forecasting
While a growing body of empirical evidence reveals the gendered nature of conflict, gender is grossly overlooked in EWS models. Current projects focus nearly exclusively on other measures, such as conflict history at the national level, and government characteristics, such as the state of democracy and time since regime change. One assessment of the field found that, out of 832 EWS indicators, merely 11 indicators referred in any way to women.
Based on the proven association between the status of women and states’ non-violence behavior before conflicts erupt, gender and women’s rights variables should be tested and incorporated into EWS models around the world. Monitoring the deterioration of women’s rights (such as the right to physical integrity) and women’s place within society may well prove meaningful for the prediction of war.
Monitoring the deterioration of women’s rights (such as the right to physical integrity) and women’s place within society may well prove meaningful for the prediction of war.
Our research aims to do just that: by isolating the role of gender relations in conflict prediction, we hope to improve the accuracy of EWS forecasting. We use a unique database that covers dozens of low- and middle-income countries and includes information about women’s attitudes towards domestic violence and their share in decision making at the household level. We used data about battles from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project to train and test our models. Preliminary results show that gender relations do provide some indication of when conflict is imminent. And when combined with other factors (such as government characteristics), even more accurate models are achieved.
This work reveals the promise of looking at war through a gendered lens. Beyond providing new tools for conflict early warning systems, it also moves us toward a better understanding of the mechanisms that lie at the heart of conflicts worldwide—an important step toward a more peaceful world.
Nir Rotem is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. During the summer of 2020, he was a Gender Policy Report-Race, Indigeneity, Gender and Sexuality Studies Graduate Research Fellow through the Graduate Research Partnership Program of the College of Liberal Arts.
Elizabeth Heger Boyle is a professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota.