International Women’s Day: Living in conflict

This Sunday will mark International Women’s Day across the world. Many will celebrate the progress that has been made towards eliminating gender inequality. However, for women living in conflict there is still a long way to go. Over the last four years, we have been looking at the role gender plays in shaping women’s access to jobs and basic services in conflict-affected situations. Below we pick out some of our main findings.

Women and shifting gender roles

There are typically more female-headed households, often widows, after conflict than before, [^] with implications for the economic burden placed on women’s shoulders. Yet, this reality tends to be overlooked by post-conflict development initiatives. Women can experience greater poverty [^] due to changes in family structures, socio-cultural barriers, and the lack of access to basic services and livelihoods support. In many cases, they become their family’s main breadwinner, yet the jobs they have access to are typically low paid and can carry risks of exploitation at best, violence at worst.

Women and work

From the informal work undertaken by fisher women in northern Sri Lanka, to the female-headed households in northern Uganda who struggle to accumulate wealth [^], we can see that women can play a vital role in securing the livelihoods of their families. Yet gaining access to labour markets is not straightforward. Our research from Uganda and Afghanistan shows that any participation in urban labour markets is socially regulated by gender. For example [^], in Kabul’s tailoring sector, a woman’s ability to get a job is largely dependent on the support of key male figures, such as fathers, uncles and husbands. In Lira [^], women entering the catering sector are often asked for sexual favours in return for jobs. These women are then stigmatized by the wider community, often labelled as prostitutes. There are impacts here, not only on the well-being of these women, but also on their ability to secure better work in the future: reputations are built through jobs and social ties matter when it comes to accessing opportunities.

Women and malnutrition

Approaches to tackling malnutrition tend to involve interventions aimed at changing the behaviour of mothers. But our research from Sierra Leone suggests this approach may be a flawed. The actions and behaviours of mothers are mediated by others in the household and community – and they cannot be changed by targeting mothers alone. Malnutrition is a deeply gendered issue. Those interested in preventing it need to take into consideration the social position of mothers, and the strong decision making power held by fathers, household elders, and the community.