Cover Image
close this bookDevelopment in Conflict - The Gender Dimension (Oxfam, 1994)
close this folderII. Case studies
Open this folder and view contentsA: The impact of armed conflict on gender relations
Open this folder and view contentsB: The effects of conflict on women
Open this folder and view contentsC. Meeting the support needs of women in conflict situations
Open this folder and view contentsD. Working with partners on gender issues in conflict situations
Open this folder and view contentsE. The evolution of Oxfam's gender strategy in conflict

Case Study 1: Cambodia

Pok Panhavichetr


For the last 20 years Cambodia has been involved in conflict:
1970-1975: bombing of part of Cambodia by Americans because of Vietnam war
1975-1979: Dictatorship by Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot
1979-1991: Civil war between four factions
1991 onwards: Preparations for election in May 1993.

The social status of women

1 The status and role of women in Cambodian society

As a result of the civil war and hostilities in Cambodia over 20 years, the economic situation of Cambodian women continues to worsen. Women bear exceptionally heavy responsibilities in the socio-economic life of Cambodia. The tragic events of 1970-1979 and the on-going hostilities have left Cambodia with a population in which adult women (above 18 years of age) account for 60-65 per cent of the population.

Since the onset of socialist rule in 1979, official policy in Cambodia has been that men and women are equal. However, in reality women are not valued equally. For instance, women who graduated as engineers often work in the office as book-keepers, typists or tea-makers rather than as extension workers in the factory. In the community, women are not involved in decision-making, men are always stronger and more respected.

Traditionally, Khmer women have always borne heavy responsibilities in society from a very early age. At birth, a girl was sometimes looked upon as a burden to the family and a cause for worry. A daughter can do many more things to embarrass the family than a son. Girls are even compared to pieces of cotton wool, while boys are likened to diamonds, since a diamond can be dropped into mud, picked up and washed clean; however, cotton wool can never return to its original purity once dropped into mud, no matter how much cleaning is done. sisters or helping with household, agricultural and other productive works, until her parents chose a husband for her.

2 Women's economic strategies

When she gets married, a Cambodian woman takes on the important role of wife and mother. As a wife, she handles the family budget and is responsible for borrowing money if the family needs it; she is also responsible for all the housework. While her husband is seen as the breadwinner and usually supervises children's formal education at school, the wife is entirely responsible for their overall upbringing and health and will be held responsible for failure. Most women have to earn money to support the family, in addition to, or instead of, a male wage.

Between 30 and 35 per cent of households are headed by women. Of these, some are widows whose husbands died in the war during the Lon Nol or Pol Pot period, whereas some live with handicapped husbands, some are divorced, and others are single. As in any other country, families headed by women alone experience difficult economic conditions, a situation which is aggravated here because of Cambodia's particularly low socio-economic level. Some women heads of households have to bring up five or six children on their own.

The problem of how to support the family is particularly acute for urban women. Invariably a husband's earnings alone cannot cover the whole of the family's needs. Even government employees have a very low income. Thus all women try their best to earn money even after marriage. Some women who are government employees try to work extra time as a teacher at private schools or engage in another income-generating activity.

The informal sector, i.e. street vendors and market sellers, is almost completely run by women. Women who have capital can run bigger businesses selling gold or running other types of shops. Most women can only run small-scale businesses, such as selling prepared food, sweets, fruit, vegetables, fish or groceries from market stalls or on the pavement. Because of lack of skills or capital for running business, some women hire themselves to wrap candies in private shops, a task for which they are paid only small amounts of money. Some others, especially women heads of households (widows, divorced) have to work in what are considered in Cambodia to be men's jobs, such as construction works or carrying rice sacks or salt sacks at the port. Such unstable work does not allow women to save money, or to mobilise additional resources in order to move on into other business. They are living from hand to mouth, despite the amount of work they put in every day.

In rural areas the majority of women take part in agricultural production, particularly ricegrowing. Women traditionally do most of the sowing, transplanting, harvesting, threshing and storing. Ploughing and harrowing were once tasks which were done by men, but now it is not very unusual to see women behind a plough because some families have no men to do this type of work. In particular, most women-headed households have no draft animals and are obliged to hire a ploughing team, which will first plough its own land before being available for hire, as a result of which women can start rice cultivation only late and therefore produce less. If women have no money to pay for ploughing they engage in 'exchange labour', asking a neighbour to plough their land in return for help with transplanting. One morning of ploughing is repaid by two or three days of transplanting. Alternatively, they have to pay him in cash or rice, which is difficult for the poor. Some poor women hire themselves as agricultural labourers for transplanting and harvesting to get payment in cash or rice.

3 Problems affecting displaced women

Over 100,000 persons are displaced in Cambodia. Displaced women have specific problems. In particular, women-headed households have problems when they have to flee their villages because of shelling or fighting. They have no men to help with carrying children and household goods, and they often have to leave most of their belongings behind. After fleeing they face the problems of having no earnings; sometimes this forces them to go back to their homes, no matter how insecure or unsafe these are, to try to harvest crops and even to stay overnight there, leaving their children behind.

Women who have to flee from their village just after having delivered a baby, often find that their breastmilk production stops, so that they cannot feed their baby.

4 The status of women without male partners

Conflict has led to an imbalance in the ratio of women to men in Cambodia, which is causing a decrease in the value of women. Single, divorced, or separated women and widows do not only lose out economically but are looked down upon and are sometimes open to ridicule in Cambodian society. In the last decade, many single or widowed women have not been able to find a husband because of the shortage of men. They have been faced with the dilemma of either becoming the second or third wife of a man or of remaining alone. This is why some women choose to become second or third '"wives"-a position which is not recognised legally —sharing the father of their children with other women. This obviously makes them emotionally and economically insecure.

After the Pol Pot period, problems with unsatisfying and unhappy marriages showed up among those couples who had been forced to marry by the Khmer Rouge government. Most of these couples have been treated very badly by their parents-in-law, who forced their children to separate in order to marry someone of the family's own choosing. Again, deserted wives are disadvantaged and must choose to remain precariously single or "remarry' into a polygamous relationship.

Traditionally Cambodians take a very strict view of relationships between men and women. It is acceptable for men to have girlfriends, whereas the mere idea of unfaithfulness is unthinkable for women. For example, if a woman who is a government employee 'misbehaves', she may be demoted or deprived of her job, whereas a man will simply receive a warning.

If husbands become handicapped, wives normally continue to live with their husbands as an ordinary family, but handicapped women can often not keep their husbands. They are often left with their children while their husbands marry a new woman, and have to live without support from their husbands, making their lives even more difficult.

5 Prostitution

Casual relations with women and prostitutes outside married life is a usual aspect of urban culture. Until recently, many of the prostitutes in Phnom Penh were Vietnamese women who migrated from Ho Chi Minh city to escape poverty. However, currently there seems to be an increasing number of young Khmer women coming from the provinces to engage in prostitution in the capital. Reasons for prostitution include the need to repay debts, or to support families back in the provinces. While widows or abandoned women have young children to support, war orphans may have to support younger brothers and sisters. The problem of prostitution has become bigger since UNTAC arrived in Cambodia.

6 Solidarity among women

Because of the many years of fighting and the fundamental disruption of communities and families during the Khmer Rouge period, solidarity among Cambodian men and women is very limited. In critical situations, even today, people mainly care for their individual safety and wealth. The forced social organisation during the years of socialism have not helped to improve this situation. As a result, solidarity and mutual trust, which form the basis for mutual assistance among people everywhere, are very weak. This discourages the spontaneous formation of local initiatives and groups for joint improvement of status and living conditions.


Women's position in Cambodia is subordinate to that of men. The war has increased the problems for many women, either by decreasing their value even further as they outnumber men, or by creating serious difficulties in earning a living. Single women, including widows and the handicapped, are pushed to the margins of Cambodian society. Lack of mutual trust and support inhibits the growth of local initiatives and groups to promote gender equity and attack the roots of women's inequality.

Case Study 2: Somalia

Judy El-Bushra


The Somali nation is spread through five countries of the Horn of Africa, divided by boundaries imposed by colonial divisions. Somalis are predominantly pastoral people, living in a desert environment which is very prone to drought, though towards the south of Somalia greener vegetation permits a variety of different livelihoods including agro-pastoralism and settled agriculture.

The clan system forms the basis of society and its breakdown has been one of the main factors in the current civil war. A clan is a group of people descended from a common ancestor and claiming priority access to a certain piece of land and its resources (such as water and grazing). Clans are divided into sub-clans and even smaller divisions. Although each clan has its own territory, in practice before the war people were scattered throughout the country, often living in peace as minorities within the territory of another clan. The clan system was held together by a number of factors that created checks and balances, preventing any one clan or individual from acquiring inordinate power. These factors included neighbourhood, the sharing of natural resources, intermarriage, and trade links.

The breakdown of the clan system came about as a result of colonial interference and through 20 years of manipulation by the previous government, headed by ax-president Siad Barre. The current civil war began in 1988 in the north of the country and worked its way south, breaking out in the capital, Mogadishu, at the beginning of 1991. The north-west (the ax-British colony) later declared itself the independent state of Somaliland.

One of the main effects of the war was to cause the movement of people back to their clan territories, the only places where they could feel safe. In some cases, people had to move several times, as the fortunes of the different armed forces changed. Another change was that government collapsed, and with it all service and supply systems. Even for those people who were not obliged to move, production (agricultural and livestock) soon broke down through lack of supplies and through insecurity: animals and crops were looted, and people lost the confidence they needed to carry on producing. All this led eventually to widespread famine, which earned Somalia world-wide publicity, and which still continues, although on a reduced scale.

However, some systems have survived. The clan elders, a traditional male authority structure which had been almost suppressed during Siad Barre's regime, took over the responsibilities of local government in many areas. Petty trade, mostly carried out by women, continued as long as there was anything to be sold. Big businessmen also continue to flourish, now controlling the profitable trade in arms, food, and drugs.

Changes in gender relations

1 Trapped in their own homes

Traditionally conflict between clans was regulated by certain 'rules of engagement' which ensured that friction was kept within limits and the vulnerable did not suffer. Fighting was carried out only by men; a code of honour ensured the women and children of any clan were protected. During the present conflict there have been many examples of this code being followed, but equally there have been examples where women and children living as minorities within the territory of an opposing clan have been massacred, and it seems that this code has at least in part been abandoned.

Loss of mobility is a major constraint on women's ability to fulfill their family responsibilities in the present circumstances. Fear of rape or shooting prevents women from leaving their homes, and attacks on women are now so common that many women have taken to wearing allenveloping Islamic dress as some degree of protection. People who stand in food queues (mostly women and older men) run a strong risk of being caught in the cross-fire if gunmen attack the food as it arrives; local women encouraged relief agencies to provide cooked food wherever possible. During the worst periods of the war, lack of clothes was another reason why women confined themselves to their houses. Women who need to work on their farms or sell goods in the marketplace prefer to go out only at midday when the danger is less. Lack of services and supplies means that women have further than usual to go for water. In one town, a dozen women have been killed by crocodiles while fetching water from the river, since there was no fuel to operate water pumps.

2 Impoverished by aid

In to the absence of men, women have taken on responsibilities for maintaining and providing for the family. This is nothing new for Somali women, many of whose men-folk have worked away from home (in the Gulf states, for example) for decades. But in the present circumstances, when food, money and other basic necessities have been difficult to come by, providing for a family has been exceptionally difficult. Almost the only avenue open to women is petty commerce, and this has been limited by the lack of produce to sell and by the lack of money circulating in the economy.

In addition, food aid has brought its own problems. In some places farmers who have a marketable surplus have been unable to get a price for their produce which covers the production costs, since food aid has depressed prices. Food aid has put many women retailers out of business, especially in the major cities where food distributions are relatively regular. At the same time, people just a few kilometres away are dying of starvation because they are not on the main routes for relief convoys.

The conflict between different clans has had a very divisive effect on the whole Somali community, breaking up friendships and families even among those who have sought refuge outside Somalia. Owing to the general preference for marrying outside the clan, there are many families in which husband and wife are from opposing clans. Many such marriages have been unable to withstand the pressures this has created. When marriages break up in this way, women are affected differently from men since they run the risk of being separated or alienated from their children, who belong to the clan of their father, as well as from their husband.

3 More work, no voice

Despite the increased responsibility women have had to shoulder as family providers, they have not always found it easy to gain access to the resources they need to meet this responsibility. Councils of elders consist exclusively of men, and there is no place for women in the taking of major community decisions. Men have tended to resist suggestions that women should join committees or take part in decision-making about resources.

Though the elders have generally taken seriously their responsibility to protect and defend the interests of those in their care, there are nevertheless many women who for one reason or another cannot claim the protection of well-placed elders. Some observers have remarked that women heads of households report the number of their dependents honestly, while men tend to inflate the numbers to receive more than their fair share of rations; and, in general, women have difficulty in pushing for their own and their family's interests.

The existence of elders' councils and other male-dominated committees in many localities poses a dilemma for agencies trying to assist the Somali community to recover from the present crisis: on the one hand, the elders have proved to be instrumental in ensuring the survival of many communities and must be supported if genuine recovery is to take place; on the other, an appropriate way must be found for the elders to take greater account of women's vital contribution and need for access to mainstream resources.

Women's behaviour has been under stricter control since the coming of foreign troops to Somalia to oversee relief distribution. One woman who was suspected of being over-friendly with French soldiers was stripped, beaten and imprisoned, to be rescued eventually by a women's organisation A representative of the organisation was reported as saying that the incident 'highlights the powerlessness and lack of respect for women in this society'.

4 Positive changes brought about by war

Despite the problems women have faced, the war has brought some positive changes too. The dependence of many families on women's capacity to earn income and manage family affairs has brought about a widespread acceptance of new roles for women. Many women have been able to develop more balanced relationships with their husbands and often declare they do not want to go back to how things were before.

5 When the state resumes power, how will it respond to women?

In the absence of a national government one cannot talk of the state in Somalia. In future, however, the apparatus of the state will reappear. It is difficult to predict whether the war will have had a lasting effect on social attitudes towards women. Pessimists point out that the previous government had generally positive policies towards women's rights and had introduced legal changes (in women's status in marriage and divorce, for example) which were generally advantageous towards women; many of these policies may in future be discredited by association. However, the present situation contains some positive signs, such as the emergence of genuine women's organisations for mutual support.


The situation of women in Somalia highlights the vital needs that women have in conflict situations: particularly for personal protection and for safe access to the means to continue economic activity, whether it be agriculture, animal rearing or commerce.

Male attitudes towards women appear to be still in a state of flux. On the one hand, conservative views of women's roles and behaviour have been strengthened. On the other hand, circumstances have in many cases obliged men to acknowledge with greater respect the burdens taken on by women and the contributions they have made to the survival of family and community.

Opportunities exist in even the most desperate situations. Community mechanisms can be very resilient and building on them offers the best hope of guaranteeing people's survival both in the short and long term.

Case Study 3: Uganda

Judy El-Bushra


Uganda suffered a series of brutal and destructive civil wars and despotic regimes from the late 1960s till the mid-1980s. It is well endowed with agricultural resources, though these were all but destroyed during the war years, when people fled from their lands, and huge numbers of animals were killed.

The present government subdued most of the country in the mid-1980s and since then has installed a system of popular representation, and overseen a substantial return to production. Insurgency and insecurity continued to exist until recently in the north, but now appear to have ended. The country's struggle to regain economic viability puts enormous strain on the small rural producers who form the majority of the population, caught between their own subsistence needs and the needs of the country to collect taxes and to produce for export.

Changes in gender relations

1 Pre-conflict gender relations

Until about 20 years ago, gender relations among many Ugandan population groups were characterised by a clear division between men's and women's tasks and between the resources each needed to perform them. In northern Uganda, for example, men took responsibility for livestock, over which they had total control, and for the cultivation of cash crops which were used to underwrite the family's expenses such as taxes, school fees, clothes, and basic household supplies. Women helped their husbands on the family farms, following a fairly strict division of labour in which the heaviest tasks were reserved for men. Women also kept fields of their own, from which they supplied the family's subsistence needs; they alone worked on these fields and controlled the consumption of the produce, which was never sold and which men had no access to.

This division was backed up by a framework of marriage dominated by the husband's authority but within which wives had certain defined rights, upheld by the clan and the community. From the legal point of view, marriage was indissoluble, except by the repayment by the wife's family of the bride-wealth that had been paid by the husband. Until this happened, the husband and his clan had total control over the wife's productive and reproductive capacity i.e. neither her produce, her belongings, nor her children were her own, and the burden of supporting her and her children economically fell on her husband and his family. Many Ugandan communities practiced the inheritance of widows by the surviving brother of a deceased husband; a widow who refused this arrangement would not only have to fend for herself but would be entirely dispossessed by her husband's family, and stripped of all except-and sometimes including-the clothes she stood up in.

2 Changes in the past two decades

Since then, various factors have had an impact on gender relations to create an arrangement in which women have the greater share of responsibility and work, yet still the same limited control over resources, and few enabling rights. These factors include the war and male labour migration (leading to women being obliged to take over many previously male functions), and the increasing pressures to find cash which have resulted in even women's food crops being sold. Loss of oxen through war also adds to the family's agricultural labour burden.

3 Changes since the cessation of war

The personal status of women has in certain respects changed for the better. The ending of the war and the disbanding of armed camps has lowered the risks of violence and rape from soldiers; economic opportunities for women have opened up and there is a generally increased recognition of the importance of their role. However, there are numerous exceptions to this, and levels of domestic and other forms of violence against women are still high. Abused women have few refuges: the common understanding among both women and men is that violence is part of marriage and women have no choice but to tolerate it. Likewise, women who have been raped, especially if they become pregnant, may not be able to count on the sympathy of their families.

4 An increased imbalance between men and women

Within the family, the division of labour has changed from being a relatively clear one to being blurred. Women may have to clear land or perform other traditionally male agricultural tasks in men's absence, while men have moved into women's activities wherever there is a profit to be made by doing so. Women have also tended to lose access to their own subsistence land because of the need to concentrate family labour on cash crops, a factor which has sometimes had alarming consequences for food security and for the environment.

Whereas previously it was regarded as a husband's responsibility to pay children's school fees and provide basic household necessities, these are now regarded as women's responsibilities. The need to find cash for family expenses imposes an additional labour burden on women, who habitually work without rest from dawn to night while their husbands are free for the latter part of the day to engage in leisure pursuits. Women often provide their husbands with spending money, which they may use to buy beer, (often coming home drunk and beating their wives) or save so as to marry additional wives. This labour burden is a serious constraint to women's full participation in the lives of their families as well as their communities. However, there are increasing numbers of men who recognise this problem, many of whom seek to share the burden of domestic work with their wives in spite of being ridiculed for doing so.

5 Violence and unhappiness in the private sphere

The imbalance between women's and men's work is one of several factors which have led to increased fragility of marriage, and unhappiness in marriage figures very highly in women's accounts of their problems. Fear of violence and of rejection by husbands is a major cultural undercurrent visible in the songs and poems sung by women. Women married to violent or indolent husbands may decide to continue in unhappy marriages because they seek the respectability that married status brings or because they are offered no sympathy or help from their own families.

The dispossession of widows (of whom there are now many) continues, but the custom is now widely seen as a contributory factor to the spread of AIDS and is tending to be practiced less often. This in itself is problematic for some widows, who may have no means of support other than from their husband's family.

6 Changes within communities

In the past, responsible behaviour on the part of men, women and young people was sanctioned by the community. Community pressures have all but disappeared and this has had both welcome and unwelcome effects. On the one hand, brutal punishments such as those meted out in cases of unmarried pregnancy (to the girl and to the boy if he could be identified) are no longer practiced. On the other hand the moral education of children is increasingly neglected, while violent or unreasonable husbands may no longer be held up to criticism as in the past.

In some areas of the country, especially in the north where camps of armed soldiers of various armies have been in existence, there is a growing problem of 'camp followers'— women who have no means of support other than to attach themselves to garrisons, providing sexual favours for the armed forces. Many of these women have been rejected by their communities after being raped-perhaps by the soldiers themselves-or have been repudiated by their husbands, and have been unable to rely on the support of their families.

A positive outcome of the present development outlook of the country is the widespread acceptance of women's role in community affairs. Women are influential in local government and there are a large number of women's groups of different sorts which play important community roles. Women are widely represented in community-based groups, both women's groups and mixed groups.

7 Conflict and AIDS

No consideration of gender relations in Uganda can be complete without mentioning AIDS, which is now affecting every village and every section of the community. As is well-known now, women are affected by AIDS not only through their own sexual relations but also as mothers and grandmothers of AIDS patients. There is little doubt that the disruption of the war and the postwar years, and the continued presence of camps of armed forces in some parts of the country, have contributed substantially to the spread of the disease.

8 The role of the state

The present Ugandan government has put much weight behind its policy of encouraging the participation of women in all areas of national life. A women's ministry has been set up to review projects and ensure that women's needs are taken care of. A minimum number of women is required in local government councils at all levels in addition to the inclusion of specific women's representatives. A constitutional commission is reviewing, amongst other things, women's legal rights, which should be enshrined in the new constitution.

The implementation of such positive policies is beset by many constraints, not least the lack of funds, from which all government initiatives suffer, and the even greater lack of resources allocated specifically to women's activities. Moreover, the Women in Development policy as interpreted by the government has been criticised for being focused on encouraging women into ever more intensive income-generation, thus increasing their burden of work, without making concomitant changes in their position in society or in their control of resources.


The division of labour in Uganda has become much more flexible following the war. As in Cambodia, this has come about through necessity and has resulted in a huge burden of work for women.

Ugandan women, whether in marriage or single heads of families, have had to take responsibility for managing and providing for their families. The ending of the war has not resulted in this burden being lifted.

Violence against women is still common, and is a function of the levels of violence in society as a whole and of the lack of respect for women in general.

Government policies and pronouncements have had a very positive effect in enabling women to take wider public and family roles. However, since they have been focused on increasing women's productivity, they have not tended to amount to much more than an increasing imposition of work on women.

Case Study 4: An overview

Claudia Garcia-Moreno


Women have many roles apart from that of mother and family organiser, and single women are particularly at risk of both direct and indirect effects of conflict. However, most of the research that exists has been done on refugee women and focuses on their family role. This paper will have two main sections: one on general issues which will summarise some of the main concerns around the needs of women refugees, as many of them also apply to conflict situations. The second section covers some research done on psychosocial issues amongst women refugees. The paper used some examples from Cathy Mears' experiences and a few of my own.

Women's roles

1 Mothers and family organisers

Women can be direct victims of violence, and in particular suffer sexual abuse and rape. (Rape has increasingly become a common tactic in conflict.) In addition, women can be targeted through the victimisation of their children or other family members so that although they may remain physically unharmed they still suffer the consequences.

2 Providers

The economic responsibilities for the family also often fall on women, particularly after they have escaped the conflict. The stress of day-to-day survival is added to the stress of the conflict they have run away from. In situations of exile or refugee camps, women and men have to adopt new roles, at times leading to conflict in the family. For example, in the case of Afghan women in Pakistan, exile may mean more restrictions on women's movements and less economic activity outside the home; in others it may mean women become the breadwinners.

3 Community organisers

Lastly, women can have an important role in resolving conflicts. They often have not been involved in decisions that lead to the conflict, but they may have a role in nurturing values of reconciliation among their children.

Particular problems facing women

All those affected by conflict suffer the problems of direct physical violence to themselves or family members, as well as those related to displacement. If refugees they suffer also the difficulties of adapting to a new environment, often a new language and culture. Women face particular difficulties because of their role as providers for the children and the family, for example, learning to cook with new ingredients.

Most of the wars going on today affect civilian populations. Torture, bombing, massacres and rape are being reported from Somalia, Bosnia, Liberia to Uganda. Women may be targeted for their own political activities, but often it is a way of getting at their men or because they are women. Pregnant women have been specifically targeted in Liberia and Uganda, for example. Women may also be harassed because they don't confirm to the cultural norms of behaviour and in particular they may face rape and abuse not only at the hands of those they flee from, but also from those from whom they seek protection. At borders or in camps where food distribution may be in the hands of army commanders or others they may be forced to have sex in exchange for passes or food rations.

Elizabeth Ferris points out that although protection is the mandate of UNHCR and there is international recognition of violence against refugee women, there is very little documentation. Many of the cases are not followed up systematically and many are not even reported.

1 Practical considerations for women refugees

All refugees have the same needs for health, education and social services, and sources of economic support. However, for women to be able to use these services, the provision of childcare, the opening and closing times of clinics, and relevance of the service to their needs will be critical. For example, women may be put off from using the health services because there are only male health workers. Or they may simply be too busy to be able to participate.

Sanitation services, like latrines may be particularly important as women may not be able to defecate in open fields. For example, in Bangladesh it is reported that, until latrines were built, the Rohingya women refugees were only able to defecate after dark. In Sudan, women had to go in groups because they went at dusk, had to go a long way, and were afraid of being harassed or raped. The same may be true for bathing/washing areas.

Clothing may be particularly important as women may be too embarrassed to come out of their huts if they have no clothes. This has been reported in Mozambique, Uganda and more recently in Somalia. Cathy Mears reports that the Mundari women in Juba were happy to wear their goatskins in their homelands, but when they were displaced to the town they felt they needed clothes. The NGO workers faced the dilemma of whether to provide them with Arabic clothes (i.e. from the 'enemy culture') or to support them in the preservation of their own cultural identity.

In Liberia Oxfam was involved with UNICEF in supplementary feeding programmes for malnourished children and adults. When the malnutrition rate was very low there was great resistance to closing the programmes down because they had been more than feeding centres; they had served as refuges for women coming into town desperate, traumatised, and weak. Women could sit with their children in relative security. They, in effect, had permission to sit and absorb the experience. Usually, the woman in charge had also experienced some level of trauma. Cathy Mears reports that the supervisor would often talk about the past and probable future horrors-what will become of these children? How could this have all happened? There may be a case for having multi-purpose "centres" - refuges for women to talk, rest, come together in safety. In times of conflict these can be justified through health work (explicitly or implicitly).

Health work can be a good entry point to working in a situation of conflict, and sometimes the presence of external workers can provide local people with some cover. However, it is not without its difficulties. Cathy Mears describes two situations in Luwero, Uganda where NGO workers were able to protect in one case and inadvertently endanger a woman in another. In one case a woman begged the NGO workers to take her sixteen-year-old daughter to the capital because she had been raped several times by soldiers. Full of trepidation, they hid her in the vehicle under blanket and told soldiers at the road blocks she was bleeding and about to miscarry. Because of this they were allowed through, presumably not because of compassion but because of repulsion at the thought of the miscarriage.

The second example refers to a woman and her malnourished child who needed to get to a feeding centre. The NGO took them both to the village where the centre was and had to introduce the woman to the military commander. At that point they realised they had inadvertently exposed that woman to high risk but it was too late to get her out. It was almost impossible to follow up what happened. In retrospect it seemed that the woman had agreed to move but may have thought the NGO could offer more protection than it had power to do.

2 The need for involvement

The need for women and men to feel that they have some control of their situation highlights the need for them to be involved in the planning and implementation of interventions. In this planning process it is important to ensure that women's specific needs are identified and addressed. UNHCR has produced guidelines and checklists to guide field staff on this.

Often it may be difficult to get women involved in the formal decision-making structure, but it is usually possible. NGO staff need to be aware of the constraints and find creative ways of dealing with some of the potential conflicts. The following example of refugee 'empowerment' with people displaced by conflict in Northern Uganda illustrates the case in point:

All block leaders were men. The representatives of the implementing agency (food, shelter, etc) worked very closely with refugee committee, pushed hard with them (all women) to get some women block leaders. The first one was an ax-teacher with a family of young children and other dependents. After a few days she came asking me to relieve her of her duties because she was getting too much hassle and did not have time or energy to cope with it. After some discussion, she agreed to persevere. Later, with the Gender Project Officer, we pushed for a system of leaders and deputies-one of which had to be a woman.'

It was not necessarily that men recognised the need to have women in those positions, but rather that they lost interest in the job. 'Men were interested in positions at first because there was no other occupation and as block leaders, they were in charge of distribution of items. But over time, there were increased opportunities for work in a nearby town and the distribution systems were well-established so that the jostling for power period had subsided.'

Psychosocial effects of conflict on women

'Continual exposure to events one can do nothing about frequently results in a psychological state of helplessness. This state of helplessness can include lessening one's perception of control over outcomes, a depression of mood, and a decrease in one's motivation to initiate new responses. Extreme effects of helplessness include fear, anxiety, depression, disease and even death.' (Cohen, p.68 in C.D. Speilberger and I.G. Sarason, 1986)

Much of the current research on stress emphasises the importance of the lack of control or the perception of lack of control being a major factor in stress, even more so than the particular stress factor. 'The feeling of control, the fact or illusion that one can make a personal choice, becomes particularly important in a situation of stress. Reactions to stress involve various phases: alarm or shock, in which there can be intense emotional discomfort; the resistance phase, which involves the coping efforts to manage the stress; and finally the exhaustion phase, manifested in mental health disorders. Stress reactions should not be considered pathological, but rather as adequate responses to abnormal or threatening situations. Health problems appear when adaptation efforts fail and/or exposure to stress is overwhelming or persistent.

Vulnerability and protective factors affect people's ability to cope with a stressful situation. Factors that increase vulnerability, such as a bad socio-economic situation, tend to increase the effects of stressful situations while protective factors, such as good social networks tend to reduce the impact of stress on mental health. Situations of conflict can exacerbate the vulnerability factors directly, for example, through destitution of means of production and by destroying family and social networks, thus putting people in extreme situations of vulnerability. There are many factors that increase women's vulnerability, not least their lower social and economic status, and it is not difficult to imagine the major impact that conflict can have on their ability to cope with major stress and their multiple responsibilities.

Research conducted with Mozambican refugees in Zambia and Central American (mainly Salvadoran) refugee women in Washington studied the various factors affecting women's response. Some of their findings are as follows:

1 Experience of trauma

Refugee women have been victims of traumatic events, and in addition are subject to daily life events which are stressful. They worry constantly about their situation, and that of their children and family, in addition to having to relive the memories of the trauma they experienced. Women are targeted directly, but also through their children. 'In a context of ongoing violence, the violent death of someone close to you can engender feelings of extreme vulnerability. It constitutes a form of victimisation.' In other words, women may be physically unharmed, but still left psychologically affected. The mental and emotional energy spent in trying to deal with the traumatic life events can hinder the ability to cope with everyday life. Table I summarises the type of events women had experienced.

2 Current stresses

In addition to their direct experience of trauma women face additional worries and concerns such as how to satisfy the basic needs of themselves and their families. The situations that they face, even after they have escaped from direct conflict, are not themselves conducive to healing or resolution of problems. This makes the Western model of counselling individuals within a normal situation, to overcome particular events, of limited value, as most often the situation continues to be an abnormal one. Also, the level of trauma in a community may be so high that this model is simply too costly.

3 Mediating factors

One of the ways in which it is possible to help is by addressing some of the contributing factors, trying to limit or lessen their negative impact, and trying to identify which are the mediating factors that can contribute to lessening this negative impact. The extended family or other social networks can play a useful role. In the study mentioned for Mozambican woman, living with extended family that they perceived as supportive and having friends were factors which contributed to reducing stress, while for the Salvadoran woman this was not available, and so having a good relationship with their partner or husband became the main source of support. (In some cases marriage can cause additional stress for women.) This can also help to identify those who are most at risk in a community. For example, single women, children who have lost both parents, or those with no social support.

4 Gender differences

Being a direct victim of trauma predicted more difficulties. In one study men had been direct victims of violence more often than women, but did not necessarily have more difficulties in coping with everyday life. There are significant differences in the way women and men are affected by current stresses: in the studies, women worried more about family issues such as the relationships with children and husband, whereas men were more concerned with issues like access to health and education.

There were differences in the degree to which women and men are affected, with women being more affected than men, particularly with feelings of helplessness. Also men tended to have greater access to social support, both within and outside the family (see table II). The assumption is that it is the access to a range of support networks rather than a single one that is important. It appears from the table that men have more people to talk to, but also more time at their disposal. Women tend to be more involved in agricultural or household and childcare tasks that leave them little time to make contact with the support networks that are available.

One of the differences in conflict situations is that the whole context is abnormal and the whole social support network is affected. That is, the givers of social support (often the women) are equally under stress and in need of support. In these circumstances it is important to understand well how the networks operate and how they can be strengthened.

The children

The emotional well-being of the mother affects the children directly. Studies have shown that children whose mothers had been directly traumatised or were severely emotionally distressed, were more likely to have difficulties. Women can sometimes react by emotional withdrawal, and even neglect their children, as witnessed in refugee camps in Sudan. This also highlights the need when dealing with trauma in children to look at the family, and in particular, the mother.


It is necessary for agencies to look at a whole range of interventions and address the overall concerns of both men and women in conflict. Practical interventions, for example the provision of firewood or other fuel for cooking, health services, etc. can go a long way in terms of decreasing the stress for women.

Summerfield stresses the importance of those who suffer conflict being able to give meaning to and share what they have gone through. The simple provision of a 'refuge' or similar gathering place where people can do this may be of great benefit. To enable or facilitate the healing process NGOs need to be aware of the issues and have a good understanding of the people they are working with.

Table I. Percentages of women who were victims of traumatic events



Witnessed murder



Knew someone murdered



Injured by violence



Rape/Sexually abused









Threatened/humiliated by verbal abuse



Experienced a house search



Forced to participate in military activity



Property/cattle taken



Separated from children



Present when home/neighbourhood bombed



Forced to seek safety from gunfire



Robbed/feared for life on journey to USA



NA = Not included as a traumatic event for this group

Table II. Protective Index






2.Married/lives with someone



3.Extended family in same household



4.Extended family nearby



5.Family member who gives emotional support






7.Religious affiliation



8.Someone to talk to if worried



9.Member of club/village committee



10. Family perceived as a source of support



11. Family not perceived as a source of stress


Mean score for men


Mean score for women


Reference: The Psychological Well-Being of Refugee Children-Research, Practice and
Policy Issues

Case Study 5: A checklist


Gigi Francisco

1 Women-headed households

Temporary, in the context of displacement until reunited with spouse in original place of residence; or
Permanent, in the context of death of spouse, or resettlement in a far away place without the spouse who may have decided to stay behind in the conflict area or join either of the armed forces

Specific problems

· Increased triple burden as women are left to care for children and the aged.

· Issue of survival/increased marginalisation in a society where the sexual division of labour determines allocation of resources, rights, and opportunities (statistics from Third World countries show that women-headed households tend to be the poorest).

· More vulnerable to sexual abuse (although women who have their spouses around have also been raped, some in front of their defenceless and terrified spouses).

· Mental stress/psychological impact of war and its consequences. Women have to attend to the needs of family members who have been scarred by war even while she, herself, suffers all sorts of stresses and vulnerabilities.

2 Sexual abuse and harassment, in the context of the following:

Within area/community of conflict, during operations (civilians caught in the war, local or international); under interrogation/detention by military; when seeking welfare assistance (e.g. evacuation, food, water, health services).

Forms of sexual abuse/specific problems

· Rape: military/political rape (repeated rape by one man/multiple rape)
· Sexual harassment : threat of sexual abuse
· humiliation through verbal vulgarities and abuse by men
· vulnerability to touching of sensitive/private parts by men (documented by Gabriela);
· Sexual commodification: military prostitution, as an established institution/ culture of patriarchy;

3 Severe condition of reproduction-related responsibilities among women civilians caught in the midst of military operations/total war tactics and strategies

Specific problems (outside of sexual abuse and harassment, and as women-headed households)

· As food producers, procurers and prepares: increased hardship due to food blockades, no man's land (limited mobility), food quotas, economic constriction, devastation of livestock/crops.

· As household health managers: increased hardship due to bombings and strafing resulting in deaths in the household, deaths of infants and children due to malnutrition and outbreak of epidemics, cutting-off of institutional support, limited mobility.

· As child-carers: unimagined hardship due to all of the above, manages the children during evacuations bombing, etc.

· As pregnant and lactating mothers: malnutrition, physical and emotional stress

4 Women's health

(There is a need to separate this as an issue since most often, it is only the health of children and mothers which is addressed in the context of relief assistance during armed conflicts and in evacuation centres.)

Specific health problems

· Malnutrition among women.

· Maternal health.

· Psychological/emotional stress or instabilities resulting from war and its consequences (death, dislocation, rape, etc.).

· Physical disabilities/illnesses arising from war that make it difficult for women to carry out critical reproductive roles.

· Sexually transmitted diseases and/or viral/bacterial infection: may be due to rape, inadequate/poor sanitation; often overlooked by women themselves; if unattended, may leave to more serious reproduction-related illnesses such as cancer.

Gigi Francisco, Women's Resource and Research Center: April 1991

Case Study 6: Sri Lanka

Nalini Kasynathan


Sri Lanka has experienced continuous conflict for more than a decade. The war in the North-East has claimed several tens of thousands of lives, caused extensive damage to infrastructure and led to massive displacement of people. Over one and half million people are displaced within Sri Lanka, of whom 250,000 are living in refugee camps; 50,000 are refugees in Canada; 210,000 in India officially (with an additional unofficial figure of around 150,000); a further 100,000 refugees are in Europe; and 10,000 in Australia.

Currently people continue to be displaced, as villages are attacked by the government security forces, paramilitary groups, Home Guards or militant groups. In October 1992 an attack on four villages in the Polannaruwa district resulted in the massacre of over 200 villagers. This, and the subsequent retaliatory killings, led to a massive outflow of people from this area.

The work of Community Action Abroad (CAA)

1 CAA's work in Sri Lanka

This case study concentrates on the work of Community Aid Abroad (CAA). The CAAsponsored project on which it focuses is located in the Batticoloa district in Eastern Sri Lanka. Here, major fighting broke out once again in June 1990 between the government forces and militant groups in Batticoloa. This led to 30,000 people fleeing into the surrounding jungle, while 150,000 moved out of their villages to live with friends and relatives in and around the town, and 50,000 entered government-run refugee camps.

CAA started working in Batticaloa in January 1992 with the refugees who were beginning to return after their flight during the June 1990 fighting. While some of these were returning to their homes, there were many others who were newcomers to the area, which they perceived as more secure than their own home regions, from which they had fled. All refugees coming into Batticaloa had lost their homes and livelihoods, while many had additionally lost family members.

2 Initial relief measures

With funding provided by the Australian Government (AIDAB), CAA started a relief and rehabilitation programme for two thousand families. Organising the refugees into groups, the programme provided them with building materials to construct basic shelters, cooking utensils, agricultural implements, seeds and fertilisers.

The programme was not gender-speciffc and were intended to help the displaced of both sexes to resettle in their new environment. Distribution of protein supplements for mothers and children was an important component of the programme.

3 Moves from relief to economic recovery

The men among these refugees could not find any employment and tended to sit idle, while the women took upon themselves the main burden of sustaining their families: they picked grain from fields harvested the previous year, nursed children who were suffering from malaria, diarrhoea and many other infectious diseases, fetched drinking water and gathered firewood.

At the end of eight months, an evaluation was done to assess the efficiency of aid delivery. The beneficiaries, especially the women, indicated that they would prefer some of the funds allocated for some consumer items to be given instead in the form of loans for agriculture. CAA's partner at this stage was the Dry Zone Development Foundation (DDF), an organisation working in the area on credit programmes.

On the basis of the women's request, CAA agreed to provide more agricultural assistance to the families in the project area. This was particularly concentrated on the women who were found to have taken on the responsibility for the welfare of their families. For this reason vegetable cultivation, rather than paddy (rice farming), was identified as a suitable income-generation activity. It was possible to get the full participation of women in this activity because vegetables were grown around their homestead, and all farming activities, such as watering and tilling of vegetable plots, were manageable by women.

As a result of the cultivation during the first season, many families were able to earn between rupees 1500-2000 after providing for their domestic consumption. On account of this success, the programme was extended to include another 700 families. The families were also provided with the services of agricultural extension officers. They were also provided with training in functional literacy, health education, and the basics of financial management.

After a year of such activity, it was clear that the beneficiaries had grown out of the relief phase of their resettlement. By now there were 47 societies with a total of 1800 members, of which 70 per cent were women. The societies elected a central executive committee to manage the programme. Of the five members of this committee, four were women.

CAA assistance was now provided, once again at the request of the beneficiaries, to establish hand-loom centres, cane handicraft, preservation and processing of agricultural produce, and skills training. At this stage it became evident that the women members were beginning to see inadequacies in the organisation of the DDF which was working with them on the credit programme. The coordinators of the organisation were not easily or readily accessible. The members also felt that they were being excluded from the decision-making process in the organisation They called a general meeting of the project, and proposed a restructuring whereby the women's groups became direct recipients and managers of project funds. This direct involvement of the women was a main factor in the subsequent growth of the project.

4 Conflict offers women room for manoeuvre

War provides an opportunity for women's empowerment. The challenge is to make women conscious of the empowerment issues here so that the gains made would survive the war.

The disruption by war of established structures, guidelines and taboos has made room for them to move into areas from which they were previously excluded. Even the men who are left in the villages are vulnerable to attack or harassment, and women therefore find themselves having to take on public roles and make the decisions too. They feel less endangered than men in negotiating with the army, officials or with the militants. They take on many non-traditional occupations, including positions in the combat cadres.

5 The chances of sustaining women's empowerment into peacetime

The lesson from other similar situations in the past, including the Second World War, is that women tend to slip back into traditional roles as conflict gives way to peace and the restoration of earlier norms. Attention must therefore be focused on empowerment as an ongoing process through women organising themselves collectively with an understanding of their position as one of exploitation and disempowerment. Work with women must not confine itself to relief and refugee work and to trauma counselling. It must deliberately seek to build on the urgency and the opportunities generated by war. Income-generation activities must be used to build women's organisations which would focus on conscious empowerment.


One must distinguish between the practical difficulties in working in hazardous areas and the suitability or otherwise of income generating and organisational work in war situations. Instead of it being true that only disaster relief work can be done in war situations, CAA's work in Sri Lanka shows that development work may be the only effective way of dealing with the damage caused by protracted war.

Women demonstrated their willingness to engage in such development work and their capacity to plan and organise its nature themselves. Substantial steps were taken towards women empowering themselves in this programme.


In writing this case study, I have drawn extensively on factual information in field reports and a paper by Shanthi Sachidananthan, CM's Project Officer in Sri Lanka.

Case Study 7: Burma

Shona Kirkwood


Burma's political problems started soon after Independence in 1948 when a series of opposition groups went underground. During successive governments, both democratic and military, a number of uprisings took place, with the largest in 1988 being led by students. Thousands were killed or arrested, while around 10,000 fled to the border areas. After pressure from the international community, the government held elections in 1990 which were considered to have produced a fair result. The main opposition party, the NLD, won 85 per cent of the vote, but the junta refused to hand over power. The current situation is a stalemate; however, the government at present has the upper hand, having acquired international support since announcing the elections, notably from logging and oil companies. It is believed that it may soon be in a position to overcome the opposition groups.

The Burmese Relief Centre

The Burmese Relief Centre (BRC) was set up in 1988, originally to help students living around the Thai border. It later started extending assistance to refugees from the Keren ethnic group, who had been in exile or semi-exile since soon after Independence. About 70,000 Burmese refugees now live in camps in Thailand. BRC works through the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), the Keren National Union (KNU) and through other member organisations of the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB). It works both in camps in Thailand and in areas inside Burma controlled by the resistance forces. Most of BRC's assistance is focused on three elements: emergency provision of food, medicine and clothing, medical training, and education.

Specific problems of women

Within these populations, the particular problems women face are the following:

1 Forced labour

Women are coerced to work as forced labour in construction work or as porters for the Burmese army. Women form about 50 per cent of the labour force in construction work and number onefifth of all army porters. Survival rates among the latter are extremely low, with illnesses, including malaria, resulting from lack of care and lack of food. Women porters in particular are often subject to nightly gang rape by soldiers.

2 Lack of family planning and pre/postnatal care

Abortion is common and there is much inaccurate knowledge surrounding childbirth.

3 High infant mortality rates

Infant mortality rates are very high. Death claims 50 per cent of under-fives in some of the areas controlled or partially controlled by the resistance.

4 Single parent households

5 Prostitution

40,000 Burmese women are estimated to be working in Thai brothels. Many of these are girls who enter domestic or other sorts of menial service and are later sold into prostitution. The prevalence of AIDS is very high among prostitutes in Thailand and the killing of AIDS victims is not uncommon.

BRC's activities with students and refugees

BRC is able to address some of women's problems, notably 2 and 3 above, but on too small a scale to solve the problems, being restricted both by lack of funds and staff end by the lack of gender awareness within BRC and its partner organisations

The students and the Keren refugees present two different communities with different gender profiles. Keren refugee women are highly respected and valued by men. They have equal opportunities and often control the family budget. There is a death sentence in cases of rape. Yet Keren women face many problems which the current political organisations are not dealing with, since there are few women at the higher levels of the organisation For example, despite women being 52 per cent of the Keren population, there are only 5 women out of 45 in the central committee of the Keren National Union (KNU). Women tend to feel satisfied with their present role and do not want to challenge men.

The Keren Women's Organisation was in fact set up by the president of the KNU, with the intention of bringing women into the political struggle, rather than at the instigation of Keren women themselves. The KWO is thus an arm of the KNU, to whom its policy is subordinated; KNU policy is set up by men and women are not consulted in the process. The KWO is also disadvantaged financially, receiving around 10 per cent of the movement's (diminishing) income while the KNU receives 90 per cent.

The Burman student population, around 2,500 of them living in 22 camps on the Thai-Burma border, have a somewhat different composition, since women form less than 10 per cent of this population. Most students have sought refuge as individuals rather than families, and women have proved reluctant to cut themselves off from their families to the same degree as men. Commitment to the revolutionary struggle is a strong part of the students' motivation, in addition to fear of reprisals from the government.

Women among the students tend to feel they have no significant role in the struggle (there are no women on the central committee) and their morale is low as a result. In addition, they face many health problems and, having no knowledge about or access to contraception, suffer many pregnancies. The women students have limited occupational options; those with education may become teachers or nurses, while those without tend to be cooks or cleaners. However, one woman has recently received training in women's development and may soon begin to change things.


For women's needs to be addressed as a higher priority, much groundwork needs to be done in raising gender awareness among all parties, as well as strengthening women's representation within the political structures: for example by strengthening the KWO, by increasing the number of women in the KNU central committee, and by promoting a women's movement within the ABSDF. However, this issue is currently clouded by the serious military situation in which the rebel movements find themselves. Given the overwhelming need for enhancing the military position of the refugees, is this the moment to start working for greater gender equality?

On the one hand, women stand to gain considerably from a Keren victory (in terms of freedom from gross abuses such as slave labour and, in the longer term perhaps, prostitution). Because of this, maintaining the military integrity of the movement is a priority for women as well as for men.

On the other hand, the refugees' survival depends not only on military strength but also on the strengthening of the community's coping mechanisms, which are in fact being eroded by the inability to address gender issues. It is perhaps exactly at this critical time, when all established patterns of behaviour are threatened with radical change, that gender most needs to be addressed.

In situations where gross discrimination is practiced against a particular group, for example on ethnic or political grounds, the goal of gender equality within that group may appear to some to be subordinate to the needs of the political and military struggle, which aims to create the conditions for empowerment of the whole community. But enabling all sections of the community to contribute to that struggle as fully as possible is also a vital survival strategy for the whole population. Times of crisis provide opportunities for change.

Helping resistance organisations to become aware of the gender dimensions to their struggle may be a timely contribution by outside support agencies.

Case Study 8: The Philippines


Arlene C Mahoney

Attending to the psychosocial needs and problems of people-specially women in situations of armed conflict-is a relatively new field of disaster response in the Philippines. While more and more NGOs are now aware of the great need to address the problem, the majority are still in the process of coming up with a concept and a comprehensive view on how to concretely respond to the psychosocial effects of conflict.

Only a few groups have gone beyond the research and conceptualisation stage and have begun to implement direct programmes with psychosocial services. Yet even these advanced groups still have to emerge from the 'infancy stage' of psychosocial work. Currently, each of them is groping its way amid problems associated with lack of human resources, lack of funds, and lack of experience to guide them ahead.

If psychosocial work in general is as yet an emerging field, then much more so are psychosocial services directed towards the particular circumstances of women in situations or armed conflict.

However, a few groups have already begun to establish mechanisms in response to this. These include some women's groups at the national level. Already hampered by the problems mentioned above, these women's NGOs also have to contend with a male-oriented and maledominated atmosphere which tends to refuse to acknowledge women's needs and concerns.

Nevertheless, despite major limitations, hopes are high among these women's NGOs that this field of disaster response will achieve a higher level of effectiveness in the future. They, together with other advocates, are raising several issues that if addressed, they believe, would enable the groups working on the psychosocial effects of armed conflict to significantly advance their work.

Psychosocial effects of armed conflict on women in the Philippines

The most obvious effect of armed confrontation between government troops and rebels is the massive displacements of communities, causing serious economic and psychosocial problems. Women are particularly vulnerable in this situation.

1 Women as family corers

Data from NGOs show the extent of armed conflict-related traumas suffered by women. Emotional distress and anxiety are caused by physical and economic displacement, specially in women-headed households. Experience of disaster-response NGOs show that women act as both father and mother in most situations of armed conflict. Having to take care of the children, they face the additional burden of ensuring that the family has enough food to eat.

On top of this, women constitute the majority of volunteers for disaster-response groups. As such, they take part in registering disaster victims, acting as disaster-response committee members, attending training sessions and acting as negotiating panel for peace talks with warring groups.

Women have to perform all these activities at the same time as they are trying to cope with the emotional stress of being physically separated from their husbands, who may be in hiding for fear of being suspected as a rebel, or may be combatants.

The fact that women comprise the majority of disaster volunteer workers reflects a gender bias not only at community level, but within the NGO as well. Many NGOs believe that women are easier to mobilise for disaster response because, firstly, they are not tied to production work. Secondly, disaster response is viewed as women's work; thirdly, women are more committed to service because of their innate and natural gift for nurturing and mothering.

The distress of having to perform all these roles is often expressed in psychosomatic illnesses. Women in evacuation centres, for example, usually complain of recurring headaches, or body pains and dizziness, without any identified medical cause.

2 Women victims of torture

Because women are the more visible sex in the community during conflict, having to do all the parenting and volunteering for community work and associated tasks, women are particularly vulnerable to extreme human rights abuses. Women constitute the majority of Direct Service Workers (DSWs) in the Philippines, and reports of their harassment are common. At times, DSWs are used as human shields: in Masbate and Ifugao, women DSWs were made to stay with soldiers in one room for about a week, to thwart any attempt by rebels to raid the building.

3 Women victims of rape

Apart from non-gender-specific physical torture, women are also vulnerable to rape and other forms of sexual abuse and harassment. Cases of women being raped before being killed are not uncommon.

Cases of women being used as 'comfort women' occur. For example, in the Masbate and Ifugao incidents, the DSWs involved state that the soldiers who stayed with them in the one room made several drunken attempts to rape them.

Past experience with conflict of a civil war scale in the Philippines have also shown that rape at times appears to become part of the war strategy. During the Muslim war (in the southern part of the Philippines) in the 1970s, warring groups raped enemy women as a way of revenging themselves on their foes.

Response to psychosocial trauma

1 Community support systems

At the community level there are rarely any support systems provided for those suffering from psychosocial effects of conflict. Communities not only lack the professional capacity to assist, but also focus their attention on the more basic concern of ensuring that children are safe from physical harm during the emergency situation.

2 State support systems

On the part of the government, most agencies offering help to displaced communities do not consider assisting psychosocial cases as part of their work. Hence, apart from sometimes bringing a patient directly to the mental hospital, the problem is normally ignored.

3 The role of NGOs

Even among NGOs working in the Philippines, fewer than ten have, in the last couple of years, set up services at the national level to combat the harmful psychological effects of armed conflict. Only about two or three of these programmes deal specifically with women victims. The rest are not gender sensitive and have no gender perspective in their programmes.

Type of psychosocial support services extended

The few NGOs that work on psychosocial problems resulting from armed conflict have not gone beyond the preliminary level of such work. Except on gender issues, these groups use similar approaches and methods in their work, which include the following:

· tension relaxation training, aimed at relieving psychosomatic symptoms of patients;
· individual counselling and group counselling to patients.
· group dynamics among patients;
· individual and group counselling of relatives;
· sessions with community members.

All these are aimed at relieving the tension of the patient or patients, as well as providing an atmosphere conducive to restoring mental equilibrium. Staff running these programmes are mainly psychologists. For extreme cases, the services of consultant psychiatrists are also used. However, problems often occur since most patients oppose the idea of seeing psychiatrists, associating the idea of psychiatry with losing one's mind.

Problems faced by these groups generally focus on the lack of human resources, lack of experience and reference materials to guide them ahead, and financial constraints. Among those who attempt to respond to women's psychosocial problems, additional constraints are faced, one of which is the lack of gender-sensitive psychiatrists in the country at present.

Gender-related problems also crop up during therapy or counselling sessions for relatives or community. Men usually view counselling sessions as suitable only for women, and so do not attend and actively participate in these activities. Taking care of the patient is also seen as the task of the wife or mother.


There is currently a dearth of information on the impact of armed conflict on women, including the psychosocial effects of war. Data on this would facilitate essential work, such as training curriculum development, programme planning, and awareness raising.

There is an acute need to incorporate gender perspectives, issues, and concerns in conflictrelated disaster response and in other fields of community work. Only a few NGOs are addressing the specific problems of women victims of armed conflict. This is not only true in the psychosocial field but also in relief and rehabilitation. NGOs generally do not make specific provisions for women in relief and rehabilitation work, despite the fact that women have expressed particular needs during emergency situations, while displacement often places an increased burden on them.

This is not to say that most NGOs do not have some awareness of the value of gender analysis in development. However, the majority lack the necessary knowledge and skills to take definite steps in integrating gender into their programmes and services. In this situation, gender training is definitely required. about mental health. There is a tendency for people, even health workers, to ignore or not to recognise or acknowledge mental health concerns. Community and even health workers, tend to look at people's disaster-related problems in terms of physical and economic needs only. Hardly anybody looks into the disaster's effects on the people's mental and/or emotional well-being, and people judged to have mental problems are stigmatised. Although this trend has started to be overturned now with more people realising the need to examine the emotional and mental health of disaster victims, increased efforts have to be made in this area.

There is a great need for NGOs to exert efforts to correct misconceptions and other myths surrounding mental health. One difficulty expressed by psychosocial workers is the patient's reluctance to be referred to psychiatrists. They associate psychiatry with having 'gone crazy'. Even their relatives express negative reactions at the idea for fear of the attached stigma. People should be helped to recognise and value the role of psychiatry in mental health.

One of the limitations of the current work being done in the country is the inability of NGOs to set up psychosocial support mechanism at the community level. This should be done to supplement the prevailing clinical approach, a limitation of which is the reality that there are more patients than there are psychologists to attend to them, and that success of treatment could be boosted when there is a mechanism at the community level to do follow up work. Psychosocial impact of any armed hostility may be lessened with the timely proactive intervention of a community-based structure.

These issues may not only be relevant in the Philippines but in other countries also rocked by internal strife. Oxfam may play a significant role not only in supporting the development of psychosocial responses, but in ensuring the presence of a gender perspective as well. Support may range from providing financial assistance to sharing technical expertise. In our experience, the simple act of consistently asking about the particular needs of women disaster victims led to a partner's initiative to add a session on gender issues in one training programme.

Women victims of sexual abuse during conflict should be encouraged to come out into the open to receive therapy. People should be informed about the issue to erase stigma and biases. There are now several groups working toward this end, although they do not specifically deal with those victimised in armed conflict. As a result perhaps of the efforts of these groups, a growing number of Filipino women have publicly related their traumatic experiences and thus contributed to the public's education on the issue of sexual abuse.

It is hoped that the combined efforts of the affected communities, NGOs, and agencies such as Oxfam, will result in the improved psychosocial state of women caught up in situations of armed conflict.

Case Study 9: Lebanon

Lina Abu Habib

Oxfam's role in Lebanon has evolved in response to the general situation in the country, and in particular to the way the Lebanese NGO' which Oxfam supports have developed their own response to the unfolding conflict. Factors internal to Oxfam have also played a significant part in determining the policies and actions of Oxfam in the Lebanon.

This evolution can be seen by looking at four periods of significance in the progress of the war:

1. The Israeli invasion, which took place in 1982 and which led in 1983 to the war on the southern suburbs of Beirut.

2. The Israeli withdrawal from the mountains and parts of South Lebanon was progressive, extended over the period 1984-87, and precipitated the (:amps War (Palestinians versus Palestinians, Lebanese versus Palestinians), the Mountains War (Druze versus Christians), and the East of Saida War (Christians versus leftist militias). There was massive, long-term displacement of population as a result of these conflicts.

3. The height of the Lebanese war of 1989-90, in which more than half the country was affected by intense and devastating fighting with huge numbers of casualties.

4. The period following the 1990 peace treaty in which security was restored and political and economic reform has been under discussion.

The first of these periods saw the establishment of an Oxfam office in the country running an emergency programme through local NGOs and UNRWA. It is hard to tell how far Oxfam was attuned to gender issues at this time since little documentation survives, but gender was not generally seen as an issue then, either within Oxfam or among the partner NGOs.

Some women's groups did exist, often affiliated, as the KWO in Burma, to political parties —and the majority of NGO field staff were women; however, decision-making was largely in the hands of men. The priority of the NGOs was to cope with the social repercussion of the invasion.

During the second period Oxfam began to focus on a number of non-confessional NGOs, supporting the work they were doing in the fields of relief and rehabilitation and social services, together with primary health care. NGOs-and especially secular ones-were facing pressure exerted by de facto militia powers (which are necessarily sectarian), and Oxfam's aim was to help them survive. A substantial number of projects supported dealt with women, and employment of a part-time gender PO was contemplated. The war and economic situation had given rise to an increasing number of female-headed households and many NGOs were starting to work with women on, for example, child care and income-generation projects. Though the Oxfam office recognised the need to look at women in development (WID) issues, it did not have the skills to deal with them, and these were in any case obscured by the pressures of the emergency situation.

The third period (civil war) could be characterised es 'lousiness as usual' for Oxfam, which continued to support NGOs and their work in relief at community level. Despite the intensity of the war, Oxfam's programme was oriented towards development projects while maintaining some emergency intervention. However, the Oxfam office began to think about carrying out a review of the programme's basic assumptions. As far as gender was concerned, WID was definitely recognised as an issue by this time: partner NGOs recognised women as a main target group in this conflict situation, and Oxfam made deliberate attempts to involve women in project-related discussions. However, women's issues were on the whole addressed at the level of individual projects, and no formal gender analysis had appeared at this stage.

During the latest stage, internal factors had a greater bearing on developments. Oxfam's strategic planning process was in place, and within the Lebanon, Oxfam began discussions with partners on rethinking their and Oxfam's strategies and identifying for the first time a coherent shape and direction for the Lebanon programme. Gender and the environment emerged as main themes in the future programme, helped both by the Gender and Development Unit (GADU) incorporating gender into the strategic planning process, and by the NGOs' awareness of the term. This awareness coincided with an increased interest by donor agencies in promoting gender as a condition of funding.

The present situation is that political and economic reform and the optimism of the Middle East peace process is coinciding with Oxfam's first year of strategic planning. Gender training and a new gender analysis within the country's own context are in process, and gender will be promoted within a joint review with partners. The atmosphere within Oxfam is now conducive to gender work and there is a consensus on gender within the Lebanon office. The peace process provides some space to discuss gender issues, even though it may ultimately not succeed. Lebanese NGOs are having to consider their position on gender issues very carefully, partly because of the increasing conditionality of donor agencies who believe the Lebanon is no longer an emergency situation, and partly because they-like Oxfam - will soon have to analyse the implications and causes of the rise of fundamentalism, and the effect it might have on gender relations and the situation of women in the country and the region.


In the Lebanon, the growth of local NGOs has been closely linked to the course of the war and the emergency needs of the people.

Oxfam's view of its role has been oriented towards developing the capacity of its counterparts to cope with growing political, social, and economic problems and helping to ensure their survival through very difficult times, and this gives Oxfam the credibility to raise new issues such as gender in a positive environment.

Gender awareness in Oxfam and its partners has been stimulated by the socio-economic changes in Lebanon, and also encouraged by institutional factors within Oxfam.

In order to promote discussion of gender issues among its partners, Oxfam recognises the need first to equip its own staff with appropriate skills.