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close this bookDevelopment in Conflict - The Gender Dimension (Oxfam, 1994)
close this folderII. Case studies
close this folderA: The impact of armed conflict on gender relations
View the documentCase Study 1: Cambodia
View the documentCase Study 2: Somalia
View the documentCase Study 3: Uganda

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.