Chapter 1: Women And Ethnic Conflicts


This report seeks to understand the role of women in ethnic conflicts, and how the symbolic mobilisation of women by pervasive nationalist and patriarchal ideologies in the past and present make women and girls the targets of unspeakable cruelty in wartime. As will be explained in section one, nationalism and group identities are intertwined with reproductive politics. Women often become willing or reluctant symbols of their nationality or ethnic group, which puts them in a highly vulnerable position upon the outbreak of wars. Sections two and three will then explore how women since time immemorial have been subject to horrific war crimes, due in part to their transformation into the personification of their respective nations. Moreover, and contrary to what many readers might expect, the final section demonstrates that, while women are typically regarded as seminal actors in conflict resolution and peace-building, the facts on the ground tell a very different story. Though women tend to be “rewarded” with voting rights and greater political participation in post-war societies for their sacrifice (either on the home front or battlefront) they are often excluded from the peace-making process.

Section 1: Gender and nationality

Though women are often marginalised politically, the symbolic significance of women is essential to the survival of states and nations. Without an understanding of how nationalism has transformed gender roles in shaping the modern state, it is difficult to grasp why traditionally male-dominated wars frequently target female civilians. In 1989, sociologists Nira Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias (1989)edited a collection of essays entitled Woman-Nation-State. In the preface, one author explains that the entry of women into the national sphere, as cultural and biological transmitters of national values, redefined the content and boundaries of nations and ethnicities.

1.1: Constructivism and Nationalism

Constructivism is a theory born during the second wave of feminism after the 1970s. The concept of “gender” in constructivism established a connection between patriarchy and emphasised the human experience behind the universal injustice endured by women. Constructivism can also help us understand how nationalist and patriarchal ideologies shape or “construct” the role of women in societies. For example, scholars such as Partha Chatterjee (1996) argue that nationalism is a project in which the hierarchies of gender, race, class and caste are entrenched. Nationalist discourse “constructs” women and men differently, placing them in different positions. Women are portrayed as symbols, producers, and nurturers of the nation, while men are protectors, warriors, and builders of the nation. These two roles are different but closely linked. In fact, the social construction of gender has been ongoing since the birth of nationalism. In Europe, almost all nations chose an allegorical woman as the symbol of their country, such as the “Netherlands virgin” in the Netherlands, “Germania” in Germany, “Marianne” in France, and “Britannia” in the United Kingdom. These female idols often embodied qualities like chastity or a willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of society, which reflected idealized moral standards of “good” wives and “good” mothers. Historian George Mosse (1985) argued that nationalist discourse began to use female symbols to represent the nation-state in the early 19th century, to create a personified national image that could unite people, irrespective of their class or interests.

Mosse (1994) also added that nationalism involves the process of distinguishing who is and who isn’t a member of a nation. A common ancestry, destiny, and shared national values became the criteria for national identity. For example, Jewish communities see you as Jewish if your mother is of Jewish descent, which highlights the significance of women in the inheritance of national identity. This symbolic importance of women in nationalist discourse leaves them especially vulnerable to attack, as noted by historian Theresa Wobbe (1993). Similarly, legal scholars like Hilary Charlesworth and Christine Chinkin (2022) argue that the construction of gender and gender roles in patriarchal societies, combined with the economic and social subordination of women, means that women often suffer more during and after conflicts.

Differences between women and men in nationalist imaginaries are also reflected in the social division of labor. Important issues concerning national development and security are frequently decided by men in the public sphere, while women are often restricted to the non-public sphere, such as the home, and have almost no political participation and decision-making rights. Women often have little choice but to take care of their families, assist men, give birth, and raise the next generation (gender norms that are especially prevalent in traditional societies). In fact, even in non-public arenas such as the home, men often become the dominant figure, and a woman’s status in the private sphere hinges on her fertility and ability to give birth to male children. Though men are usually dominant in society and in the family, women are not passive victims. Various factors, such as giving birth to male heirs and ageing, may grant women a degree of autonomy and social capital.

1.2: The influence of nationalist discourses on women

Nationalist discourse constructs and defines a women’s role in society, a process that has two major consequences: on the one hand, nationalist discourse transforms women into symbols of their respective states and cultures, which turns women into objects that need to be protected and excludes them from participation in the public sphere. On the other hand, the symbolic role of women in nationalist discourses leaves them exposed to extreme violence during conflict. In addition, the gendered construction of women by nationalist discourses also severely limits a woman’s ability to independently obtain and control resources, thus further weakening her bargaining power on some key issues.

Section 2: The influence of ethnic conflict on women

The impact of ethnic conflicts on women is significant: ethnic conflicts may provide opportunities for women to empower themselves, but in the vast majority of cases, wars leave women, the living embodiments of their “mother” lands, exposed to all kinds of barbaric behaviour.

2.1: Women as victims of ethnic conflict

Women are overwhelmingly likely to bear the most devastating consequences of ethnic conflict, such as the disintegration of social order and extreme violence. During the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, tens of thousands of women were expelled from their homes, abducted, endured religious conversions, and were even forced into marriage. Conservative estimates put the number of victims between 25,000 to 29,000 Hindu and Sikh women and 2,000 to 15,000 Muslim women. Countless women were raped, stripped naked, paraded through city streets, had their breasts slashed, and had religious symbols carved into their bodies. Indian and Pakistani states saw women within their newly defined borders as little more than property and demanded the return of women who married each other’s nationals, regardless of whether the women had children or not. This ethnic conflict also prompted relatives to murder women in their own families, either in the name of “martyrdom” or to “protect” them from forced conversions. Many women even committed suicide.

Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Syrian women have been targeted by all parties in the conflict. They have been arbitrarily attacked by opposition groups, abducted and massacred by terrorists, arrested and harassed by government forces or their militias, and some have been forcibly detained as spies and subjected to various forms of torture in detention centres, including sexual violence. Violent extremist groups often take advantage of ethnic conflicts to capture and traffic women. In some areas, women and girls even serve as currency on the black market.

2.2: The strengthening of women’s subordination

Ethnic conflict may exacerbate gender inequality by reinforcing women’s subordinate social status. Combatants often see women as a resource to be pillaged or destroyed. For some minority women, discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, class, or age is particularly acute during ethnic conflicts. Though some armed groups do recruit women, a preference for male recruits is often the norm, which further reinforces the subordination of women. According to a United Nations (UN) survey, domestic violence against women rises disproportionately during armed conflicts. Floya Anthias (1989) shows that the plight of women in conflict-ridden societies rejuvenates nationalism and patriarchal norms.

Section 3: Sexual violence in ethnic conflicts

In the ethnic conflicts of the 20th century, violence against civilian women was commonplace, in the form of violence, sexual violence, sexual mutilation, sexual slavery, torture, and killing by military organisations, paramilitary outfits, and some civilians. Sexual violence against women was endemic, from Bangladesh to the former Yugoslavia, Vietnam to Mozambique, and Afghanistan to Somalia. Approximately 200,000 Korean women were sex slaves or “comfort women” for the Japanese military during World War II. Journalist and feminist Susan Brownmiller was one of the first scholars to document wartime rape. It is worth noting that in nation-state wars and ethnic conflicts, the methods and strategies of sexual violence are often different, but the consequences are very similar. The mass rapes that took place during the Bosnian conflict (1992-1995) brought widespread international attention to wartime rape for the first time. American feminist Beverly Allen (1996), who conducted anthropological research on rape survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the mid-1990s, coined the term “genocidal rape” to distinguish between rape in war and rape as a method of genocide. A considerable volume of writing about wartime sexual violence was published in the wake of conflicts in Bosnia/Herzegovina and Rwanda.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) ‘s first case was that of Akayesu, the former mayor of Taba, Rwanda, who was accused of masterminding heinous incidents. In September 1998, Akayesu was found guilty of rape, in addition to genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in a judgement that marked the first time the International Court of Justice (ICJ) punished sexual violence in a civil war. The judges also concluded that “rape” involved not only sexual contact but also “sexual assault of a person under compulsion.” However, it is also worth noting that while women are overwhelmingly the main victims of wartime sexual violence, they can also perpetrators. At the ICTR, a woman named Nyiramasuko was found guilty of inciting her son to commit sexual violence against Tutsi women.

The condemnation of wartime sexual violence in the Rwandan military tribunals was historic, particularly the Akayesu verdict, because it set a precedent for the prosecution and punishment of wartime sexual violence and established a link between sexual violence and genocide during ethnic conflicts.

3.1: Theoretical explanations of wartime sexual violence

Historically, rape has been indissociable from violent conflict, and the practice of raping women in war has been recorded since the time of ancient Greece. In her book, historian Susan Miller (2005) makes the case that rape in wartime is as old as war itself. In academic works, news articles, and related reports, sexual violence during ethnic conflicts has gained detraction and attention, but serious analysis is lacking

Feminist theory holds that wartime rape is an expression of power by dominant men over dominated women and has little to do with sexual gratification. Journalist Susan Brownmiller (1977) expressed this view in her work, arguing that wartime rape is not a sexual act, but an act of aggression (that is, rape does not have a sexual function in the perpetrator’s mind). In inter-ethnic strife, the female body becomes a metaphor for the nation and the state, female sexual behaviour becomes inextricably tied to patriotism and nationalism, and sexual violence becomes an expression of power. While not all feminists agree that wartime rape is only about power, it is widely acknowledged that wartime rape is a way to express a man’s dominance over women in a manner that humiliates the victim. Some feminists (2018) argue that sexual violence and rape during conflict reflect the dominant position of men and the subordinate position of women. It is a physical manifestation of the objectification of women.

There are many explanations for wartime sexual violence in the field of cultural pathology, and one of the more representative cultural pathology theories is that misogynistic military environments are more likely to lead to wartime rape. The partition of East Pakistan, the war against Serbia in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo, and the civil war in Rwanda demonstrate, on the one hand, that rape can be a means of genocide, and on the other hand it can be an expression of cultural pathology. Genocidal rapes occur mainly among ethnic groups that strongly stigmatise rape survivors rather than rapists. Another theory in cultural pathology holds that the effectiveness of rape as a combat strategy in armed conflict depends largely on the cultural norms regarding female sexual virtue in societies where the victim lives. The destructive nature of sexual violence is that it exploits deeply ingrained gender norms in certain societies and cultures (Weitsman, 2008, pp. 561-578). It is for this reason that victims of sexual violence, both men and women, are often stigmatised and many are unable to return to their homes or families.

Conversely, bio-social theories argue that sexual gratification is the main motive for committing wartime rapes, given that conflicts create permissive environments that allow sexual violence to go unchallenged and unpunished. Political scientist Janine Clark, based on multiple interviews with survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 2014 and 2015, identified five factors that contributed to the prevalence of sexual violence in the Bosnian conflict: revenge, humiliation, opportunism, group dynamics, and entitlement (Clark et al., 2017). In ethnic conflicts, differences in ethnic identity play an important part in which “rape strategies” perpetrators decide to deploy. In areas where ethnic identity derives from matrilineal descent, wartime rape may intend to destroy the fertility of the enemy’s ethnic group. In areas where ethnic identity is derived solely from the paternal line, the use of interracial women as “breeders” to produce native babies can be a motive for rape, which increases fertility and creates more native populations. In Rwanda, Hutu extremists set out to humiliate Tutsis by damaging the fertility of Tutsi women. During the Bosnian conflict, Serbs repeatedly raped interethnic women as a way to increase the number of Serbs if these women became pregnant and gave birth. In countries or regions where abortion is illegal, rape is often more effective in suppressing reproductive desires and lowering the birth rate of hostile ethnic groups.

3.2: The nature of sexual violence in wartime

Rape is not the only form of sexual violence in wartime. Horrifying acts like mutilations, torture, gang rape, and sexual slavery are not uncommon. As lawyer Kirthi Jayakumar (2013) explains, sexual violence is more widespread in wartime than in peace time. In peacetime, rape cases tend to be scattered and separate incidents. In wartime, when women’s individual bodies are transformed into “social bodies”, rape is far more extensive and is often pursued as a policy of domination.

Acts of sexual violence involve multiple violations of the body, mind, and dignity of the victim, and the rape of women of a rival ethnic group is a means of subjugating the other ethnic group. Political scientist Lisa Sharlach (2001) argues that state involvement in genocidal rape is an incremental process, going from acceptance to encouragement, to institutionalisation, and finally to instrumentalisation, thus making genocidal rape a tactic in the service of strategic war objectives. Rape committed in the context of war cannot be seen as a “senseless act of violence”. Rather, it is a deliberate act designed to enhance a sense of power and to encourage a perverse “connection” between the perpetrators. Rape and other forms of sexual torture may also damage the reproductive capacity of women, thereby destroying the reproductive base of enemy peoples. There are similarities between the Bosnian and Rwandan conflicts in this regard: acts of coercion were carefully designed, systematically carried out, and collectively used to destroy the reproductive capacity of a rival ethnic group.

Journalist Elizabeth Neuffer (2005) mentioned that rape in wartime is not just about having sex, but also about owning other people’s property. Once the goal is to acquire the “property” of a hostile ethnic group, the perpetrator uses sexual violence as a tool to insult the race of his victim. Conflicts in Africa have seen the practice of sending men with AIDS to sexually assault women from rival ethnic groups as a strategic escalation of sexual violence. In addition, rape in war can be used to control territory, stigmatise civilians, and expel hostile ethnic groups from specific areas to maintain ethnic domination. Wartime rape is also sometimes seen as a means to increase group cohesion (Goldstein, 2003).

European colonists (2003) found that some white women viewed gender relations in indigenous societies as a model of gender equality, because they did not encounter harassment from Indian male captives after fighting with indigenous peoples. In 1779, when he was sent to destroy the Iroquois Nation (a Native American tribe), Brigadier General James Glinton of Gauntington told his soldiers (2003) that as bad as the “barbarians” were, they never violated the chastity of women or their prisoners. Sexual violence, however, was later used by European colonists against Native Americans to force them into submission.

3.3: The impact of wartime sexual violence

The horrendous effects of wartime rape are not only felt during war; they linger long after conflicts are over. Widespread rape in ethnic conflicts causes massive physical and psychological trauma, and the symptoms and extent of that trauma vary from person to person and from culture to culture. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women (2000) describes the most common psychological ramifications of rape: trauma, sexual apathy, promiscuity, substance abuse, depression, psychosomatic diseases, anger, and self-loathing.

Wartime rape not only impacts individual victims, but also affects the group in which they belong, leaving long-lasting scars. In some social and cultural contexts, where a woman’s virginity is a matter of honour for the whole family, women who experience sexual violence not only receive no sympathy, but may also be humiliated, exiled, or even killed by members of their own ethnic group, be they male or female. In some sexually conservative areas, the humiliation and persecution of survivors of sexual violence is no less damaging than the act of sexual violence itself. In 1947, during the partition of India and Pakistan, some 75,000 Bangladeshi women were abducted and raped by government forces. After the war ended, tens of thousands of rape victims were driven out of their homes by their husbands and languished in refugee camps. In 1971, during the war of partition between Bangladesh and Pakistan, more than 200,000 Bangladeshi women were forcibly raped by the Pakistani army, and tens of thousands of Indian women were subjected to “honour killings” after the war. From this perspective, the price women bear in ethnic conflicts is very high.

The Fourth Hague Convention of 1907 defines wartime rape as a violation of the “honour and rights” of the victim’s family, rather than a violation of individual rights. In patriarchal societies, women’s identities are subordinate to fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons, and virginity is the standard for judging women’s “purity” and a source of identity for unmarried women. Therefore, rape becomes a particularly sadistic form of torture, directly destroying the social relations of its victims.

Section 4: The role and decision-making of women in ethnic conflicts

There are generally four types of decisions women make in response to conflict: they (1) do nothing, despite a desire to (2) participate in political activities to help resolve conflicts, (3) participate in a conflict as a perpetrator of violence, or (4) try to avoid the conflict all together. From a gender perspective, both violence and conflict can be seen as gendered activities. Women and men participate as perpetrators and victims, and experiences vary greatly. To understand the nature of gender, power, and ethnic relations in violent nationalist conflicts, it is necessary to go beyond narrow understandings of women as victims in conflicts.

4.1: Conflict as a chance to change the status quo

In the modern world, the impact of war and conflict on men and women is uneven. As peace studies scholar Donna Pankhurst (2000) points out, in some cases, conflict may present an opportunity for women to be liberated from archaic social orders. As more and more civilians take up arms in contemporary ethnic conflicts, women’s participation in violence challenges stereotypes of women as caregivers, reconciliators, and nurturers, especially in traditional societies. In some cases, war and conflict enable women to acquire new identities. In World War II, while men were drafted into the army, women were given opportunities to work in industrial enterprises and acquired complex vocational skills. After World War II, professional women emerged in many countries (Pankhurst, 2012).

Sociologist Marie Berry, in her study on violence and mobilisation in Rwanda (2015) even found that the threat posed by genocide and civil war triggered grassroots mobilisation among women. In Mozambique, where women joined FRELIMO (Liberation Front of Mozambique) as organisers and fighters, the status of women in society improved significantly after the war. In Nepal, women joined Maoist guerrillas to fight against caste and gender discrimination. In the Karen lowlands of eastern Myanmar, a territory riddled with civil conflict, more and more villages are appointing women as chiefs because male leaders are more likely to be targeted for extermination by the Myanmar military.

4.2: Reorganisation of the political space

Women’s participation in wars and violent conflicts often increases their political clout and raises their expectations. Many commentators observe that in times of social crisis, there is often more “space” to bring about fundamental changes in gender relations. For example, after left-wing parties come to power after ethnic conflicts, they may embrace the idea of women’s liberation and implement policies that promote gender equality, prioritise women’s affairs, and strive to improve the status of women. Numerous countries introduced gender quotas to improve the representation of women. In post-war Rwanda, Uganda, and Namibia, for example, governments guaranteed women’s participation in parliamentary systems via reserved seats or quotas.

4.3: Women and Peace-building

However, persistent stereotypes exclude women from peace talks and peace-building in post-conflict areas. While men’s participation in war creates opportunities for women to carry out activities outside the constraints of traditional gender norms, women are often not a part of the peacemaking process. In post-World War II Poland, to take one example, women were restricted from entering the Polish legislature and the newly formed government (Geisler, 1995). Data collected by UNWomen and the Council on Foreign Relations clearly shows that in every major peace processes between 1992 and 2017, women made up barely 3% of mediators, 3% of witnesses and signatories, and 9% of negotiators. In 1995, there were no women among the negotiators, mediators, and signatories of the Dayton Agreement, which was part of the peace building process in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Even when wars are waged in the name of saving women, women are often deliberately excluded from peace talks. Washington’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was originally launched in the name of saving Afghan women from medieval tyrannies, but since a preliminary agreement between the United States and the Taliban government in 2019, Afghan women representatives were completely excluded from all peace talks. The absence of women from peace talks often leads to the absence of discussion or debate about key societal issues in the post-war reconstruction process. Therefore, many women are forced back into oppressive, subordinate roles that were the norm before the war. In some cases, women’s rights regress significantly after a conflict, as seen in Iraq or Iran.


Women’s representation in peace-making continues to plummet worldwide as the number of women who join armed groups and regular armies continues to increase with each passing year. The UN reports that women’s representation in UN-led peace processes stood at barely 16% in 2022, “a further drop compared to 19 per cent in 2021 and 23 per cent in 2020”. This report demonstrated that this alarming trend is most apparent in ethnic conflicts. Nationalist discourse tends to mobilise women’s bodies. As a result, women’s involvement in ethnic conflicts has been steadily growing over the past two decades. Tragically, some women might even consider participation in warfare as the only way of gaining parity, respect, and equal standing with men in post- war societies. But most importantly, this report shows that nationalist propaganda leaves women and girls exposed to abhorrent crimes in wartime. A world where women and men are fully equal will not come about through the barrel of a gun. It is up to us all to abandon sexist and deeply cynical nationalist discourses that threaten to push everyone into the abyss.


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