Credit: Kiki Chan

Women in war

By Lena Schega

Women are arguably the greatest victims of war—so why aren’t they being treated like it?

Trigger Warning: Sexual assault, gender-based violence

Long before the genocide of the Hazara women in the 1890s, and the estimated 200,000 sexually enslaved ‘comfort women’ in Japan during World War II, women have been facing gendered violence in conflict zones. Battlefields and home fronts have become indistinguishable, and whilst men are typically the first to be mobilised, women and children have begun to comprise the vast majority of civilian casualties in contemporary conflicts. Gender-specific war crimes, often to do with the brutalisation and domination of the female body, such as large-scale rape and sexual servitude, are endemic weapons of warfare. These have now become the norm in war zones where women are left at home to look after their children. The exploitation of women is present universally—during war it becomes even more pronounced.

Although “saving women from violence” was the primary discourse employed by the Western alliance to justify the invasion of Afghanistan, the February 2020 agreement between the US and the Taliban, outlining the complete withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan, failed to include any protection of women’s rights, excluding women’s rights activists and organisations from prior negotiations. Since the Taliban reinstated themselves as Afghanistan’s de facto state authority in August 2021, they have been robbing women and girls of their hard-won rights, effectively dominating every aspect of their lives. The “scope, magnitude and severity” of violations are “increasing month to month,” a 2022 Amnesty International report has found. The report documents the obstruction of women’s rights to education, work, and free movement, the demolition of women’s support systems in cases of harassment or domestic abuse, and the imposition of heinous punishments by the “morality police,” ranging from threats to torture.

During war, women’s bodies often become instrumentalised, with women from ethnic and religious minority groups facing even more violent repression by the state. After the attack on 7 October, over 240 people are being held hostage by Hamas, among them many women and children. One verified video shows 23-year-old Israeli-German woman Shani Louk being paraded through the streets by the attackers while she is naked and unconscious. Louk has since been declared dead by the Israeli government. As certain forces conquer territory, women’s bodies become markers of military victory, and a means to humiliate and demoralise the men from the opposite side as they were unable to protect “their women”. 

However, this abuse of women is not limited to international conflict, as state forces, such as the “morality police” are also known to mobilise against their own citizens as a form of control. On 1 October 2023, 16-year-old Armita Garawand, born in Kermanshah in the Kurdish region of Iran, was attacked by the “morality police” in Tehran for allegedly violating the dress code that requires the wearing of a mandatory headscarf. After weeks of hospitalisation, she was declared brain-dead on 21 October. Existing as an ethnic minority within Iran, the reality for women such as Armita is grim. The brutalisation of the body and catastrophic dismantling of everyday life is the reality for most women in war zones, whether inflicted by foreign powers, state law enforcement, or within military units.

However, this abuse and mistreatment of women is not limited to civilians. After the Iraq War, in which nearly 300,000 women served, the US military published several studies highlighting the “military’s traditional and deep-seated hostility towards women” and the sexual violence inflicted on female soldiers. The study found that 30% of military women were raped while serving, 71% were sexually assaulted, and 90% were sexually harassed. In an interview with the BBC, army specialist Chantelle Henneberry, who served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006, said: “I was less scared of the mortar rounds that came in every day than I was of the men who shared my food”. This research suggests that abuse inflicted by state law enforcement and military units is not just limited to civilians, nor does the culture of the military become more inclusive of women through women’s presence. Furthermore, the mobilisation of women into armed forces and a gender balance in the military do not ensure the real liberation of women and cannot be taken as an indicator of a progressive society. 

Both Russia and Ukraine’s armed forces have registered shortages of personnel 20 months into the war. On Monday, 23 October, the independent news portal istories reported that the Russian Ministry of Defence has started to recruit women for its “Redut” mercenary unit. Similarly, since 1 October, all Ukrainian women with medical or pharmaceutical training must register for conscription, with the expectation that they will fill the gaps in the ranks of both armies to enable the establishment of new brigades. For many Ukrainian and Russian women, taking up military service is the only way to escape war-caused poverty which has left thousands of Ukrainian and Russian children fatherless. Furthermore, since the beginning of the war, the price of a life in service has increased manifold. A soldier’s wages are often many times higher than the average wage for Russian and Ukrainian workers. Female soldiers are offered a six-month contract, which includes a monthly salary of around £1,900. If the women suffer injuries while on duty, they are entitled to a further £26,200. In the event of death, their surviving dependents receive a one-off payment of almost £43,600. Economist Tatiana Mikhailova describes the government’s provision of financial incentives as “buying loyalty”. Of the 42,000 women in the Ukrainian army, many report poor conditions, poor training, a lack of equipment, discrimination and sexual violence in service.

Women’s sexual and reproductive health is also negatively impacted by conflict. According to Palestinian officials, nearly half a million Palestinian women and girls have been displaced by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Among those killed and injured, 62% are women and children. Approximately 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza are without access to healthcare services, with 5,522 being expected to go into labour this month without adequate medical facilities, UN Women reports. During humanitarian crises women regularly experience a shortage of clean and safe menstrual products. However, the state and armed actors might also try to actively control women’s reproduction. While abortions are still legally allowed in Russia, a full ban of the procedure is being discussed as the Health Ministry is discouraging women from getting an abortion to counteract falling birth rates. Activists fear that new regulations will crack down on the availability of contraceptives and drive up prices, further complicating the procedure.

The exploitation of women, even outside the context of war, is systematic and remains prevalent as the power imbalance of gender relations serves the interests of the state. Women in conflict zones are often presented as national heroes or as victims. Both representations strip women of their agency and do not lead to the genuine protection of women’s rights. Women in Rojava in Syria have armed themselves to fight for their freedom. They have formed “Women’s Protection Units” (YPJ), which played a big role in taking back control of Kobanê from ISIS during the ongoing Syrian civil war. After ISIS attacked a Yazidi village in the Sinjar region of Iraq in 2014, the YPJ rescued and protected the community members who were trapped on Mount Sinjar. Whilst women have fought and will continue to fight for their rights at every turn, the road to liberation appears long. The stories of women collected in this article are not exhaustive.


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