Women in conflict-affected areas do not have the luxury of debating the relative happiness and fulfillment quotients of homemakers or breadwinners – self-preservation and the survival of their families demands they become breadwinners and homemakers, whether they choose to or not. Women acquire valuable negotiation and management skills while ‘learning from doing’ and sustaining business operations in an inhospitable environment. While this places immense psychological pressure on women, the result is their economic empowerment.
Female-headed households typically increase during conflict, as waging war remains primarily a male occupation. In Cambodia, 20-25% of households were led by women at the end of the civil war in 1998; similarly in Guatemala, where post-war female-headed households comprised 30-50%, a significant increase from prewar years. A study of women’s economic activities during civil war in Uganda revealed that, as women explored means of economic survival, their mobility and presence in the public sphere increased. They created unique organizations including revolving-loan saving schemes for investments in businesses with shared profits to facilitate women-run income generating activities. In Cambodia, Rwanda, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Georgia, women’s participation in agriculture as sharecroppers, landless laborers, and farmers increased during conflict. Women entered diverse industries and occupations due to labor shortages, gaining experience and confidence as productive workers.
In some cases, conflict erodes social norms restricting women’s movement and provides them with the social space to engage in activities to which they may previously have been denied access. However, these gains may not be capitalized on during peace negotiations and the resultant transition to a post-conflict society. Often women are not even acknowledged as viable stakeholders in peace, much less given a place at the negotiating table. Of the 585 peace treaties drafted over the past two decades, only 16% included references to women. In addition, a mere 2% of post-conflict budgets are aimed at women’s empowerment, including economic development.
This reality reflects a gross underestimation of the potential economic contributions women can make to post-conflict stability and security. The exclusion of women from peace settlements therefore undermines the very objective of these settlements – to set conflict-affected societies on the path to sustainable socio-economic development.
Given that a majority of post-conflict societies lack the resources required to rebuild economies from scratch, it is important to capitalize on existing resources, offering a crucial path towards job creation and socio-economic rebuilding. There is also significant evidence to support the hypothesis that women’s economic activities engender positive spillovers for the community, including increased spending on education and health. Generating these spillovers necessarily entails engaging with women who have been leading their families and communities during conflict. Ideally, engagement in this context takes the form of financial and policy support for women-led enterprises through microcredit and other financial mechanisms. In post-conflict countries where women face uncertain ownership rights over productive assets such as land, legalizing female ownership/administration of property is essential to facilitate access to the resources needed to maintain and expand their economic activities. Additionally, it is essential to maintain women’s security and economic rights as working-age former combatants are reintegrated into society. Including women’s economic empowerment as a specific policy priority during the transition to peace and beyond is therefore a necessary condition for a sustainable transition to peace.
Most discussions surrounding the inclusion of women in peace processes focus on the egalitarian aspect - recognizing the role women can (and should) play in determining the future direction of their post-conflict countries is the ‘right’ thing to do. However, there is a very cogent economic argument for giving women their rightful place at the peacemaking table – they are (by necessity) active economic agents in conflict societies, so leveraging their experiences and networks offers a viable route towards economic rebuilding.
Women who have led their households and communities through conflict have the proven capacity to contribute effectively to the economic development of post-conflict societies; it is therefore imperative to ensure they are able to do so. Additionally, the socioeconomic needs of post-conflict societies demand significant investments in health, education and housing. Research has proven that women spend 80 cents on these social priorities for each dollar earned compared to about 30 cents spent by men. Improving women’s incomes uplifts entire families and by extension, communities. Nowhere is this more urgent than in post-conflict societies. While there is a strong moral imperative to include women as stakeholders in peace-building, the economic rationale to do so may provide a more convincing argument – investing in and empowering women economically offers a strong bulwark against relapse into conflict.