Publications & reports

Women, War and Peace

Overview of perspectives and controversies which surround issues relating to the theme of women, war and peace.

Also available in French and Spanish.

Publication details
Elizabeth Ferris


This much we have learned from our living: life begets life. Life for women, life for the earth, the very survival of the planet is found only outside the patriarchy; beyond their sad and shallow definitions; beyond their dead and static knowing; beyond their amnesia; beyond their impatience; beyond their wars - wars which unmask the fear, insecurity, and powerlessness that form the very base of patriarchal rule.

To end the state of war, to halt the momentum toward death, passion for life must flourish. Women are the bearers of life-loving energy. Ours is the task of deepening that passion for life and separating from all that threatens life, all that diminishes life; becoming who we are as women; telling/living the truth of our lives; shifting the weight of the world. - "Patriarchy: A State of War" - Barbara Zanotti

This quotation summarizes much of current feminist thinking about women, war, and peace.

Women affirm life in a male-dominated society, seek peace in a militaristic world, and challenge the very basis of knowing and thinking about society and the world. Women's passion for life not only provides a natural basis for their role as peacemakers in a violent world, but also reaches out to encompass the whole of the planet.

At one level, not much has changed since this piece was written ten years ago. Women largely remain on the margins of peace negotiations, and politics is still seen as primarily the business of men. There are still very few women in positions of power and those that are, such as

Condolezza Rice in the United States, are far from challenging the system. Moreover, in the past two years, we have seen how the language of liberation of women has been used to justify or endorse war, as was the case with the war in Afghanistan. We have also seen photographs of women soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq.

On another level, however, there is growing awareness of the contributions that women can make in peace processes, and there are cases where women's groups have fought for a place at the peace negotiations table - as in Burundi, Sierra Leone, and Angola - even though such examples have not yet become the norm.

On still another level, since this piece was written ten years ago, there has been growing awareness that women are disproportionately victims of conflict. UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations and churches have all developed programmes to address the needs of women refugees and other women who suffer the effects of civil conflict. A substantial amount of work has been done in the area of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). A decade ago, it was mainly women's groups that raised the issue of SGBV; today it has become almost mainstream.

But while raising awareness of women's needs is important, the fact remains that the response of national organizations and the international community is woefully inadequate. Frankly, I do not know whether sexual violence against women in wars has increased in the past decade or whether we are just becoming more aware of it. But in either case, it is clear that this is a major part of war with horrible long-term consequences for women and for their societies. No one who visits Darfur in Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, can be untouched by the devastation experienced by women victims of war. In spite of the growing awareness about SGBV and about women as victims of conflict, the programmes developed by the UN, NGOs and churches are far from sufficient to address the growing needs.

In early 2002, a study in three West African countries, commissioned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Save the Children-UK, found that peacekeeping forces and humanitarian agencies had engaged in sexual abuse of refugee and displaced women and children. The study found that this was not the result of the isolated actions by a few individuals, but rather was widespread. News coverage of the study led to an outpouring of new codes of conduct and new standards to prevent such behavior. But as long as there are desperate women and as long as humanitarian workers and peacekeepers are regarded as people with power, this abuse will continue.

Given the growing awareness of the effects of war on women and given the failure of men to bring about lasting peace in many of today's conflicts, I ask myself why it is that women have not become more active in the burning issues of war and peace. It may be that women are forced to devote ever more energies to simply surviving in an increasingly difficult economic and political situation. Or it may be that women's efforts to promote peace are being carried out on the grassroots level where they are not as visible as high-level peace negotiations.

The UN has reported, for example, on the important role of women in Rwanda - as 49 percent of the Parliament - in leading their society away from the ashes of genocide. In Nepal, women who were victims of violence are seeking representation in peace talks between the government and Maoist rebels. Women's Peace Caravans travel into the most dangerous parts of Colombia to protest against the civil war and negotiate with armed bands. The Ecumenical Women's Solidarity Fund in the Former Yugoslavia has supported hundreds of women's groups to work on reconciliation at the local level. The Mano River Women's Peace Network brought women from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone together to try to bring about peace in Liberia. So powerful was their collective voice that they were later invited to be one of the signatories to the peace agreement. Such efforts are important signs of the contributions that women can make to their communities.

Another positive development is the strength, which women draw from sharing their stories and working together. The report of the Consultation on Peace with Justice: Women Speak Out!* captures both the pain and the potential of women working together to address the violence in their communities. "As we laughed and cried together, we shared numerous stories that spoke of bravery, resolve, determination, wisdom, and deep insight into the true meaning of life in community. Our vision of peace and justice was imbued with continuing resistance to the power of violent patriarchal institutions in eroding our sense of humanity.

Our accounts enumerated the several ways in which we are involved in making the visions a reality in our public and private lives. We sought and shared ways in which peace and a full life in communities could be realized for all members of the community; it meant creating models of inclusive community living. We recognised the necessity of simultaneously challenging patriarchal structures of power and exercising our own individual and collective power at home and in our societies. To that end, we acknowledged the need for immediate cessation of violence in all its forms, a sustained commitment to peace in our homes and nations, and restoration of the dignity, respect, and humanity for women all over the world."

I hope that in 2014 I'll be able to report that some of the long-standing conflicts that have destroyed lives and devastated communities have been brought to an end. I hope that in the coming decade women are able to mobilize themselves to become active forces for change and for peace. Most of all, I hope that the terrible violence against women on the battlefields and in the home is diminished. But if this is to occur, the hard work of organizing women must begin now.

August 2004

Elizabeth Ferris World Council of Churches