Joshua Tucker (JT): What was the impetus for this special issue?
Sarah Shair-Rosenfield (SSR): The topic of gender and conflict has been growing in importance and visibility in the field of political science. That’s partly been a response to the passage in 2000 of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which declared that women are important in building peace and security and encourages incorporating more women into peace processes. And it’s partly because women have become more prominent, both as national policymakers and as academics studying political violence and gender. Several scholars at the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University study the intersection of women and politics, conflict and human rights. We hosted a conference on gender and violence. This collection grew from the natural cohesion of some of the conference papers.
JT: How have political scientists typically studied gender and conflict, and how do the pieces in this special issue challenge those conventions?
Kelly Kadera (KK): Political scientists have come a long way in unpacking the relationship between gender and armed conflict, focusing on ways women influence and are affected by conflict.
UNSCR 1325 was predicated on two big assumptions: that women are affected by war differently than men are, and that women can have a distinct influence on what a nation or region will look like after war. Scholarship has found some support for these ideas.
For instance, countries with more female legislators are less likely to go to war, less likely to relapse into conflict, and spend less on defense. Scholars also find that while countries experiencing high security threats have fewer female legislators, many nations recently emerging from civil wars have created space for women in formal politics as part of the peace negotiations and, later, as part of the government, sometimes in startling percentages.
Of course, it would be a mistake to treat women as a unified, cohesive group with a single set of experiences, preferences, and skills. The pieces in this special issue, both individually and together, ask readers to reconsider using a single model of how “women” or “feminine” individuals act in and are affected by armed conflict. Two articles examine women not just as victims but also as combatants in insurgencies – and how the news media have overemphasized that involvement. Two other articles shed light on how women’s daily lives can be negatively affected by conflict or even the threat of conflict. Women’s well-being is often intentionally set aside to further political and military interests, as women are often subject to the strategic use of sexual violence during civil war and economic harm during threats of war.
Finally, two pieces explore how well women and women’s issues are incorporated into long-term policy solutions after conflicts end. For example, the presence of international peacekeepers improves the chances that women and gender issues will be more incorporated into reforms in state security sectors. Additionally, electing greater numbers of female legislators leads to improvements in postwar sexual violence law enforcement.
JT: What are the major challenges facing the study of gender and conflict?
SSR: One of the biggest challenges is limited access to high-quality data. Three of our contributions tackle this limitation, by putting data sets into the public domain on how often women take on insurgent combat roles, the gendered composition of the post-conflict security sector, and the adoption of gender-based violence laws.
Furthermore, one contributor conceptualizes a new way of assessing gendered representations of participants in the war against the Islamic State. This could be used to evaluate whether women are depicted as agents of peace or violence in other conflicts as well. We need more such innovations to identify where the women are and what they are doing.
A second challenge is that a lot of the empirical work on the topic hasn’t bridged the divide between academia and the policy world. This certainly isn’t unique to this topic. But particularly since women’s involvement in conflict and peace processes has become a hot topic in the international policy community, it seems that trying to close the policy-academia gap is a challenge worth addressing.
Some work moves the conversation forward, especially in the areas of recruitment of women into modern conflicts and wartime sexual violence, but bridging this gap remains a big challenge for scholars of gender and conflict.
JT: What was the most interesting thing you learned when putting together this special issue? What are the most exciting questions that the articles in the special issue could help to answer in the future?
KK: We learned that a lot of scholars are studying gender and violence in ways that are more nuanced than simply asking whether a particular victim, combatant, negotiator, or legislator is male or female. This includes new work examining how Americans see female suicide bombers, feminism and attitudes toward the use of force, and the effect of peacekeeping on post-conflict maternal health.
Some exciting questions that we think these pieces point to and could help answer are: Do groups deploying female combatants more successfully negotiate for and maintain peace? Does threat or the perception of threat affect individuals’ views about the trade-off between defense and social spending? And is there a particular type of conflict where the news media are more likely to alter or be biased in their portrayal of women’s or gendered roles during conflict?
There are certainly lots of others, but these strike us as natural extensions of the articles in our collection and related to big issues that political scientists are already grappling with.