The Forgotten Casualties: The Indirect Gendered Consequences of Explosive Violence on Civilian Populations

by Miles Cameron Hunter

9 July 2019

One of thousands of Syria’s widows; Hanaa’s husband went missing before their son was even born. She now struggles to support him on her own. (Image credit: 2014 UNRWA Photo by Taghrid Mohammad)

Explosive violence is a feature of most contemporary armed conflicts. It comes in many forms: from mortars and airstrikes, to landmines and suicide bombings. Tragically, it is civilians who face the brunt. There is little sign of this trend abating: the casualty monitor run by Action on Armed Violence observed a 165% increase in civilian deaths as a result of explosive violence between 2011 and 2017.

The impact of explosive violence is far-reaching, triggering numerous indirect consequences beyond an initial blast; this affects everything from the provision of effective healthcare, to education and sanitation. However, this piece focuses on a less-discussed impact of explosive violence: the series of indirect gender-related consequences. Patriarchal societal norms and values in many war-torn regions often result in women being immensely disadvantaged. Meanwhile, the traditional impression that men are the chief actors in war is still overstated, frequently leading to the impact on women going unseen. These views persist even as explosive violence in modern war harms a growing number of women and children. Women regularly find themselves widowed in societies that repress their independence, raising families alone in poverty while often enduring limited access to health and after care services. Greater awareness regarding these gender-based issues is overdue.

For men, the consequences are often more self-evident. As a result, they tend to overshadow the subtler, but no less important, impact on women. The raw statistics suggest that men and boys are more likely to be harmed in an explosive incident than women, especially when looking at landmines or explosive remnants of war (ERWs). According to data from 2015, 86% of explosive incidents where the gender was known involved men. A main reason for this is societal norms and traditional gender roles that are often present in affected areas.

In many of the worst hit regions, such as Syria and Zimbabwe, it is commonplace for men to be the chief breadwinners for the family, while afflicted regions also tend to be more economically disadvantaged. As a result, occupations such as farming and scrap salvaging are notably at risk, with labourers (usually men) forced to work dangerous land to provide for their families.

But there are more indirect gendered-consequences. In societies where it is the norm for a man to provide, a maimed father has a knock-on effect on the family. Often, it is children, generally boys, who are pulled out of school to work instead, facing the same dangers from explosive ordnance. Women also suffer the cost.

Despite being more likely to suffer direct consequences of blasts, men are also in a more advantageous position to cope by receiving treatment and/or finding alternate employment. This is largely due to gender-based bias in many affected societies. Dr Sherry Wren, in association with Doctors Without Borders, has expressed concerns that medical treatment in conflict zones, such as those in Sub-Sharan Africa and the Middle East, is far less accessible to women. Data suggests that sixty-nine percent of surgeries between 2008 and 2014 were on men, leading to fears that women are under-represented in hospitals due to their second-class societal status. It is true that for direct violent trauma, such as gunshot wounds and explosive injuries, seventy percent of surgeries were performed on men. This is not surprising. However, the alarming figure is that even for indirect trauma, such as illness and disease, seventy-three percent of surgeries were performed on men. This is a stark inequality.

The key finding of this report is that women endure many long-term, and often overlooked, indirect consequences of explosive violence. In general, there is already an issue with long-term trauma in post-war states being neglected. However, for women this is exacerbated due to a second-class status in the patriarchal societies that make up the majority of modern conflict zones. Injured women are less likely to have access to aftercare services and generally face more stigma and marginalisation than men if disfigured; according to  UN research into gender-based perceptions of war survivors. There are also health complications unique to women. For instance, a blast can damage the female placenta, leading to direct or indirect complications in childbirth in future: indeed, this is one of the biggest killers of young women according to the WHO.

Women in Non-Western patriarchal societies also suffer from many indirect socio-economic consequences of explosive violence. Those widowed, or who have a husband incapacitated, face a plethora of struggles. They find themselves in a position where they must be chief breadwinner in cultures that frequently militate against women working, while also retaining the responsibility of raising children.

In Syria and Lebanon, fifty percent of families with a female head face food insecurity and are twice as likely to live in deprived informal settlements. Many women struggle to find work due to gender-based stigma. As a result, they risk being dragged into poverty and/or forced into exploitative means of income such as sex work or seeking early marriage for young girls. All of this can cause intense psychological scarring, which although not as immediately evident as physical injury, can be equally debilitating.

Even when women struggling in the aftermath of explosive violence do find conventional work there are harsh inequalities. In Lebanon, it is reported that women often work longer hours than men for just seventy-seven percent of what their male counterparts earn, while also having demanding maternal duties.

There are many more hardships facing women than those documented in this report. But its findings are demonstrative of clear gender-based issues persisting in civilian populations affected by explosive violence. The notion that men are the primary actors in war still prevails despite the ever-greater toll on women and children. Consequently, the plight of thousands of women affected by explosive incidence often goes unnoticed.  As awareness for their predicament grows, traditional assumptions need to evolve along with the changing nature of war.

Miles Hunter graduated from King’s College London with a BA in War Studies and an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society. He is currently a researcher with the charitable NGO Action on Armed Violence.

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