Sexist methods of warfare: How does war affect women?

Sexist methods of warfare: How does war affect women?

Anthrodendum welcomes Aleksandra Cejovic, a Montenegrin anthropologist based in the United States whose work is focused primarily on female embodied experiences, mainly menstrual and sexual health.

Sexist methods of warfare: How does war affect women?

by Aleksandra Cejovic

It is not an understatement to say that war is a force of destruction that reaches everyone who is in its realm of actions. Still, data shows that around 70 percent of those killed and 76 percent of those displaced in today’s conflicts are civilians – mostly women, and children.

The terror of being a female during the war is more complex than it is discussed. Conflicts turn women into heads of households, and leaders in their communities as men are deployed to fighting. Alongside them, the most endangered groups would be minorities, the LGBTQIA+ community, and people with disabilities.

There are at least ten ongoing conflicts that should take over our full attention when discussing this kind of topic. The way they affect women, children, and other imperiled groups, depends on multiple different factors such as the culture of the conflict’s locality, the intensity of dispute, or pre-existing attitudes towards the above-mentioned groups.

The lives of women and girls during the war are conditioned in more ways than just sexual violence. For example, during the Afghanistan war and Boko Haram’s kidnap of 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria, an increasing number of girls stayed out of school. Due to the threat of school-related gender-based violence, girls in conflict surroundings are around two and a half times more likely to be out of school than their male peers. This is one of the examples of how gender inequality gets deepened during the war and becomes embodied in the community even in post-war settings.

The most recent UN report finds that women in Ukraine often do not eat sufficient amounts of food to make sure their close ones and children had enough for themselves. Food distribution is always disturbed by war settings, and it usually affects the vulnerable groups the most. One of the more extreme cases would be the Yemeni crisis where it has been reported that breastfeeding mothers cannot feed their newborn babies due to inaccessibility to necessary nutrients.

While women’s unpaid care burden is increasing significantly and they must rely on the gray job market as a source of income, simultaneously their access to health care services is getting more limited. The poor access to health care mostly takes hold of pregnant women, people with chronic illnesses, and the ones who experienced gender-based violence. Needless to say, the war situation itself jeopardizes the health of these people, especially pregnant women who are at great risk of miscarriage and complicated childbirth due to constant exposure to the explosions.

As the newest UN report finds, Ukrainian women face an increased number of issues regarding their safety and protection since law enforcement has almost been non-existent throughout the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What does this mean?

In countries where women are discriminated even throughout tranquil times, it is more important to acknowledge that they are exceptionally marginalized and disturbed during the armed conflict. Across different cultures it is found that women are seen as direct reproducers of culture and ethnicity, both in natural and social meaning of the word. In this sense, attacking women can be recognized as attacking the specific community they identify as a part of.

At this point, I believe, it is obvious that conflicts have tendency of resulting in increasing occurrences of gender-based violence against women and girls. Torture, rape, forced abortions, forced pregnancies, forced marriage, non-existent freedom of movement, sterilization and many other atrocities have been, and still are, nothing but reality for significant number of women who found themselves behind the fighting lines. It is irresponsible and unfair to assume that sexual violence exclusively means rape.

During the WWII, Japanese soldiers were forcing women from occupied countries into prostitution. During the 1992-1995 Bosnian War women were raped until they became pregnant and then imprisoned to force the gestation upon them which resulted in thousands of children born out of this crime. Syrian women are still being taken to ISIS sex camps. Women and children in Yemen were at an increased risk of human trafficking. Uyghur concentration camp survivors in China are reporting the cases of enforced sterilization. Bodies of naked dead Ukrainian women are left on the streets after gang-raping them and branding them with a swastika symbol.

Four korean comfort women 1944
Four Korean comfort women after they were liberated by US-China Allied Forces outside Songshan, Yunnan Province, China on September 7, 1944. Source: The Hankyoreh website at Photo by Charles H. Hatfield, US 164th Signal Photo Company. Note: The original photo is available in the National Archives Catalog at

These examples just support the fact that systematically injuring, punishing, degrading, and sexually violating women is apparently just another method of warfare. Now don’t get me wrong. This blog post isn’t dedicated to deepening the existing ‘victim narrative’ that is present in reports of sexual violence within the areas of armed conflicts. These claims, examples, and stories serve to paint the picture of how life can be for many women who are just trying to keep their families together despite the fear of displacement, and to provide food and shelter for their children and families. Women who get to survive acts of sexual violence are forced to live with scars of war and rape while trying to acquire the chance for a new start.

Nude woman in body paint protests Cannes
A woman with the Ukrainian national colours and “Stop raping us” painted on her body at the Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2022. LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

It should be prioritized that women behind the fighting lines have access to healthcare, contraception, abortion, and psychological and social counseling. They should be approached in a traditional way of their community, and their situation should be handled dignifiedly, confidentially, and sensibly by trained female staff.

Most importantly, women shouldn’t be seen as a collateral damage of armed conflicts by international humanitarian law, or human rights experts. Sexual violence should be met with revolt, unacceptance and unforgiveness. And women as carriers of crucial social, cultural, religious, and economical roles should be more represented not just during war but peace as well.

Unfortunately, women experts are transparently excluded from negotiation processes in the time of armed conflicts, or efforts put in towards conflict prevention, or even post-conflict transition processes. The international community expressed its concerns, but substantial change in affairs of war isn’t anticipated any time soon.