Home>“Women in Conflict”: The Mechanisms of Patriarchy in Wartime


“Women in Conflict”: The Mechanisms of Patriarchy in Wartime

Sasha Koulaeva, Arancha Gonzalez, Simona Miculescu and Maxime Forest (credits: @Actualité Sciences Po)

On Tuesday, 8 March 2022, on the occasion of International Women’s Day and in the context of the war in Ukraine, Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA) hosted an event to discuss the subject of women in conflict. The event, chaired by PSIA’s newly appointed Dean, Arancha Gonzalez, aimed, in her words, “to dig into our gendered biases and the discrimination in our society”, goals that, as she noted, are at the heart of Sciences Po’s PRESAGE programme.

Speakers Simona Miculescu, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Delegate of Romania to UNESCO, Sasha Koulaeva, Human Rights and Civil Society Senior Expert and Lecturer at Sciences Po and Maxime Forest, Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer for Sciences Po’s PRESAGE and the OFCE came together to consider the question of women’s rights in the context of war, highlighting the ways in which armed conflict exacerbates preexisting patriarchal norms within society and increases violence against women and other groups that experience patriarchal discrimination, such as the LBGT+ community. They considered the current context in Eastern Europe, underlining the need for more involvement of women in leadership positions and for more far-reaching international policy in order to continue working towards a more just world for people of all genders. 

Conflicts Shaped by Patriarchy

For Sasha Koulaeva, on the 24th of February, 2022, “we woke up in a different world”. Despite this reality, as she noted, “we are operating and existing in the world that preceded the 24th of February”. Drawing on her Russian origins and familiarity with the region, she described this world—in terms of a society dominated by patriarchy.

Delving into the specifics, she pointed to ways in which stereotypes of gender pervade all aspects of the conflict. In response to a question concerning the apparent high concentration of media coverage of the war by women, she noted that in conflicts in Eastern Europe, there are more women journalists covering the conflict. Yet, as she emphasized, the reasons for this greater representation of women is not, as one would hope, linked to a greater agency and liberation of women, but rather gendered stereotypes that shape societal roles: “Traditionally in Ukraine and Russia, the people covering war have often been women. It is paradoxical, because women tend to cover human tragedy and losses and men mainly cover military operations.” Coverage is thus, in her conception, shaped by stereotypes that frame women as more emotional and men as more apt to cover technical military operations. In this way, she illustrated the insidious effects of patriarchy on all levels of society, in what she terms, "the perverse effects of the fight against discrimination and the patriarchy, which takes various forms."

The Effects of Armed Conflict on Women 

Taking up this idea of pervasive patriarchal systems that underlie social mechanisms, Maxime Forest termed this the “fundamentally gendered nature of armed conflict”. He highlighted the disproportionate toll that conflict takes on women and the LGBT+ community, thinking in terms of sexual violence, the mass exodus of refugees, and the risks of poverty (for which single women are more at-risk, even in times of peace), among other factors. As Simona Miculescu affirmed, drawing upon her many years with the United Nations, in wartime, “it is mostly women and girls who pay the highest price”.

Sasha Koulaeva agreed, detailing the very concrete effects that these preexisting patriarchal structures have on women in this “different world” in which we now find ourselves: “War aggravates existing patriarchal structures… Domestic violence, rape, and human trafficking—these problems do not disappear with the war, they increase.”

To combat this increase in violence against women, minority groups, and LGBT+ people that comes as a product of the tightening of patriarchal structures, all three speakers highlighted the importance of including women in the decision-making process. In their view, the role of women in wartime (as in peacetime) is essential to our societies. According to Sasha Koulaeva, “In this war, there are aggressors and aggressed, there are also women fighting for everyone’s rights, everyone’s dignity, and everyone’s right to life.”

Women in International Leadership

This International Women’s Day, as Simona Miculesu noted, took place 22 years after the UN published their Women, Peace and Security Agenda. To her, in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this agenda is now “more critical than ever.” Maxime Forest agreed, reminding the audience that it was “elaborated around different UN resolutions and helped acknowledge the specific toll and differential impact that war has on girls and women”. The importance of its application to the Russian war in Ukraine, therefore, has clear relevance in our current moment. As he noted, the goals of this UN agenda are to condemn the use of rape as a means of war, to address the specificities of women as refugees, and to involve women in peacebuilding in order to bring a more inclusive peacemaking process.

Indeed, this third goal is one which the panelists highlighted in their discourses, noting that the lack of women in change-making roles has a negative impact on peace efforts. Simona Miculescu emphasized this idea, noting that “inclusion of women in humanitarian responses is essential to making sure that their rights are upheld… Yet women remain excluded from the peacemaking process—less than 10 percent of people around negotiation tables.”

With such a small percentage of women in positions of power, the challenges to shift this norm may prove to be an uphill battle in times of conflict. As Sasha Koulaeva noted, because patriarchal societies don’t take women seriously, it is difficult to involve women in high stakes negotiations. With the goal of enacting change on the highest levels of decision-making and across all levels of society, Simona Miculescu evoked a Romanian expression, noting that in situations such as these, in which women are prevented from holding positions of influence, that them must “go out by the door and come in by the window”—in other words, women must not give up in the face of gendered discrimination.

Through persistence, protest, international law and the implementation of peace-keeping initiatives, and collective resistance to patriarchal structures, there is much work left to be done to reach gender equality. Yet, as Arrancha Gonzalez noted in her closing remarks, we must continue the fight for a “polyphony of voices at the table” in order to make sure that, in her words, “every day is international women’s day.”

The Sciences Po Editorial Team

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