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Gender inequality as a driver of conflict

by Oxfam | March 7, 2014

Can Oxfam tackle gender inequality in conflict-affected countries? Here, Louie Fooks explains why working on gender inequality is not only possible, but a necessary part of governance and peace building.

Surely securing peace, reconciliation, and stability is the priority in such fragile contexts, and does not leave space for the 'luxury' of work on gender? Women's exclusion from public life in any context means public policy will not benefit from their skills and experience

Experience from Within and Without the State suggests that not only is it possible to work on gender in fragile contexts, but that addressing it is essential to success. We pretty much expected our work in South Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel to show us that conflict impacts differently on women and men; but the last three years has also revealed many ways in which gender inequality drives conflict at various levels, so that tackling it has to be part of effective programming.

In South Sudan, high 'bride price' fuels cattle raiding and conflict between tribes, and encourages corruption, as politicians and officials are tempted to use public money to buy cattle they need for marriage. In Afghanistan women may be given to other families, tribes or communities to settle disputes or to compensate for a crime (such as rape, murder) against the family. And women's exclusion from public life in any context means public policy will not benefit from their skills and experience, and is likely to focus on the needs of only one half of the population.

The relationship between gender inequality and conflict, and the need to better address gender inequality in programming, was highlighted for us by a Gender Review, conducted in July 2013. Since then WWS has developed a new gender strategy with a two-fold ambition.

We want to make a push towards achieving gender equality and women's rights in fragile contexts. And a shift towards better understanding of how gender relations shape fragility, which should itself lead to better programming in fragile contexts. This is expressed in four new programme objectives:

  • Women actively participate at different levels of governance and champion gender equality 
  • Women's rights organisations have strong capacity to represent women and engage with power holders 
  • Men champion women's rights 
  • WWS attempts to learn more about gender inequality as a driver of fragility

In Yemen many new civil society groups led by young women are emerging, eager to take advantage of political transitionSo what will this mean in practice? WWS has always included a gender strand in its governance work but now we are attempting to do this more consistently and effectively, and to explore some new ways of working. This may mean building Oxfam staff's capacity and understanding of gender programming and that of our partners; it will certainly involve trying out some innovative ideas and new approaches.

South Sudan is seeking new partnerships with women's rights organisations as these have been shown to be more effective than 'mixed' anti-poverty organisations in achieving change for women. In Yemen many new civil society groups led by young women are emerging, eager to take advantage of political transition; we will be building new relationships with them and exploring what we can do together.

In Afghanistan, we are running a pilot project which pairs up traditional religious leaders with high-profile women, trained in Sharia law. Each pair will work together to settle local disputes, challenge harmful practices such as giving away girls, and promote women's rights. Whilst religious leaders can act as blockers, this project attempts to build on their sense of responsibility for their communities and enlist them as allies for change. It is work in progress but we are excited to see what impact it will have. If it's successful, we are planning to use this model on a larger scale.

'Gender' is not the optional extra which we simply can't manage in fragile contexts, because we have more urgent things to do. Tackling gender inequality must be heart and centre of fragility programming, to both secure women's rights and promote peace and stability in such contexts.

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Louie Fooks is Oxfam GB Global Learning and Communications Officer, Conflict and Fragility

This posting originally appeared on Oxfam's Policy and Practice blog