When I began my development career in Sierra Leone working with women’s cooperatives, I was struck by the struggles women faced on every front. Ranging from legal access to land down to being able to access to their own vegetable plots, every aspect of their lives seemed riddled with challenges and barriers. According to local custom, women couldn’t even be in the fields when they were menstruating as they were considered “unclean.”
When the war started in 1991, women were the ones who were left behind to protect their families and find livelihoods as best they could. They were at the forefront of the peace movement; their bravery and voices are credited with ending the war by pushing negotiators to reach a peace deal in 2002.
But when reconstruction took place, women were sidelined. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 offers much to celebrate in terms of how women contribute to peace negotiations. Where we have a long way to go is in their engagement and even leadership of reconstruction.
The biggest failure of the international development community is its inability to put women at the center of postwar economic reconstruction.
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While some countries like Rwanda did better at incorporating women into post-conflict assistance, there is work to be done before this approach is truly mainstreamed. This goes beyond putting gender lenses on post-conflict assessments or consultations with women’s groups as macroeconomic frameworks are developed.
What’s needed are fundamental revisions to the way in which assistance gets shaped and delivered. Women need to become the architects of their own solutions post-conflict, building from the resiliency they demonstrated during the war and even capitalizing on new roles and opportunities that might open up to them when the social order is upended.
To succeed in this ambition we need to do three things:
First, instead of reconstructing the old order post-conflict, we need to build on the platform of new opportunities that women have created. Unless and until we design post-conflict assistance strategies that protect, preserve and deepen the economic spaces that women carve out organically during conflict, we will be rebuilding on a faulty foundation.
Second, we need to invest in research that tells us what happens for women during war in terms of livelihoods they create and what opportunities open up to them when men are less present to fill these same jobs. We also need to know more about what cultural shifts take place, what gender boundaries blur or disappear for women, and — significantly — what effect that has on their economic enterprise.
Women’s economic activities during conflict are often in the informal sector and involve self-employment rather than wage earning. For example, in Sierra Leone, men actively recruited women into breadwinning roles so that men were free to fight and the women were able to fund them.
Finally, economic empowerment for women post-conflict requires more than economic engagement. Women need access to land and land rights, political representation, savings, leadership training, and psychosocial support. There are important roles here for the private sector, post-war reconstruction generally and women’s economic empowerment specifically.
Given the informal nature of women’s economic participation, we know very little about what allows them to parlay the roles and opportunities that open up to them in conflict and war, and to leverage these for longer-term economic advancement.
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