Woman holds baby near makeshift tents in Gaza

Why conflict hurts women most and the need for coordinated interventions

Blog Inclusive Growth, Sustainable Growth and State Fragility initiative

The rise in global conflicts is pushing women and girls into increased vulnerability and violence. A gendered lens is crucial in the coordination of humanitarian and development strategies.

Conflict is on the rise. In 2022, 237,000 people died from organised violence, compared to 120,000 in 2021. The ongoing conflict in Ethiopia alone led to 106,000 deaths in 2022. Less than quarter way into 2024 now, the year has already registered over 30,000 Palestinian fatalities in Gaza since 7 October 2023.

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable whenever conflicts arise. While it is a war crime, sexual violence is often used as a war tactic. Healthcare services are strained and disproportionately affect women and girls who struggle to access reproductive and menstrual care. This has catastrophic impacts on women’s safety. For instance, three-quarters of maternal deaths occur in fragile settings every year.

The disproportionate impact of conflict on women and girls

Women often remain at risk even when conflict ends. Gender-based violence persists longer after a conflict. Coping strategies adopted during the conflict can also reduce women’s long-term economic opportunities. For example, girls’ access to education is often reduced either due to security threats or economic constraints in times of conflict, while the likelihood that they will be married at a younger age increases.

Pre-existing gender inequalities complicate efforts to mitigate the impact of conflict on women because societal gender norms influence their access to the humanitarian help they need. Travel restrictions, particularly for women traveling alone, hinder their ability to seek and obtain emergency food aid. This issue is compounded by the stigma associated with victims of sexual violence, which discourages them from reporting incidents or seeking the help they require. Furthermore, economic inequality further diminishes their capacity to absorb shocks. Amidst conflict, these restrictions can become especially taxing on women, as many may lose their earning-male relatives on whom they may depend to violence, making them particularly vulnerable to extreme poverty. As a result, longstanding gender inequalities imply that women are both in more acute need of humanitarian response, and harder to reach.

The challenges of addressing gender inequality in conflict settings

Solving gender inequality is rarely given priority in fragile or conflict affected settings. Once a conflict starts, the humanitarian response is to safeguard women from violence and extreme poverty. At the same time, development actors often reduce their activities due to safety concerns. The lack of coordination between development and humanitarian actors means that the latter often react to immediate crises without the development sector there to address the long-term drivers and consequences of gender inequality.

Once the conflict eases, development actors find it hard to generate meaningful change in gender equality amidst many competing needs in the affected country. Little is done to set up protection mechanisms in anticipation of the next conflict. As crises, including conflict and climate-shocks, grow more needs to be done by development actors to address gender inequality especially in fragile or conflict-affected settings.

This is not an easy task. Changes in gender inequality are often slow and require long-term engagement. Conflict makes it hard for development organisations to stay on the ground and remain operational as some armed actors may react negatively to changing gender roles, which can threaten the safety of women, girls, and agents involved in the programmes. Gender inequality requires concurrent interventions in many sectors, which requires a lot of human and financial resources, as well as coordination between different actors.

Strategies for effective intervention: Insights from the World Bank IEG report

A new report by the World Bank Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) highlighted the challenges international organisations face when addressing gender inequality in fragile settings. They highlighted five characteristics a project needs to have to be effective:

  1. Relevance: the project should be evidence-based and context specific to address the beneficiaries’ needs and priorities.
  2. Inclusive ownership: the project should involve key actors in the process of change, including in defining its goals and trajectory.
  3. Depth: the project should be effective in achieving its expected outcomes and tackle the root causes of gender inequality.
  4. Sustainability: the project is set up to preserve progress over time.
  5. Scale: the project should produce large-scale impact.

Trade-offs and decision-making in implementation to balance short-term and long-term goals

By reviewing World Bank Group’s projects in six fragile countries, the IEG pointed out that while the Bank managed to have relevant projects that had inclusive ownership, it was much rarer to find projects that had scale and depth, and that were sustainable. No project possessed all five characteristics. The report highlighted three main trade-offs:

  1. Depth versus scale: tackling gender inequality generally requires addressing issues across different sectors. However, this sort of cross-cutting interventions is generally too costly to reproduce at scale.
  2. Demand- versus supply-side interventions: ideally, interventions would target both demand and supply sides constraints. For example, the SWEDD project led by the World Bank in the Democratic Republic of Congo both addressed women’s awareness of reproductive services while also improving the quality of the service delivered. However, most projects do not have the resources to address both sides at once. 
  3. Humanitarian goals versus development goals: short-term humanitarian priorities are focused on the immediate impact of conflict on women and girls, but little is done to respond to the long-term drivers of gender inequality.

Recommendations for development and humanitarian actors

While tackling gender inequality in fragile settings is not easy, development organisations can still enact meaningful change. The IEG report proposes the following:  

  1. Make gender equality a priority by setting long-term goals that are consistent with the country’s context. Synergy between different projects within the country or region should be considered to foster deeper change.
  2. Foster engagement with communities, civil society, women’s organisation, local authorities to define gender equality objectives and activities that helps action them. Tackling gender norms can be culturally sensitive. Development organisations need to tread carefully, delivering meaningful change while obtaining the support of the communities they serve and avoiding flaring up tensions. By engaging with local actors, communities can define their priorities themselves which ensures a better consideration of the cultural context. This also makes projects more sustainable, as local actors are more likely to be able to continue endorsing and delivering the programme in the long run than external actors.
  3. Collaborate with humanitarian actors to help create synergies, including understanding how development organisations can help increase women’s access to humanitarian help. Programmes can also be built in times of relative peace to improve women’s access to humanitarian aid in times of conflict. Somalia developed a social protection programme in 2019 that supported vulnerable women with children under five. By partnering with the private sector, they set up mobile money transfers to directly reach women. This infrastructure continues to be in use to quickly respond to shocks.

By 2030, fragile and conflict-affected states are projected to house two-thirds of the world’s extreme poor.  Women and girls will bear the brunt of the violence and economic hardship that accompanies conflict and fragility. This underscores the need for development actors to do more to address the intricate links between gender and conflict. By prioritising gender inequality and enhancing collaboration with local communities and humanitarian actors, development organisations can better equip women to mitigate the impacts of shocks and improve their access humanitarian aid when needed.