Although conflict can reduce the voice of less powerful groups (including women), there are also opportunities for these groups to contest well-established social structures and divisions, and for new, non-traditional leaders to emerge.
Women assume varied roles during armed conflict, as victims, but also as perpetrators, as well as peace activists. There are sub-groups of women who may be particularly vulnerable as a result of conflict and are frequently invisible in post-conflict peace processes and community-driven development, for example: young women, female-headed households, widows, and women from marginalised groups. However, women are not necessarily the only, or even the most, excluded group in a given society. Furthermore, female participation does not necessarily lead to positive outcomes for women. Not all women have equal voices or the same vested interests; other issues of identity, such as ethnicity, religion, and age can be equally important.
Conflict can present new opportunities for women to assume different roles in society and get involved in decision-making. Women often secure important gains both within the family and local community and in broader political participation. However, women’s voices may temporarily retreat immediately after a conflict, as long-standing patterns of political representation and participation are re-established and men reassert their traditional positions of power. Once marginalised groups have been given a voice, however, it is unlikely that the gains achieved can simply be ‘rolled back’.
Although women leaders can be disproportionately targeted by illegal armed actors, it is also the case that the voices of marginalised groups, including women, can be amplified by support from international media, civil society organisations and UN agencies. A prolonged period of conflict can also lead to a public desire for a change in leadership and decision-making styles. There may be greater public support for women’s increased political participation, since they are often perceived to be more trustworthy, less violent and better at solving conflicts verbally than men.