Does conflict reduce the gap in life expectancy between men and women? Most direct victims of armed conflict tend to be men, because most combatants are men. However, there are a range of indirect effects of conflict which may affect women more than men. This paper, prepared for the journal International Organization, analyses the impact of armed conflict on male relative to female life expectancy. Women tend to live longer than men in peacetime but the paper finds that conflict reduces the gap in life expectancy, suggesting that women are more adversely affected by armed conflict than men.
Conflict affects men and women unevenly in the following ways: (i) The economic damage effect: Conflict damages agricultural systems, basic infrastructure and healthcare infrastructure. This disproportionately affects women due to pre-existing social structures that disadvantage them in access to resources (ii) the displacement effect: Women are overrepresented in refugee camps where mortality rates are generally higher than outside (iii) the sexual violence effect: Women are often systematically sexually assaulted and murdered during conflicts. This also increases risks of HIV infection.
These effects can be expected to be stronger where political order has collapsed or where conflict has ethnic roots. In failed states, the government is no longer capable of providing even the most basic public goods. In ethnic conflicts, widespread sexual violence is often used as a weapon between rival ethnic groups.
The authors therefore construct a series of statistical models to test the following hypotheses: (i) Armed conflict is likely to decrease the gender gap in life expectancy (ii) it is likely to decrease the gap more if the conflict has ethnic roots, and (iii) it is likely to decrease the gap more in countries where the central political authority has collapsed. They found:
- All forms of militarised conflicts tend to gradually close the gender gap in life expectancy, especially conflicts between two countries.
- In terms of the control variables, higher per capita income closes the gap in one of the models, and the gap significantly narrows in autocratic regimes. Female labour force participation, natural disasters and high HIV/AIDS prevalence also all narrow the gap.
- The effect of internal conflicts on the gender gap is found to be conditional on whether the conflict has ethnic sources or political authority has collapsed. These types of civil war are found to be much more harmful to women. This was not the case for international conflicts or internal conflicts with the intervention of outside countries.
The findings suggest that policy makers, non-governmental organisations and academics need to pay more attention to the indirect consequences of armed conflict, which are currently underappreciated. In addition:
- Policies are needed to address the specific vulnerabilities that women face when health infrastructure is severely damaged, many people are displaced from their homes and sexual violence is part of military strategy.
- In some emergencies the priority given to women in evacuations is misguided, but this does not imply that giving priority to women is generally misguided.
- Future research could explore other characteristics of conflict which might help to explain conflict’s disproportionate effect on women. It could also provide a more detailed account of the relative importance of different channels through which this effect operates.
- Studies would benefit from a more disaggregated and case-study type of approach. For many new research avenues following from this research, the quality of data and number of observations is likely to be insufficient for macro-level studies to provide much insight.