by Nora Holzmann, Suedwind-Agentur
Women and men experience conflicts differently. Their experiences, needs, rights and the options available to them differ according to socio-culturally defined gender roles.
A distinction also needs to be made in the way both genders relate to and deal with natural resources. In many societies women have the prime responsibility for the wellbeing and welfare of the family. They fetch water, gather firewood and additionally carry out a lot of farming work. And yet it is men who generally control the access to, use and ownership of natural resources.
Environmental degradation and the lack or absence of access to resources, such as land, water or forests, can act as a cause of conflicts. But they can also occur in conjunction with or as a consequence of violent conflicts.
When resources such as arable land or water for irrigation become scarce, men find it difficult to fulfil the role of breadwinner attributed to them in many cultures. The resulting frustration can culminate in increased domestic violence against women. At the same time, men become more susceptible to military propaganda and employment in "markets of violence" that are motivated by economic gain. With the men away, women generally take on what used to be "manly" tasks. They assume responsibility for farming and subsistence livelihood and providing for food in general. In times of crisis, access to and the control over natural resources has an even greater role in determining the financial and physical security of women and their families, and ultimately even their survival.
Although there tends to be a dramatic increase in the number of female-headed households during conflicts, women are often denied the right to land ownership and access to natural resources. In many societies, traditional legal systems and customary rights prevent widowed or single women from having formal access to or control over land, water or other resources. Without ownership or usufructuary rights, which are usually held by male relatives, women are systematically excluded from decision-making. They have no voice and their needs are not taken into account.
Once a conflict has ended, the discriminatory access to land and resources becomes an obstacle to peace-building and the economic recovery of the conflict region. It prevents women from occupying key positions and hinders overall economic productivity.
However, conciliation processes and the development of new structures of governance afford opportunities for changing laws and societal attitudes. Gender inclusiveness in the access to, usage and ownership of natural resources can lead to greater equality in other areas as well. Ultimately, stable peace can only be achieved when women and men have equal rights over the resources that are necessary for survival.
Nora Holzmann is head of the regional office of the Suedwind-Agentur in Vienna and is responsible for public relations and the promotion of global sustainable development.