Women live and react to those consequences, but they are hardly passive victims. They grieve, they fight against the suffering, and many find they are forced to re-invent themselves, shedding an old identity and forging a new one shaped by war.
A new feature by National Geographic, supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross, takes a closer look at how women react to and deal with the disruption that conflict brings to family and work life.
The project, A Woman’s War, we break open the stereotype of “women as victim” and explore the multiple, complex, sometimes conflicting roles women play in conflict: fighters, humanitarians, mothers, daughters, laborers, community leaders and survivors.
“I believe that women are agents for change. I believe that women are major sources of stability in conflict-affected areas and that they hold together not only their families but their communities,” said Mary Werntz, the deputy director of operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross. “My hope is that we all, humanitarians included, are able to look at women in their complete forms and not just as victims of something.”
The lives documented are diverse. Photographer Robin Hammond visited a war he knows well – Iraq – as well as conflicts that seldom make global headlines, in the Philippines and southern Nigeria. Identities continue to be shaped by war even when the guns falls silent, so Hammond also travelled to Peru to see old scars that have not yet healed.
Working on gender is complex. It combines power and privilege, community rituals and expectations. Conflict tends to exacerbate existing inequalities. What happens when the family bread winner – often a male – goes off to war or is killed by the violence? Societal roles shift; women may be given an opportunity they previously didn’t have.
“I think in many conflict situations women are forced into being the ones in charge of the family,” Werntz said. “Women may have to take care of the agricultural areas. They may have to move into the work force. They have to look after the kids’ education.”