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By their nature, armed conflicts target both men and women. Both sexes suffer the harsh consequences of violence, are victimized by wars and share common responsibilities when engaging in combat. However, experience shows that women and men are affected by armed conflicts in fundamentally different ways.
Men constitute the largest number of killings and injuries in combat, as well as the majority of prisoners of wars. Women and children represent the largest number of civilian casualties in most conflicts, and women are the primary targets of sexual violence.
The difference in the way women and men are affected by war can, to a limited extent, be derived from biological differences. Indeed, women have specific needs due to their sex during pregnancy and nursing, and will in certain circumstances be affected harsher than men by the lack of food, water and medicine. However, the main reason for the varying effects of armed conflict on women and men is based on gender inequality.
Gender roles are based on socially constructed norms, and assumptions on how women, and men, should behave. These norms establish characteristics for the two sexes, which gives power advantage to men. Women are perceived as weak, peaceful and in need of protection, while men are considered to be strong and aggressive.
In all societies, women are subordinated to men and are discriminated against on grounds of their sex. Women are not likely to hold decision making positions, and most of the poor in the world are women. Women's subordination is also reflected in the way women are treated during armed conflict.
Gender inequality increases during armed conflict
The already existing gender inequality in society is aggravated in situations of armed conflict and traditional gender roles are reinforced. Men are seen as heroes whose natural role is to initiate, lead as well as take part in the fighting, while women are expected to stay at home to support their husbands and take care of the family and household. In this sense, the occurrence of armed conflicts as such, is due to the stereotypical role of the male gender.
Women who are exposed to discrimination in peacetime are victimised to an even greater extent during wartime. For example, war increases the already existing poverty, lack of access to education, and mobility restrictions for women. Likewise, women are increasingly becoming victims of domestic violence, rape and other sexual assaults during armed conflict.
Gender inequality also has negative effects on men, although they are the ones who hold the power advantage. The stereotypical male gender roles raise expectations on men to take part in hostilities, which naturally increases the risks for being killed by enemy combatants, but also brings about psychological pressure and post-war trauma.
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