Durable Disorder: The Global Health Effects of War on Women

By Mariah E. Crystal

Mariah E. Crystal is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas (KU) in the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.  She is also currently a KU Institute for Policy and Social Research Doctoral Research Fellow.  She studies women’s roles during war and conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa and how gender was strategically deployed as a tactic of war. 

Aligning with one of Re/Visionist’s themes for the month of April, I focus this blog post on the global health effects of war on women.  In 2018, Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict,” (Nobel, 2018).  In response to this honor, Mukwege described how in his home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, “rape is used systematically, methodically…women are ashamed and stay silent,” (Economist, 2018, p. 59).  Another scholarly piece acknowledges that, “rape, mutilation and kidnappings remain central strategies of war…(of which) women experience victimization far more than men,” (St Germain & Dewey, 2012, p. 165). Mukwege and Murad’s Nobel Prize and other recent current events have pointed to renewed awareness about the vital link between the effects of war and global health, including sexual violence (Economist, 2018; St Germain & Dewey, 2012; Turshen 2007). Many scholars have studied the sexual violence that is often implicit during war (Bradby, 2016; Goldenberg et al., 2016).  Others have reported the devastating effects of sexually transmitted infections which are also often integral to wartime reality, especially for women (Iqbal & Zorn, 2010; Goldenberg et al., 2016). And finally, there have been studies documenting sexual violence during times of war being waged with genocidal intent, often with the intent to “pollute bloodlines,” (St. Germain & Dewy, 2012; Chandler et al., 2010).

Gendered Impacts of War

Equally significant to the physical violence endured during times of war are the psychological and emotional ramifications of war.  Trauma is inherent to experiences of war. Many scholars cite the unique needs and circumstances of female combatants: need for contraceptives, the stigmatization and often banishment of women who have been sexually assaulted by their family and friends (Bradby, 2016; Turshen, 2007; Darden, Henshaw, & Szekely, 2019).  Many women reported stress, anxiety, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder following sexual assault during civil conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Bartels et al., 2010). Survivors of wartime sexual assault as well as their families face social stigma due to the perceived shame of their experiences, and thus often face the destruction of familial and community support networks (Bradby, 2016).

Wartime sexual violence results in political and economic impacts that often outlast the end of conflict (Turshen 2000; 2007). In bringing attention to the material value of women’s productive and reproductive capacity on top of any legal right to land or other material possessions, Turshen brings attention to overlooked facets of war and conflict and the significant ramifications that they bring to women and girls.  

Complicating an already complex and multifaceted issue, migration adds an additional challenge to conflict.  Conflict migrants also face a range of “environmental hazards that include landmines to disease epidemics like AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis,” (Turshen, 2007, p. 84). For example, in Kenya, following the 2007-2008 post-election violence, many individuals were internally displaced, and many individuals contracted HIV. It is difficult to reach these displaced populations to provide HIV/AIDS treatment and other forms of healthcare (Feikin et al., 2010).  

It is vital that women’s global health priorities become recognized and addressed as one of the many unfortunate byproducts of war and conflict.  The experience of war and conflict forces women to navigate challenging dynamics of power. These power dynamics in turn shape women’s responses to various global health challenges and their role and status within society.  Additionally, urgent attention is needed to address the global scourge of GBV during wartime. Experts also call for highly individualized policy solutions that are sensitive to the unique needs of the culture and context of a conflict situation (St Germain & Dewey, 2012; Mindry, 2010; Benshoof, 2014) as well as working with survivors to design appropriate health services after a conflict (Bradby, 2016). The UN Security Council plans to use international humanitarian law to protect girls and women who are affected by rape deployed as a tool of war.  In a recent policy brief, the UN Security Council asserted that wartime rape is a form of “war wound,” and that injuries and consequences of wartime rape, including pregnancy, must be treated on par with any other wartime injury (Benshoof, 2014). The UN Security Council emphasizes the, “need to increase the social, legal, economic and political empowerment of women war survivors through active involvement in peace negotiations and sharing of their experiences nationally and internationally,” (Bradby, 2016, p. 84). Increased awareness about the significant health impacts of war on women and girls may result in the demand for better care and resources for those affected by war, as well as upriver solutions to lessen conflict in the first place.  


Bartels, S., Scott, J., Leaning, J., Mukwege, D., Lipton, R., & VanRooyen, M. (2010). Surviving sexual violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 11(4), 37-50.

Benshoof, J. (2014). The other red line: The use of rape as an unlawful tactic of warfare. Global Policy, 5(2), 146-158.

Bradby, H. (2016). Global perspectives on war, gender and health: The sociology and anthropology of suffering: Routledge.

Chandler, R., Fuller, L., & Wang, L. (2010). Women, war, and violence: personal perspectives and global activism: Springer.

Darden, J. T., Henshaw, A., & Szekely, O. (2019). Insurgent Women: Female Combatants in Civil Wars: Georgetown University Press.

Economist. (2018, October 11, 2018). Rape during conflict: The wolves of war.

Feikin, D. R., Adazu, K., Obor, D., Ogwang, S., Vulule, J., Hamel, M. J., & Laserson, K. (2010). Mortality and health among internally displaced persons in western Kenya following post-election violence, 2008: novel use of demographic surveillance. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 88, 601-608.

Goldenberg, S. M., Muzaaya, G., Akello, M., Nguyen, P., Birungi, J., & Shannon, K. (2016). War-related abduction and history of incarceration linked to high burden of HIV among female sex workers in conflict-affected northern Uganda. JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, 73(1), 109-116.

Iqbal, Z., & Zorn, C. (2010). Violent conflict and the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. The Journal of Politics, 72(1), 149-162.

Mindry, D. (2010). Engendering care: HIV, humanitarian assistance in Africa and the reproduction of gender stereotypes. Culture, health & sexuality, 12(5), 555-568.

Nobel. (2018). The Nobel Prize – Denis Mukwege. Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2018/mukwege/facts/

St Germain, T., & Dewey, S. (2012). Conflict-related sexual violence. International law.

Turshen, M. (2000). The political economy of violence against women during armed conflict in Uganda. Social Research, 803-824.

Turshen, M. (2007). The impact of civil war on women and children in Africa. In M. Ndulo (Ed.), Security, Reconstruction and Reconciliation:  When the Wars End: CRC Press.

Turshen, M. (2014). The Political Economy of War: What Women Need to Know. In Sexual Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies (pp. 44-56): Routledge.


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