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Gendered patterns in explosive violence: a policy brief on understanding the impact of explosive weapons on women

Executive Summary: This research delves into the gendered dimensions of explosive violence, examining the disproportionate impact on women in conflict zones. By analysing data from the Explosive Violence Monitoring Project by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) in collaboration with researchers from the University of Essex, it reveals the intricate relationship between female empowerment and the likelihood of women becoming victims of explosive attacks. Contrary to the assumption of gender-neutrality, explosive violence exhibits distinct gendered patterns influenced by societal norms, economic factors, and women’s social status. Through empirical evidence and analysis, this study underscores the critical need to address the gendered implications of explosive violence in conflict settings.

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The risks to women from armed conflict depend crucially on the social status of women. The willingness to carry out attacks that may harm women depends on gender norms and attitudes. But the likelihood that women will become victims of attacks also depends on their social position and economic roles. Our research demonstrates a close relationship between female empowerment and the share of female victims in explosive attacks, using new data collected by the NGO Action on Armed Violence (AOAV).

Use of explosive weapons is a common feature in many ongoing conflicts such as Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. Explosive devices are often seen as indiscriminate – the individuals affected are often not of key interest to perpetrators who seek to target the government and opponents through explosive attacks.

The risks from violence to women vary considerably across conflicts. Although sexual violence has attracted much attention, most female victimization in conflict arises through other types of attacks. In the Syrian civil war, for example, women account for about 3/4 of the civilian victims of explosive violence. Whereas women civilians tend to be killed by explosive violence such as shelling and air bombardments, men are more often combatants and proportionally at risk of other types of violent deaths such as executions and shootings. In other conflicts, such as Lebanon and Northern Ireland, women were rarely victimised in explosive attacks.

There is an increasing trend in women killed or injured in explosive attacks in densely populated areas, according to data collected by both the Armed Conflict Location Event Data and AOAV. Injuries short of deaths from explosive attacks can have serious implications for health and the stigma of disability. 

Explosive violence against women

We draw attention to the gender dimensions of conflict by exploring when women are more likely to be victims of armed violence and possible mitigating factors. We examine the degree to which explosive attacks affect women using data from the Explosive Violence Monitor Project by the NGO Action on Armed Violence (AOAV). Our data captures incidents involving explosive devices, the perpetrators, and victims disaggregated by gender, age, and location. We consider the location of explosive attacks and how feminine gendered spaces are reflected in the proportion of female victims.  We consider how prevailing norms structuring gender identities, roles and behaviour shape the likelihood that women will be present in locations. 

Whereas gender is recognised as central in the study of sexual and interpersonal violence against women, apparently indiscriminate violence such as explosive attacks are often assumed to be gender-neutral and affect all citizens alike.  However, our analyses indicate that women often are victims in explosive attacks. Perpetrators, both state and non-state, may choose to attack areas where most victims would be women or show varying regards for how violence may affect women.

In Figure 1 we show the number of attacks with a majority of female victims for (a) all countries in the world and (b) countries with ongoing civil war for the period 2011 to 2019.  Explosive violence has important gender dimensions, even for non-sexual attacks and seemingly indiscriminate. Explosive devices tend to be extreme in their lethal consequences due to the technologies, compared to violence executed by a gun, knife, or bare hands. Explosive weapons often have a devastating impact beyond victims and survivors, extending to families and communities.

Figure 1: number of attacks with a majority of female victims for (a) all countries in the world and (b) countries with ongoing civil war for the period 2011 to 2019.  

What factors account for variation in female explosive violence?

Why are women more frequently victims by explosive attacks in some countries than others? We argue that explosive violence has an inherently gendered nature as the role of women in society can have a significant impact on the risks of violence to females. We believe that female empowerment affects explosive violence in a number of ways. Higher female empowerment reflects social and economic factors and value systems that may afford women more protection from collectively targeting. Men are the most likely perpetrators of violence, but also the most likely victims. Societies where women are more empowered are particularly sensitive to norms on violence, and as such the perpetrators might be more discriminate in their targeting. Female empowerment affects the perceived costs, feasibility and effectiveness of explosive devices as a weapon of war.  When female empowerment is low, women may be seen as legitimate targets just as any other civilians. Women are more likely to be perceived as out-groups, and these perceptions override any norms of protection and presumption of non-combatant status afforded to women in conflicts. This in turn shapes perpetrators’ incentives when executing explosive attacks.

We evaluate our claims by comparing female victims in explosive attacks to measures of female empowerment. Figure 2 displays the Variety of Democracies (V-Dem) project index of women’s political empowerment and World Bank data on women in the labor force. Consistent with our argument, we see a larger share of female victims in countries with lower political empowerment and lower labor force participation.

Figure 2: EVAW and women’s empowerment in all countries

The magnitude of the differences is substantial. Although explosive attacks that kill more women than men are more common in countries with civil wars than countries without, a conflict country with female labor force participation above 16.9% would have a lower-than-average likelihood that such attacks will occur. If a country such as India with low female empowerment and female labor participation were to have its female labor participation rate increased from one quarter to one half, the predicted likelihood of an attack with a majority of female victims would, by our estimates, drop to below average and be comparable to lower-violence country like Vietnam. 

Studying explosive attacks has important yet overlooked social, political, and economic implications for women, and we need to look at the social role of women to understand the potential gendered impacts. The global data collected by AOAV helps provide more detailed information on the risks of violent attacks for both women and men. A data-driven approach can help provide better evidence and understanding of differential risks to both men and women and inform mitigation strategies and policy frameworks.

Suggested readings:

Balcells, Laia. 2011. “Continuation of politics by two means: Direct and indirect violence in civil war.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 55(3):397–422.

Carpenter, R Charli. 2003. “‘Women and children first’: Gender, norms, and humanitarian evacuation in the Balkans 1991–95.” International Organization 57(4):661–694.

Cockburn, Cynthia. 2013. “War and security, women and gender: an overview of the issues.” Gender & Development 21(3):433–452.

Griffith, Emily. 2022. “Explosive Violence Monitor 2021.” Action on Armed Violence.

Jo, Hyeran, Joshua K Alley, Yohan Park and Soren Jordan. 2021. “Signaling restraint: international engagement and rebel groups’ commitment to international law.” International Interactions 47(5):928–954.

Kattelman, Kyle and Courtney Burns. 2023. “Unpacking the concepts: Examining the link between women’s status and terrorism.” Journal of peace research 60(5):792–806.

Professor Ismene Gizelis, Dr Brian Phillips and Dr Sara Polo are from the Department of Government, University of Essex. Professor Gizelis sits on the board of AOAV.