Women’s rights are early casualties of war

Women's rights are often an early casualty of war

Far from home, in makeshift camps, going to the latrines or fetching firewood is a risky business. Simply registering as a refugee can pose problems for women, who are more likely to be illiterate and less likely to possess identification papers. Photo: Sylvain Cherkaoui/Oxfam

When conflict and crisis strike displacement, hunger, and poverty follow. But, all too often, it is women’s rights that become the early casualties of war. As they flee conflict, travel, and settle in refugee camps they are highly vulnerable to all forms of violence. They face exploitation, sexual harassment, and rape; they risk being sold into early or unwanted marriages or resorting to survival sex just to get their basic needs for food, shelter, and transport met. 

Women on the frontlines

One in five refugee or displaced women in humanitarian situations suffer sexual violence.

In Yemen, 3 million women and girls are at risk of gender-based violence.

In countries affected by conflict girls are 2.5 times likelier not to be in school than other girls.

An adolescent girl in South Sudan is three times more likely to die in childbirth than to complete primary school.

60% of preventable maternal deaths happen in situations of displacement or conflict.


In Syria, women’s rights were being undermined even before the current conflict. Women in the labor force halved between 2001 and 2011, and discrimination and stigma were common. Since then their rights and civil liberties have been further traded away.

Meanwhile, almost 1 in 3 households in Syria are now female-headed. Whether refugees in other countries (often with no right to work), displaced in Syria, or finally back home, Syrian women are finding it hard to make ends meet.

Wadha*, who lives in Deir Ez-Zor, is one of many people benefiting from Oxfam’s cash-for-work intervention. As well as cash for work programs, Oxfam in Syria runs training programs for women to learn skills so they can set up their own businesses or gain outside employment. Photo: Dania Kareh/Oxfam

Wadha* and her family fled their village in rural Deir Ez-Zor four years ago after it was overrun by IS fighters. They thought they’d be able to go home in just a few weeks, but instead, it was years, and when they returned their livelihoods were gone. She was struggling to feed herself and her family, sometimes even having to forage for herbs for food. Oxfam’s cash for work intervention means she can now afford the food to feed herself and her family.

Our program in Syria takes a holistic approach to empowering women, providing opportunities to access rights and services, and challenge negative gender norms. We are also advocating and lobbying for women’s inclusion in the peace process.

Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso an atmosphere of insecurity pervades, targeted killings, abductions, banditry, attacks, and psychological violence are a real possibility. For the almost 800,000 internally displaced just finding drinking water is a daily challenge.

“Since the attack in the village, I am terrorized I don't sleep at night anymore; I am traumatized, fear never leaves me."

Fatoumata, Burkina Faso

Women and girls are particularly at risk, and here too the number of women becoming heads of a household without support is on the rise.

Fatoumata* took her five children and fled her village when armed groups arrived and took over. Before that, Fatoumata was a farmer with livestock. In the dry season she grew leaves and tomatoes. Home is just a few kilometers away from the Pisalla site for displaced people where she now lives. She tried to return there to collect some tools but was met with violence. The armed groups beat her mother in front of her.

Fatoumata*, a 31-year-old mother of five, was forced from her home when armed groups took possession of her village. Photo: Sylvain Cherkaoui/Oxfam

In Burkina Faso, as well as responding to the current emergency, Oxfam carries out projects to strengthen community resilience, integrate women into the economy, build peace and improve sanitation. 


In Yemen two-thirds of the population don’t know where their next meal will come from, They face the threats of conflict, disease, and hunger on a daily basis. For Yemeni women (76% of the country’s internally displaced people) there are added dangers.

Women and children make up the larger portion of civilian victims and in the first two years of conflict alone incidents of gender-based violence increased by 63%. Before the war few women worked, now nearly a third of displaced households are headed by women (21% by women under the age of 18), most are ill-equipped to provide for themselves and their families. In some cases, they turn to desperate measures just to put food on the table.

Oxfam spoke to families in Amran governorate in the North who, hungry and isolated after fleeing their homes, have been forced to marry off their daughters – in one case as young as three years old – to buy food and shelter to save the rest of the family. Photo: Sami M Jassar/Oxfam

Oxfam is supporting families with cash payments to buy food in the local market or livestock, and cash for work programs, so they get a possible source of income.

South Sudan

In South Sudan, millions are still displaced from their homes, and millions more at risk of famine. Sexual violence was used as a weapon of war, with rape, mutilation, and torture rife. 65% of women and girls in South Sudan have experienced sexual and/or physical violence—twice the global average. This is one of the most dangerous places in the world just to be a woman. 

Mary* (16) who took part in a photography workshop Oxfam ran with international photojournalist Andreea Campaneau. The girls collectively called themselves “Noura Nyal Kids.” “Noura” means “love yourself” in the local Nuer language. Asked why they had chosen the name, one girl said: “we should be able to love ourselves more and be allowed to dream about having a better life, a better future.” Photo: Noura Nyal Kids/Oxfam

“I want to be a ruler one day. I want to be a queen, a strong queen. Right now, I feel like playing the jumping rope makes me strong.”

Mary, South Sudan

For girls wanting an education, South Sudan is one of the worst places they could be with 73% of girls missing out on school. Marriage is the most common reason for dropping out. Years of conflict and poverty have seen the child marriage rate soar as families marry off their daughters for dowry just to survive.

In Mary’s town of Nyal, Oxfam found the child marriage rate to be 71%, with 10% of girls marrying before 15, and some girls even marrying as young as 12 years old.

Education can be a powerful tool in transforming gender norms and stereotypes. But in South Sudan school is too expensive or too dangerous for many. We’ve been providing educational materials and helping to build schools for both children and adults.

Let women of war lead the peace

If cultural norms say you shouldn’t even leave the house alone, even to see a (male) doctor or attend a hygiene class, what hope that your voice be welcomed in conversations which might improve things?

Yet research shows that gender equality is the best indicator for ensuring peace, and if women are involved in a peace process it is 35% more likely to last at least 15 years.

Throughout the world, Oxfam works with individuals, communities, civil society, and governments to advocate for change that will transform women’s lives. And we advocate for women to have the right to advocate for themselves. 

*Names changed