Armed conflicts result in tremendous changes to the lives and livelihoods of women: women take up new jobs, join armies, act as peacemakers and provide essential support to their families and communities. However, post-conflict policy processes tend to limit the capacity of women to participate fully and take advantage of new opportunities after the end of the war.
Post-conflict contexts are currently characterised by a mismatch between policy priorities and women's needs and aspirations, and policy is being designed and implemented based on limited rigorous evidence on what works and what does not work for people living in contexts of violence.
There have been some important steps towards a more inclusive integration of women in peace, stability and economic recovery processes. The role of the United Nations has been instrumental in these advances, particularly the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000.
Despite these important advances, there is still a considerable lack of systematic and rigorous understanding about the impact of armed conflict on women's roles, activities and aspirations, or about the nature and magnitude of the benefits of including women more fully in economic recovery and peace-building processes.
At the beginning of 2012, we were invited to work on a project with Action Aid and Womenkind on the inclusion of women in peace-building processes. At the time, we were also working on a joint project with UN Women on women's roles in economic recovery in post-conflict contexts.
As part of the first project, we visited Liberia, Nepal and Sierra Leone and talked to women about their experiences of peacebuilding in their families, communities, and the local area. We visited rural areas and remote communities and in all instances we were astounded by the women we met.
The stories they told us about their experiences during the various conflicts they had lived through were heart-breaking. But, more importantly women described how they were all moving on, concentrating on the future, and trying to rebuild their lives, their families, and their communities by whatever means they could.
In all three countries we met women who have formed local women's groups, usually without any external help, to support each other emotionally, financially, and practically, to find peace. The peace they are working towards is not just the traditional definition, an absence of conflict, but it is about normal everyday things, like being able to feed their families, send their children to school, having access to healthcare and water, and being able to live without fear.
It is this wide definition of peace that seems to be ignored by many of the peace-building programmes that are initiated in post-conflict environments, ignoring the real needs of women and their families.
The project with UN Women has helped us adding further pieces to the puzzle of what happens to women in conflict areas. We looked at six case studies: Bosnia, Colombia, Kosovo, Nepal, Tajikistan and Timor Leste. In all cases, we have found that women participate more actively in labour markets during conflict.
This is not a positive uplifting story though: these are usually low-paid, low-skilled jobs taken by women in addition to their usual household tasks, and reinforced by the type of gender livelihood programming implemented in post-conflict settings. Two main shortcomings of these interventions are the flooding of markets with 'female-suitable' jobs, and the lack of inclusion of men in gender-sensitive programming.
New female employment activities in conflict-affected areas very seldom result in direct empowerment gains for women and often contribute to increasing their levels of vulnerability. In addition, women tend to lose their jobs once the war is over and face pressures to return to traditional roles.
However, and against all odds, we have found that increases in the labour participation of women in conflict-affected areas are in some cases associated with increases in overall household and community welfare, when compared with households and communities in areas less affected by violence.
This is a remarkable result is a testament to the resilience of women and their families under extreme conditions. This needs to be supported coherently in post-conflict interventions, based on realistic assessments what happens to different people in areas of violence, rather than the current 'one-size-fits-all' approach that characterises economic and livelihood recovery policy programming in post-conflict contexts.
Another lesson we have learned from these two projects is that while it is, of course, important to disarm rebel groups, demobilise armies, rehabilitate combatants, promote democratic processes and increase security and the rule of law, it is equally as important to help communities heal and rebuild.
To understand what communities need to help them live in peace, policies and programmes must consult both men and women and give equal importance to each group. It is also imperative for women's voices to be heard beyond community-level programming. For a peace-deal to be relevant for all citizens there must be representation for all major groups around the table. This must include women.
To find more about the research we have carried with ActionAid and Womenkind you can access the full report, "From the Ground Up".