Gender equality in conflict-affected areas – a call for businesses to take action

Tiina Mylly • 10 May 2021

In March the world celebrated the International Women’s Day, calling for a more equal future and recognizing the contributions women are making around the world. To truly “leave no one behind”, it is important to recognize the realities women face around the world and how COVID-19 has affected them – including in conflict-affected areas. Gender inequalities from violence and discrimination to the gender pay gap and under-representation in decision-making are pervasive across all countries. However, research has shown a strong correlation between gender inequality and conflict risk. So how is this relevant to the private sector? Even in the most adverse of circumstances, there is always something the private sector can do to respect and advance the diverse issues related to gender. Here are some ideas on how to get started.

Acknowledge the benefits of addressing gender equality in conflict situations

Disasters affect men and women differently. Women are more likely to die as a result of natural hazards, but men in conflicts - mainly due to their more direct participation in fighting. This is also why there are more female-headed households during and after conflict, and women are responsible for increased care-related tasks from providing food to caring for the sick.

A year ago the UN Secretary-General highlighted in his speech that violence against women, civil oppression and conflict go hand-in-hand in many places. The opposite also holds true. Women’s equal and meaningful participation at every level of society is critical in building more stable and equitable societies. Studies have highlighted the importance of including women in political and economic decision-making. For example, women’s participation in peace processes has been shown to contribute to longer, more sustainable peace after conflicts. Some research has also noted that women leaders have managed the COVID-19 crisis better. Yet in conflict-affected countries, women’s representation in COVID-19 taskforces has been only 18 per cent.

It is for these reasons why women should not only be seen as a vulnerable group in conflict-affected contexts, but companies, too, should lift and empower them to contribute at the workplace and in societies. Crises can present opportunities for changing gender norms and making room for more inclusive recovery.

Speak up and take action

Conflict-affected areas are often characterized with weak legal and regulatory systems, but these are not an excuse for companies to close their eyes on injustices. They can lend their voice, advocate for gender equality and use their influence to push for systemic changes. They can engage in policy dialogue to improve legislation and for example call for gender non-discrimination laws in employment to create a more level playing field for women.

While standing up for women’s rights and targeting specific opportunities, the private sector needs to also consider how they can apply the gender lens in and through their own operations. After all, the basic premise for all private sector work should be the “do no harm” approach or “conflict sensitive business practices” – in other words preventing or at least minimizing adverse impacts of business operations. Recognizing that employment and livelihoods support are considered as possible ways to support peacebuilding efforts, could companies explore ways to support women’s economic participation for example by hiring more women and supporting entrepreneurship in conflict-affected areas? How can companies help women-led businesses in their supply chains build their resilience? Acknowledging that during conflicts care-related tasks mainly fall on women, what arrangements can companies make to ease the burden on their own employees? Or understanding the importance of women’s equal participation, could companies lead by example by having more women in decision-making positions?

As we have seen with many CBi Member Networks, the private sector sometimes has access – to resources or geographical areas – that governments, the UN or (I)NGOs do not or where their capacity might be limited. Gender equality and social cohesion should not remain peripheral but be placed at the heart of private sector interventions also in these circumstances. In practice this could mean anything from gathering sex disaggregated data through impact and needs assessments to providing relief packs to the affected populations that take gender considerations into account. Furthermore, engaging the community, including women’s groups, in decision-making will not only increase accountability but also increase knowledge of women’s needs and build social assets that are critical for women’s empowerment in conflict-affected areas.

While we do not yet have all the answers, the Connecting Business initiative team is committed to working with the private sector to define specific problem statements and find solutions that help us create a more equal and peaceful future for all. We recently hosted a webinar on protection against sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) – a problem that is often exacerbated during conflicts. We are also drafting guidance for CBi Member Networks on conflict sensitivity and accountability to affected populations (AAP) to help them understand the true impact of their operations – both positive and negative. Understanding the connections between harmful gender norms and conflict dynamics is the starting point. What are you committing to do next?

Photo credit: C. Tijerina, UNHCR - CAR refugees in Cameroon