War's Offensive on Women: The Humanitarian Challenge In Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan
by Julie Mertus
Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Julie Mertus. War's Offensive on Women: The Humanitarian Challenge In Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Kumarian Press, 2000, 176 pp.
War's Offensive on Women: The Humanitarian Challenge In Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, is one of several books written by Julie Mertus, from the School of International Service (SIS) at American University. Mertus is both a practitioner and a scholar, devoted to documenting women's plight and helping them overcome the ravages of war. She works on the ground in war-torn regions, as well as in government and NGO domains, in an effort to change humanitarian aid policy.
In her book, War's Offensive on Women: The Humanitarian Challenge in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, Mertus argues that a gendered approach is needed in the examination of international crises, and in the development of humanitarian aid policies. Mertus, using personal narratives from war-affected women and in-depth case studies from Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, illustrates how international, governmental, and non-governmental organizations fail to meet the specific needs of women in times of war, and in its aftermath.
Mertus explains that most post-cold war conflicts are interstate in nature, and are characterized by ethnic hatred that ensnares entire populations in unspeakable acts of violence. Consequently, civilians often become pawns in modern warfare. Mertus argues that women and men have different uses in war, and therefore, they have dissimilar experiences. The author, through the use of statistics, detailed human rights cases, and descriptive examples illuminates and brings to credence the gendered nature of war.
Once Mertus establishes as fact the gendered reality of violent conflict, she then relates how and why women in situations of international crisis are more susceptible to acts of sexual abuse, to homelessness, and to poverty. She communicates how these circumstances create gender-specific needs, and examines whether and how humanitarian organizations address these unique requirements. Mertus does this by assessing several humanitarian aid models and humanitarian gender-specialized programs based on the analysis of numerous interviews with aid workers and with women who have been caught up in war.
Mertus finds that most humanitarian aid models fail to meet the unique humanitarian needs of women in times of international crisis. She conveys that oversights of these programs range from lack of basic products for women, to poorly-written human rights laws that force women to relive traumatic events in order to get relief assistance. Mertus even discovers that programs specifically designed to address gender-sensitive issues such as rape are wanting. She states that many of the aid workers associated with these programs lack the sensitivity needed to help sexually-abused women.
Mertus maintains that gender equality in humanitarian relief rests in putting human rights at the forefront of humanitarian organization ideals. She gives examples of two organizations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that have incorporated human rights into their policies, and argues that they do not just focus on providing food, shelter, and medicine, but also on providing psychological, economic, and other needs that women and men may need in times of international crisis.
Mertus, in this well-written and highly informative work, describes the unique struggles women experience in times of war, and the exceptional inadequacies they encounter when humanitarian organizations seek to bring them relief. She does not lament the shortcomings of these groups, but rather gives them a tool to address the problem. Mertus explains how human rights laws can be used as the backbone of new humanitarian aid policies that enable humanitarian organizations to address the unique circumstances and needs of all people caught in the storm of violent conflict.