Sri Lanka 2011. It is two years since a brutal civil war ended, with the UN reporting tens of thousands of civilians killed in the final months of battle, mostly by the state military. In the formerly contested territory in the north-east of the island, a female refugee called Padmagowry (not her real name) has recently been resettled in a new village. It’s not her land; hers is still occupied by the army.
The government does not provide her or her fellow villagers with any ongoing support, so they rely on food packages and small-scale loans from aid agencies. Padmagowry is the breadwinner for her household, with two young children and no husband. She manages the village ‘self-help’ (credit) scheme and works hard to barely get by.
Ukraine 2015. Military operations against Russian separatists in the Donbas region have driven a substantial increase in military spending. The money has to come from somewhere, and social welfare has been cut in line with IMF-stipulated ‘reforms.’
The combination of conflict and austerity necessitates an increase in the time spent on paid labour to make up for declining wages and the retrenchment in jobs due to conflict and the depressed economy, and also unpaid labour such as caring for and comforting children during shell attacks, and heating water and preparing household meals with war-damaged gas supplies. This additional work is mostly carried out by women.
As these examples make clear, ‘social reproduction’- the typically invisible but crucial sphere of the economy - is inextricably linked to the ways in which conflict and violence affect different groups, and must be taken into account when laying the foundations for any enduring peace.
Social reproduction refers to the reproduction of social life, which includes biological reproduction, the unpaid production of goods and services in the home, social provisioning such as voluntary work to maintain communities, and the reproduction of culture and ideology. Such work is, by and large, undertaken by women, who also engage in paid productive work in the double shift of labour long identified by feminists.
This is the case worldwide within and across different societies, both relatively peaceful and conflict-affected: the labour of ‘care’ is always in demand, but typically unrecognised, undervalued and unsupported. This is at least partly because the economy is understood as consisting only of production and measured only by GDP. Yet unpaid work accounts for a huge part of the economy: for example, in 2016, unpaid household service work in the UK was valued at US$1.54 trillion - nearly two thirds of the country’s GDP.
Social reproduction is, therefore, a significant resource that should be supported. When unsupported, women pay the heaviest price. The accentuation of women’s poverty and insecurity in conflict-affected societies, especially in displaced communities and among women-headed households, increases their vulnerability to multiple forms of violence.
If we understand ‘peace’ in its most basic terms - as the absence of violence - then failure to pay attention to how the neglect of social reproduction increases women’s exposure to violence is a failure to create peace. It is certainly a failure to create the equity and harmony of a positive peace. However, these links are routinely ignored by politicians, practitioners and policymakers as they attempt to reconstruct the economy and society after war. This lacuna threatens to destabilise carefully planned peace processes because it neglects the work that goes into reproducing individuals, families and societies, which is so fundamental to post-conflict recovery.
Investment in social infrastructure such as healthcare, education, childcare and local transportation is vital for supporting social reproduction and critical for economic growth. Yet, in conflict-affected countries such as Sri Lanka and Ukraine, social infrastructure and public expenditure often deteriorate at the same time as care needs increase – including among injured and disabled people and displaced communities. These shifts place greater demands on women to increase their paid and unpaid work. In reality, cost-cutting by states in social services and support mechanisms translates to 'transferring the costs to women.'
But this isn’t just a matter of the obvious and unequal burden of unpaid labour. Severe violations of economic and social rights also have political impacts and these are exacerbated in conflict. Collective organising (already highly risky in conflict-affected environments) is obstructed when individual efforts are focused on mere survival or, at best, on simply coping. Lack of time and energy limit people’s capacity to participate in civil society activities and contribute to building peace. These pressures exist alongside the gendered risks of continuing military violence.
So in conflict-affected environments, the pressures on women in particular are heightened and the negative impacts on their health and wellbeing are exacerbated. Stretching women’s capacity for social reproductive work in this way leads to an increased level of human depletion, when the gap between the outflows of domestic, emotional and reproductive labour on the one hand and the inflows of medical care, income-earned, supportive services, and leisure time on the other fall below a threshold of what is sustainable physically, emotionally and financially.
Yet there is a persistent expectation from individuals, families, communities and governments that women’s care work is an endlessly elastic safety net that will meet increased needs in situations of conflict and austerity. In fact, this highlights the role of such labour in sustaining society and preventing further conflict. However, policymakers tend to overlook it, as well as women’s role in sustaining peace. But when states don’t support women, they set the conditions for further conflict, depleting households and leaving whole families and young people vulnerable to recruitment by militias, warring groups and violent extremists.
Unrecognised social reproductive work in conflict-affected societies might also include negotiating with an occupying army to release land to the community or advocating for justice for victims of war. In 2017 for example, women led 84 families from the north-east of Sri Lanka in demands to get their village back from the army. They began - and still continue - roadside protests in the searing heat, calling for answers from the government over what had happened to the 60,000 forcibly disappeared people during the civil war. Mothers, for instance, report how they have spent years travelling across the island, visiting police stations and military camps and testifying at multiple commissions in the search of their children.
In conflict-affected environments, even travel may be dangerous, and costs women the most. In Sri Lanka’s north-east, people have to deal with the additional time and insecurity of navigating through heavily militarised spaces and must regularly face security forces accused of committing severe human rights abuses, including sexual violence against women. In Ukraine, as well as spending increased time on labour within the home, women must expend additional time and energy travelling to procure basic needs like food, water and clothing when services and infrastructure have been destroyed.
Hence, social reproduction in conflict-affected societies is vital for the continued and safe functioning of households and communities. But at the same time it eats into women’s time and capacities. It plays a crucial role in creating a genuine peace, but the failure to value or support it increases women’s susceptibility to many forms of violence.
For these reasons, ignoring the role of social reproduction undermines the very notion of a positive and enduring peace. Conversely, recognising, measuring and supporting it – through feminist research methods that look at time use instead of income generated - can provide evidence of its everyday importance in peace processes and of the need to support and replenish the women who carry most of the load.
This article is based on research carried out by Monash University in Australia and the University of Warwick in the UK. The project, Inclusive Economies and Enduring Peace: The Role of Social Reproduction, is led by Shirin Rai at the University of Warwick's Interdisciplinary Research Centre for International Development and Jacqui True at Monash University’s Gender, Peace and Security Centre.