Interstate war, civil war and political repression
Conflict as a cause of widowhood can be inter-communal, such as in Kenya in 1992, 1997, and 2007, due the contested presidential elections; in Northern Ireland since the 1970s; the case of the Gujarat massacre of Muslims in India in 2002; massacres and targeted killings in Indian Kashmir in addition to military confrontations; or the Shia-Sunni conflagration of post-Baathist Iraq following the US-led invasion. The death rate of young males is also aggravated by the high level of armed violence in Brazil, Colombia, northern Mexico and several US inner cities – all a byproduct of the international drugs trade. Other locations with high rates of armed violent crime are Chechnya, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Africa.
More traditional forms of conflict, such as guerrilla insurgencies and military warfare, produce the highest levels of deaths, again impacting on widowhood. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Chechnya, Iran-Iraq, Afghanistan since 1979, Sri Lanka, the Lebanese civil war, and the US-led battlefield confrontations with Iraq in 1991 and 2003 followed by multi-party fighting, are all examples. The eight year Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) killed 500,000 Iraqi soldiers alone (Enloe 2010: 65). The effects of many years of war in Vietnam – including fighting with China after 1975 – continue to be felt through a large presence of widows in the Vietnamese population. The Eritrean war of independence that ended in 1991 caused an estimated 200,000 deaths (Smith 2003: 116-117, citing Tekle 1998: 1). Estimated total deaths (combatant and non-combatants) during the 1979-92 civil war in El Salvador were 80,000 of the total population of five million (Thompson and Eade (2007: 126). Guerrilla-style fighting, with the addition of terror tactics, has continued for the last 50 years between the Palestinians and Israelis, producing a steady stream of widows. More recently, Algeria has suffered an especially brutal civil war instigated by Islamic extremists that has claimed at least 150,000 lives between 1992 and 2005 (Liverani 2008: xxviii), in part through extreme forms of terrorism. The conflict in Indian Kashmir, with the presence of Pakistani, international and Kashmiri insurgents as well as the Indian army, continues to result in civilian deaths. Pakistan itself is current gripped by an intensified Taliban-inspired insurgency.
Table 4.6 documents the broad global coverage of war widows based on the prolific state of ongoing conflict, particularly warfare. The region most affected is Sub-Saharan Africa, with several ongoing civil wars, and major civil wars that concluded in the last ten years.
Since the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 up to August 2007, a combination of combat deaths, unintended civilian casualties, widespread sectarian killings, illegal killings by security and military forces and violent crime, have produced an estimated 733,158 to 1,446,063 deaths according to one British polling organization.
On the battlefield, armies of developed countries can swiftly extract wounded soldiers by vehicle or helicopter and provide medical care in transit to a well-equipped medical base for immediate attention, and then by plane to a modern hospital for specialist care. Even so, the deaths of US soldiers during the Vietnam War amounted to 58,000, while post-9/11 operations have resulted in over 4,000 US soldiers killed to date.
In contrast, the armies of developing countries are often rudimentary. Battle and post-battle medical care of soldiers is often very poor, due to the lack of trained medical and planning staff, logistics limitations, and lack of specialist medical supplies. The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s, which involved the armies of several neighbouring countries, resulted in an estimated total number of deaths, male and female, of two million.
Combat deaths in developing countries are boosted by cheap but robust assault rifles and other cheap mass-availability weapons suited to low-technology warfare by semi- and illiterate soldiers. This translates into ill-coordinated battles at close range with fully automatic weapons and mortars – referred to as ‘poor man’s artillery’ because it consists of a tube, base plate, and bipod that can be easily stripped down and transported on a donkey or carried. Together, they maximise the potential for high casualties. This is perhaps best exemplified by the Angolan civil war from 1975 to 1994, when as many as 500,000 people died in the space of a two year period, 1992-94, towards the end of the war ‘through combat and war-induced starvation… in some of the heaviest fighting in the post-Cold War period… Although the government forces made some use of planes and tanks, most of this carnage was produced by light and medium weapons – mortars, light artillery, grenade launchers, machine guns, recoil-less rifles, assault rifles, landmines…’ (Klare 1997: 64-65).
A well-documented example that included large numbers of heavy weapons (tanks, armoured personnel carriers, heavy artillery, large missiles, aircraft, etc.) is the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. This saw forces confronting each other in World War One-style assaults, but with far deadlier weaponry, across open ground into concentrated enemy fire. The result was a vast number of war widows. Similarly, the Ethiopian civil war that concluded in 1991 involved huge amounts of these weapons, supplied among others by the then Soviet Union. Ethiopia government forces were described in that period as the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa (Klare 1997: 62).
Massacres and summary executions are also a source of conflict deaths. In Europe, when such events were thought to have been consigned to the Second World War era, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia reintroduced these types of atrocities. The most infamous example was at Srebrenica (Loyd 1999: 293-294 and Rohde 1997), where 8,000 men and boys were massacred by the Bosnian Serb army in 1995. In Beirut in 1982, when the Israel-Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) dispute spilled over into the Lebanese civil war, Christian militia fighters indiscriminately massacred Palestinian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatila. In the same year the Syrian army, under orders from President Hafez al-Assad, carried out a massacre to put down an uprising in the town of Hama, with fatality estimates ranging between 10,000 and 40,000.
The number of Iraqi civilian deaths from Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime’s numerous internal crackdowns is unknown. The largest of these occurred after the 1991 Gulf War, focusing on the Shia and Kurdish communities in the south and north respectively. The previous decade, the regime had used poison gas against the Kurds, killing around 100,000 in the Anfal campaign. Similarly, the anti-insurgency campaign against the Mayans in Guatemala was described by the United Nations as ‘genocide’ (Steele and Goldenberg 2008: 11, Pilger 2007 citing the United Nations Truth Commission for Guatemala).
Internal crackdowns resulting in political ‘disappearances’ are another source of male conflict mortality and cause of widowhood. The best-known of these occurred in Argentina and Chile. El Salvador saw some of the worst political repression of regime opponents during its civil war from 1979-92, resulting in the disappearance of some 7,000 people. This has been described as:
‘…a particularly cruel civil war for the civilian population… In the cities the armed forces arrested, ‘disappeared’, tortured, and killed tens of thousands of people – professors, union organisers, health workers, slum dwellers, students, lawyers, and church workers. By 1984, the popular movement has been wiped from the streets; almost an entire generation of civil society leaders had been assassinated. In the countryside, the military undertook a scorched-earth policy to depopulate the zones in the north and east of the country held by the [rebels]. They razed homes, massacred entire communities, destroyed crops and livestock and carried out carpet bombing. By 1985 the [rebel-held] zones were largely depopulated, and one in five [twenty percent] Salvadorans was displaced within the country or had sought refuge abroad.’ (Thompson and Eade 2007: 126-127)
Open political repression, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of students in China or the ongoing state of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe and the military government in Myanmar, continues to be a problem around the world.
One consequence of warfare is disease and starvation caused by disruption of food supplies and health services, resulting in deaths among the general population. This occurred with devastating effect in the multi-country war in the Democratic Republic of Congo which began in 1996 and extended internationally from 1997-2002, where civilians fled into the deep bush areas to avoid approaching armies, and are said to have perished in large numbers from lack of food and water (Legros and Brown, citing Rehn and Sirleaf 2003: 33). As a result, there are estimated to be 1.9 million widows in DR Congo in 2010, some as young as ten. Mass starvation also resulted from the civil war in Somalia in the early 1990s.
International Rescue Committee (IRC) research by a demographer Les Roberts estimates that there were 2.6 million conflict deaths from all violence and health-related causes (including starvation) in the Congo between 1998 and 2001 (Prunier 2009). Roughly 86 percent of the deaths were estimated to have been from ‘disease and malnutrition.’ A newer estimate of Congo’s total conflict deaths (Coghlan et al, 2006) places the figure at 3.9 million for the period 1998-2004. In 2009 the same researchers published their latest survey of the country and found much higher death rates resulting from continued lack of basic health services. Mass starvation also resulted from the civil war in Somalia in the early 1990s when 300,000 died from lack of food and healthcare, and a repeat of this was threatened in 2009 (Burnett 2005, Black 2005).
While before-and-after time series data from the same source is unavailable for DR Congo, Table 4.5 shows the before-and-after effects of the Liberian civil war that began in 1989 and ended in 1997. While DHS data do not go beyond age 49, in the absence of other major calamities in Liberia during this period – including an absence of east African-levels of HIV/AIDS – it is evident that the high number of widows ten years after the end of the conflict in the 45-49 age group is a result of the civil war.
Genocide, the systematic and large-scale killing of non-combatants, is facilitated by war, and is sometimes its primary purpose. It is therefore the most serious war-related cause of death for the general population as, once organised and put into action, it is difficult to escape or stop. It is usually perpetrated in the context of a country-wide internal war. The most recent large-scale and well-known example is the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 to one million people were killed and this ‘also contributed to new wars that bedevilled central Africa into the twenty-first century’ (Shaw 2003: 211). As many as 50 percent of married women were estimated to have become widows, the majority of them over 30.
Table 4.6, also using DHS data, shows the effects of the genocide on the number of widows in Rwanda and the change in those numbers over time, ten years after the genocide. Notable is the extent to which the number of widows has quickly dissipated across all age ranges, to the point that the average for the whole age range 15-49, as a percentage of all women 15-49, has effectively reached its pre-genocide level. This is probably due to reduced rates of marriage and the generally very high mortality rate in the country between birth and age 30 (ORC-Macro International 2006, ch. 2).
Rwanda was not the first genocide in the region around that time. Before then, neighbouring Burundi experienced two genocides, according to the final report of the International Commission of Inquiry for Burundi discussed at the UN Security Council in 2002 – the first in 1972 and the second in 1993, a year before Rwanda. There had been waves of inter-ethnic massacres since the country gained independence in 1962. Between 1962 and 1993, one estimate suggests 250,000 people died.
In East Timor, formerly a part of Indonesia, 200,000 deaths have been reported for the period 1975-99, many as the result of massacres of non-combatants (Rosenberg 2003: 229). In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge regime killed an estimated 1.5 million to three million people of a total population of seven million (ibid.). The Cambodian genocide has been described as ‘the most comprehensive of all modern mass killings, in the extent to which it touched all sections of the population within a given territory.’ At least one researcher refers to a higher than normal number of widows in Cambodia, at around 11 percent; an aid agency estimate made before 1994 was to have stated that approximately 80 percent of rural households were headed by women, most of them widows. The most recent census estimate for Cambodia places widows at 6.4 percent of the female population aged ten and above (1998 Census) (Shaw 2003: 166, Lee 2004: 3, Chant 1997: 92, quoting O’Connell 1994: 68).
More recently, the actions of the Bosnian Serb army during the 1990s have been characterised by international officials as genocide, with total war deaths on all sides – most of them civilian and non-Serb – at over a quarter of a million (Shaw, ibid., 192).
In 2002, around 2,000 people were massacred in the Indian state of Gujarat, facilitated by the local police.
Deaths from landmines and other unexploded ordnance
A less well-publicised but equally important cause of male deaths occurs post-conflict, with serious economic implications for rural women and widows, as a result of landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) deposited during combat, ranging from hand grenades to cluster munitions (often referred to as cluster bombs).
The most serious type of UXO is the anti-personnel landmine (Black 2005: 212). After landmines, the most insidious UXO is the mortar shell. Mortars are called poor man’s artiller’ because they are compact and relatively cheap; mortar shells are typically fired in large numbers. They can found in regular use in armies across developing countries. The main casualties from landmines and UXO are the rural population, typically farmers who disturb landmines and other UXO in the course of everyday work, often resulting in death.
The key characteristic of the UXO issue is its longevity, because clearance is slow and expensive, and because they typically remain active for many decades. For example, six hundred tons of UXO continues to be discovered and cleared every year from World War Two. Since World War Two, landmine technology has evolved so that many now include anti-tamper devices that cause them to explode if moved after they have been laid in the ground, so modern landmines must be destroyed where they lie. In addition, plastic or ‘minimum metal’ landmines have been developed to thwart traditional metal detectors, resulting in the use of sniffer animals, particularly rats and dogs. All this has made traditional dig-and-remove clearance impossible and contemporary landmine removal is thus very slow and expensive.
There are 33 countries, ‘where landmines constitute a major problem for the civilian population; the situation in five of those countries – Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Iraq and Laos – must be categorised as an emergency on the basis of the scale of existing [post-war] casualties.’ Landmines deliverable from aircraft were deployed during the Soviet-Afghan war, enabling a large increase in the numbers of landmines used. It is estimated that there are currently around 100 million landmines in the ground around the world.
In 2006 in South Lebanon, during the Israel-Hezbollah summer war, Israeli forces used cluster shells delivered by mobile heavy artillery guns on Hezbollah positions, carpeting these areas. Cluster munitions are large shells designed solely for killing people, not destruction of property; they contain a large number of small anti-personnel bombs inside. A British cluster rocket, for example, carries six-hundred ‘bomblets’, which are released from the cluster munition shell above ground in order to carpet a broad area. They have a high failure rate: many fail to detonate when first fired, only doing so later when disturbed. The combination of this high failure rate, small size (roughly the size of a large Coke can) and ability to cover a large area of ground, has caused them to be likened to landmines. Hezbollah also fired anti-armoured vehicle cluster munitions into Israel using Chinese-made Type 81 rocket launchers during the 2006 war.
This was only the latest episode in Lebanon’s UXO problem, as the case of a Lebanese widow’s battle with landmines makes clear. The UK-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) – a leading UXO clearance NGO – documented the story of a Lebanese widow, now aged 60, who was hit by gunfire in a battle in her village during the civil war in 1977. In the same incident, her husband was killed outright. Her farmland was laced with UXO. She had nine children, the war pension was too little for the family to live on, so she started a small shop, which was looted several times during the fighting. In the early 1990s, using a knife, she started clearing her farmland of landmines. By 1997, she reached the limits of her property, but it was only finally made safe after MAG started work in 2007. (Story of Mrs. Em Saoud Mashmoushi, Bsaba village, Chouf Mountains, Lebanon) (Mines Advisory Group 2009).
The 2014 Gaza war and the ongoing civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen will only increase the amount of UXO and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) with a parallel rise in deaths.
Scale of conflict deaths
What is the scale and relevance of conflict as a cause of widowhood? Up to 1960, simultaneous conflicts globally averaged around 25. After this date we have seen a steady increase in conflicts, peaking at more than 50 in 1992, and falling to just below 30 in 2003 (Black 2005: 210, Fig. 13.1). In relation to the number of war widows, whereas it is possible to count the number of widows in censuses and surveys, data on the causes of widowhood is either not collected or, if collected, not made available.
Data on conflict deaths and injuries, including sex crimes, is extremely problematic. Data on rapes would be extremely valuable for estimating the scope and scale of health interventions, given the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in many conflict countries and the fact that many victims are women widowed as a result of the fighting. Conflict death and injury statistics are almost always very loose estimates in many developing countries, given the lack of wartime record-keeping systems. Employing professional demographers, as by IRC in the Congo example cited above, rarely happens. With respect to gender, ‘there are relatively little sex-disaggregated data on the impacts of armed conflict; and indeed the difficulty of collecting data in any conflict zone means that there is usually little dependable data at all’ (ibid., 211). Therefore, at the present time, there appears to be little or no data on the number of war widows with sexually transmitted diseases contracted as a result of military and random criminal actions.
Estimates for 2000 produced by Murray et al (2002) show significant excess male deaths, particularly in the 15-44 age range. This indicates the clear likelihood of a sizeable number of widows, since the high male death rate in is the prime male reproductive age group. One estimate suggests that the proportion of widows in conflict societies may be as high as 30 percent of a country’s total adult population (ibid., 213, Fig. 13.2, and Sorensen 1998).
There is no up-to-date global figure for the actual number of war widows, but some better-documented country-level examples stand out. These are Afghanistan with up to two million, Iraq 740,000 to eight million, and Rwanda 370,000 (Ministère des Finances et de la Planification Économique 2005).