War, conflict, and crises introduce women and girls to a very real fear: that their safety and human rights will be the last priority amid the violence. The current war in Ukraine is widely expected to hurt women and girls more than any other population, both in the short and long term. 

This is because the same has been true of almost all wars and conflicts in history; it is also something we’ve seen in violence that is currently ongoing in other parts of the world such as the Sahel, Tigray, and Afghanistan. 

Simply because of their gender, women and girls caught in the middle of war experience sexual violence, physical and verbal abuse, and barriers in accessing resources and having their human rights met; this is of course all on top of being directly exposed to conflict on the front lines and facing life-threatening conditions.

In its entirety, war is an enemy of progress and threatens to increase extreme poverty for people and nations. Citizens flee their homes toward uncertain displacement; food and other necessities for well-being become scarce; economies face huge losses; and nations see the mass destruction of infrastructure. You can learn more about how war drives poverty by reading our explainer here

However, women and girls face the worst of war and conflict, often being seen not as the human beings they are, but as weapons of war — being horrifically objectified so that their needs, emotions, and rights are unrecognisable to the perpetrators of violence. This reality also deepens, for example, if they are members of the LGBTQ+ community, or if they have a disability. 

3 Things to Know About How War Impacts Women and Girls

  1. The biggest risk they face is gender-based violence. Women and girls are exposed to unprecedented rates of sexual violence, abuse, and torture in war conditions. 
  2. Conflict enforces the objectification of women and girls, as they are often seen as weapons of war, being used by perpetrators of violence to assert control. 
  3. More than half of the world’s conflict-related refugee population is made up of women and children. 

Internally displaced Afghans from northern provinces, who fled their home due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, take refuge in a public park Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 13, 2021.
Image: Rahmat Gul/AP

What Impact Does War Have on Women and Girls?

Women and girls have their health and safety, their human rights, and their futures placed at unbelievable risk during conflict. The United Nations’ #EqualEverywhere campaign — which was started to help promote global gender equality — identified a few main areas where women and girls are most hurt by war. These include gender-based violence (GBV), displacement, lack of access to reproductive health care, and child marriage. Girls’ education, or lack thereof, is also a significant way that women and girls are impacted by conflict. 

Gender-Based Violence

War and GBV are undeniably interlinked, with women and children being exposed to physical, verbal, sexual, and psychological abuse in times of conflict. This form of violence is also used as a tool in war to assert control, weaken families, carry out ethnic cleansings and genocide, and to discourage resistance and destabilise communities. 

In Afghanistan, where the Taliban violently took over the nation in 2021, women and girls were already exposed to GBV as a by-product of the group’s previous rule and violence experienced in the nation. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in 2020, 87% of women in Afghanistan had experienced at least one form of GBV, and 62% had experienced psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. 

In Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where a war has been ongoing since November 2020, violence against women and girls has also included torture and in some cases, resembled sexual slavery. Amnesty International campaigner for the Horn of Africa, Vanessa Tsehaye, told Global Citizen that accounts and reports of GBV in Tigray included “brutality, there were beatings, torture, and death threats, and ethnic slurs against the Tigrayan women.”

Women and girls are also not safe in refugee camps, with a report by the UN finding that an estimated 1 in 5 female refugees living in humanitarian settings have experienced sexual violence.


Women often carry the responsibility of relocating families, protecting livelihoods, and keeping everyone safe, and as a result it is mostly women and children that can be found in refugee camps. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that more than half of the world’s 80 million displaced people are women. 

The UN also points out that conflict situations have a tendency to reflect sexist gender norms, where women are expected to flee conflict, and men are expected to fight on the front lines — leading to a situation where women are responsible for feeding, housing, and protecting their families. 

A refugee from Ethiopia, who is fleeing clashes in the country's Tigray region, shades herself from the sun after crossing the border into Hamdayet, Sudan, with her family.
A refugee from Ethiopia, who is fleeing clashes in the country's Tigray region, shades herself from the sun after crossing the border into Hamdayet, Sudan, with her family.
Image: © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

Child Marriage

Child marriage is a by-product of war for a few reasons; as war and conflict results in declining economies and disrupts access to food, child marriage is seen as a desperate solution for financial stability for families.

Countries in West and Central Africa have the highest rates of child marriage in the world, and this can be attributed to political, environmental, and economic instability in the regions. 

In fact, the three countries with the highest rates of child marriage in the world — Niger, Central African Republic, and Chad — are all in the Sahel region, where there is ongoing violence surrounding Lake Chad, as well as extreme drought conditions. According to Global Partnership for Education, this shows a correlation between humanitarian crises and risks for women and girls.

Child marriage also furthers control over a single gender in conflict situations, similar to GBV, objectifying girls and using them as a weapon of violence. For instance, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, there were immediate reports of Taliban leaders pulling together all unmarried girls in Afghan villages and forcing them to marry Taliban fighters.

Forced marriage also forms a direct barrier between girls and their right to education, as once they are married they’re expected to assume a domestic role, filling shoes they’re way too young to fill including childbirth, tending to the household, and feeding the family. This stunts their access to education and limits their futures.

Limited Access to Life-Saving Health Care

As violence and war leads to the destruction of facilities and infrastructure, hospitals and clinics are often demolished and access to health care can become painfully limited. Not to mention electricity, water, sanitation, and supplies are disrupted, meaning that health and sanitation are inaccessible to those who need them most.

This puts women and girls at significant risk as, with a lack of sexual and reproductive health care, there’s a higher potential for unintended pregnancies as well as the spread of disease and infection. It also means that health services following gender-based or sexual violence are mostly inaccessible. 

According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Yemen’s infrastructure loss as a result of war has led to just a handful of hospitals remaining, only 20% of which are able to provide maternal and child health services. As a result, a woman in Yemen dies in childbirth every two hours, with the causes almost always being preventable. 

Students raise their hands to answer the teacher's question during class in Taizz, Yemen, 2021. There are many uncertainties and dangers in the building of this school as it's unfinished, with no doors, windows, chairs, and bathrooms.
Image: © UNICEF/UN0460333/Ahmed Al-Basha

Girls’ Education

In conflict and crisis, girls are often the first to be pulled out of school, and the last to return. According to the Global Partnership for Education, girls facing conflict are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys, and are less likely to return following a ceasefire. 

Education can protect girls from being in harm’s way, and also protects their futures, keeping them from child marriage, domestic responsibilities, and violence. 

In times of war and conflict, education can be inaccessible as in some cases, like in Tigray’s ongoing war, schools are used as military bases. In other cases, such as in Afghanistan, education for all girls is prohibited under the Taliban’s rule. The loss of girls’ education to war and conflict can be felt in regions for decades, and is a direct enemy of gender equality. 

How Does This Relate to the Mission to End Extreme Poverty?

War directly affects almost all the United Nations’ Global Goals — 17 goals, like achieving gender equality or good health and well-being for all, that are a roadmap to ending extreme poverty. When it comes to women and girls, the impacts of war and conflict are most directly felt on Goal 3, for good health care and well-being; Goal 4 for access to quality education; and Goal 5 for gender equality, for all the reasons outlined above.

Who Are the Key Players in Solving This?

There are lots of humanitarian aid agencies that look out for women and girls impacted by conflict. These include the likes of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN's Population Fund (UNFPA), and Amnesty International to name a few. Organisations helping girls access education in conflict and crisis include Education Cannot Wait, Save the Children, the Malala Fund, and the Global Partnership for Education among other frontline organisations. 

What Action Can We All Take? 

In order to bring an end to gender inequality experienced in conflict conditions, war and violence needs to come to an absolute end too. In the meantime, women and girls’ rights must be made a priority in all ongoing conflicts, wars, and humanitarian crises, as well as in the aftermath of these events. You can join us in taking action here to help make sure that women and girls experiencing war and conflict globally are made a priority and that their needs are met.

Global Citizen Explains

Demand Equity

How Do Women and Girls Experience the Worst of War?

By Khanyi Mlaba