When I first visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007 as a public health researcher, I was trying to understand the complex issue of how young men get recruited into rebel groups in war-torn regions of central Africa. What I learned was both surprising and heartbreaking: a person who experienced war violence as a child could be more likely to engage in conflict as a young adult. Young men who had experienced extreme war violence in their past would often state this as a reason to take up arms. Even more tragically, these same young men would often struggle to reintegrate peacefully into their communities when hostilities ended. The violence they had experienced their whole lives through war persisted within their homes and communities even when formal peace was declared.
I was struck by the “cyclicality” of conflict. Even when fragile peace was declared, war had traumatized populations that had experienced high levels of violence. They were deeply affected by these experiences. It begged the question: does war violence morph into less visible forms of violence that continue to affect communities even after bullets stop flying? Sadly, this is a particularly pressing question now.
Currently, the levels of political conflict in the world are among the highest since the cold war. The world is host to the largest number of refugees since World War II. The need to understand how to truly end conflict and build sustainable peace is more pressing than ever. In response to these crises, the World Bank and United Nations published a flagship study, Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict. The report highlights the importance of addressing the long-term impact of conflict. This is particularly difficult when wars have become ever more complex, prolonged and diffuse.
As part of the Pathways for Peace report, I undertook research to explore the long-term impact of conflict. By combining data about health and conflict, and using mathematical modeling techniques, we can expose previously hidden patterns in human behavior. I wanted to examine whether war could affect the levels of violence against women in a society, even after peace was declared. For this effort, I took data from three conflict-affected countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Liberia. Although each country had a different type of conflict, similar patterns emerged from each context. In districts that experienced higher levels of conflict violence, intimate partner violence (or IPV, which is physical, sexual, or psychological harm committed by a partner or spouse) against women was also significantly higher long after the conflict had ended.
In Kenya and Liberia, women living in a district with conflict fatalities were 50 percent more likely to experience IPV than women in districts with no conflict fatalities. When levels of conflict are split into low, medium, and high levels, Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya had significantly higher levels of IPV in high- compared to low-conflict districts.
IPV is notoriously hard to study at the best of times due to underreporting of this sensitive issue. In countries just emerging from war, it is easy to let hidden forms of violence fall by the wayside. Yet, IPV and other forms of sexual violence have devastating effects. IPV affects not only the victim, but also the victim’s children, family and the community as a whole. Children who live in homes with domestic violence are also more likely to become victims or perpetrators of this abuse when they grow up, further perpetuating cycles of conflict. But thoughtful public health programming can help prevent and address IPV and other forms of violence.
These results suggest that human aggression does not immediately end with the signing of peace accords. Rather, it may persist and morph into subsequent damaging forms, including IPV and sexual violence. Ignoring post-conflict violence during the reconstruction phase can hamper the social healing, resiliency, and economic recovery of a nation. If IPV and sexual violence remain an unrecognized post-conflict problem, then conflict resolutions will amount to only a precarious peace, and the stability of nations will be undermined.