- War, Women, and Power: from violence to mobilization in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina by Marie E. Berry
Feminist scholars’ interest in women’s mobilization during wars as fighters, peacemakers and more has destabilized any previous notion that women do not fight in (or against) war. Marie E. Berry’s book War, Women, and Power tackles an immensely important and underexamined question – in war’s aftermath, what accounts for women’s increased political mobilization? Berry approaches this question with a fundamental claim that the violence, destruction and disruption of war are followed by openings to reorder social, political and economic structures. The questions that follow are of how women’s lived experiences of war and the economic, political and social contexts of these ruptures provide openings for women’s increased political participation, as well as what forces constitute the backlash(es) against such mobilizations. The puzzle Berry engages with and her manner of engagement provide immensely valuable insight for broader debates about the transformative moment ‘after’ war.
Berry develops her argument through an examination of mass violence in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where experiences of violence ruptured all facets of political, economic and social life. Part of being able to understand the challenges and opportunities women face in mobilization after war required Berry to analyse the institutional and structural transformation of mass violence in both places, and in historical context. Berry opens her analysis of each case with [End Page 979] a historically grounded engagement that helps the reader see how the scale and intensity of violence in both places led to demographic, economic and cultural shifts. She does this in a way that is both analytically precise and profoundly humanizing. Throughout the book, the attention to lived experience reminds the reader that none of this is abstract, while at the same time the care and precision of her analytical engagement leaves the reader with no doubt of the intellectual rigour of her claims. Indeed, one of the many lessons one could draw from Berry’s book relates to research design in conflict-affected settings – it is meticulous in its rigour and reflexivity, and the impressive, years-long engagement in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina allows Berry to represent the stories and experiences of women in a way that takes seriously the feminist claim that ‘the personal is political’.
Today, Rwanda has the highest proportion of female legislative representatives in the world (61.3 per cent). Berry’s analysis of Rwanda aims to understand this in the context of women’s wider informal and grass-roots political mobilization. This is paired with an analysis of the limits to women’s political mobilization, including analysing what feminist scholars refer to as ‘the patriarchal backlash’ and the role of the international community. Berry argues that three elements of transformation in Rwanda – demographic shifts (including sex imbalances), economic shifts (such as those that arise from women seeking aid outside the home and increased women-headed households) and cultural shifts (such as the narrative that women were less complicit in the mass violence) – led to the increase in women’s mobilization. This mobilization is firstly, and crucially, informal, such as the formation of support and self-help groups. Understanding women’s increased participation in parliament requires starting here, from the informal. From there, Berry analyses the confluence of women’s increased informal mobilization with the huge influx of international aid programmes that encouraged women to formalize such groups. This was evidenced by the explosion in the number of NGOs after the war, many led by women. In turn, Berry argues, based on experiences with the formalization of NGOs, women began to run for local and national political office. Amidst the positivity of Rwanda’s share of women in parliament, all of this must be understood, Berry argues, in relation to the moves by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to consolidate power.
This brings us to the limits of women’s political mobilization and the patriarchal...