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The Women Left Behind By War

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University of Denver professor Marie Berry helps tell the stories of women picking up the pieces in the aftermath of global conflict.

A woman stands holding her child at a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey.

A woman stands holding her child at a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey, 2015.

Hosted by writer Emma Atkinson, RadioEd is a triweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore the most compelling and interesting research coming out of DU. See below for a transcript of this episode.

Show Notes

An anonymous quote claims that “war does not determine who is right—only who is left.” 

And in many cases, women are the ones who are left to pick up the pieces after war. They must deal with changing power dynamics, laws and norms while simultaneously trying to recover from the trauma of armed conflict—even if they weren’t the ones on the battlefield.  

So where do women stand after war?  

Professor Marie Berry

University of Denver professor Marie Berry, who teaches in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is working to answer that question, examining the rights of women after war in countries around the world. 

Berry is the director of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy and an associate professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She is also the co-founder and convener of the Inclusive Global Leadership Initiative (IGLI), an effort to elevate and amplify the work that women activists are doing at the grassroots to advance peace, justice, and human rights across the world.  

Her award-winning book, “War, Women, and Power: From Violence to Mobilization in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina,” examined the impact of mass violence on women’s political mobilization in Rwanda and Bosnia. Together with Dr. Milli Lake (LSE), she runs the Women’s Rights After War Project.  

More Information: 



Emma Atkinson (00:05): 

You're listening to RadioEd, the University of Denver podcast. I’m your host, Emma Atkinson. 

2024 has been a year of conflict around the world. From the Russian invasion of Ukraine to violence in the Middle East and ongoing political struggles across Africa, headlines have been dominated by news of global discord, instability and flat-out war.  

An anonymous quote claims that “war does not determine who is right—only who is left.” 

And in many cases, women are the ones who are left to pick up the pieces after war. They must deal with changing power dynamics, laws and norms while simultaneously trying to recover from the trauma of armed conflict—even if they weren’t the ones on the battlefield.  

Some countries make efforts to integrate women into the reconstruction of their governments. Others don’t. 

According to the United Nations, only one of 18 global peace agreements reached in 2022 was signed or witnessed by a representative of a women’s group or organization.  

So where do women stand after war?  

University of Denver professor Marie Berry, who teaches in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is working to answer that question. While Berry’s research centers around examining the rights of women after war in countries around the world, her connection to her work began much closer to home. 

Marie Berry (01:22): 

My father was a Vietnam vet. And he had been drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam when he was 18 years old. And growing up, I heard honestly a lot of war stories. I heard stories about what it was like, I'd heard and I actually came to really appreciate and to learn from his fascination that that experience opened up for him to investigate atrocities and wars around the world. And so many of the early conversations that I had with my father actually were about war. 

Emma Atkinson (01:54): 

Berry says her proximity to the concept of global conflict at a young age raised questions about not just the physical aspect of war, but the philosophical one, too.  

Marie Berry (02:03): 

I was fascinated by two simultaneous parts of war. I was fascinated by both the kind of deeply distressing human capacity to harm another human being, and the way in which that violence and the brutality of warfare is something that just seems to me...I suppose, seemed to me as a child to be such a kind of an ancient process. And yet, it continues, and it continued, and I would read about the Rwandan genocide and things like that as a child and as a teenager growing up, learning about these ongoing atrocities. So this one side of my interest was really a distressing fascination with the kind of way in which human beings continue to do such awful things to each other.  

But the other angle, the other side of it that I think I was really curious about, was given the prevalence of war and genocide and atrocities around the world, how do people survive and find ways to move on with their lives and the aftermath? And what are the ways in which human beings have that kind of deep ability to support and care for each other in ways that allow them to not only survive, but even thrive? And the aftermath of these deeply distressing things. 

Emma Atkinson (interview audio, 03:24): 

So, why women, specifically? 

Marie Berry (03:26): 

Well, I think I witnessed kind of the way in which women are profoundly and often disproportionately impacted by the horrors of war. And how they oftentimes are seen in this very flat way as merely victims or those that suffer the most during war. And when I remember actually, my very first trip to Rwanda, a place that I've done a lot of research over the years and that I spent a lot of time in my early career – I was probably in my second, no, I was probably in my second week there – and I was introduced to a woman who was the sister of a dear friend of mine who had survived the genocide in one of the most extreme and deeply distressing ways possible. She had managed to hide in a well, and she had witnessed the murder of her parents and of many of her siblings, and many more neighbors and friends.  

Emma Atkinson (04:32): 

After the war, the woman started a small business, making and selling mattresses for orphans who lived in her neighborhood. The business grew, and so did the woman’s prominence in her community. Eventually, she was appointed to serve as a local judge and was heralded as a leader. 

Marie Berry (04:45): 

I just remember meeting her and thinking, I expected the stories of suffering, right, I came to Rwanda for the first time having read extensively about the genocide, I had been working for years already with Holocaust survivors, I had studied genocide and mass atrocities. So I was expecting the stories of suffering.  

What I wasn't ready for and what I wasn't expecting was the stories of resilience and of joy, and of care that just were so pervasive in the stories that I heard, and for me, I think that that really was something I learned from women. Women were the ones that were carving out those spaces for caring for others. They were the ones that were oftentimes ensuring the survival of the most disadvantaged and the most vulnerable, they were the ones that were risking their lives and oftentimes sacrificing in ways, even when they had very, very little or next to nothing, they were sacrificing their own comforts for other people. 

Emma Atkinson (05:47): 

Berry’s experiences at home and in Rwanda led her to help create the Women’s Rights After War Project in partnership with Milli Lake, a professor of international security at the London School of Economics. A major facet of the project is examining how the rights of women change during and after times of war. 

Berry and her co-investigators study how the governments of six countries are integrating women into their war to peace transitions, and what the rights of women look like during those transitions. 

Marie Berry (06:14): 

There were a lot of different reforms, that these governments, the governments of these countries, adopted, often because of pressure from international actors and NGOs. But those reforms were really designed to try to empower and support the kind of commitment to gender equality. And these reforms range from political gender quotas, where you get more women into parliament, to criminal justice reforms, where all of a sudden, or not all of a sudden, but in the aftermath of war, you have crimes like marital rape, or spousal abuse. These things become actually codified in domestic law in a way that allows women to then go to the courts and say, what's happening to me is not okay. 

Emma Atkinson (07:02): 

Berry says war is both a period of rapid destruction and rapid transformation—and there’s been a real push to use the periods of post-war transformation to evolve and advance gender equality. But what that advancement looks like in practice doesn’t always serve to empower the women left behind by war. 

Marie Berry (07:20): 

We oftentimes celebrate the elevation of women into politics. We look at the—we oftentimes as gender scholars, we look around the world and we say, ‘Oh, this country has the world's highest level of women and politics,’ which, if you didn't know already, is Rwanda, which people are oftentimes very surprised by. And Rwanda actually is kind of a great example to really unpack the finding, which is that the celebration of women in politics should not be equated with the celebration of the advancement of women's empowerment, or the advancement of feminist commitments. The level of women in Rwanda, for instance, is a smokescreen in many ways for the fact that the state is an authoritarian state. And the level of women in parliament is used to celebrate the state and so in some ways, it distracts attention away from the fact that the state is actually incredibly repressive. It has massive clamp-downs on freedom of speech, and it has been engaged in deep human rights violations for decades since it came to power. 


Emma Atkinson (08:21): 

A pattern emerged from her research: In countries that advanced the representation of women in government after war, many of these women were actually representing interests counter to gender equality and gender justice.  

Marie Berry (08:33): 

What we found in a lot of places is that many of the women in government are representing extractive industries. They are put in power by corporate interests that are engaging in the degradation of environmental resources, and oftentimes in the kind of extremely extractive industries that are linked to global networks of extraction. We found that some of the women in these situations were, perhaps less surprisingly, the, the wives or the sisters or the mothers of men that were either in politics already, or, perhaps a little bit more concerningly, men that had been charged with crimes during the war. And thus, because they had crime or criminal charges against them for different things, they would actually put forward a woman candidate to basically make, you know, to run in their stead. And she became the proxy effectively for this man to continue running his political empire, but from prison. Or from a place where he's not allowed to run anymore.  

And I share those patterns because these are not patterns we saw in one place. These are patterns we saw across Colombia, Nepal, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, and we learned time and time again that oftentimes, conservative regimes that are not invested in women's rights, oftentimes are the ones that are the best at putting women into formal government positions because they then offer a bit of a smokescreen, or a bit of a facade on this idea that the regime itself is rolling back rights for women, or even finding new ways to repress especially women from racial class or other ethnic minority groups. 

Emma Atkinson (10:34): 

Part of the Women’s Rights After War project involves work with activists and community organizers on the ground in the six selected countries.  

Last summer, the project put on an initiative in Colombia that brought together women who had experienced trauma and loss during the ongoing war between the Colombian government and paramilitary groups in the country. Working with Argentinian artists, the cohort of women created mixed media collages using photos of their loved ones who they had lost in the war.  

Berry said one of the women who participated came up to her and explained how her son had been missing for quite some time, and that the artistic process helped her feel closer to justice. 

Marie Berry (11:09): 

And that wasn't a question we asked her, right. We didn't ask her, “What did this mean to you?” She came up and she said, “This was the closest I ever felt to justice.” And for us, this was an invitation to think about the alternative ways that we, that people need opportunities for repair, and for justice in the aftermath of atrocities. 

So in our project, what we were really focused on is thinking about how we can begin to both visualize and reveal those root structures, as well as imagine alternative systems or alternative interventions, that could actually work towards justice and repair in a way that helps to dismantle and unravel those kinds of root harms that people are really feeling. And for this woman in particular, that root harm was an alienation from the state as a result of deep poverty and and disenfranchisement. And so the ability to honor and to aesthetically sort of celebrate the life of her son was something – especially using the kind of materiality of putting it together with her hands – was something that allowed her a space, together with other grieving mothers, to actually feel honored and seen and important. And I think that that's a tiny thing and a tiny example, but something that is really important.  

Emma Atkinson (12:42): 

You know, when you talk about women's rights, you hear about women's rights, you think: women's rights to work –  

Marie Berry (12:46) 


Emma Atkinson (12:47) 

A woman's right to get a credit card. 

Marie Berry (12:48) 


Emma Atkinson (12:49) 

A woman's right to be to serve in Congress. And what you were talking about earlier is a woman's right to a healing space. A woman's right to spiritually and emotionally feel safe. And I think that that's not something that we think about –  

Marie Berry (13:02) 

Mmm, I appreciate that. 

Emma Atkinson (13:03) 

– when we think about women's rights. Yeah, that's just so interesting. 

Marie Berry (13:06): 

Yeah, for sure. I mean, women's rights to be safe is a paramount kind of need. And to understand that safety is not just the absence of guns, but it's something much more structurally holistic, that ensures their ability to access clean water, their ability to breathe clean air, their ability to not fear their intimate partner, the ability to feed their children, the ability to know where their family is, the ability to be able to sleep at night in a bed on a mattress in a way that makes them, you know, in which they feel safe.  

And I think, unfortunately, I mean, the more I've done this work, the more I realize how actually so many components of that vision of the world are missing for so many women. Here in our own country and elsewhere in the world. And it's deeply... I love that reframe that you offer, that the holistic right, then, in some ways, that has been centered in the project and in our findings, is this right to peace and security, and honor as a whole human deserving of well-being and care. 

Emma Atkinson (14:23): 

“The right to peace and security.”  

I think that’s something we can all agree should be available to everyone, regardless of gender, but Berry says women in particular—across the world—are affected by war in ways that lie beneath the surface. 

This unseen hardship, this transferred trauma; it can be categorized as what researcher Rob Nixon calls slow violence.  

Marie Berry (14:45): 

And what Nixon points to is the fact that we have a tendency to look towards the spectacular, right? We look towards examples of violence that capture headlines, bombs, massacres, large attacks, things that are kind of familiar in the sense that they provoke horror. But so many people in the world are subjected to much slower forms of violence. 

Emma Atkinson (15:14): 

Slow violence is the harm that persists underfoot. It’s subterranean, lurking and bubbling below the surface. Slow violence is quiet violence—but it’s just as dangerous and damaging as the in-your-face cruelty of warfare. And in many places around the world, it’s women who are most affected by it.  

Berry takes Nixon’s concept of slow violence and applies it to her work with women who have been affected by the tragedies of war. 

Marie Berry (15:40): 

So one of the things that we were finding in the Women's Rights After War Project, and we found in these really interesting ways, was that many of us, myself included, have focused in our studies and our lives on war and atrocity and genocide. And we oftentimes are looking at cases where the violence was quite spectacular. It was violence that evoked a horror and a response that was very, you know, that was that was large, and that was robust. But when we go to interview women, in many of these places, women have told us throughout this project time and time again, that that's actually not the number one source of harm in their life. 

That is actually not the number one source of insecurity in their life, right. So for instance, we were in Janakpur in Nepal. It’s a city on the border with India, it's about six kilometers from the Indian border, so kind of in the Terai in the south. And we were interviewing some women who had been activists that were involved in both the kind of Maoist project during the insurgency, as well as after that in some of the uprisings that had happened in that region that had been really violently repressed. We were asking them about, you know, what is the status of security in your communities? Who are the perpetrators of ongoing violence? They were talking about really high rates of things like sexualized violence, we were like, who are the perpetrators? And they were like, look: the number one thing is that there are no healthy women in this region. And that's a direct quote from one of the respondents, and at that moment, I just felt like my mouth drop. I am asking about violence that is visible through the barrel of a gun, or through the baton of a police officer or, you know, something like that.  

And you're talking about slow violence, like you're talking about the fact that there is seeping toxicity, because of the air pollution that has drifted over from India, and has basically settled in this Janakpur region and has caused cataracts, high blood pressure, diabetes, birth defects, miscarriages. The list was long.  

And so what this woman was reorienting my attention to, was the way in which harm is not always manifested in in the spectacular and in the fast moving, and in the visual. Oftentimes, harm actually is the most noxious and the most destructive if it's out of sight. And when we began to take that realization to some of these other cases, we realized how pervasive these forms of slow violence are. 

Emma Atkinson (18:29): 

Something that comes up again and again in Berry’s work is the concept of feminism. She says her definition of the word is centered around dismantling the systems of oppression that exist in capitalistic, militaristic societies around the world. 

A word that you've used a lot: Feminism. Feminist. I think right now, in the U.S., that is such a politically charged word. Define for me global feminism. 

Marie Berry (18:56): 

When I think about feminism, and I think about what it means to me, it's about finding ways advocate and to mobilize against all forms of oppression and harm. I think there's other definitions of feminism. And of course, Chimamanda Adichie had a famous one because of Beyoncé, and Beyoncé talked about how a feminist is a person that believes in the economic, social and political equality of the sexes. I think that's a very accessible way of understanding feminism.  

But for me, it's not just about equality. It's actually a recognition that to get to true equality, it will require actually tackling the systems of oppression that have led to inequality in the first place – that have left women and gender nonconforming and genderqueer folks out of that political, social and economic equality to begin with, and that we're never really going to get to this gender equal world unless we think about actually trying to erode or to soften, and to ultimately transform those systems of patriarchy, of imperialism and militarism, of racism, of capitalism of all these kinds of systems that people will kind of point to as the drivers of inequality of suffering and violence in the world today. 

Emma Atkinson (20:16): 

Berry says there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of feminism—and she sees that in her work with the Women’s Rights After War project. 

Marie Berry (20:23): 

Actually, I'll share that when we were in Mexico City two weeks ago now with this group of Latin American activists, on the first day, one of the participants said to the group, she said, “I'm not a feminist.” And she said, “I actually really love men.” She said, “I love men, I love my son that was disappeared. And so I'm a human rights activist and I feel like feminism is anti this love I have for that.” 

And I said, oh, my gosh. I have so much honor for that, for where she's coming from, right? I have so much honor for the fact that that's not a label she chooses to wear. And yet everything she did and does and the way that she runs her activism is what I would call deeply feminist. 

Emma Atkinson (21:17): 

What does a gender-just future look like? 

Marie Berry (21:20): 

This is a question that I ask my students, as well as my collaborators, as well as myself, as well as activists whenever we have these convenings. And it's so interesting, because in some ways, I would expect there to be a tremendous amount of disagreement. When I first started asking this question: what does a gender just future look like? And what does that mean? I was expecting people to have these very different visions of the future. And I think more and more, the more I've asked these questions, the more I'm actually very amazed at the synergy in people's responses.  

I think a gender-just future and I think many people that I've been in community with, you know, in asking this question, would say that it's a future where forms of oppression and violence are gone, and where everybody has a sense of freedom and well-being. And it's kind of as simple as that, right? It is a future that ensures that nobody has more oppression or opportunity on the basis of their gender expression, right. It is a future in which nobody has more oppression or opportunity on the basis of their gendered oppression as it intersects with their racial identity, or their class identity, or their religion, or their ability, or their age, or their you know, any other former category of difference. And I think yes, it sounds utopian, but it's not as hard to imagine as I think we oftentimes think it is. 

Emma Atkinson (23:00): 

A big thanks to our guest, University of Denver associate professor of international studies, Marie Berry. On May 1st on DU’s campus, in partnership with the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy, Berry will host the 2024 Feminist Peace Summit. Sponsored by grassroots feminist organizations, the event will see participants work to imagine what U.S. foreign policy would look like in a gender-just future. I’ll let Berry explain a bit more. 

Marie Berry (23:25) 

The main point of the feminist peace summit is really to try to bring together activists, academics, policymakers, philanthropists, community members, and more to reorient our US foreign policy towards feminist principles. With the goal primarily of moving us away from kind of war and militarist responses, and to try to think about how we can invest in alternative forms of dispute resolution, alternative ways of building relationships, commitments to diplomacy, things like this that I think are really essential, especially right now when we're faced with – when we're looking at so much grief and suffering in the world. 

Emma Atkinson (24:12): 

More information on Berry's work with the Women’s Rights After War project and the Feminist Peace Summit can be found in our show notes. If you enjoyed this episode, I encourage you to subscribe to the podcast on Apple Music or Spotify—and if you really liked it, leave us a review and rate our work. It really helps us reach a larger audience—and grow the pod.  

Joy Hamilton is our managing editor. Madeleine Lebovic is our production assistant and musical genius and James Swearingen arranged our theme. I'm Emma Atkinson, and this is RadioEd. 

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