Ivory Brief

Ivory Brief: How (wo)men rebel: Exploring the effect of gender equality on nonviolent and armed conflict onset

Author: Susanne Schaftenaar

Published: November 2017, Journal of Peace Research 54, no. 6


Given the spillover impacts of violent conflict – refugee flows, ungoverned havens for drug traffickers and extremists, the spread of disease and the looting of resources –global actors are constantly attempting to predict, prevent, and/or mitigate such conflict.

This doesn’t imply a preference for international stasis – many actors are also eager to see democracies replace dictatorships wherever possible. However, they would generally prefer that this process take place through non-violent rather than violent campaigns. This is both to blunt the harms noted above, and because of convincing research suggesting that, when uprising against autocracy take place, non-violent movements are more likely than violent ones to lead to viable new democracies.

For those seeking tools to prevent violent conflict and encourage nonviolent campaigns against autocracy, Susanne Schaftenaar’s recent work is extremely valuable. Established research suggests that as country-level gender equality rises, the likelihood of violent conflict decreases. Schaftenaar’s large-scale quantitative test of the impact of country-level gender equality on conflict onset between 1961 and 2006 goes a step further. Employing country-year data from the UCDP and NAVCO datasets, her findings support the claim that such equality, all else being equal, also makes it more likely a nonviolent campaign will take place than either no campaign or a violent uprising.

Further, she proposes and defends mechanisms to explain this finding. These, if further confirmed, open up valuable new avenues for thinking about the factors that shape the strategic choice between violence and nonviolence.


  • Countries that are more gender equal, whether measured by the fertility rate (capturing women’s control over their reproductive rights) or the female-to-male primary school enrollment ratio, are more likely to see the onset of a nonviolent campaign than either no campaign or a violent campaign.
  • These findings are consistent with the proposal (not directly tested) that the choice between nonviolent and violent movement strategies operates in part through several complimentary mechanisms:
  • Gender norms impact a society’s predilection toward violent versus nonviolent strategies (for example, the embrace or rejection of militarized masculinity).
  • Norms around the extent to which women (potentially half of a movement’s recruiting pool) can or should play a role in public and political life influence a movement’s expectations of the total number of people it will likely be able to mobilize, and thus whether or not the mass mobilization nonviolent movements demand is achievable.
  • On a practical level, the extent to which women face barriers to movement participation (for example, the ease or difficulty of moving and communicating freely) will impact the ease or difficulty of mass mobilization and thus the attraction of the strategy.
  • Using various econometric models, Schaftenaar tests and convincingly discards the most common alternate explanations, most notably those associated with economic development or background levels of democratization.


  • The level of gender equality within a country can be used as one factor to predict whether a state will experience no conflict, nonviolent conflict, or violent conflict. Policymakers should attempt to further investigate and refine this predictive tool.
  • Actors who prefer nonviolent conflict to violent conflict or persistent autocracy in various states should support efforts to increase gender equality, particularly women’s education and control over their fertility.
  • Other potential components of gender equality (for example, representation in higher education or in business leadership) should be tested to determine whether they also have a clear relationship with the onset of conflict and the choice of violent versus nonviolent strategies, as well as whether attempts to bolster equality in these areas would yield similarly desirable results.
  • Research to test Schaftenaar’s proposed mechanisms should be a funding priority. If support is found, policymakers can consider strategies to influence the choice of nonviolent versus violent strategies by finding ways to reduce the costs and difficulties of mass mobilization.

Brief written by Sarah Detzner

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