War/Political Violence

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War/Political Violence

Families are widely recognized as the "most basic institution within any society, because it is within [families] that citizens are born, sheltered, and begin their socialization" (Ambert 2001, p. 4). The importance and centrality of family is accepted across cultures. Families both influence and are influenced by the wider societies in which they exist. Violent societal-level conflicts affect societies at all levels, especially at the most basic: the family.

Definition of Family

Although there is widespread agreement on the importance of families, the definition of the term family remains under debate. Changes in marriage and parenting statistics prompt the need for definitions that are broad enough to recognize diverse family forms while still recognizing that families are unique compared to other social groups. Although various definitions emphasize different ideas, most include several basic components of families. First, families consist of at least two persons who are related and/or committed to each other and who live together in one household at some point in their lifetimes (Ambert 2001; Eshelman 1997; Olson and DeFrain 1997). Second, families perform specific important functions for society. In the 1930s, William Ogburn suggested that a family should perform the following seven functions (Ogburn 1938):

  1. Economic (meeting the basic physical needs of its members);
  2. Protection (physical as well as economic protection for children when young and for parent as elders);
  3. Prestige and status (providing a sense of place and belonging in the broader society);
  4. Education (formal and informal/socialization);
  5. Religion (providing traditions and religious identity);
  6. Recreation (play and fun); and
  7. Affection and reproduction.

More than sixty years later, Anne-Marie Ambert (2001) produced a very similar list of important family functions:

  1. Reproduction;
  2. Provision of basic needs for growth and development;
  3. A sense of personal belonging;
  4. Socialization; and
  5. Love and affection.

These lists, created several decades apart, indicate that expectations of families have remained fairly consistent. However, the extent to which a family fulfills these functions alone or with assistance from society varies across cultures and among individual families.

War/Political Violence

For this discussion about the impact of war and political violence on families, war is defined as violent, intergroup, societal-level conflict. It is "violence that is perpetrated by one set or group of people on another set or group of people who were often [but not always] strangers to each other before the conflict began" (Cairns 1996, p. 10). Other legal definitions of war are used by various government bodies, but those definitions often dismiss many areas of the world in which families are surrounded by political violence (e.g., Northern Ireland). War and political violence can occur between two or more states/nations or between groups (e.g., religious, ethnic) living in the same country or even in the same neighborhood or village.

Interpersonal violence (crimes against individuals, such as domestic violence, child abuse, or individual rapes) is not included in this definition of war. These behaviors often occur in areas of political violence, but the motivation behind such acts during war is a conflict between individuals as members of groups and involves societal-level issues usually related to one group wanting political power over the other.

War has changed over time. Throughout the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, "a new pattern of armed conflict has evolved, taking increasingly heavy tolls on communities and civilian populations" (Wessells 1998, p. 321). In fact, according to a study commissioned by the United Nations regarding the effects of war on children:

Distinctions between combatants and civilians disappear in battles fought from village to village or from street to street. In recent decades, the proportion of war victims who are civilians has leaped dramatically from 5 percent to over 90 percent. The struggles that claim more civilians than soldiers have been marked by horrific levels of violence and brutality. Any and all tactics are employed, from systematic rape, to scorched-earth tactics that destroy crops and poison wells, to ethnic cleansing and genocide (United Nations 1996, art. 24).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, many politically motivated violent conflicts were being waged around the globe—for example, the so-called war on terrorism led by the United States, the conflict in the West Bank between Israel and Palestine, the political violence in Indonesia and in the Congo, and the potential for a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, to name a few. Families in all of these conflicts are affected by the violence around them.

Impact of War/Political Violence on Families

The definition of family provided earlier will be used to examine the impact of war and political violence on families. How do violent, intergroup conflicts affect families' abilities to uphold family structure and perform the functions expected of them?

Related/committed persons who live together. Family members' shared lives are often disrupted by war, and members are often separated. Death is the most obvious and permanent form of separation. As established above, in the decade preceding 1996, civilians represented 90 percent of the casualties of war. The result was an overwhelming number of people in war zones who were separated by death from family members.

Families may be forced to live apart for other reasons. A family member or multiple family members may be involved as soldiers in combat. This could include voluntary or forced fighting and may affect families surrounded by the conflict (e.g., the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) or those far from the war (e.g., United States's military forces deployed in the Middle East).

Family members may be separated in refugee situations. The "unbridled attacks on civilians and rural communities have provoked mass exoduses and the displacement of entire populations who flee conflict in search of elusive sanctuaries within and outside their national borders. Among these uprooted millions, it is estimated that 80 percent are children and women" (United Nations, 1996, art. 26). In 1996, the United Nations identified more than 27.4 million refugees, and the number is estimated to have grown since then. At least half of these refugees and displaced people were children, and millions of them were separated from their families.

According to the United Nations (1996) report, parents living in areas of political violence can become so concerned for the safety of their children that they send them away from the family's home to friends or relatives in another country or area. This may seem to be the best solution at the time, but unfortunately, some children are exploited by unscrupulous agencies that make money by illegally placing the children in adoptive homes. Other children experience long-term trauma from the separation itself. Thus, war separates families.

Economic function/provision of basic material needs. The goal of political violence is for one group to gain political power over another, which makes forcing economic hardship on one's opponents is common strategy of war. The idea behind this tactic is to require the opponent to use up all resources and suffer such economic hardship that it eventually will surrender. One common way to accomplish this goal is to use antipersonnel rockets and landmines. They wound many more than they kill, and this (theoretically) requires the opponent to use up resources in medical care and supplies. However, governments involved in political violence often delegate most of their available funds for military use during wars. Therefore, citizens are left on their own to obtain medical help (if it is even available). For individual families, the kinds of injuries inflicted by these weapons can drain them of all their available resources—especially because the weapons are most commonly used in poor countries, neighborhoods, and villages.

War has a more devastating effect on poor families than families with more resources. This may indicate that poor families are more vulnerable and are at risk for severe effects of war; it could also indicate that wealthier families have the resources to get out of harm's way to avoid many negative consequences. War can ruin a society's infrastructure (businesses, schools, utilities, transportation, etc), an effect that leaves many poorer families with an unemployed head of household. Therefore, "not only do the usual problems that [poor families] face not evaporate because of the onset of political violence, but it is likely that there is a cumulative effect with the negative consequences of political violence added to the effect of economic and social disadvantage" (Cairns 1996, p.71). During war situations, families can expend most of their efforts trying (and often failing) to meet the basic needs of their members. Displaced families (either in refugee camps or those staying with friends or relatives within the war zone) face a constant struggle to meet the basic needs of their members in a situation in which there are never enough resources to meet the needs of all.

Protection and safety. Protection and safety are of great concern for families involved in political violence. Trying to keep members safe from injury, exploitation, and death in a war zone can dominate a family's life. It is difficult and highly unlikely that families can provide for the safety of their members during wars. This is an especially salient issue for female-headed families, because women and girls often are targets of sexual exploitation as well as other forms of violence.

Sense of belonging/status/identity. Several researchers have identified a strong sense of belonging to a group with strong ideals (or ideology) as potentially protecting people from the negative effects of war. "As a worldview, ideology figures predominantly in successful coping under conditions of extreme danger" (Garbarino; Kostelny; and Dubrow 1991, p. 23). It provides what they view as a reason for the suffering and constant danger families endure. This has been highlighted in two areas of political violence with religious influences—Northern Ireland (McWhirter 1990) and the Gaza Strip (Punamaki 1988). However, James Garbarino and his colleagues also recognize that ideology can become so embedded that it may make it difficult to end the conflict.

Some family members, especially children who are separated from their families, are at risk of being stripped of their familial, cultural, religious, and national identity altogether (United Nations 1996). War victims also may face confusion and mixed feeling about their identities.

Education and socialization. Because schools are part of the infrastructure, they often are closed or destroyed in war zones. Therefore, families are expected to meet the educational needs of their members. However, other basic survival needs tend to dominate the time and energy of the adults. This leaves little time for extras such as education.

Socialization, or helping children learn appropriate behavior for the culture, may overemphasize issues related to the conflict during a war. Several authors have questioned whether children in war zones have a less developed moral sense compared to children who do not grow up surrounded by political violence (e.g., Garbarino; Kostelny; and Dubrow 1991; Punamaki 1987). "In such societies, children cannot be successfully socialized . . . in a period when the behaviour of their whole society is based on . . . the denial of basic human values" (Punamaki 1987, p. 33).

Recreation/play. Children need to play to reach their optimum development. Children learn through play. The danger and destruction that occur during war and political violence greatly deter or even prohibit children's play opportunities. Adults also need to participate in recreational activities to maintain good health. However, when basic needs and safety concerns dominate, recreational needs often are not met. The high levels of stress experienced by both children and adults in war zones also inhibit a family's ability to provide an atmosphere of playfulness and fun. These terms imply being carefree—a virtually impossible outcome of living in an area wrought with political violence.

Affection and procreation. All people need love and affection. This becomes particularly important in a war zone where they may feel especially insecure. Family members can be very important buffers to political violence by providing needed love and affection. However, once again, when adults and children are experiencing extreme levels of stress and are struggling to meet the basic needs of others, they may find it hard to express love and affection. In fact, Bryce and colleagues (1989) found that parents experiencing political violence became more restrictive and punitive with their children than when not experiencing warrelated stress. The parents reported feeling over-whelmed with the responsibilities of taking care of their children in such extreme conditions. This led them to be less patient and to use physical punishment more than they had previously, during times of peace.


Families are the building blocks of societies. They perform important functions in providing and nurturing a culture's citizens. It is evident that families in war zones experience a great deal of stress. This inhibits their ability to meet the expectations of families as outlined by the definition of "family." War and political violence have a devastating effect on the family.

See also:Afghanistan; Death and Dying; Global Citizenship; Ireland; Israel; Migration; Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); Poverty; Rape; Stress


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