Report | 2018

Executive Summary

Gang violence is usually considered a criminal rather than a conflict issue.

This limits the international community’s willingness to mitigate the violence or provide humanitarian aid.

In a new GIWPS policy brief, Anna Applebaum and Briana Mawby argue that widespread gang violence, as found in El Salvador, should be considered a new form of armed conflict. The policy brief documents the impact of pervasive gang violence, which is increasingly similar to experiences of war—including high numbers of civilian casualties and significant migration flows.

It also makes the case for a focus on gender to strengthen prevention of and responses to gang violence.

As in more conventional conflicts, men often hold the most prominent roles in gangs and in the state response. But women frequently serve as care providers for gang members, and they are increasingly involved in tasks related to transporting weapons or drugs. Violence against women is also a specific tactic used by gangs for control over communities. Due to the high levels of gender-based violence, which gangs contribute to, women make up an increasing proportion of those fleeing.

Once gang violence is understood as a security issue as well as a criminal phenomenon, it becomes clear that the WPS agenda is relevant.


  • Re-envisioning gang violence as a subset of armed conflict meaningfully changes worldwide statistics on armed conflict and violence. In turn, this could help redirect funding and attention to vulnerable populations that currently lack recognition of the severity of their experience.
  • A change in the classification of gang violence could alter the focus of humanitarian funding and workers. Reclassifying gang violence would create a legal duty by countries to enable access to humanitarian service providers and in doing so, provide existing service providers with greater protections.
  •  A new perspective on gang violence could shift policy-making priorities. Different classifications open other opportunities for engagement, specifically diplomatic, legal, and humanitarian resources that have so far been comparatively underutilized.
  • A deeper understanding of the roles women play in gangs can shed new light on how women engage in violence in other settings. Investigating women’s roles in gangs can expand knowledge about women’s roles in violent organizations and how demobilization, disarmament, and deradicalization are gendered processes.
  • Broadening the WPS field to encompass the challenges posed by high levels of gang violence allows for greater analysis of women’s roles in violence prevention and peacebuilding. An expanded WPS agenda offers insights that can help prevent violence, end conflict, and promote peace in communities devastated by gang violence.

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