WW1 changed the workplace for women worldwide | ActionAid UK

It was 100 years ago this week that the first world war was officially declared. Media coverage has made it pretty hard to escape that we’re commemorating this anniversary. Personally I can’t stop thinking about it because of the huge difference it made to women – suddenly they became an active part of the workforce.

Estella runs the all-female radio station in Liberia

Jobs for women tripled after war broke out

Once war officially broke out, the amount of women who were actively employed tripled. Previously less than 10 per cent of the female population worked. Many jobs that we take for granted as being for both sexes here in the UK were previously closed to women. But all of sudden you could be a female policewoman, porter, engineer or even (unheard of!) builder.

Good can come out of darkness

I find it unbelievably tragic that it can take something as horrific as war to open the door to work opportunities for women. Then and now. When I was in Sierra Leone I met young women who were welders – a job that previously would never have been deemed suitable for girls but is now actively being taught.

In Liberia I met female journalists from the Liberia Women Democracy Radio Station. Estella (pictured) set up the channel in 2010 and explained that her chance to become a reporter happened during the conflict: “When the war came, I started to work as a journalist.”

Today, she runs the station totally staffed by women and continues to pass on her wisdom to female colleagues and the women in the ActionAid communities they broadcast to alike. She says, “I need to help. We give a voice to women here – lawyers, businesswomen and strong teachers.”

Conflict forces equality

During the Burundi genocide of the early nineties, a remarkable woman with whom we worked did more with her life than it is possible to imagine anyone, regardless of gender, ever being capable of. In 1993, Maggy Barankitse, was forced to witness her community being massacred, including close friends and members of her adopted family. Not only did she manage to save a great number of children from the conflict, but she also went on to look after and raise many of them, going on to set up an orphanage.

Amongst her numerous other initiatives, she built homes for orphans, a bakery, cinema and a garage. Not achievements that I believe could have been hers in a time before the conflict, a time when a women’s place was most certainly in the home.

ActionAid helps women to become self-sufficient in all sorts of jobs in countries that have experienced conflict and are at conflict today.