Experiences of armed conflicts and forced migration among women from countries in the Middle East, Balkans, and Africa: a systematic review of qualitative studies

Linda Jolof, Patricia Rocca, Monir Mazaheri, Leah Okenwa Emegwa, and Tommy Carlsson

Conflict and Health, Volume 16 (2022), Article number 46 



This paper provides a systematic review of literature on women’s experiences of armed conflicts and forced migration, focusing on women in or from countries in the Middle East, Balkans, or Africa. The literature indicates that refugee women’s exposure to conflict, violence and displacement leads to significant health and mental health consequences. 

The review covers empirical studies in English with qualitative findings, published in scientific journals between 1980 and September 2021. Of the 3,800 records screened, 26 were included in the systematic review. Most studies relied on interviews, including a total of 494 participants, and were judged as having trivial methodological limitations.  

The thematic synthesis resulted in three themes illustrating women’s lived experiences: 

  • Changed living conditions involving exposure to considerable discrimination, violence, death, and a need to survive while taking care of their family. The interviewed women had experienced insecurity and been exposed to various forms of violence, including witnessing violence, or being subjected to violence themselves. They found themselves unable to access resources to meet their basic needs, leading to stress and feelings of sadness and powerlessness. Forced migration was an act of last resort in response to threatening circumstances. Despite these hardships, there were some reports of positive effects of displacement including empowerment, greater independence, and a capacity to challenge traditional gender roles. 
  • Health-related consequences when confronted by a complex and demanding situation. Displacement entailed significant psychological distress, fears, and uncertainties, in particular for women in camp settings. Women were exposed to intensified violence including sexual violence in both public and private settings, leading to fear, panic, insecurity, grief, and physical consequences. Women were particularly vulnerable when pregnant, giving birth, or breast-feeding. Women had difficulties accessing adequate healthcare and social support.  
  • Resources and strategies that enhance resilience. Women used a range of interpersonal and intrapersonal resources and strategies to enhance their strength and resilience when faced with challenging circumstances. Social support and family life were important before, during and after forced migration. Women relied on “internal resources” and strategies including religion and faith, education and work, humor/optimism, ingenuity to avoid male violence, resistance, and taking control of their lives. Negative coping strategies included becoming violent towards their children, developing self-harming behaviors, succumbing to passivity and resignation, hiding their emotions, and vigilance. 

The authors conclude that displaced women face significant challenges related to changed living conditions and are exposed to health-related consequences. Women are consistently targets of severe structural and personal violence, while lacking access to basic healthcare services. Despite facing considerable hardships and trauma, these women display remarkable resilience and endurance by finding strength through social support and internal resources. Synthesized qualitative research illustrates that women value social support, including peer support, which is a promising intervention that needs to be evaluated in future experimental studies.