Female combatants are a reality in nearly every armed conflict today. If we want to design sustainable post-conflict policies, especially in the area of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR), we need to make them visible – to understand the different factors that draw both women and men towards violence.
A Comment by Britta Gade
For many centuries, war has been considered an exclusively male domain. Not only were women systematically excluded from both the battlefield and the negotiation table, they were also virtually absent from the imagery of war. However, the past three decades have given rise to a more profound understanding of the diverse roles that women play in armed conflict. As a result of the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), gender nowadays occupies prominent positions in many national and international security strategies.
Nevertheless, one stereotype prevails: while women are disproportionately affected by armed conflict, they are rarely seen as a threat. This disregards the fact that women have always contributed to the perpetuation of violence – either directly or indirectly. In many non-state armed groups women constitute up to 40 percent of armed combatants. The failure to acknowledge women’s agency undermines the success of post-conflict programmes, especially in the area of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration. Making women who fight visible is not just about gender equality – it’s about understanding the gendered dynamics of violence and ultimately about the prevention of (further) conflict.
Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration: no place for women?
What are DDR programmes and what is the place of women within them? DDR essentially aims to reinstall stability in a post-conflict situation by helping former combatants to demilitarise and reintegrate into civilian life. This is especially important at times when armed conflicts are increasingly localised and community-embedded, with non-state actors figuring prominently, both as perpetrators and as potential peacemakers.
While early DDR programmes focused primarily at disbanding military structures and removing weapons from the hands of members of armed groups, second-generation DDR acknowledges the structural dimension of armed violence and the need to work with communities as a whole. Besides working with ex-combatants at designated camps (cantonment sites, encampments, assembly areas or barracks) where they receive short-term material assistance, education and job training, the UN has started to implement community violence reduction programs (CVR) with the goal to encourage social cohesion and prevent the eruption of violence at the grassroots level.
Not surprisingly, the first DDR programmes rarely applied a gender-sensitive approach. On the contrary, most of them failed even to acknowledge the existence of female fighters or expected them to spontaneously reintegrate into society. For example, the DDR process in Mozambique, lasting from 1993 to 1996, had less than 2 percent of women participating, despite women and girls’ large-scale involvement in both sides’ fighting forces being a well-known fact among Mozambicans. No special measures were taken to ensure women’s security in the camps and economic assistance such as lump sums were mainly reserved for men, leaving female ex-combatants, especially those with children, in a situation of precariousness and dependence.
Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security constituted an important step forward in this regard. Adopted in October 2000, it “encourages all those involved in the planning for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration to consider the different needs of female and male ex-combatants and to take into account the needs of their dependants.” However, the focus on women as victims as well as the idea that gender is simply about ‘adding women’ has continued to undermine the success of gender-sensitive peacebuilding.
“Guerrillera, feel like a woman again”
One of the most vivid examples of the failure to include gender perspectives comprehensively is the DDR process in Liberia. Megan Mackenzie, one of the leading experts on gender and war, notes that the Liberian DDR process “did not come to fruition for Liberian women and girls due to the overt focus on women as victims rather than agents.” While some achievements were made with respect to demobilisation sites, making them safer and taking women’s special needs into account, for example concerning sanitation and healthcare facilities, key aspects of the process in fact reproduced gender inequality.
Developing skills and education opportunities were determined by rigid ideas of feminine and masculine occupations. While men had the chance to be trained on masonry, carpentry, mechanics and IT, women were automatically allocated to sewing, soap-making and hairdressing. Interestingly, a study conducted by the US Institute of Peace in 2018 found that over 20 percent of former female combatants in Liberia could envisage fighting again for material goods while this was the case for only 10 percent of their male counterparts.
Similar PR campaigns in Colombia attempted to convince women to disarm and return to their allegedly peaceful pre-conflict roles as mothers and wives with the statement “Guerrillera, feel like a woman again. Demobilize.” The idea that female combatants can easily return to their pre-conflict activities, and above all that this is what they want, remains dominant at all stages of the DDR process leading not only to the systemic exclusion of women from the peacebuilding process but also to the continuation of gender-based discrimination in post-conflict societies.
Post-conflict peacebuilding as an opportunity for social transformation
DDR programmes need to acknowledge the various roles that both men and women have played in conflict, because only a holistic understanding of the factors that have given rise to violence in the first place will prevent reoccurrence. Women’s motivation to join non-state armed groups and their experiences in rebellion is different to men’s insofar as it is shaped by gender roles, sexuality and social norms. In taking up arms, female combatants actively defy their designated social roles as mothers and wives, and counter the image that society might expect them to fulfill. While participation in combat can offer a chance to contest and escape patriarchal social norms, returning involves social stigma and rejection for having taken on inherently “unfeminine” roles.
Acknowledging the diverse experiences and challenges of female combatants should lead to DDR programmes that assess the specific local dynamics and design policies accordingly. Why did women and men take the decision to turn towards violence? How did armed violence subvert the established social order? And what potential has been unleashed for establishing a more just and inclusive peace?
We need to bury the idea of women as naturally more peaceful and acknowledge their agency – both for perpetrating violence and as agents of peace. DDR can be transformative, precisely because it works with the very people that carried and sustained cultures of violence. Neither male nor female members of armed groups take up weapons because they are ‘naturally’ violent. Armed violence rather constitutes a measure of last resort and a reaction to experiences of injustice. If these inherently gendered dynamics are understood and if DDR is designed accordingly, post-conflict settings can offer a window of opportunity for social renewal.
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Image Source: Abdul Fatai (via UN Photo – The visit included a simulation exercise demonstrating how an ex-combatant is disarmed and demobilised. Côte d’Ivoire, 2014)