Negating the existence of female combatants hurts women’s status in peace processes
By Emanuel Hermann
The gender-essentialist assumption that women are only involved in armed conflict as civilians and victims, never as combatants and perpetrators, leads to their exclusion from economic opportunities that are awarded to potential spoilers of peace. In Sierra Leone, where women constituted a large part of the armed groups, the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration-program provides a salient example for this.
Women were labelled the “worst losers” of Sierra Leone’s eleven years long civil war. News articles, reports by international organisations and academics predominately depicted women as victims and highlighted their vulnerability in the conflict. Although a large percentage of fighters were actually women, their role as perpetrators of violence was largely ignored. Most international organisations refused to refer to former female combatants as “fighters” and instead termed them “women associated with armed groups” or “dependents”. This discourse deprived women of agency during and after the conflict and influenced the programs offered to women in the post-conflict phase by international organisations.
The role of female combatants in the Sierra Leonean conflict
Approximately 75,000 people were killed in the civil war in Sierra Leone between 1991 until 2002. The conflict was characterised by various factions fighting each other and the government respectively. All conflict parties were responsible for atrocities and all factions had female combatants in their ranks. In total, it was estimated that around 10-30% of all fighters were women and girls. It is impossible to make generalisations about the experiences of women and girls during the war since they varied considerably among individuals. Some tried to escape the groups they were to become a part of, some married fellow combatants out of love, some were forced to do so, some divorced, some had children, and some took up the opportunity to join the fight. Only a minority of women decided to join the groups by choice. Most of them were abducted (as were many men and boys) and subsequently suffered sexual abuse and forced labour within their respective armed group.
For those women who decided to take up arms it is important to point out that they did not do so primarily to improve their own or women’s status more generally. Instead, many chose to fight for their own or families’ survival. Their decisions were constrained by the social context they found themselves in. Their options were often very limited, consisting of either taking up arms, becoming the lover of a commander, having to work in the camps or being killed by fellow group members. Choosing between life and death is of course “more a matter of bare survival” than a choice. However, although highly constrained in their choice, women in the camps could decide between different survival strategies. Some women who decided to fight, stated that this enabled them to access resources through looting, to protect themselves against the enemy but also against members of their own armed groups. Some stated that possessing a gun made them “feel strong and fearless”. Thus, becoming a combatant enabled some women to have a certain degree of independence and agency. However, conditions for female combatants still differed strongly from those of their male counterparts. They remained more vulnerable to sexual violence and forced labour were relatively powerless within the armed groups.
The DDR-process and the influence of gender essentialist ideas
Sierra Leone’s civil war was followed by a massive peacebuilding and subsequent statebuilding project. As in other post-conflict countries, Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) was a major component of this processes. DDR-programs are generally based on the assumption that former members of armed groups are “potential spoilers to the peace process and therefore pose a danger in a post-conflict environment”. A crucial element of DDR-processes is the disarming of groups. Demobilisation refers to the process of “decommissioning active combatants from Armed Forces and other armed groups”.  Reintegration aims at giving combatants economic opportunities either by returning to civilian life or, in some cases, by integrating into the national army. In the case of Sierra Leone, the DDR-process was mainly funded by the World Bank, the United Nations Mission to Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), UNICEF and the Sierra Leonean government. At first, the program was supposed to “support the short term economic and social integration” of around 45,000 former combatants of all factions. The actual number of former fighters turned out to be much higher and when the program ended in 2002, around 75,000 people had taken part in the process.
The planning and execution of the DDR-process in Sierra Leone was based on the gendered assumption of men as “perpetrators” in war and women as “victims” of war. In general, this dichotomy is predominant within the international policy community. In the case of Sierra Leone, women combatants were portrayed as “camp followers”, “sex-slaves” and “wives” but not as “fighters” or “combatants” although some were exactly that. In contrast, men associated with armed groups, were exclusively defined as soldiers but never as “men involved in armed groups” or similar terms that were used to describe former female fighters. Since most women were first abducted and usually raped, they were seen solely as “victims”. That a person can be both, a “victim” but also a “perpetrator”, is not considered in this discourse. This oversimplification had serious consequences in Sierra Leone where it led to the different treatment of male and female combatants within the DDR-process, especially in the reintegration phase. Women were not seen as “real soldiers” and hence, not as a potential security threat to the peace. As MacKenzie highlights, DDR-process are essentially “securitisation”-processes in which potential threats are constructed and policies designed to produce security. Thus, not being recognised as a threat can have serious policy implications. In Sierra Leone, it led to the “depoliticization” of women’s role in the conflict and since in a post-conflict climate the international community is more likely to prioritise perceived security threats, reintegration efforts for male combatants received considerably more attention and funding. Reintegration programs for men encompassed a range of different training programs to prepare them for a legal occupation while reintegration for women was largely seen as “a social process” in which women were expected to return to their communities to start a “normal” life. Furthermore, the training options for women were very limited and based upon gender-essentialist ideas of the role of women in the economy. While the training programs for men included potentially lucrative skills like auto mechanics, computer skills or masonry and plumbing, the options for women were limited and consisted of low-income activities such as soap-making, tie-dying or tailoring. Another part of the program that should help female women to return to their communities encompassed a micro-credit scheme that was designed to help women to “reduce the family pressure on male ex-combatants”. Again, it was assumed that women want to act in the way that is expected of them, which is to be married, stay married and support their breadwinning husband.
The programs implemented by international organisations in post-conflict Sierra Leone were based on gender essentialist ideas about women’s role in conflict and society. By describing female combatants solely as “victims”, they were assigned a fixed personal status rather than acknowledging that female combatants were also perpetrators of violence. This categorisation determined their perceived importance in the peace process as well as the economic options offered to them. While former male combatants were viewed as a potential threat to stability that needed to be managed by providing them with economic opportunities, women’s reintegration was understood as a social process. They were assumed to return to their previous place in society depriving them from the positions of authority or economic opportunities some of them had known during the civil war. The post-conflict period can be a source of social change and an opportunity for the political and economic inclusion of previously marginalised groups. In the case of Sierra Leone, however, this did not happen as peace builders deprived women of agency and instead reinforced stereotypical gender views.
Emanuel Hermann studiert Development Studies mit dem Schwerpunkt “Conflict, Power and Development” am Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Genf. Er ist zudem als studentischer Mitarbeiter an der Friedensakademie Rheinland-Pfalz angestellt und arbeitete mehrere Jahre für das Heidelberger Institut für Internationale Konfliktforschung (HIIK).
 MacKenzie, Megan (2009a) Securitization and Desecuritization: Female Soldiers and the Reconstruction of Women in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone, Security Studies 18:2, 241-261.
 Coulter, Chris (2008) Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War: Challenging the Assumptions?, Feminist Review 88:1, 54-73.
 MacKenzie, Megan (2009b) Empowerment boom or bust? Assessing women’s post-conflict empowerment initiatives, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 22:2, 199-215; MacKenzie, Securitization and Desecuritization; Coulter, Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War; Lahai, John Idriss (2012) ‘Fused in Combat’: Unsettling Gender Hierarchies and Women’s Roles in the Fighting Forces in Sierra Leone’s Civil War, ARAS 33:1, 34-55.
 Coulter, Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War, p.58/59. It is difficult to determine the number of female combatants who joint armed groups voluntarily. About 93% of women who served in the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the armed group with the highest number of female combatants, stated that they were abducted and forcefully recruited (Cohen, Dara Kay (2013) Female Combatants and the Perpetration of Violence: Wartime Rape in the Sierra Leonean Civil War, World Politics 65:3, 383-415, p.402).
 Coulter, Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War, p.68.
 ibid., p.68.
 ibid., p.68. Rape and other sexual violence was also committed against boys and men, though on a much smaller scale (see: Human Rights Watch (2003) ‘We will kill you if you cry’: Sexual Violence in the Sierra Leonean Conflict, https://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/sierraleone/index.htm#TopOfPage [13.02.2019]).
 Thakur, Monika (2008) Demilitarising Militias in the Kivus (eastern Democratic Republic of Congo), African Security Studies 17:1, 51-67, p.53; for more on DDR-processes see Omach, Paul (2012) The Limits of Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration, in: Peacebuilding, Power, and Politics in Africa. Ed. by Devon Curtis & Gwinyayi A. Dzinesa, Ohio: Ohio University Press.
 Carames, Albert & Eneko Sanz (2009) DDR 2009: Analysis of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) Programmes in the World during 2008. Bellaterra: School for a Culture of Peace, p.8.
 MacKenzie, Empowerment boom or bust?, p.207.
 Coulter, Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War, p.65/66.
 MacKenzie, Securitization and Desecuritization, p.245 & p.257.
 ibid., p.257.
 MacKenzie, Empowerment boom or bust?, p.208-213.