Thousands of women and girls who have been abducted by armed groups, enslaved and repeatedly raped during conflicts across Africa are left without support when the war ends, experts say.
After the bullets have stopped flying, peacekeepers and governments focus on disarming fighters – who are usually men and boys - and helping them to return home and reintegrate into their communities.
But the women and girls who served as porters, cooks, bush wives, sex slaves and at times fighters are often overlooked in this process, known as disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR).
For instance, after Liberia's 14-year-long civil war that ended in 2003, the DDR programmes were so focused on the men that they failed to realise that women needed particular medical, legal, social and psychological support related to the kind of abuse they had suffered.
“They have been raped so many times by different men. They ask themselves ‘I have been a bush-wife, how do I go back to my family?'” Yvette Chesson-Wureh, a Liberian-born children's rights lawyer, said.
“With the DDR process (in Liberia) they gave them two weeks (of training and counselling). It doesn't even start to touch the underlying issues faced by these young women. And they give them $300. How does $300 repair their psyche?” she said.
“We have to look for a method to give them psychosocial support,” added Chesson-Wureh who is also coordinator of Angie Brooks International Centre on Women's Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace & Security.
A similar story is heard in Uganda, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique.
“In Mozambique there are still communities of women still living in the bush who were left behind when the DDR process was finished (when the war ended in 1992), while the men were loaded in trucks and taken to their communities for reintegration,” Helen Scanlon, a researcher at the African Gender Institute in South Africa, said.
Many of these women find it hard to reintegrate into their communities without proper support from government and international organisations because of the stigma of living with armed groups.
“There's always a view that any woman who was involved in an armed group was a sex slave, was raped or was a bush wife and this is seen as dishonourable in most communities. DDR programmes have to address these issues as well,” she added.
Women's groups in Africa are urging the African Union (AU) and governments involved in conflict resolution and peace-building efforts to ensure that these processes address women's concerns.
Experts say the AU has crafted comprehensive and relevant documents related to women's and children's rights as well as conflict resolution - but these are not being implemented. Furthermore there are not enough women involved in peace processes to ensure they address the needs of women.
The documents include the declaration on gender equity (SDGEA), the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, the Post Conflict Reconstruction and Development Framework, the AU Gender Policy and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
“We're saying it's time for action. There are too many documents left on shelves,” Bineta Diop, head of international non-governmental organisation Femme Africa Solidarite (FAS), said.
“Heads of states spend time and money jetting into conferences and sit for days and nothing happens on the ground to reconstruct the bodies and minds of African women that have been violated during conflicts,” she said.
FAS recently hosted an experts meeting to review a report to be presented to the AU peace and security department on mitigating the vulnerabilities of women and children in armed conflicts.
This is part of an initiative by an advisory body to the AU Peace and Security Council known as the Panel of the Wise.
In March, the Panel of the Wise invited women victims of war to tell their stories to African ambassadors during a meeting of the A.U. Peace and Security Council.
“We talk about these issues very glibly, but when you hear the atrocities which have been visited on women - such as breasts of women which have been slashed - your mind has to be changed,” Mary Chinery-Hesse, a member of the Panel of the Wise, told AlertNet in Dakar.
“Women's concerns especially those related to conflict and post conflict situations are competing with other issues for the attention of Africa leaders but we shall continue to push and push for this to have a higher profile” the Ghanaian-born Chinery-Hesse said.