The perception that women are only ever victims of conflict ignores the large numbers of female combatants, which can result in their exclusion from disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) report, State of the World Population 2010: From Conflict and Crisis to Renewal: Generations of Change, released on 20 October 2010, acknowledges the role women play in forging peace, but cautions against the assumptions of women as nurturers and "natural peace-makers ... [choosing] non-violent solutions rather than conflict whenever possible".
Megan MacKenzie, a fellow of Harvard University's gender and security programme and now teaching at Victoria University in the New Zealand capital of Wellington, states: "Little is written about women and girls as agents within the civil conflict.
"However, there is evidence that women — particularly female soldiers — were both perpetrators and empowered through their roles in the [Sierra Leonean] conflict," she wrote in an article published in 2009 in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs: Empowerment Boom or Bust? Assessing women's post-conflict empowerment initiatives.
During Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war between 1991 and 2002, which witnessed wide-scale atrocities against civilians, women played a significant role as soldiers and not just as "camp followers" or abducted "sex slaves".
MacKenzie said women and girls carried arms, killed, commanded armed groups, looted and spied, among other activities, and "there are stories of powerful female commanders such as Adama Cut-Hand, who was said to be among the most brutal RUF [Revolutionary United Front led by Foday Saybana Sankoh] members who headed the amputation campaigns".
Helen Basini, a doctoral student researching female combatants in post-conflict Liberia at Ireland's University of Limerick, told IRIN that DDR programmes had taken the line of "add women and stir", and although "in theory", women were catered for in new approaches to DDR, "it is much more complicated than guidelines suggest".
Women, like men, were faced with the same problems of DDR, in that "when the R [reintegration] comes around, there are money shortages", but there was also a heavier bias towards former male combatants as they were seen as more of a security threat in the post-conflict state than demobilized female soldiers, she said.
''Because of these stigma issues many women choose to 'self-demobilize' and slip back into a community quietly''
However, for female combatants, war has a profound effect because of the trauma as well as the break from social conventions and norms, making their reintegration difficult.
In a 2009 article, Securitization and Desecuritization: Female Soldiers and the Reconstruction of Women in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone, MacKenzie writes: "By returning girls to a 'normal' environment, DDR processes risk entrenching gender inequality. A truly progressive or developmental post-conflict reconstruction programme would include more radical change in the area of women's status in society."
Many women in Sierra Leone, Mackenzie said, avoided DDR for various reasons, including distrust, stigma and fear of retaliation. In addition, former female combatants complained of being "treated as housewives and sex slaves" or held the view that they were "above" DDR and could make it on their own.
"For some women who had achieved higher ranks within the warring factions, the notion of attending the DDR with lower-ranking soldiers was insulting," she said.
Basini said former female combatants in Liberia were often shunned by communities as "tainted" - by rape or having children with militia members - and were viewed as "impure", damaging their marriage prospects.
"Because of these stigma issues many women choose to 'self-demobilize' and slip back into a community quietly... Not having had access to the money, training and benefits of DDR may make these women more vulnerable to poverty and [present] difficulties in trying to survive," she said.
"The reluctance of international aid agencies, the UN, the World Bank, and other international organizations to name female soldiers as soldiers rather than 'females associated with the war', 'dependents' or 'camp followers', ignores and depoliticizes their roles during the conflict," MacKenzie said.
The UNFPA report, marking the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which addresses the equal participation of women in all peace and security issues within conflict and post-conflict states, notes that "the image of women with guns was a new reality in Nepal that challenged the age-old perception of women as subservient members of society" during the country's decade-long Maoist insurgency.
The role of women was recognized in the 2006 peace agreement and the interim constitution acknowledged women's rights as fundamental and a "parliamentary resolution was passed to reserve 33 percent of seats for women in all state bodies", the report states.
It is estimated that women and girls comprised a third of the Maoist forces.
From her experiences with Maoist ex-combatants in Nepal, Sarah Dalrymple, a conflict and security adviser for Saferworld, said in an internet discussion hosted by UN Women that many women felt empowered in their "male" roles. However, female combatants had also been stigmatized as "violent and sexual" and "reintegrated women have been rejected by women who remained in the community during the conflict".
Getting it Right, Doing it Right: Gender and Disarmament, a chapter in the UK Department for International Development's security sector handbook, makes several recommendations, from utilizing gender expertise in DDR to adequate financing of gender components by UN peacekeeping budgets "not through voluntary contributions alone", and a review of DDR benefits for women.
The handbook notes: "There are too few trained women peacekeepers, civilian police and experts engaged in DDR processes. Donors should facilitate the establishment of a regionally balanced group of women and gender DDR experts."