The 'X' Factor: Reintegrating Female Combatants

Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Katrin Planta, International Relations and Security Network (ISN)
South America

Recent research suggests that women comprise between 10 and 30 percent of armed opposition groups, with some groups, such as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), claiming a female membership proportion of up to 40 percent.

The dearth of formal female participation in peace processes stands in stark contrast to these figures. In fact, women are rarely represented at peace negotiations or considered active stakeholders in post-conflict decision-making. During Nepal's peace negotiations, for example, not a single woman was present, while in Burundi, a male delegate insisted that “Women are not parties to this conflict. This is not their concern. We cannot see why they have come, why they bother us. We are here and we represent them.” According to UNIFEM, fewer than three percent of signatories to recent peace agreements have been women.

Patterns of marginalization

Justifications for restricting women's participation in peace processes are often based on sexist concepts of women belonging to the private sphere, with men regulating the public or political area. The argument that ‘the warring factions should negotiate peace' often implies the exclusion of women who are not considered ‘warriors'. In addition, very few women have the education, training or confidence needed to fully participate in negotiations.

Ann Itto, Southern Sector deputy secretary general of the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) notes that when South Sudanese women claimed their right to be represented through the introduction of quotas during the peace negotiations, “One senior male member of Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement/Army SPLM/A delegation laughed and asked me where the women would be found to fill these positions.”

However, it is not only the national context, but also international programming, that often restricts female combatants' full participation in post-war peace-building. To begin with, Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs suffer from a conceptual problem that prioritizes male combatants as a 'security concern', while women are put into the de-securitized development and social programming ‘box'.

Because unemployed men raise fears of a return to violence, their economic integration is an urgent must. In contrast, unemployed female ex-combatants who resort to prostitution in order to bypass poverty do not constitute a security threat. Their reintegration into the formal economy is therefore a less urgent matter in the eyes of most DDR planners.

Strict eligibility criteria that often lead to a classification of female fighters as ‘dependent' that precludes them from benefits provided to ‘combatants' simply aggravates the situation. Even when female fighters manage to get into DDR programming, they remain disadvantaged. As allowances are often linked to ranks, and women mostly figure in the lower ranks, they get the smallest portion of (financial) benefits.

Some women also choose not to enroll in DDR programs because of the social stigma attached to their combatant status or because of safety concerns. In many cases, women soldiers pretend to be civilians in order to escape retaliation if the cease-fire environment remains unsafe, particularly at demobilization camps. As a consequence, most female fighters do not reintegrate through organized programs but simply return home. What awaits them there?

The reintegration challenge

Female fighters' post-war experience often entails rejection based on their presumed ‘looseness', their abandonment of the family and their non-compliance with conventional female roles. In Nepal for instance, “There is a strong misperception in the societies that the female combatants will shake off the whole ethical foundation of the society once they are reintegrated.”

Returning to their communities can be especially complicated for young mothers who, in some contexts, are symbols of violated community norms and face profound rejection at the community level.

In addition, legal frameworks regarding male land tenure, for example, as well as gendered social norms, often make it difficult for female combatants to find their way back into the formal economy. As a consequence, the feminization of poverty in post-conflict societies hits ex-female fighters especially hard. But which factors can support their reintegration in a way that promotes their full socioeconomic and political participation?

Firstly, planners should start with an adequate assessment of the number of female combatants involved and their context-specific, individual needs. Secondly, research has found that veterans' association and ex-combatant's networks can play a significant role in facilitating the well-being of women upon their return to civilian life. International programming should therefore consider collective reintegration as an alternative to individual reinsertion. Instead of solely focusing on economic reintegration and offering financial support, the international community should enhance educational training and capacity-building.

Depending on the conflict context and the combatant's personal background this can range from basic school training or vocational formation to bursaries for university courses, offered for instance to former members of the Movimiento 19 de April (M19) that demobilized in the early 1990s in Colombia. As women combatants tend to be excluded from political decision-making processes even within their movements, they will most often need to improve their negotiation skills in order to become effective representatives or party candidates in their post-war life. International efforts in peacebuilding should therefore include organizational and political training for former female combatants. Finally, psychological counseling and trauma work are desperately needed in a situation where both women and men have been exposed to and committed acts of violence.

Broader thinking, more focused action

To conclude, all these elements should include and address the local community in order to work toward debunking prevailing negative perceptions about female ex-combatants' potentially disruptive role in society, and promote their capacities as agents for peaceful change. At the root of the specific problems female combatants experience in the post-conflict situation lies the dichotomous belief in ‘violent men' and ‘peaceful women'. These stereotypes preclude the existence of ‘women warriors' and therefore limit both the local and the international thinking on the issue of broader post-conflict reconstruction and reintegration.

In order to find innovative ways to transform peace processes into real opportunities for gender-just societies, the women and men in war-torn societies, as well the international community, have to change old stereotypes and address the specific challenges that women who have taken part in the violent conflict face.