Global Policy Forum

Peace Process Often Ignores Female Ex-Soldiers


By Nicole Itano*

June 29, 2004

Under a fierce midday sun, Nicole Ibrehim clutches her semi-automatic rifle, cracked purple fingernail polish glinting in the light and a red beret perched over pierced ears. She waves her gun towards a group of nervous boy soldiers standing nearby and shouts an order in a low, booming voice, sending the boys scuttling.

"Don't you have girl soldiers in your country?" the Democratic Republic of Congo rebel asks in French, surprised at the attention she is receiving from a cluster of foreign journalists. "Here there are many."

Despite the larger roles played by female American soldiers in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the United States and much of the developed world, war is still seen largely as a man's game. In Western conceptions of conflict, women, if they feature at all, largely play the role of victims.

But new research shows that girls and women are active combatants in wars across the world. According to Tufts University researcher Dyan Mazurana, over the last decade, girls have fought in conflicts in at least 54 countries, most of them in the developing world. Yet the international community still believes most child soldiers are boys and is failing to recognize the role that female fighters play in many conflicts.

As a result, programs to help demobilize and reintegrate soldiers at the end of conflicts, in countries such as Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, usually fail to address the needs of former female soldiers. In addition to the emotional trauma suffered by any child who has killed or been abducted, many young female fighters are infected with sexually transmitted diseases or have children born of rape. Ostracized from their families and communities, girl soldiers are also at high risk of falling into prostitution when their countries return to peace.

"At the local level within Africa there is a very clear recognition of the role that women are playing," said Mazurana. Her research--including a study published early this year called Where are the Girls? about girl soldiers in Northern Uganda, Mozambique and Sierra Leone--has brought new light to issues concerning female fighters.

"It's at the level of the international community that there's a big disjunction that's tied to western masculine notions that fighters are men and are adults and that is simply not the reality on the ground."

Trained From Childhood to Kill

Despite the feminine touches to her camouflage green military uniform, Ibrehim is a seasoned soldier trained from childhood to kill. Just 19, she is already an officer in the Union of Congolese Patriots, a rebel group active in the tumultuous Ituri region in the northeast part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Across the continent, in the West African country of Liberia, a round-faced 16-year-old named Gertrude Gabolee grimaces with concentration as she guards her unit's headquarters with a rusted AK-47, her hair dangling in yellow braids and two ugly scars on her leg beneath her tight jeans, mementos of the conflict she will keep for a lifetime.

Gabolee's all-female unit in the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy was in charge of mortaring government territory when the group took half of the country's capital, Monrovia, last year.

When West African peacekeepers arrived in the country last August, she withdrew with the rebels to a city about 50 miles away. As her country's war wound to an end last August, the teen-age fighter said she wanted to go back to school, but has no parents to help her. She was separated from them during the war and holds little hope of finding them alive. Her only family now, she said, is the other girls in her unit.

Ibrehim and Gabolee are just two of thousands the female teens who have fought and killed in brutal civil conflicts in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Yet as their countries move toward peace and work to disarm former combatants, Mazurana said female soldiers like them are likely to slip through the cracks of official disarmament and demobilization programs, which continue to classify women involved in conflict as dependents rather than combatants.

In Sierra Leone, for example, Mazurana found that one-third of women involved with rebel or government forces had been involved in active combat, while nearly half had weapons training. Most said they had been abducted, usually around the age of 12, and many were forced to be "wives" to male solders, often bearing them children.

Yet these young women and their children could not claim demobilization benefits from the new Sierra Leonean government and its partners--including the United Nations--unless identified as a wife of a male solider. According to From Combat to Community: The Women and Girls of Sierra Leone, a report Mazurana published for the Women Waging Peace program at the Cambridge-based Hunt Alternatives Program, it did not matter to officials whether they had participated in combat or that the men who would claim women as wives were often the same ones who had raped or abducted them.

Mazurana said she believed that international nongovernmental organizations are beginning to realize this. She added, "At the level of the World Bank and the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations there's beginning to be more recognition. Unfortunately we haven't seen that translate into good plans in either Liberia or the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo)."

Greater Difficulties for Demobilization

In most conflicts, Mazurana believes, between 10 and 50 percent of child fighters are girls. While some nongovernmental organizations, such as CARE and local religious groups, are beginning to address the problem there are still almost no programs tied to official demobilization efforts aimed specifically at helping female fighters.

Yet these fighters often have even more difficulties reintegrating into society than boys. Often they find themselves ostracized for acting outside traditional female roles and because it is widely believed that they have been sexually abused and are therefore unsuitable for marriage. With few other choices, many such former soldiers slip into prostitution, especially because the arrival of peace often means the arrival of largely male peacekeepers.

"Girl soldiers have the highest levels of rejection," said Mazurana. "And the fewest resources."

About the Author: Nicole Itano is a freelance reporter based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has reported about numerous Africa conflicts for the Christian Science Monitor and other publications, including the wars in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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