Gendering DDR: The case of female ex-combatants

Women and men are affected differently by armed conflicts, thanks to a variety of factors that include their access to the productive aspects of an economy, social roles ascribed to each gender by cultures, and the degree of exposure to violence.  Moreover, often as victims of sexual violence and as dependents of male combatants who are left to fend for themselves, the security debate has largely seen women as passive actors bearing the costs of war. The female combatants who step from the realm of “domestic” to “public” on a separate, but equal, footing with men present unique challenges to the dominant paradigm. Thus, the recognition that women can be both victims and perpetrators of armed conflicts is crucial to designing a successful DDR program in the post-conflict setting.

The Integrated DDR Standards (IDDRS), the operational policy guideline by the UN for implementing DDR policies defines “female combatants” thus: “women and girls who participate in armed conflicts as active combatants using arms.” Women enter the conflict as “active combatants” for many reasons. As observed in conflicts worldwide, women might take up arms out of a sense of duty to fight for their nation/faction to which they belong or in extreme cases, to avenge the death of their near ones. They might act out of coercion, especially when they are abducted by their male counterparts to join the armed forces. The fear of rape can be another reason (as cited by many women who joined the LTTE in Sri Lanka). Also, other structural reasons such as poverty, alcoholism or forced marriages back home might compel them to be combatants. What defines this demographic? If one closely examines their composition, these women are often young, unmarried or in early stages of their marriage, physically fit, and demonstrate aptitude to learn “male” crafts.  This ought to be a crucial point for DDR, especially while designing the psycho-social care package for them after demobilization. For instance, in many cases they are not welcomed back into their communities as brides as they are perceived to be “less womanly”, reinforcing the existing gender stereotypes.

The module 5.10 of the IDDRS (titled “Women, Gender and DDR”) categorizes the female beneficiaries of a DDR program into three categories based on the life choices women make as well as their different functions during conflicts:

  1. Female combatants
  2. Female supporters/Females associated with armed forces and groups (FAAFGs)
  3. Female dependents (of the male combatants)

But if one examines the implementation of DDR policies on the ground, it is clear that often in absence of a governance infrastructure, such taxonomies are a second order of business. For instance, looking at the ongoing DDR program in politically fragile States such as Sudan or Central African Republic (CAR), which does not have the politico-legal structures in place which enable to cement the DDR process, the primary identification and assessment of beneficiaries (including both male and female ex-combatants) in itself is a serious challenge. In Sri Lanka, given the tenure of the conflict, individuals over their life cycle move from one category to another.

What then determines a successful DDR policy for female ex-combatants? A crucial component is to have more women ex-combatants at the negotiating table – from making decisions on the ‘when’ and ‘how’ of disarmament and demobilization to designing long-term policies for their socio-economic reintegration. This is very much in line with the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 which deals with increased participation of women in the peace building process. These efforts can be buttressed by donors who can place gender mainstreaming at the heart of their funding decisions. Most importantly, a DDR program for female ex-combatants should focus on how the positive spill over for women during the conflict- in terms of leadership and other unique skills acquired – can be transferred to the post-conflict reconstruction efforts. For instance, women combatants constituted about 60% of the LTTE guerrilla forces in Sri Lanka, who fought against the Sinhalese government. After LTTE was formally crushed by the government in 2009, the women ex-combatants underwent a DDR process. As part of the job training initiatives for ex-combatants, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) jointly worked with Sri Lanka’s Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) action plan. Rebecca Murray (2010) critiques this action plan on two grounds, substantiated by the data she collected by interviewing female ex-combatants. Firstly, she points out how disabled Tamil ex combatants, the survivors of physical injury were left out of these reintegration efforts. Secondly, she cites as to how these initiatives trained women to be “tailors and domestic helpers” as opposed to “bricklayers, computer repairers, masons”, the skills they might have mastered during their association with the LTTE.

This is an example which points to the complexity of the reintegration efforts of female ex- combatants. It is also an instance which shows how the local context and the cultural perception of pre-assigned gender roles plays a role in determining outcomes. The engendering of the DDR process should thus begin from the premise that women beneficiaries are a heterogeneous group with different skill sets, which should be effectively and efficiently channelized to contribute to the long term process of peacebuilding.

by Ardra Manasi