Reintegration of Female Combatants: Lessons Learned from Liberia

According to the Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) 38 percent of all fighting forces during Liberia’s 14 years of civil war were women and girls.[1] Particularly during the first conflict (1989-1997) many women were forced to take part in the fighting, and did so as combatants, supporters, peacebuilders and political actors. During the second civil war (1999-2003), more women are reported to have joined the fighting forces voluntarily, often to protect themselves from sexual violence, and to survive challenging economic conditions. What happened following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), in Accra on August 18, 2003, when these women were to be reintegrated into society?

The framework for most Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs are negotiated in peace agreements. In the case of Liberia, the CPA, also referred to as the Accra Agreement, was negotiated between the Government of Liberia, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) and other political parties. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was tasked with forming a Multinational Force that was to be deployed as an Interposition Force in Liberia. Establishing DDR activities was part of the mandate of the Interposition Force.

On paper the Accra Agreement seemed comprehensive and promising, and included language on the protection and promotion of women’s human rights. Additionally, the Results-Focused Transition Framework (RFTF) developed by the World Bank, UN and others, stated the need for disarmament and demobilization of female ex-combatants. Furthermore, when the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) was established under United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1509, the resolution mandated UNMIL to incorporate a gender perspective into its activities in accordance with UNSCR 1325 on women, peace, and security. It also called on UNMIL to develop a DDR Action Plan that would pay particular attention to the needs of child combatants and women.

While all of the above documents formed a comprehensive framework for inclusive DDR in Liberia, in reality, few proper programs targeting women were initiated. Liberian women’s rights activists on the ground have argued that the monitoring of the entire DDR program was poor, and that a lack of cantonment for women further complicated the process. Much like in many other DDR programs, one of the very first requirements for entering the DDR program in Liberia was the possession of a weapon or ammunition.

The requirement of a weapon in order to be defined as a combatant poses an obstacle for many women and girls, as women “are often tricked out of their weapons by senior commanders.”[2] While beyond the scope of this blog contribution, the issue of “having a gun” is in fact a problem that reaches much further than (or starts well before) the DDR process. For instance, women have often been completely excluded from peace processes as peace agreements are often negotiated between the warring parties, aka “the men with guns.”

In the case of Liberia, another requirement for access to cash payments through the DDR program was being on a list compiled by the commander of a specific unit. It is not difficult to see that in such a case, favoritism and discrimination might be a problem, and indeed many women were denied access to payments. Other reasons that have been sited as reasons to why women might actually have chosen not to take part in the DDR program were mistrust of the process, or fear of repercussions and social stigma if they were identified as ex-fighters. In conclusion, women often face multiple challenges in regards to DDR. They are often excluded from DDR programs altogether due to the failure to actually implement these programs in gender-sensitive ways, and they are not easily welcomed back into their communities, and are often stigmatized because they have transgressed traditional gender roles, and participated in the conflict.

[2] Coulter et al., 2008

By Helena Gronberg

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