Women's E-News, June 27, 2004
Peace Process Often Ignores
By Nicole Itano, WeNews correspondent
and women are active combatants in wars across
the world, but the international community
is failing to recognize that. As a result,
the post-conflict needs of female soldiers
are not being met.
BUNIA, Democratic Republic of Congo (WOMENSENEWS)--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
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
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
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
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
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
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
For more information:
International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic
Where Are the Girls? Girls in fighting forces
in Northern Uganda, Sierra Leone and Mozambique:
Their lives during and after war:
Women Waging Peace--
From Combat to Community: The Women and Girls
of Sierra Leone
(Adobe PDF format):
The Quaker United Nations Office--
The Voices of Girl Soldiers
(Adobe PDF format):
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