by Meredith Gaffney, Johns Hopkins/SAIS
On Wednesday, February 16, the United States Institute of Peace held a panel discussion titled Female Soldiers and DDR: Sierra Leone, Nepal, and Columbia. The main presentation was given by Megan Mackenzie, a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Victory University of Wellington, based on her research with female soldiers in Sierra Leone. Dr. Mackenzie framed her lecture around several questions, including, if females participated in conflict as soldiers, why are they not included in DDR; is the post-conflict period a good time to look at gender roles; and, do gender stereotypes affect post-conflict programs?
Dr. Mackenzie first discussed our gender stereotypes about females in conflict. We often perceive women only as victims in war, rather than as full soldiers or perpetrators, or that they didn’t play a central role in conflicts. Her research found however, that 30-50% of soldiers in the Sierra Leonean conflict were females, compared to previous estimates of only 10-20%. Further, during the DDR in Sierra Leone, there was an effort to distinguish between those females that were soldiers versus those that fulfilled other “supporting” roles. In the post-conflict period, this led to female participants in conflict being renamed, presumably to fit back in with accepted gender norms. They were called things such as, camp followers, abductees, women associated with fighting forces, and vulnerable groups with armed forces. A similar process did not occur with men. Dr. Mackenzie asserted that this reclassification made women only victims rather than agents, and that the lack of attention to gender led to inefficient policy during DDR.
Dr. Mackenzie also discussed how the serious underfunding of DDR in Sierra Leone impacted the female combatants. In that DDR process, there was a strong emphasis on Demobilization, and by the time Reintegration came around, there was very little money left. This was the period that the females participated in the most, so they were strongly affected. Further, Dr. Mackenzie noted that the gender stereotypes continued, with females being able to chose from 4 economic activities including weaving and tie-dying—all 4 were strongly gendered and considering many of these women had been engaged in a conflict for 11 years, the process seemed somewhat condescending. Dr. Mackenzie also noted that while some policymakers realized at the time that the Reintegration wasn’t working well for the women, and that the gender stereotypes were problematic, it was felt that it was too hard to change policies mid-stream.
In her conclusions, Dr. Mackenzie did acknowledge that there are differences between female and male soldiers and that in order to get the best possible outcomes, gender should be thought about at all stages of the planning and implementation phases of a post-conflict situation.
Following Dr. Mackenzie, there were two other discussants who spoke briefly. Louis-Alexandre Berg, a Jennings-Randolph Peace Scholar at USIP spoke about DDR in Liberia. One of his main conclusions was that the DDR in Liberia tended to reinforce the existing social networks, which may have been malfunctioning. For example, money was distributed to the commanders, who could then continue to assert their positions of power over women. Although there were efforts to avoid this when possible, there was a problem of knowledge distribution about new and improved programs, because again, they had to distribute this information through the old, existing networks.
Virginia Bouvier, a Senior Program Officer for the Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution at USIP spoke about female combatants in Columbia. Among her main points was that the women in that situation were largely silent. In the DDR process, women were often not counted, not consulted, and were generally not catered to. During DDR it is a common perception that women want things to go back to “normal,” but this may not be the case. They may not have a “normal” anymore, or their experiences as commanding soldiers in a conflict situation may make it difficult or impossible for them to easily return to being a homemaker or caregiver. Dr. Bouvier finds that this trend is starting to change with women having a stronger voice in the DDR process, but that much work is still to be done.
Overall, I found the panel to be an interesting perspective into the issues that female soldiers face during DDR. Understanding the special needs of females in a post-conflict situation is extremely important, but I can also imagine that balancing between attending to these needs and treating them unequally or unfairly can be difficult. However, bringing further attention to this issue can only be a good thing as we strive to improve the DDR process.
Note: Collette Rausch, who was meant to speak about DDR in Nepal, was unable to attend the panel. For further information, please see: http://www.usip.org/events/female-soldiers-and-ddr-sierra-leone-nepal-and-colombia