Girl-combatants: Women warriors fight their way back into Liberian society

Irma Specht, 2005.

Monrovia, Liberia - "The men are not treating the women right in war!"

So says Ellen, a 24-year-old Liberian woman who led more than 1,000 female fighters in her country's savage, seven-year civil war. Her sentiments go a long way to explain why Liberian girls and women on both sides of the conflict decided to go into battle.

"When I met girls from the other groups, I put down my gun and walk to them and explain to them my reason of taking up arms," Ellen says in broken but spirited English. "Why we women should stand and fight against one another? We put hands together to fight men."

Ellen and her army were part of an insurgent group called Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). They fought against the forces of warlord Charles Taylor.

Although women make up between 10 and 30 per cent of armed forces worldwide, little is known about their motives for enlisting. But a recent ILO research project in Liberia, the first of a series of ILO studies in different war-affected countries, is discovering why females choose to become combatants. In Liberia, the research involved first-hand interviews with "girls" up to age 35 who had been actively engaged in fighting.

For many, the number one reason they fought was to protect themselves and other women from rape and murder. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International believe that rape is widely used as a weapon of war, to dehumanize women and the communities they belong to. The ILO wants to raise national and international public awareness of the extreme use of sexual violence in warfare and its consequences.

Although the war in Liberia has ended, the exploitation and abuse of girls and women have not. Female ex-combatants face many obstacles in their efforts to return to normal life, an indication that many men do not treat women fairly in times of peace either. While reintegration of ex-soldiers into society is critical to peace building and reconstruction, previously existing programmes tended to reintegrate girls back into the harmful situations they came from, thereby ignoring the underlying issues that drove them to fight in the first place.

Recently, others have agreed to disarm, but their future remains clouded in questions. Will they receive the assistance needed to return to society as functioning civilians, mothers, and wives? Will they be accepted and treated with respect? Will they be able to navigate through training courses and education to jobs that allow them to earn a decent living? And, how will those who are too scared to come out and register as ex-combatants be treated? So far, reintegration assistance has been seriously delayed, and the absorption capacity of the war-torn labour market is not promising.

The result of all this uncertainty is that girls and women refuse to show up at disarmament, demobilization and recruitment (DDR) cantonment sites. Afraid to confront men at these places, they dread dealing with disturbing memories of life in army camps, memories they would rather forget. Many hesitate to register as ex-combatants because that would entail having their pictures taken for identification cards. Their fear of being labelled a female fighter and the social exclusion that could bring is likely grounded in reality. Communities, schools, employers and even families often reject women after they have broken traditional female roles because they are wary of future problems. As a result, many girls and women will not receive any DDR financial assistance.

Yet these women are not remaining silent. The fact that they have the courage to speak out and tell their stories will empower them. Their experiences can help agencies like the ILO develop gender-sensitive policies and programmes that have a good chance of meeting their reintegration needs. To that end, the ILO/IFPCRISIS has funded research and documentation of the individual stories of the Liberian female soldiers. Once published, this document will be used for more effective programme assistance. It will also complement the recent ILO-funded book Young Soldiers: Why They Fight by Rachel Brett and Irma Specht, which identifies underlying issues that drive young people to join armed forces and recommends possible solutions.

Male or female, one thing an ex-combatant needs is a decent job. The ILO, with its International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC)  and in collaboration with UNICEF, has recently finished an assessment of the Liberian labour market and training needs as a basis for programmes to reintegrate female and male soldiers. With accelerated learning programmes, vocational training, small and medium enterprise development projects, apprenticeships and business start-ups, it is hoped that these young ex-soldiers will receive a second chance to build a better future. Beside its technical inputs in the fields, the ILO adds other essential elements to reintegration programmes such as social justice, social inclusion, protection, sustainability and a strong gender focus. Only by understanding people's motives, needs and concerns can agencies effectively develop plans to overcome such challenges.

Many of Ellen's "girls" have babies now. However, that doesn't stop them from wanting education and training that leads to gainful employment. In fact, these women are even more determined to secure safe and decent work because they now have to provide for themselves, each other, and their children.

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