• Tuesday, December 1, 2015
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    Women Warriors Take the Offensive in War Zones

    By Thalif Deen

    UNITED NATIONS, Oct 25, 2010 (IPS) – The world’s traditional peacemakers – a title long conferred on women – may be undergoing a gradual transformation.

    The growing number of female suicide bombers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Palestine, and until recently Sri Lanka, and women combatants in Nepal and El Salvador, are challenging the long-held view that only men take up arms in war zones.

    A weeklong debate on the role of women in peace and security, beginning Monday, coincides with the 10th anniversary of a landmark Security Council resolution (1325) calling for a key role for women in peacemaking, peacebuilding and peacekeeping operations.

    U.N. Under-Secretary-General Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, told IPS that girls join armed forces for a variety of reasons.

    “Some are just abducted from their homes and forced to join. They become sex slaves and combatants – witness the Lord’s Resistance Army (in northern Uganda) and the armed groups in Liberia and Sierra Leone,” she said.

    In other parts of the world, they join for ideological reasons.

    “Sometimes it is a mixture of both,” said Coomaraswamy, a former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, who has travelled extensively in conflict zones in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

    She said that a young girl in Nepal once told her the Maoists, leading an insurgency in that country, came to her school and asked her and her classmates to join the “resistance”.

    Coomaraswamy said the girl did join the Maoists because “she felt this was expected of young people”.

    Women reportedly made up about a third of the Maoist forces during their 10-year armed conflict against the government of Nepal. In February, when the Maoists dismantled the insurgent groups and demobilised 3,000 minors from the People’s Liberation Army, about 1,000 of them were girls.

    A report released last week by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) titled “From Conflict and Crisis to Renewal: Generations of Change” points out that feminists have often argued that women are natural peacemakers and would choose non-violent solutions rather than conflict, whenever possible.

    “Since ancient times, however, women have gone to war and the conflicts in contemporary times have involved many women, by choice or forced recruitment,” it notes.

    The study, authored by the former New York Times U.N. Bureau Chief Barbara Crossette, said that ethnic conflict and nationalistic or class-related causes have drawn committed women into civil wars and sometimes terrorism.

    And high technology warfare waged by developed nations has attracted women to careers in the military, where they seek commanding roles in competition with men.

    The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a ruthless insurgency group that fought a two-decade battle against the government of Sri Lanka, was one of the pioneers of suicide bombers, including female suicide bombers.

    And up to a fifth of the LTTE cadres were reportedly girls or women who were frontline combatants.

    Swati Parashar, a lecturer at the University of Limerick in Ireland, was quoted in the UNFPA report as saying: “Women who support and indulge in both discriminate and indiscriminate violence against institutions of the state and unarmed civilians not only redefine notions of nationalism, gender and religious identity, but also highlight their complex and problematic relations with feminism.”

    She asks: To what extent does participating in militant activities and armed combat provide women with opportunities to transcend conventional gender roles?

    How are militant women influenced by these political movements and how do they influence these movements?

    How does/should feminist international relations approach these militant women?

    And an equally important question, says the report, what happens when the fighting ends?

    Both Nepal and Sri Lanka are going through processes of reintegrating former female combatants following an end to the drawn-out conflicts in the two South Asian countries.

    According to the UNFPA report, women played several active roles during the insurgency in Nepal.

    “Women were combatants, state security personnel, sole breadwinners for household, researchers, activists, journalists and politicians,” it said.

    The image of women with guns was a new reality in Nepal that challenged the age-old perception of women as subservient members of society.

    After the signing of a peace agreement in 2006, space opened up for women’s participation in peacebuilding, the UNFPA report said.

    The study also cites an observation on El Salvador where “women ex-militants looking back on their lives as fighters speak of experiencing some kind of liberation from social restrictions, new sexual freedom and liberation from conventional perceptions of motherhood; hope of finding a means of overcoming poverty and oppression and bringing about a better future.”

    However, the realities that peace and demobilisation brought were very different.

    The women were separated from their comrades, they lost their weapons, they had to suddenly go back to their families and reintegration was difficult.

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