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

For thousands of women during Liberia's savage civil war, taking up arms was a case of kill or be killed. Now that the war is over, fear and uncertainty still stalk some of the women fighters. Their experiences have helped the ILO develop gender-sensitive policies and programmes that may help reintegrate them into society. ILO consultant Irma Specht reports.

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.

Ellen enlisted at age 16 after being raped by the same men that had killed her mother and father right before her eyes; another Liberian woman joined up after learning that a woman who had recently given birth had been raped so brutally that she bled to death. For many of these females, becoming a soldier was a matter of kill or be killed.

Another reason Liberian females chose to go into battle is to prove their equality with males - a similar trend is being observed among the increasing number of girl-combatants in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Catherine, a DRC female soldier, grew up with three brothers in "a warrior's family", listening to her father tell tales of war.

"I wanted to help the rebellion," Catherine says. "I thought that if my brothers could do it, well so could I. I wanted to do like my brothers. When you are little, you want to do as if you were tall. When you are a girl, do as if you were a boy."

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.

Gender-based discrimination and violence remain very much a part of everyday Liberian life. Making matters worse is the fact that, after years of war, most girls and women have little to go back to - often their parents have been killed and their houses destroyed and the economic and social fabric of their country has been left in shreds. Despite these conditions, many are determined to improve their lives.

"We first were fighting men with our guns, now we have given up our guns, but we still have to fight men", says Ellen, "this time with our pens. That's what I try to tell my girls now."

Ex-General Ellen is still responsible for the welfare of many of her girls. In May 2004, 40 of her former fighters were living in her two-room apartment in Monrovia. Hundreds more were silently hiding in surrounding villages, reluctant to turn in their weapons. They have much to fear. Some - who see themselves as still under Ellen's command - will not register for disarmament and demobilization, unless she orders them to do so.

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.

Young soldiers, why they choose to fight

Sometime between ages 10 and 18, young people feel the rush of true freedom, begin to grasp who they are and where they belong, question tradition, resist authority, and yearn for justice.

It is still sometimes difficult to understand why those at the brink of life's possibilities would endanger their lives by joining armed forces or rebel groups and become fighting soldiers. The recently published ILO book, Young Soldiers, Why They Choose to Fight by Rachel Brett and Irma Specht, tries to find an answer.

There is no doubt that children fight in most armed conflicts today. While international attention focuses largely on those who are forced into combat, thousands more enlist voluntarily.

In an attempt to understand the young who take up arms, Brett and Specht interviewed 53 boy and girl soldiers and ex-soldiers from around the world. They spoke with youths in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and youths from two United Kingdom groups: paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland and members of the British armed forces. All respondents were involved with armed forces or armed groups before the age of 18 and all classify themselves as volunteers.

What these two field officers heard challenges a number of commonly-held assumptions such as the nature of 'free choice'. As one young soldier said, "I joined involuntarily - if you have nothing, you volunteer for the army".

Other reasons young people gave are self-defense, revenge, poverty, boredom, and unemployment. The pervasiveness of these conditions around the globe questions the belief that Western young soldiers differ in all respects from non-Western ones.

But while it is common knowledge that most child soldiers come from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, Young Soldiers shows that the issue is far more complex. Many poor children do not join the army. An intricate interplay of environmental, educational, social, cultural, and highly personal factors determines whether someone decides to join up or not.

The battlefield is not a place for children. One young soldier described being there as "too sad an experience". The authors hope that by understanding why adolescents join up, those who are able to will know what to do to discourage others from following in their footsteps. Also, the book aims to improve reintegration programmes, which should seriously address the reasons for youth to join armed groups and to prevent them from rejoining.

This book honours the courageous young people who shared their stories and reflections. It also commemorates their friends and others who did not live to tell their stories.

Liberia: In peace, a perilous future

They are frustrated, illiterate, orphaned, and abused - the new youth seeking to return to "normal" after years of war. During the past years of conflict, children - many of them young girls - made up 37 per cent of some factional fighting forces. Now, many of the 15,000 children who were associated with the fighting have transitioned into adulthood and are unemployed youth.

The labour market they face is in a catastrophic state. Only 55 per cent of the men and about 41 per cent of the women are currently economically active. An estimated 80 per cent are unemployed, and more unemployment or underemployment is hidden. A majority, about 77 per cent, are currently working in the informal sector. Many cannot find formal employment due to a lack of education or training, and because of the low absorption capacity of the local economy.

A formula for a continuing cycle of despair? The ILO and UNICEF are working to make it otherwise. Within the framework of the ILO Infocus Programme on Crisis Response and Reconstruction, and with funding from UNICEF Liberia and UNDP, ILO consultant Irma Specht ( Note 1) has been researching the motivations of girl combatants who joined the armed struggle, and has made strong recommendations on how to improve assistance to these girls.

In addition, the ILO contribution is part of the activities of its Global Programme on Child Soldiers, financed by the US Department of Labour (USDOL). The main findings of this labour market and training needs analysis are based on a review of secondary sources as well as a broad range of first-hand research with the government, UN agencies, international and local NGOs, private sector actors, and skills training providers. The agricultural sector promises to provide employment opportunities, and the construction sector may help in both the counties as well as more urbanized areas. However, opportunities are scarce and the demobilized have a hard time surviving the competition.

What does the future hold? Ms. Specht says that while some current programmes seem relatively effective, youth remain the biggest concern. "This generation has no reference to what "normal" life and work look like. They are frustrated about their leaders, have no security, or may be addicted to alcohol and/or drugs. Most of the girls have been raped. What they need as soon as possible is assistance in ending substance abuse and restarting education. This will take many years, because they still need to work while studying. The only way to peace, however, is to mobilize Liberia's youth, combatant and civilian, to contribute to rebuild their country."

Note 1 - Director of Netherlands-based Transition International.