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Reaching higher: Women liberators and gender

National Action Plans (NAPs) and Regional Action Plans (RAPs) on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) are useful guides and advocacy tools for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 1325 on WPS and UNSCR 1820 on sexual violence against civilians and armed conflict, for both state actors and civil society organizations. However, such documents have been slow on bringing about the desired social change. This is even more problematic for countries that have yet to develop NAPs. In the Horn of Africa[1], only three out of the eight members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have NAPs on WPS, two of which were adopted in 2016, 16 years after the adoption of UNSCR 1325. To promote the WPS agenda in the Horn, IGAD adopted the IGAD Regional Action Plan (IGAD-RAP) for 2011-2015 to implement UNSCRs 1325 and 1820[2].

The aim of this paper is to call on WPS activists, as well as feminists in the Horn, to reach higher than NAPs by challenging the discourse that women are solely victims of conflict, and emphasise women’s agency in peace and state-building. Moreover, all actors should pay due consideration to gender-just peace and transitional justice. By doing so, a critical feminist engagement with UNSCR 1325 and 1820 should argue that the political participation emphasised in the IGAD-RAP has become conflated with agency[3]. Governments of the Horn must ensure space for women to engage in peace-building while also considering their needs and representation in processes of transitional justice by acknowledging the role women have played in national liberation, reconstruction, and state-building processes.

Kenya, South Sudan, and Uganda are the only countries in the Horn that have adopted NAPs on WPS. And although all of the action plans seek to “enhance justice for victims of GBV (gender-based violence) through institutions established to take relevant actions while addressing existing gaps and challenges in this regard”[4], what these action plans fail to do is identify and seek to combat other gender-justice gaps. Actors and stakeholders should be wary of the fact that “[m]ainstream transitional justice and peacebuilding practices tend to re-entrench gendered hierarchies by ignoring women or circumscribing their presence to passive victims in need of protection”[5]. By taking into consideration gendered hierarchies, while also recognising women’s agency in processes of peace- and state-building, one is able to advocate not just for peace, but for gender-just peace.

“A gender-just peace is understood not as a reconstruction of the pre-war situation, but as a positive peace that provides for social justice and equity and that recognises women’s social and reproductive roles and women’s agency.”[6] In other words, gender-just peace looks beyond gender mainstreaming and women’s “participation” in peace-building initiatives, peace negotiations, and within security forces; it seeks to avoid and challenge conservative backlash for women in post-conflict order[7].

There have been recent efforts to develop a more complex understanding of gendered agency[8] that emphasises women’s participation in violence, including that of resistance and as a means to bring about emancipation. Women of the Horn have participated in liberation movements in various ways. However, after liberation, these women experienced a conservative backlash that saw their once-praised participation somewhat dwindle in post-conflict times.

Women as liberators

Although the Horn (as a collective of countries) is often referred to as one of the most conflict-ridden regions in the world, women’s participation and influence in these conflicts cannot be characterised in a homogenous way. However, the experiences of women as perpetrators of violence in some of the countries requires acknowledgement.

Women’s participation as armed combatants in non-state armed groups were most prevalent in the case of Eritrea and in the northern region of Ethiopia, namely Tigray. To some extent, women also participated as armed combatants during the second civil war (1983-2005) in Sudan, with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLM/A)[9].

A third, or 34%, of the fighters in the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) were female[10]. Eritrean women joined the EPLF’s struggle for independence not just in support of its political cause, but also because gender equality was included within the agenda of the EPLF. Women who fought in the liberation struggle “enjoyed a marked change of status from their former position as marginalised women—they fought as equals alongside men, achieving high military positions and status” [11][12]. Feats of heroism, as noted by the National Union of Eritrean Women[13], “[tore] apart the reactionary feudal myth that women are weaklings.[14]

In the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, women contributed as Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) soldiers (making up about 30% of the armed movement) in the victory against the brutal military regime known as the Derg[15]. Despite the disadvantages and limits to the services they received within demobilisation and reintegration programs, “studies[16][17] found that TPLF women war veterans had a ‘fighter identity’ and ‘androgynous’ perception of womanhood that included certain traits traditionally associated with men (assertiveness, courage, ambition, and economic independence).”[18]

In South Sudan, particularly during the second civil war (1983-2005), Dr. John Garang, leader of the SPLM, sought to incorporate women into the resistance movement by recruiting them into the Woman’s Battalion[19]. Although South Sudanese women did participate in combat, their participation as combatants was not as prominent as that of their Eritrean and Ethiopian sisters. However, because of their contribution, they were able to demand a special unit within the SPLA/M to address women’s affairs, which was elevated into a Commission for Women, Youth and Social Affairs in 1989 and upon the signing of the CPA in 2005, it was again elevated into a full-fledged ministry[20]. The South Sudanese NAP for WPS also notes how women challenged oppression in other ways such as through public protest, secretly sheltering soldiers and war victims, and undertaking dangerous work as messengers and decoys[21]. Women in both Eritrea and Ethiopia had also taken on similar tasks of resistance, even if they were not armed combatants.

Despite their notable contributions towards liberation, post-conflict times saw a conservative backlash when these women were reintegrated and demobilised. However, to deride their participation as combatants as being a negligible contribution towards achieving gender equality because of this backlash would be incorrect. As Eliatamby notes, despite the fact that women were in some ways expected to return to pre-war social norms, these women had experienced “more freedom and emancipation than they ever had prior to taking up arms”[22].

Women liberators after war

Ex-combatant women found it difficult to return to a society that was not ready to accept the kind of gender equality they had experienced in the field. In peace time, these women liberators found it difficult to adjust to traditional gender norms, which can be attributed to the fact that reintegration and demobilisation programs did not take into consideration (nor had the resources to challenge) the complex barriers to reintegration women liberators would encounter. It should also be noted here that Eritrea, Ethiopia and South Sudan have all returned to war and conflict soon after liberation. Unfortunately, women’s participation and representation in peace negotiations have been essentially invisible[23].

Only in Eritrea do women continue to be conscripted into state armed forces[24] as policy links military and national service to civic duty and citizenship. After independence, the SPLA had transformed itself to a regular army where both men and women are recruited, but as traditional perceptions still persist, women’s participation in state armed forces has been very limited. After the Derg regime was defeated in Ethiopia, many ex-combatant women understood that international law forbade women to be soldiers, and that the prevailing government applied this law, although no such international law exists[25].

Although expectations in post-war times, particularly that of gender equity, have not been fully met, the continuous role that women play in the reconstruction, state-building, and development of their respective countries cannot be ignored. Because the reintegration and demobilisation of female combatants had been “hastily planned and implemented”[26] in a way that did not consider the special needs of female combatants, the need for gender-just peace had not been recognised or acknowledged, let alone achieved. This has led female combatants to be somewhat disempowered after having put their lives at risk for the sake of their country and people. Nevertheless, their participation as (armed) liberators influenced much needed societal change and reforms, including that of citizen rights, the right to participate in the paid work force, and the criminalisation of forced marriage. Some women ex-combatants hold key positions within their respective governments. Undoubtedly, the generations of girls and women that have come after these women have benefited from societal changes women liberators were able to bring about.

Conclusion

So far, this paper has discussed the agency of women in the Horn to take up arms not just because they believed in the cause of liberation, but also for the sake of their own emancipation. And even though there has been considerable conservative backlash upon liberation that has seen women, as gendered identities, “reconstructed, reconfigured, and redefined through interactions between liberal peacebuilding discourse and nationalism [and] culture”[27], the impact and legacy of their roles as liberators cannot and should not be overlooked. Had their agency been duly acknowledged through peace-building and gender equity initiatives, an environment to create gender-just peace could have prevailed.

NAPs and RAPs on WPS do not necessarily have a causal relationship to their desired outcomes, as these action plans are only as good as the paper they were written on if the proposed actions are not undertaken (all of the action plans in the Horn mention a current lack of resources necessary for implementation). Moreover, initiatives taken to implement such action plans might not bring about the required structural changes needed in order to have sustainable and gender-just peace. By putting more emphasis on the role women of the Horn have played as liberators—before and after liberation—WPS activists and feminists can advocate for an understanding that not only acknowledges women’s agency in state-building, but also that state-building and peacebuilding are linked projects. It should be noted that there is a difference between being a peacebuilder and being a pacifist. Accordingly, WPS activists and feminists who challenge the structural and epistemic violence that denies them their right to participate, to be represented in decision making processes, and to challenge structural discrimination (i.e. their right to practice agency), do so in resistance to patriarchy that is embedded in the post-independence, postcolonial situation they are currently in. For such women liberators, the transfer of power at independence and the achievement of national sovereignty was not the end, but simply a stage along the way in their struggle for full emancipation[28]. Although peacebuilding is often associated with non-violence, it is important to note that even though women liberators have now “put down their guns”, they are still resisting patriarchy and violence in a postcolonial politics in which they experience their everyday.

As UNSCR 1325 constructs gender in a way that characterises women as in need of protection and constructs security as the responsibility to protect firmly in the hands of elite political actors in the international system[29], so does the IGAD-RAP. Despite the fact that the IGAD-RAP does propose actions that considers structural issues with the aim of eliminating GBV, other structural issues such as the lack of equitable education and employment opportunities, social services, reproductive health care, and child services—all which should be viewed as reparations in post-conflict times—are missing.

By acknowledging women’s experiences of war as that of a liberator and a vital participant in state-building processes, states will be one step closer to engendering gender-just peace. Some have criticised UNSCR 1325, and consequently IGAD-RAP, as being too broad.[30] This paper does not call on the widening of the IGAD-RAP as such, but for a holistic understanding of what the goal of WPS agendas in the Horn should be, which is to place women’s participation in peace- and state-building within a historical and political context that acknowledges their historical legacy of engagement. It is more than putting women at decision making tables; it’s about giving women the gender-just peace they rightfully earned and deserve.

Rahel Weldeab Sebhatu is a graduate student in Global Studies and project assistant for gender-just peace and transitional justice at the Department of Political Science at Lund University in Sweden. She may reached at rahel.weldeab_sebhatu@svet.lu.se. She Tweets @RahelWeldeab

Sources

[1] The greater Horn of Africa, as defined by IGAD, includes the countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda. All of these countries are members of IGAD.

[2] IGAD. 2013. “Running with the Baton! Regional Action Plan for Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1325 (2000) and 1820 (2008).” Accessed December 27, 2016. http://resilience.igad.int/attachments/article/249/Action%20Plan-ENGLISH.pdf .

[3] Shepherd, Laura J. 2011. “Sex, security and superhero(in)es: From 1325 to 1820 and beyond.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 13 (4): 504-521., pg: 506

[4] IGAD. 2013. “Running with the Baton! Regional Action Plan for Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1325 (2000) and 1820 (2008).” Accessed December 27, 2016. http://resilience.igad.int/attachments/article/249/Action%20Plan-ENGLISH.pdf. pg: 3

[5]Björkdahl, Annika, and Johanna Mannergren Selimovic. 2015. “Gendering agency in transitional justice.” Security Dialogue 46 (2): 165-182. pg. 165

[6] Björkdahl, Annika, and Johanna Mannergren Selimovic. 2013. Advancing Women Agency in Transitional Justice. International Studies Association, ISA Annual Convention. http://lup.lub.lu.se/search/record/3731877. pg. 3-4

[7] Björkdahl, Annika, and Johanna Mannergren Selimovic. 2014. “Gendered justice gaps in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Human Rights Review 15 (2): 201-218.

[8] Björkdahl, Annika, and Johanna Mannergren Selimovic. 2015. “Gendering agency in transitional justice.” Security Dialogue 46 (2): 165-182. pg. 168

[9] Republic of South Sudan. 2016. “South Sudan National Action Plan 2015-2020 on UNSCR 1825 on Women, Peace and Security and Related Resolutions.” Accessed December 27, 2016. http://www.ss.undp.org/content/dam/southsudan/library/Reports/southsudanotherdocuments/SS%20NAP%201325.pdf.

[10]Veale, Angela. 2003. From Child Soldier to Ex-Fighter: Female Fighters, Demobilisation and Reintegration in Ethiopia. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies: ISS Monograph Series 85. pg. 16

[11] Raven-Roberts, Angela. 2013. “Women and the political economy of war.” In Women and Wars, edited by Carol Cohn, 36-53. Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press. pg. 48

[12] also see Coulter, Chris, Mariam Persson, and Mats Utas. 2008. “Young Female Fighters in African Wars: Conflict and its Consequences.” Accessed December 29, 2016. http://www.gsdrc.org/document-library/young-female-fighters-in-african-wars-conflict-and-its-consequences/.

[13] National Union of Eritrean Women. 1980. Women in the Eritrean Revolution: Eye Witness Reports and Testimonies. Rome: National Union of Eritrean Women.

[14] Eliatamby, Maneshka. 2011. “Searching for Emancipation: Eritrea, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.” In Women Waging War and Peace: International Perspectives on Women’s Roles in Conflict and Post-Conflict Reconstruction, by Sandra I. Cheldelin and Maneshka Eliatamby, 37-51. New York and London: Continuum International Publishing Group. pg. 42

[15] Negewo-Oda, Beza, and Aaronette M. White. 2011. “Who are women who are veterans? Identity transformation and reintegration among Ethiopian women war veterans: A feminist analysis.” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 163-187.

[16] Berhe, Tsegay. 1999. The Tigrean women in the liberation struggle and its aftermath, 1975-1996. Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa: Organization for Social Research in Eastern and Southern Africa (OSSREA).

[17] Veale, Angela. 2005. “Collective and individual identities: Experiences of recruitment and reintegration of female ex-combatants of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Army, Ethiopia.” In Invisible Stakeholders: Children and War in Africa, by Angela McIntryre, 105-126. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies.

[18] Negewo-Oda, Beza, and Aaronette M. White. 2011. “Who are women who are veterans? Identity transformation and reintegration among Ethiopian women war veterans: A feminist analysis.” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 163-187. pg. 184

[19] Republic of South Sudan. 2016. “South Sudan National Action Plan 2015-2020 on UNSCR 1825 on Women, Peace and Security and Related Resolutions.” Accessed December 27, 2016. http://www.ss.undp.org/content/dam/southsudan/library/Reports/southsudanotherdocuments/SS%20NAP%201325.pdf.  pg. 17

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Eliatamby, Maneshka. 2011. “Searching for Emancipation: Eritrea, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.” In Women Waging War and Peace: International Perspectives on Women’s Roles in Conflict and Post-Conflict Reconstruction, by Sandra I. Cheldelin and Maneshka Eliatamby, 37-51. New York and London: Continuum International Publishing Group. pg. 49

[23] de Alwis, Malathi, Julie Mertus, and Tazreena Sajjad. 2013. “Women and peace processes.” In Women and War, edited by Carol Cohn, 169-193. Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press. pg. 177, 180

[24] Mathers, Jennifer G. 2013. “Women and state military forces.” In Women and Wars, edited by Carol Cohn, 124-145. Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press. pg. 132

[25] Veale, Angela. 2003. From Child Soldier to Ex-Fighter: Female Fighters, Demobilisation and Reintegration in Ethiopia. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies: ISS Monograph Series 85. pg. 34

[26] Berhe 1999 as cited by Negewo-Oda, Beza, and Aaronette M. White. 2011. “Who are women who are veterans? Identity transformation and reintegration among Ethiopian women war veterans: A feminist analysis.” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 163-187. pg. 169

[27]Björkdahl, Annika, and Johanna Mannergren Selimovic. 2014. “Gendered justice gaps in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Human Rights Review 15 (2): 201-218. pg. 201

[28] Young, Robert J.C. 2003. Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[29] Shepherd, Laura J. 2011. “Sex, security and superhero(in)es: From 1325 to 1820 and beyond.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 13 (4): 504-521. pg. 506

[30]Agency for Peacebuilding. 2016. Women, Peace and Security in the Horn of Africa: Between Rhetoric and Reality. May 5. Accessed December 29, 2016. http://www.peaceagency.org/en/2016/05/05/women-peace-and-security-in-the-horn-of-africa-between-rhetoric-and-reality/.

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