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Côte d’Ivoire women combatants shortchanged in demobilisation

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Picture: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell – One of just a handful of female soldiers in the republican army, loyal to Alassane Ouattara, waits for orders as forces prepare to deploy from an operating base on the outskirts of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. While most combatants in the war responsible for violence were men, some women also participated as soldiers in violent activities, the writer says. The desecuritising of women in post-conflict settings means they don’t benefit from the resources available. They will therefore be denied access to disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes.

By Kamina Diallo

From 2002 to 2011, Côte d’Ivoire experienced a civil war that divided the country socially, politically, and geographically, with the north controlled by rebel armed groups while the south remained under government control.

Central to the conflict was the ideology of “Ivoirianness,” which formed the basis of a violent, repressive policy of exclusion and discrimination against Ivorians from the north of the country who were considered “foreigners” by southern adherents.

The insurgents justified their armed uprising as “the denunciation of exclusion, social injustices, and identity-based abuses” carried out against “northerners”, with the aim of establishing “a new political order in Côte d’Ivoire”. Since the conflict began, there have been attempts to implement a series of disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) programmes — typically reserved for “post-conflict” settings —as part of a peacebuilding process.

The DDR of former combatants is a standard part of security sector reform (SSR) programmes, and now often includes a gender dimension, at least theoretically. The design of DDR programmes as part of a peace process is relatively recent. Prior to the 1980s, the disarmament and demobilisation of fighters was designed by and for the military. But with the complexification of conflicts, peacebuilding efforts have evolved to address new challenges such as countering violent extremism. In response, the scope, timing, and expectations of DDR have evolved.

The Ivoirian DDR process has gone through many “twists and turns”, and has been described as a “political yo-yo”. Importantly, Ivorian DDR was not only the product of interventions from international and regional institutions; above all, it was an arena for national actors during social, political, and military negotiations. And the DDR of combatants from both sides was mentioned in all peace and political agreements since the beginning of the crises in 2002.

DDR was viewed as critical for securing a return to peace and was a condition for holding presidential elections; as such, it has been highly politicised and securitised. In 2007, several institutions were created to deal with former combatants and contributed to a first wave of DDR activities. However, DDR was stymied many times due to breakdowns in peace process negotiations and disputes around elections, which continued until then-President Laurent Gbagbo’s tight race against Alassane Ouattara in 2010, which both candidates subsequently claimed to have won. Throughout the post-election crisis, both sides clashed violently, leading to over 3,000 deaths.

Gender mainstreaming in Ivoirian DDR

While Ivoirian women were actors in the conflict, including in roles as violent actors, few analyses have focused on them. Many that do focus on their vulnerability or victim status due to the increased acts of violence committed against them during the conflict. Their roles in the conflict have been depoliticised and desecuritised because of factors including gendered norms assumptions, the lack of value placed on women’s labour — such as cooking and providing care — and the particular stigmatisation of women who engage in violence.

In theory, Ivoirian DDR was gender sensitive. Women who joined armed groups were considered “ex”-combatants on the same basis as men, at least theoretically. Indeed, the latest Ivoirian definition of veterans included “people of both sexes”. This is distinct from other conflicts in which women in charge of “auxiliary” activities were not considered fighters, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. ADDR (one of the last programmes in charge of DDR in the country) specified that the DDR process must “be enriched by the consideration of gender issues”, though it does not specify these gender issues.

Therefore, while Ivoirian DDR and SSR documentation promote gender-sensitive actions, we observed, during research trips from 2014 to 2019, that there were almost no measures or programmes specifically targeting women former combatants. A former DDR employee said in 2014 that “the proportion of women is so low that we are not going to establish specific quotas for women”. Though arguably, it could have been easier to create programmes directed at women combatants at such low numbers.

As there were no specific programmes directed at former female combatants, we observed that the reintegration capacities of Ivoirian women ex-combatants have been influenced by their social and cultural capital, particularly in terms of education, but also their ability to access support networks of former combatants, which might allow them to benefit more easily from DDR programmes.

As one expert has argued, in post-conflict contexts, “men and masculinity are securitised post-conflict while women — even when they act in highly securitised roles such as soldiers — are desecuritised and, in effect, de-emphasised in post-conflict policy making.”

She has also noted that “the reintegration process for men has been emphasised as vital to the transition from war to peace while the reintegration process for females has been deemed a social concern and has been moralised as a return to normal.” We can make the same observations in the case of Côte d’Ivoire.

This desecuritising of women in post-conflict settings has knock-on effects. In many contexts, women are not recognised as combatants because they are excluded from the patronage networks that determine access to DDR programmes — rebel commanders control their troops after the conflict ends — and so they don’t benefit from the resources available in post-conflict settings. Experts have observed that having “DDR processes planned and implemented by military officials has resulted in a bias against those the military does not consider ‘real soldiers’ (i.e., men with guns).”

Despite explicit gender mainstreaming efforts, DDR programmes in Côte d’Ivoire have “reproduced and relied on gendered assumptions rather than a context-specific gender analysis”.

Gendered roles, norms, and stigmas

Most Ivorian women involved with rebel armed groups between 2002 and 2011 joined voluntarily. They made up approximately 8 percent of the 74,000 ex-combatants identified by the last DDR program in Côte d’Ivoire. To justify their mobilisation, some of them invoked political purposes, such as to defend the nation against “Ivoirianness” and the return to peace. Others joined for career opportunities or other economic benefits. Some followed family or friends into the rebel group. And some joined for protection or to seek revenge. Overall, their motives appear to be very similar to those of men and they emphasize women’s political agency during war.

Our research has shown that while these women carried out diverse duties, including violent roles, they were mainly relegated to stereotypically gender-specific auxiliary roles, such as cooks, spies, and nurses. None of the women interviewed had held leadership positions in the rebel group, and only a few admitted they were directly involved in combat duties.

However, findings such as these should be looked at with some caution, since women, by characterising themselves as “auxiliaries”, may have been seeking to avoid implicating themselves in potential crimes or falling prey to reprisals. This could have also enabled them to remain within socially acceptable gender norms and avoid stigma. Even if, by joining a violent male milieu, they had deviated from the traditional path, “remaining in the kitchen” — for example — allowed them to show that this deviation had been only partial.

As in other contexts, women’s participation in the Ivoirian conflict did not lead to a transformation of social-gender relations. Gains of autonomy and “partial” emancipation brought by their involvement in the armed groups do not seem to have translated into political or social power in the post-conflict era. For most, the return to peace meant a return to the status quo. This can be explained by the fact that, of the women interviewed, none mentioned the pursuit of gender equality as a goal or an incentive to join the armed groups. It can also be explained by their desecuritisation and depoliticisation, which entails denying the subversive dimension of women’s participation in conflict.

Part of the depoliticisation of women ex-combatants is the gendered assumption that women, unlike men, do not need to forge a new, post-conflict role in society; they can return to their work in the home. But not all Ivoirian women were able to reintegrate easily because their status as ex-fighters carried a stigma for some, damaging relations with their families, friends, and communities.

However, for women living in a rebel-held area, stigma might have been lesser. As one female veteran from Bouaké, the former rebel headquarters, described, “on the North side, everyone was family”, and rebels were seen as “defending the same cause” that everyone in the area shared.

Some women also reported experiencing stigmatisation around participating in the DDR process itself. To avoid this, they decided to “self-demobilise”, a phenomenon referred to as “hidden women”.

Implementing lessons from Côte d’Ivoire

The Ivoirian case shows it is critical to recognise women’s political agency within conflicts and include gender issues at the beginning of peace negotiations. Indeed, women were not fully considered as actors during the crisis, so they have been excluded from decision-making processes in the post-conflict era. Women from different categories must be able to participate in negotiations, including women from armed groups.

It illustrates the need to deconstruct gender norms about women’s roles in times of war and to transform damaging gender relations — not just economic and electoral systems. Women’s diverse experiences of war — which go beyond victimhood — must be considered. As such, interviewing women fighters to collect and analyse accounts of their backgrounds, what roles they took up during the war, how they perceived the DDR, and their needs and desire for reintegration activities is critical.

It also makes clear that including gender dimensions into DDR and SSR documentation is not sufficient without challenging gender assumptions and introducing additional gender-specific and gender-sensitive measures, such as context-specific gender analysis; sensitization and training of DDR personnel on gender; gender-responsive budgeting; and the use of gender-disaggregated data and indicators to be able to design, plan, implement, monitor, and evaluate DDR programs. These would help to address gender issues, such as gender inequality and sexual and gender-based violence, on top of other outcomes for women ex-fighters.

A gender-inclusive and gender-sensitive DDR would give women ex-combatants access to relevant information on DDR programmes; remove turning in a gun as an eligibility requirement; improve physical infrastructure, the design of demobilisation sites, and safety at DDR sites; enhance trainings and reintegration projects based on local and contextualised socioeconomic analysis; and support communities to recover psychosocially and physically from the — literal — scars of conflict. Supportive activities — literacy programmes, psychological assistance, as well as long-term monitoring —could also be a part of gender-sensitive programmes for women and help recreate links and avoid stigma and distrust.

It is also vital to engage female ex-combatants in meaningful roles within communities and provide them with long-term socioeconomic assistance and alternative roles outside of the armed group, which would ultimately make DDR programs more impactful. Ivoirian women have made some gains in terms of increased participation in certain defense and security forces since the end of the conflict. For instance, since 2014, women have been able to enter the gendarmerie and girls have been able to enter nationally high-ranking military schools. However, the number of women participating in the security sector remains low. To offset the imbalance, it might be worth setting up a quota for women ex-combatants who want to stay in the security sector, while being mindful not to reduce gender inclusivity to the act of simply “adding more women,” as it places unequal responsibilities on women if they are not given the correct support.

In Côte d’Ivoire, most women we met wanted to be involved with the DDR process; even “self-integrated” women, like the men, wanted to benefit more from DDR. Many even created or joined associations of ex-combatants to raise grievances, mainly to obtain additional benefits from DDR programs and the state government. However, unlike the men we met, some women have also organised themselves into cooperative associations based on income-generating activities such as the processing of local agricultural products—efforts that deserve support.

The Ivoirian case shows that DDR programs continue to perpetuate gendered hierarchies and stereotypes; women and girls continue to be dismissed or not taken “seriously,” “desecuritized,” and “conjugally ordered” into questionably stereotyped roles designed by those with little understanding of gendered “herstories” — particularly on the African continent.

Kamina Diallo is an expert on gender and international security issues and a PhD Candidate at Sciences Po Paris (CERI).

The author would like to acknowledge the research of Megan MacKenzie, Magali Chelpi den Hammer, Laurent Gayer, Christopher Hills, Elise Fredrikke Barth, Susan McKay, Dyan E. Mazurana, Kathleen M. Jennings.

This article was first published on the Global Observatory