Reflections on the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Agenda and Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Programmes in West Africa

Reflections on the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Agenda and Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Programmes in West Africa

Esther M. Beckley

In October 2000, the United Nations Security Council dedicated a full session to address the experiences of women and girls in armed conflicts and postconflict situations. This meeting resulted in the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, which recognises the disproportionately damaging effects of conflict on women and girls, as well as the need for gender equality in peace processes. It also recognises the role of women as active agents of peace and emphasises the fact that peace is intrinsically linked with equality between men and women. While some refer to this Resolution as a landmark, women are still invisible in peacebuilding programmes such as Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) compared to their male counterparts. This is even though one of the pillars of Resolution 1325 is the prioritisation of issues that affect women in peacebuilding and conflict management interventions.

Women’s involvement in violent conflicts is multidimensional. In Sierra Leone, female warriors such as the ‘Adama cut hand’ and ‘Krio Mammy’ were believed to be even more notorious than males. In the north-eastern part of Nigeria, girls constitute most of the suicide bombers, performing a strategic role for the Boko Haram terrorist. One would think that pivotal roles women play in violent conflicts and how they are affected by these conflicts would guarantee them automatic access to DDR programmes and postconflict peacebuilding decision-making to transform their lives. This, unfortunately, is not the case. Instead, gender mainstreaming in DDR programmes in West Africa seems like an afterthought.

Furthermore, the masculinist design of DDR programmes precludes certain female ex-combatants from participating. Ex-combatants, for example, are obliged to relinquish weapons during the disarmament phase before being registered to participate in the other two phases i.e., demobilisation and reintegration. Some women and girls, either do not possess weapons because of their roles as spies, home managers, and care givers. Some others had their weapons stolen by their male counterparts, or used unsophisticated weapons like machetes and traditional ‘juju’ (voodoo) during the war. This was the case with female ex-combatants who fought on the side of the Kamajors i.e., the Civil Defence Force (CDF) in Sierra Leone. In Nigeria, where two sub-national DDR programmes have been implemented in the North East and Niger Delta region, women are systematically marginalised by state led peacebuilding programmes. In the Niger Delta, the concerns of women impacted by the oil insurgency in the region was not at the centre of the design and implementation of the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP) for armed militants. In the North East, there have been serious concerns raised about the rights of women in the state led counter-insurgency interventions in the region. The gender dimensions of Operation Safe Corridor, the DDR Programme in the North East, remains opaque. Consequently, many women who have been involved in conflicts in the region self-reintegrate into their communities without psychological, social, and economic support. This increases the vulnerability of women in post-conflict societies.

Clearly, when it comes to gender mainstreaming in DDR programmes, the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda requires a shift from rhetoric to practice. Despite the adoption of National Action Plans (NAPs) on WPS by several countries in West Africa, it is still difficult to observe real transformation. For some observers, this is because African countries are simply obliged to domesticate international gender norms while little is done to challenge the structural root causes of women’s inequality and insecurity.

But does this imply that women lack autonomy and do not contribute to peacebuilding in other ways? The answer is ‘No’ because women are not a homogeneous group. While some are marginalised during the formal DDR process, others continue to work for peace in their respective communities informally. For example, Liberian women’s long-standing advocacy contributed immensely to the relative peace that the country enjoys today. These women conducted prayer services for peace and organised peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Monrovia. During my conversations with some of these women, they highlighted that, while the overt war is over, they are still dealing with its aftermath. They are actively involved in the fight against domestic violence, juvenile drug abuse, women’s illiteracy, and decreasing number of women in government after Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s regime. In Sierra Leone, the Women’s International League for Peace, and Freedom (WILPF) organised prayer sessions, poetry, peace songs, and marches. These women’s contributions to peace in their countries albeit informal should be celebrated and recognised at all levels.

For societies transitioning from violent conflicts in West Africa to fully benefit from the provisions of Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Agenda, peacebuilding programmes, especially DDR Programmes in the region, need to move away from a default setting that recognises men as the main characters of war and peace to a setting that recognises the intersecting roles women and men play in war and peace.

Esther M. Beckley is Head of Membership at the Conflict Research Network West Africa (CORN West Africa) and a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Malta. Esther is also a Research Fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), The Hague.