Female ex-combatants need more help to integrate into society when conflicts end or they will continue to face major barriers in living ‘normal’ lives, according to research carried out in Guatemala.
Armed conflict between guerrilla organisations and the Guatemalan army saw over 200,000 people killed between 1960 and 1996. Women made up approximately 15% of combatants and had diverse roles in the guerrilla, including medics, radio communicators and political representatives.
After armed conflicts, Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programmes help to reintegrate ex-combatants into civilian life. However, support tends to focus on economic and political reintegration, leaving ex-combatants and communities to their own devices to rebuild social trust. This was also the case in Guatemala, which proved especially difficult for women, who were forced back into traditional gender roles.
Post-conflict support in Guatemala included a small economic lump sum, legal, housing and education support, and small productive projects. However, as a relatively early DDR programme, it had no gender perspective.
Women had diverse roles in the guerrilla groups, and largely performed similar tasks to men. Many women had formed emotional relationships while in the guerrilla, and some even had children. Yet making these relationships work in civilian life proved difficult, since once women’s participation no longer served revolutionary goals, men were no longer so keen on having active and assertive wives, while their social environment encouraged men and women to take up traditional gender roles.
Now researchers at the University of Birmingham have produced a policy paper calling for a number of actions to help female ex-combatants re-integrate into everyday civilian life. These include actions for governments, international donors and NGOs:
- Expanding the focus of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) from the political and economic to the private sphere, including household and family;
- Providing childcare to enable women to continue studying and find employment;
- Providing counselling and family support to assist men and women to adapt to new roles, and address psychological problems caused by conflict and DDR;
- Addressing female ex-combatants as political actors whose experiences of emancipation can make them role models.
They also recommend that armed groups campaign to create understanding of the experiences and motivations of ex-combatants, to increase social trust between groups. Creating organisations of female ex-combatants could help them to build solidarity and claim their rights collectively, and turn into agents for the promotion of gender equality.
Dr Sanne Weber, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Birmingham’s International Development Department, commented: “Many men returned home without income and with traumas. As a result some started to have problems with alcoholism and this created instances of violence against women.
“Women often ended up as the main or sole carers for their children. With no childcare provisions available, many saw their opportunities to study or find a well-paid job trumped. They often ended up with unstable low-paid jobs, if at all.
“Social reintegration in Guatemala was not successful and women were particularly disadvantaged. For many, a forced return to caring and household tasks has excluded them from political and economic participation. We believe that these findings from Guatemala can provide useful insights for other DDR or reintegration programmes around the world.”
Dr Weber’s research was supported by the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust and the Institute for Global Innovation at the University of Birmingham. She conducted in-depth interviews with female ex-combatants in order to better understand their experiences.
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