Despite the increasing direct involvement of young women in conflict, efforts to engage them in disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes seem ineffective

Kurdish YPG fighters Credit: Flickr/Kurdishstruggle

By Anastasia Voronkova, Editor, Armed Conflict Survey; Research Fellow for Armed Conflict and Armed Conflict Database

According to recent data from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), young women make up 10–30% of armed forces and armed groups worldwide. Young women are involved in violence or the provision of support to armed groups worldwide and in various roles. These can be leadership roles or specialised roles (such as suicide attackers), but also non-combatant, support roles in organisations including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and Boko Haram.

Poor economic conditions and the comparatively low opportunity cost of joining an armed movement typically increase the potential for recruiting alienated youth, particularly in regions struggling to meet the growing demands for education, employment, opportunities and resources that would otherwise enable the transition to adulthood. In certain cases, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, armed groups are perceived to have fought for and have access to greater economic resources than much of the local population. Young women may therefore be motivated to join more by the possibility of profiting from a higher economic and social status, than by a close ideological affinity with the armed group. In many countries, including Eritrea, Rwanda and Liberia, the abduction or coercion of young women constitutes a common recruitment tactic. Yet, despite women’s increasing involvement in conflict, efforts to engage them at all levels of post-conflict stabilisation initiatives have so far been insufficient and largely ineffective.

One of the persistent difficulties that young female recruits to armed groups face is that disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes frequently fail to recognise them and address issues specific to their needs – in part because they are not always visible on the front line, and they constitute a minority group. Yet such groups have the potential to influence post-conflict environments and behaviour both in conflict- and peace-inducing ways. In Sudan, members of the Sudanese Women’s Voice for Peace played a critical role in securing the delivery of humanitarian aid to hard-to-reach zones during the early stages of the conflict.

While (ex)-combatant young women may have important contributions to make to post-conflict stabilisation, for example through the creation of and participation in civil society organisations that facilitate links between members of opposing communities, there is very little evidence that they are actively encouraged to do so. A review of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 showed that women made up only 4% of signatories, 2.4% of chief mediators, 3.7% of witnesses and 9% of negotiators.

Interviews of female ex-combatants in Liberia and Sierra Leone reveal fear of stigmatisation, social exclusion and lack of information as the main reasons behind the low uptake of DDR programmes. The fact that carrying weapons is often a key criterion for taking part also increases the risk of the non-inclusion of female youth. Success stories for such initiatives are very hard to find. Engaging experts and practitioners at all levels, conducting targeted information campaigns, listening to the views of female youth and building on the experiences they have gained as conflict participants are all crucial for engaging women in DDR programmes – which will give them more opportunities to participate in post-conflict stabilisation.

This article is part of our content to accompany the launch of the Armed Conflict Survey 2017, which provides in-depth analysis of the key political, military and humanitarian developments and trends in all active armed conflicts, as well as data on fatalities, refugees and internally displaced persons. The Armed Conflict Survey was launched at Arundel House on 9 May.

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