Women and Girls at War: Wives, Mothers, and Fighters

Traditional images of war generally depict men as fighters and women as passive victims. While women are certainly victimized in conflicts, the narrow view neglects the roles women play as agents in armed conflict. In some cases, women often occupy a space between fighter and victim.

On Thursday, October 29, in the final installment of the Conflict, Security, and Development Series of the fall semester, Wagner welcomed Jeannie Annan, the Director of Research and Evaluation for the International Rescue Committee and a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. Addressing an audience of over 50 NYU students, faculty and staff, as well as members from outside the NYU community, Dr. Annan discussed the topic “Women and Girls at War: Wives, Mothers and Fighters,” based on paper she co-authored on the reintegration of women and girls abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. The full findings of the study challenge the conventional wisdom regarding women and war.

The overall findings of the study challenge traditional understandings of the roles of women in armed conflict and, fortunately for a Wagner audience, expand upon the policy implications in post-conflict settings. By including policy and programmatic choices that can address the experience of women at war, the conversation was very concrete for an audience of current and future practitioners.

With most demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) programs tailored towards the needs to men, women are often under-served. The programs that do address women in post-conflict situations are based on assumptions that women will be marginalized and/or stigmatized upon their return and are highly exposed to sexual violence.

While not disputing that women are victims of sexual violence and do have special reintegration needs, Annan challenges preconceived notions, stressing that post-conflict programs should be tailored to meet needs based on evidence, instead of our assumptions. Dr. Annan’s work attempts to improve our understanding of humanitarian needs, both policy and programming, based on rigorous research relying on evidence.

Annan’s research arrived at a variety of intriguing conclusions: first, women abducted by the LRA are not simply sexual victims, nor are their experiences the same as men. Sexual violence is not used as a “mad theology” but rather based on strict hierarchies to increase control. For example, civilian rape is prohibited. Finally, upon reintegration into their community, women are not more disadvantaged than their male counterparts who had also been abducted, nor is either group completely marginalized by society. In fact, the level of trauma is highly concentrated in a significant minority, instead of being diffuse across the population.

Annan’s presentation ended with a particularly poignant quote from a woman who had been abducted by the LRA advising parents of other women who had the same experience: “Take good care of her. It is not the end of her life. She should forget what happened. Be a good example for her. She is still surviving. She should not see this as the end of her life. She can still continue.”

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