Gender Dynamics in the New War: Lessons from the Sierra Leone Civil War

Stella Lee, Editor

In the aftermath of the Cold War and the wake of globalization, a new type of organized violence emerged. The “new war” blurs the distinctions between traditional warfare, privately organized crime, and large-scale human rights violation, which marks its growing illegitimacy. Kaldor attributed this shift to “the intensification of global interconnectedness – political, economic, military and cultural – and the changing character of political authority.” Under this backdrop, gender plays a key role in shaping “new war” dynamics. 

A key feature of the “new war” is the changed mode of warfare, where combatants capture territory through political control of the population, often via terrorism and political violence. In Sierra Leone, territorial control is achieved through pervasive acts of brutal gender-based violence, forced marriage, and a culture of fear. War rapes, as argued by Coulter, celebrates the “hyper-masculine warrior identity” that resonated with the larger Sierra Leonean society. This high incidence of sexual abuse is complemented and reinforced by a culture of impunity and silence. However, once a woman was taken by a commander as his “bush wife” and incorporated into a polygamous, pseudo-family-based domestic group, she becomes a “good woman” and gains amnesty from sexual abuse. Coulter’s informants also highlighted fear as a constant factor in rebel life. Many were killed if they were caught escaping, while others were afraid of reprisals and social stigmatization after their return. Therefore, these women were stuck in a cycle of recrimination due to longstanding notions of rape and sexual morality. Nevertheless, the rebel camp also inverts traditional gender hierarchy by positioning some young girls in authority, freeing them from manual labour without divorcing them from sexual exploitation. As a result, rebel groups were able to establish effective political control by both utilizing and subverting gender dynamics. 

Along with the changing mode of warfare, “new wars” have also witnessed blurring distinctions between combatants and non-combatants along traditionally gendered lines. Many women became fighters, both involuntarily and voluntarily, helping their husbands reload weapons and heading dangerous missions in the front lines, which reinforces alternate femininity in Kuranko thought that consider women as wild, raw, and dangerous by nature. They often need to “prove themselves” by projecting more violence than their male counterparts. Thus, the victim/perpetrator dichotomy entrenched within traditional humanitarian discourse no longer suffices.

Moreover, “new war” is often financed by looting, labour exploitation, and illegal trade, which find precedents in traditional gender roles but also demonstrate new gender dynamics that violate pre-war cultural taboos. In rebel camps, gender roles were polarized, operating in distinct domains, but also complementary, reflecting the sexual division of labour. Central to the maintenance of the rebel infrastructure was the productive labour of abductees in the domestic sphere, but women were also sent out on reconnaissance missions to facilitate looting and contribute to the “new war” economy. Furthermore, Sierra Leone was part of a global warscape that intersects with the shadow economy of illicit goods, in which drug and pornographies circulated widely and exacerbated sexual violence. By examining the methods of sexual abuse, Coulter noted their public nature and how women were stripped naked in the presence of other men, which were distinct from pre-war violence. Underlying these endemic violations of cultural taboos are pornographic connotations and alterations of consciousness from excessive drug consumption, both of which are products of the “new war” economy that are intimately linked to illicit trade. 

Furthermore, the “new war” also witnessed the changing role of international intervention, which played a role in both empowering reintegration and prolonging violence. International intervention includes distinct cosmopolitan actors, from military peace-keeping forces, disarmament programs, to humanitarian organizations. Under peace-keeping operations, there are possibilities of perpetration of sexual violence as well as structural violence by means of sexual exploitation. In Sierra Leone, an increase in prostitution accompanied the arrival of peacekeeping operations. For many young women, the “girlfriend business” becomes a survival strategy that catered to the hyper-masculine culture of military peacekeepers, perpetuating the cycle of sexual exploitation and structural violence. In humanitarian intervention, the process of disarmament and reintegration is often gendered, hindering post-conflict reconstruction efforts. Projects like Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Sierra Leone were implemented in a gender-blind manner by officials who see combatants as synonymous with adult men, overclassifying girls as camp followers and failing to consider the nuanced gender dynamics in “new wars.” As Coulter argued, no effective measure was taken to encourage female combatants to demobilize in Sierra Leone, as they were seldom if ever permitted to voice their own needs. For DDR, female combatants often lacked guns and ammunition to disarm because men were in control of weaponry. Many were dissuaded from registration by their bush husbands and families due to fear of social shaming, stigmatization, and ostracization. Meanwhile, the public, open-air, mixed-gender layout of DDR camps, the requirement to photograph camp participants for identification purposes, and the assumed connection with TRC and the Special Court further deepened their fear of exclusion and triggered memories of violence. Although humanitarian organizations sought to reintegrate women through skill development and vocational training programs from soap making to gara tie-dyeing, their limited funding cycle and narrow idea of local needs translated into quick-fix solutions that rarely have extended influence on women’s economic independence. Nevertheless, they offered psychosocial benefits that enabled women to feel more confident in reintegration, which moved them from a position of passivity to agency.

Finally, in the post-war setting, the patriarchal structure remains entrenched, as evident from the widespread social stigmatization of ex-abductees, but there are also some liberations from traditional gender ideologies evident from the rise of entrepreneurial endeavours that permeate “new wars.” Ex-bush wives were deemed “contaminated” and unmarriable, and female ex-combatants were seldom seen as heroic but ran the risk of stigmatization. The display of strength, independence, and courage that enabled their survival in the bush is frowned upon in Kuranko culture, which values submission and servility. Thus, they were often shunned by their families and severed from participation in communal activities unless they assumed the ethics of the female ideal of deference and bring financial gains to the family, which improves their social standing and helps them gain acceptance, respect, and reintegration. However, Coulter noted that material success depends largely on the maintenance of personal relations and access to the network of patrons and sponsors, both of which are aggravated by their vulnerable and stigmatized positions. For instance, women faced limited access to formal credit facilities under the patriarchal framework and instead relied on informal networks such as Osusu to make a living from petty trading. In post-war Sierra Leone, many women longed to gain autonomy through education and vocational training, signifying a break from reliance on patriarchal structure for material provision. Others did not fear displaying their rebel past and “bushlike” behaviours, wearing culturally inappropriate tight-fitting clothes in public. In a way, the “new war” also witnessed the delegitimization of patriarchal gender ideologies, as women now aspire to be self-reliant and severed from conventional trajectories of Sierra Leonean womanhood.  To conclude, gender dynamics are both continued and subverted in the “new war.” While political and economic control is exercised in ways that highlight pre-existing gender dynamics, gender hierarchies are also reversed. The stereotypical dichotomy of women as victims and men as perpetrators breaks down as women take up arms and exercise agency. Similarly, in post-war settings, reintegration is often a highly gendered process that overlooks women and even perpetuates violence, but some humanitarian efforts provided psychosocial empowerment. Despite the overarching patriarchy, the entrepreneurial spirit imbued in “new wars” enabled some levels of liberation from gender ideologies. 

[1]  Kaldor, Mary. New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era. Stanford University Press, 2012. 

[2]  Coulter, Chris. Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers: Women’s Lives Through War and Peace in Sierra Leone. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009. 

[Image Credit: The Sierra Leone Telegraph]