This week’s WAPPP seminar, “Rebel Queens and Black Diamonds: Gender Politics in African Armed Groups,” was named after two female rebel fighters, Rebel Queen of Sierra Leone and Black Diamond of Liberia. In the seminar, WAPPP fellow Zoe Marks discussed the research on gender politics within rebel groups that led her to these women, primarily with Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
Through her field work in Sierra Leone, which experienced a brutal civil war from 1991-2002, Marks found that 17% of women reported experiencing sexual assault in their lifetime, which she argues is likely an underestimate. However, Marks discussed how these statistics have created a paradigm in which women are victims and men are perpetrators that has led to the dominant discourse over sexual and gender-based violence. While sexual violence in Sierra Leone varied over time, it was less common than other forms of abuse, and women also participated in the violence.
Women and girls make up 10-30% of non-state armed groups worldwide, which is a much higher rate than in state militaries. Marks hypothesizes that this is due to the fact that rebel groups use broad based recruitment because they need all the people they can get. In addition to serving as soldiers and spies, women carry supplies and work on base producing and cooking food. They are also the wives and girlfriends of the male fighters, though a significant number of the relationships are forced and oftentimes violent, as was the case with the RUF.
To try to better understand the social-organizational context for women in rebel groups, Marks looked into the sources of female power in the RUF. She found that power largely existed on the individual level, not in groups or networks of women. As is traditional in Sierra Leonean culture, age and marital status contributed significantly to a woman's status in the group. Martial status, i.e. whether a woman was trained in warfare and had weapons herself, could also elevate her position. Marks argued that though some women were able to obtain military dominance, this rarely translated into political power once the conflict has ended. Instead, it was largely the commanders’ wives who were invited to peace talks.
She added that gender relations within rebel groups varies greatly, ranging from the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, with its progressive stance on gender equality, to the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. Made famous in 2012 by Joseph Kony, LRA uses marriage as a reward for commanders and to clamp down on immoral behavior, with the understanding that civilian rape hurts the public image and mission of the group.
Marks closed by citing research from Hudson et al, which listed the micro-aggressions of global gender inequality as (1) lack of bodily integrity and physical security, (2) lack of equity in family law, and (3) lack of parity in decision-making. Marks argues that these issues aren't actually that micro; they all help explain women’s experiences in war and gender politics in rebel groups, both in western Africa and worldwide.