There are several myths about women’s roles in conflict, beginning with the fallacy that women do not often play significant roles as combatants, auxiliary personnel, or as peace spoilers. In fact, in several countries, Myanmar and the Philippines among them, the popular distortions so often applied to women’s functions in war can obstruct the peace process and deepen the conflict.
One myth is that women passively follow men into conflict. In contrast, two recent case studies on women fighting in the Kachin resistance movement in Myanmar and women in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the Philippines found that women are very active decision-makers.
Overlapping identities as members of minority religious, ethnic and/or lower class or caste groups, together with their traditional exclusion from political decision-making, often fuels their decisions to adopt roles as combatants, provocateurs, intelligence operatives and informants. As one woman combatant, fighting for the Kachin Independence organization (KIO) explains:
“I am connected to the KIO as a mother organization. It’s more emotionally connected, like not officially connected, not like you have to go and do training… it’s more about being emotionally involved, an awareness of being an ethnic minority, and that we are an oppressed people.”
These examples, from Myanmar’s Kachin State and the Philippine’s Bangsamoro region also demonstrate that while men engaged in the conflict as auxiliary personnel such as doctors and nurses, in preparing and transporting meals or in communications and in fundraising are mostly seen as soldiers, women undertaking the same functions are simply seen as civilians supporting the war effort. Bangsamoro women join rebel movements not as civilians supporting the war, but because they see themselves as defending their communities from unjust actions by security forces and preserving their Muslim identity.
However, women in conflict are then expected to lay down their arms once the men have agreed on the terms. Historically, this is nothing new. But there are clear risks emerging from trivializing women’s roles in conflict and by treating them as invisible during the reintegration phase.
In Bangsamoro, women in Moro National Liberation Front working as auxiliary personnel have not been included in the combatant quotas for post-conflict security force, putting at risk their reintegration or normalization.
Norma Mohamad Amiril, who left the movement prior to the 1996 peace agreement, was not given an integration slot, unlike her husband and brother who were able to use their prior positions as local commanders. Women excluded from meaningful employment after the fighting have the potential to resume their roles as combatants or peace spoilers as the motivations leading them to take up arms in the first place re-surface.
In both the Kachin and Bangsomoro conflicts, once trained in combat, traditional gender roles often prevent women from taking up combat positions, even though the evidence suggests that women can and have been highly effective in combat. However, in Kachin and Bangsamoro, women’s combat experience within armed resistance has never been recognized, let alone valued.
When men are absent from communities during conflict, this frees up space for women to move into community leadership positions. However, with the impressive exception of Rwanda, where women made up more than 70 percent of the post-genocide population, this space has often receded after the conflict, when governance structures revert back to their traditionally gendered roles.
“During this conflict and the last one, women take the role of community leader,” according to one community activist interviewed in Myanmar in 2014.
“For a long time… many women have been village leader. But when the conflict is over then men come and take the role: women come back to [the] kitchen.”
However, the spaces created for women to engage with governance institutions and adopt leadership positions, builds confidence and creates networks through which alliances build, according to another Kachin community activist.
“But during the first war, women organized relief aid, organized local people and people from abroad, Kachin people from abroad and from China… And in government controlled areas [too].”
“At that time we women don’t know about women issue, women rights, we don’t know, but now the situation has changed. We mobilize women. We are giving awareness-rising of gender issue, women’s rights. So now women have woken up. Women know.”
Indeed women’s capacities to use gender as the binding identity in overcoming deep-seated and long lasting distrust and hatred resulting from religious and ethnic tensions has been detailed in previous studies in the Asia-Pacific. And women have demonstrated success in case studies in mobilizing both women and men in rebuilding war-affected communities and establishing peace.
In Bangsamoro, Giobay Diocolano typifies this success. A member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) for 12 years, she left during the 1986 ceasefire when its members were no longer in danger of arrest. Giobay returned to college, gained her degree and built a career in organizing cooperatives.
She was appointed head of the Katabanga Foundation, an NGO organized by ex-MNLF combatants choosing to become peace and development advocates. The predominantly male ex-combatant group decided to appoint her as chair mainly because she was a woman.
“When we males lead this group, we will go nowhere…but if you speak, we all believe you.”
Under Giobay’s leadership, the Katabanga Foundation has thrived, working with the Philippine government in rebuilding war-devastated communities. Even in the face of local resistance to women’s leadership and the corruption she frequently deals with, Giobay is driven by the same motivations that led her to take up arms in the first place. A commitment to the Bangsamoro cause and to gender equality, that is, that men and women can work together in building peace.
The October 2015 review of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security noted that in spite of the progress made, women still bear the brunt of the harmful effects of conflict and remain under-represented in conflict prevention, peace-making and peace building.
Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines Visayas. Julian Smith is a senior advisor on democracy and diversity at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. The examples mentioned in this article comes from the book Women in Conflict and Peace.