From Female Combatants to Filmmakers – Expanding Women’s Agency in War and Peace

About the project

 

 

Building upon previous participatory documentary research with female ex-combatants funded by the Berghof Foundation in Aceh, Burundi, Mindanao, and Nepal, this project examines the experiences and aspirations of female ex-combatants in two new contexts: Colombia and Uganda. These stories of female ex-combatants from diverse political, religious, ethnic and national backgrounds show that women and their experiences of armed conflict have to be taken seriously for building sustainable peace.

Despite a focus on gender in the peace accord in Colombia, the implementation, especially from the perspective of female ex-combatants living in the demarcated Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation (Epacios Territoriales de Capacitacion y Reinforporacion or ECTRs), is severely lacking. Female ex-combatants continue to face stigmatisation and economic hardship, with limited opportunities to create sustainable livelihoods. There’s also a sense that any progress in gender equality that was achieved during their time in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarieas de Colombia or FARC) has been reversed.

In Uganda, although most women who were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as children have returned from the bush many years ago, they still face the consequences of that time daily. Community stigmatisation, lack of economic opportunity and long-term health concerns are continued challenges. The biggest concern for most returnee women is the marginalisation their children born in captivity face. Due to the lack of family ties, these children usually have no claims to land and no community belonging.

This project partners with researchers in Colombia and Uganda, who are themselves former combatants, to analyse the various challenges and opportunities faced by female members of non-state armed groups that are currently going through peace processes and to distil the lessons learned by women who have undergone similar processes in the past.

A participatory approach

This project uses a participatory research design to train female ex-combatants how to conduct peer-to-peer interviews and how to film and produce videos that document their perspectives and experiences. These are their stories as they tell them to each other. Two ex-combatant women collected the stories, reflecting as they did so on their reasons for joining the movements, their time as women in war, and how their lives unfolded once peace was restored. Theirs are stories of friendship and camaraderie, of life and death, of perseverance and resistance, and of rebuilding lives after war and continuing the struggle in peaceful ways.

The Challenge

Colombia

Continued marginalisation of female ex-combatants. Despite a focus on gender in the peace accord, the implementation, especially from the perspective of female ex-combatants living in the demarcated Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation (Epacios Territoriales de Capacitacion y Reinforporacion or ECTRs), is severely lacking.

They continue to face stigmatisation and economic hardship, with very limited opportunities to create sustainable livelihoods. There’s also a sense that any progress in gender equality that was achieved during their time in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarieas de Colombia or FARC) has been reversed.

Uganda

Continued marginalisation of women returnees. Although most women who were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as children have returned from the bush many years ago, they still face the consequences of that time daily. Community stigmatisation, lack of economic opportunity and long-term health concerns are continued challenges.

The biggest concern for most returnee women is the marginalisation their children born in captivity face. Due to the lack of family ties, these children usually have no claims to land and no community belonging.

What I find resonates most with the women is that I tell them that I will share this with other women who are currently in the same situation that they were in, and that is most powerful

Key findings: Colombia

Female ex-combatants have created a community, but they face impoverished and isolated living condition.

Living in the camps provides a vital space for community building amongst the female ex-combatants. These connections with each other were described as vital by the women. However, they have poor access to safe and viable food, housing and workable land. In some cases, they are living in worse conditions than during their time as combatants housed in the jungle. The camps are also separated from other villages and communities, creating barriers to reintegration.

Post-conflict reintegration reverses any progress on gender equality.

Female ex-combatants experience a return (or an expectation to return) to traditional gender roles, including care work and childrearing, after demobilisation. There is a sense that any progress in gender equality that was achieved during their time in the FARC has been reversed.

Gender equality rhetoric fails to deliver.

Female ex-combatants expressed disillusionment with the peace process, including both government and FARC male leaders who claimed to be advancing a progressive gender equality agenda but failed to deliver in the face of a sustained gender backlash.

A multi-generation repeated cycle of stigma and poverty leaves ex-combatant families with little to no opportunity.

Having previously been banned from having children whilst FARC combatants, there is now a “baby boom” in female ex-combatant communities. The women expressed both joy that their children were growing up in times of peace and frustration at the ways the children are subjected to stigmatisation from the wider Colombian society.

Female ex-combatants’ capacities to contribute to peacebuilding and reconciliation are underutilised and undervalued.

Skills they have developed during their time in the group, e.g., managing conflict in a diverse group of people, building community in difficult circumstances, pushing for gender equality and so on, could be useful in a wider peacebuilding context, yet they are underutilised and undervalued.

I was a militant for 20 years in the FARC, and the experience I had there in terms of gender, was something like 50-100 years ahead of society. (Tatiana)

Key findings: Uganda

Lack of economic opportunity and stigmatisation of female ex-combatants are interlinked and mutually reinforcing.

Many women returning home could either not locate their families or were not welcomed back by them resulting in severe forms of societal stigmatisation and poverty. The same applies to children born in captivity, who are stigmatised because they lack family ties, which severely reduces their economic opportunities. This can push them to criminal activity, creating a repeated cycle of discrimination and lack of opportunity to build sustainable livelihoods.

Female ex-combatants do not have access to land.

Land ownership is patrilineal in Uganda and passed down by fathers. Female ex-combatants discussed how the women rejected by their families, or those who do not know where their families are, could not access land resulting in threats to their livelihood. For their children born in captivity, this is further exacerbated by limitations on their ability to get identity cards or access to government services without knowledge and confirmation of their father and his clan.

Long-term reintegration support neglects important aspects such as health concerns.

While many long-term reintegration programmes include livelihood activities and psychosocial counselling, the long-term physical health concerns of ex-combatants are rarely factored in. Some of these are visible conflict inflicted injuries such as bullet wounds, but others only emerge after many years, such as back or knee problems from carrying heavy loads at a young age. These injuries can limit their ability to farm and work in labour-intensive jobs, thus threatening their livelihoods.

What angers us is the community stigma, it is ever more painful than the rape because it was not our will be abducted. So life is hard for us.(Amony)

Reflections: a participatory approach

  • Participatory projects support increased engagement and investment from participants. These approaches are more likely to create long-term changes in people’s mindsets and behaviors because they are grounded in people’s lived experiences.
  • Decolonising research is needed, and participatory approaches can help. Participatory methods have the potential to contribute to the decolonisation of peacebuilding by uncovering underlying power structures and inequalities.
  • There are substantial challenges and risks in participatory research. Careful design is necessary to avoid reinforcing existing power hierarchies or bringing unresolved tensions to the forefront. Further, participation requires time and resources. Planning and implementing participatory methods take more time than traditional research, and additional costs should be factored in for activities such as co-designing workshops and providing compensation for participants, especially marginalised groups.
  • Filmmaking is a powerful means of communicating research. Visual and creative mediums like filmmaking offer a powerful and complementary alternative to traditional research outputs that can help policymakers and key actors connect with the material on a deeper level. Films also create an effective way to expand the audience to the general public.

People engage with this in a different kind of way, it makes them think about conflict or women in conflict in a different way that’s less clinical, it’s less like binary, it’s more messy and more real in a way

Recommendations: Colombia

Actors involved in peace processes including government, armed groups, international groups

  • Engage with and represent diverse women and women’s groups. Ensure meaningful participation of a diversity of women’s groups including female combatants, victims, and indigenous groups in all stages of the peace process. Incorporate and utilise their skills, experiences, and perspectives in the peace process, specifically ensure there is an ongoing exchange with marginalised groups of women during and after agreements are reached.
  • Mainstream and fund gender work holistically. Mainstream diverse gender perspectives through all aspects of potential agreements including disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR), land rights, economic opportunity, and transitional justice. Guarantee continued funding for gender issues throughout the implementation process.

Civil society

  • Connect with and support ex-combatants. Seek engagement with female members of armed organisations to build bridges across the feminist movement and support peer-to-peer learning for other female ex-combatants.
  • Address living conditions and livelihoods for women and their families. Focus on safe and sustainable housing, food, and work opportunities for female ex-combatants. Programmes must also increase attention and resources directed towards children of war and the compounded forms of stigmatisation and violence they face.

Recommendations: Uganda

Ugandan Government

  • Marginalised communities must be engaged with and supported. Continuously engage and support marginalised communities in post-conflict parts of the country, especially female returnees and their children born in captivity. Programmes must increase attention and resources directed towards children of war and the compounded forms of stigmatisation and violence they face.
  • Processing of birth certificates and national ID are essential. Currently, if you don’t have a birth certificate and you don’t know your paternal lineage, you cannot get a national ID, which means you cannot access any government services. This policy needs to be removed and the process simplified to get a birth certificate and national ID when parents and birth location are unknown, so that children born in captivity can access government services.
  • Long-term health matters. Programmes working with female ex-combatants must account for long-term health impacts when developing reintegration planning. The negative impacts of conflict do not end with the conflict – they linger and continue to harm women physically, mentally, financially, and socially.

International actors/NGOs

  • Proactively address stigmatisation and discrimination. Work with a wide range of actors and community leaders to address stigmatisation and discrimination of people formerly associated with armed groups. This should be driven by the needs of the affected population.

Methodological Recommendations

Researchers and practitioners

  • Move beyond the rhetoric of participation. Researchers purporting to use participatory, decolonising and feminist methods must move beyond the rhetoric of participation and engage in the challenging, time and resource intensive work of actually practicing
  • Tailor the approach to each context. Every process and every group of contributors is different. What works well in one context, might be unwelcome in another. Any workshop, process or training, like the method itself, has to be adjusted based on the context and participants.
  • Protect the integrity of the process. After a decision is made to use participatory methods for the project, there can be the (often unconscious) temptation to influence the process. Taking a back seat as the researcher or only contributing in a toned-down way can be challenging but is crucial to protect the integrity of the process
  • Expectation management is key. Even in well-run processes, participants might develop unrealistic expectations about what might be possible outcomes of the project. This must be clearly addressed and well managed by the facilitators throughout the process so that expectations that cannot be met at the end of the project do not stand in the way of potential positive impacts.
  • Importance of facilitation and communication at eye level. Throughout the implementation of any participatory process, the role of the facilitator(s) is key. Ideally, one or more of the participants can facilitate the process themselves. Both internal and external (co-) facilitators should be particularly aware of any existing power relations among participants and find appropriate ways to balance them to allow for equal participation of everyone.
  • Budget for participant remuneration. Compensation for the participation of affected communities in research projects is often overlooked. Taking time off from a regular schedule, missing work, organising childcare, covering for agricultural labour etc. has costs for participants and should be considered, especially when the process involves marginalised groups. This should also allow for continued commitment to the process by the participants.
  • Guard the safety of participants. In any context, but particularly in conflict-affected contexts, guarding the safety of participants is a priority. Contributing to a lengthy participatory process with an external actor, such as a Western peacebuilding organisation, might put people at risk. Participants might also not be comfortable participating freely, depending on the design of the process and who is in the room.
  • Adaptability is essential. Be flexible and ready to adjust activities and approaches as the project is ongoing. Furthermore, be willing to adjust your own and the funder’s expectations as well as outcomes to protect the integrity of the process.
  • Partial implementation is possible. Participatory methods are not a take it or leave it-proposition. Different parts of the project cycle can be designed to include participatory elements.