The reality of women’s lives in the midst and aftermath of war poses a challenge to the notion that reconciliation is a linear process. For women, violence does not end, nor does it decrease, after the signing of a peace accord.
When Blood and Bones Cry Out, Pg. 157
Contrary to conventional thinking, the signing of a peace agreement does not mark an end to a war or suffering, especially to women. According to John Paul Lederach and Angela Jill Lederach, this suffering extends to post-conflict period. Though the Lederachs wrote the quotation while describing violence against women in West Africa, its truth reflects the condition of women in many post-conflict societies. To most people including peacebuilders, the image of war is synonymous to a young man with an automatic weapon, fighting for women, who will be struggling to care for a child, mourning the dead, fleeing or being sexually abused. This is an assumed reality devoid of practical reality which according to Lederach[i] and as we will see below is something different.
In the midst of war women bear the brunt of the conflict; they face the danger of sexual assault and rape, get abducted and forced to marry rebels and if one escapes that fate, the whole responsibility of caring for children and the elderly falls on her. Others endure the pain of watching their children forcibly recruited into the army and sometimes witness those children dragged back into the villages to execute the remaining family members. Women also have to bear the pain of seeing their children being used as sex slaves at night and fighters during the day. Others have to sit by and watch their husbands and/or their fathers being taken away and in most instances these men get killed, and buried in unmarked graves. This perhaps explains why in some post-conflict countries such as Angola and Mozambique, widows accounted for half of the adult population. This suffering may not catch the attention of leaders or receive any acknowledgement as people tend to assume they know what women go through in a conflict. The reality is that every woman goes through a different experience.
The other reality is that women are also active combatants in a war, whether voluntarily or by force. They fight alongside men, taking every risk that comes with war. This has been experienced in many wars in Nepal, Nicaragua and Sri Lanka as well as in other countries in Africa such as Algeria, Eritrea, Mozambique, Namibia, and South Africa. War being conceived, planned and fought as a manly affair, these women often face more risks than their male counterparts. Those who may not be in active combat, serve as cooks, messengers, couriers of arms and ammunitions and bomb ‘planters’. Lederach has drawn our attention to this often ignored image of women in active combat, which goes contrary to the victim image that people have come to identify with women.
Lederach uses war aftermath to refer to ‘post’ war/conflict, which is the period immediately after the signing of peace accord, and including the reconstruction activities that follow. How does this stage affect women? Reading Lederach’s quote, one gets an understanding that women’s participation in war and its consequences on them never get acknowledged. Notwithstanding this omission, women are always at the forefront fighting for peace, often very active in civil society and peace movements that have brought conflicting parties to a negotiating table. Yet despite this, they are often neglected in the post-conflict situation; excluded from peace talks, denied opportunity to participate in disarmament and demobilization exercises (Liberia is a good example of this), and being locked out of post-conflict reconstruction. This is not surprising given the assumptions people make on the women’s role in the midst of war. These negotiation processes often result in settlements that do not benefit women. These experiences of women do not fit within the linear process of reconciliation designed from a male perspective of war.
Pre-conflict and (during) conflict attitudes toward women usually resume in the post-conflict period. This complicates the lives of many women. For instance, since most economic programs (including disarmament and reintegration) are designed from a male perspective of war, they only target men hence excluding women who needs them most. Society overlooks the fact that most women do participate in war or conflict and that some women head households having lost their husbands in war, they are in this case, the sole breadwinners of their surviving children and the elderly. The jobs they may have held during the war while men were fighting now reverts to men as part of reintegration or such related programs. In addition to this, women have to deal with their ‘broken’ sons and daughters who return from the bush. That is the reality of women that according to Lederach, challenges the notion of reconciliation as a linear process.
We can infer the meaning of reconciliation as used by Lederach as both a goal to achieve and a process. Ideally it is meant to prevent war or a conflict from reoccurring. It is meant to bring about the healing of survivals, restore justice through reparation of past injustices, build non-violent relationships among people and communities and promote acceptance by the former parties to a conflict of a common vision and understanding of the past. Most importantly, it aims at enabling victims and perpetrators to live well together. Conventionally and according to Ledarach’s quote, it seems that people think of reconciliation as process that happens in stages, moving from A to B or phase one leads to phase two, but the reality is that this kind of reconciliation is not practical and is not easy to achieve. Furthermore, it assumes the roles women play in conflicts hence, does not acknowledge the reality of women’s lives in a conflict. This perhaps explains why these processes often fail, an example that comes to mind is Liberia and its disarmament exercise that excluded women even after the crucial contribution of women that led a peace agreement. This exercise failed and was rescued by women.
The linear aspect of reconciliation tends to focus on the immediate impact of the conflict while ignoring the impact of the small conflicts that lie beneath the main conflict. Often, these conflicts must be addressed first to create space for dealing with larger conflicts. For instance, linear reconciliation may not treat the cases of women who are raped in war or conceived in war and who have to raise children born of war as a priority (or put them anywhere in the first phases). They may not give space for these issues in the first phase of reconciliation as they will probably dealing with such issues as disarmament or demobilization. But how can we talk of nation building when half or more than half of the population is carrying the burden of a whole nation? Failure to address issues affecting women leads to their extreme suffering, which may be worse than what they went through during the war. You can imagine a widow in need of compensation for the death of her husband but getting turned down by the government for lack of a law to address this consequence of a war. How can anyone then claim that a peace accord signifies an end to suffering? People might put down their automatic weapons as a sign of peace but the suffering of women does not stop as they are haunted by different weapons.
Lederach’s quote rings true in the contemporary society and at a time when peacebuilders have access to a wealth of information and research about the reality of women’s lives during and after (post) war. It calls for peacebuilders to evaluate their programming habits and assumptions to capture these realities. It also calls upon policy makers to reconsider their perceptions about women’s roles in conflicts. Understanding a woman’s unique position in the midst and aftermath of war will definitely lead to true reconciliation.
[i] Though the book is written by John Paul Lederach and his daughter Angela Jill Lederach, the quote under discussion is in the part of the book written by Angie Jill Lederach. The reader will be right to assume that Lederach as used in the essay refers to Angie Jill Lederach