Young Female Fighters in African Wars: Conflict and its Consequences

Chris Coulter, Mariam Persson, Mats Utas


What role do young women play in contemporary African wars? Mainstream thinking on war and conflict sees women as passive and peaceful and men as active and aggressive. This report from the Nordic Africa Institute calls for a broader understanding of women’s roles and participation in armed conflict in Africa. Programmes to disarm, demobilise and re-integrate former fighters need to be adapted to local contexts and designed to meet the needs of female ex-fighters.

In the various armed conflicts in Africa, young women are participants and carry guns alongside their male comrades. Assumptions about women’s innate non-participation in war prevent their specific needs from being addressed. There is also limited recognition of the skills and strengths that women may have developed in the armed forces and during war; and opportunities to support gender equality in post-conflict environments have not been seized.

In many conflict areas, official disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes are the favoured means of achieving peace. In the context of wars in Africa, the international community often presses for DDR. Yet DDR programmes in their current form are not effective in identifying, registering, demobilising and reintegrating female fighters.

  • Young female fighters have sometimes been denied access to official DDR processes because the international community does not recognise them as ‘real’ fighters.
  • Many female fighters choose not to demobilise because they see few benefits in doing so.
  • Female fighters may not disarm due to social reasons: they may fear being socially stigmatised or ostracised. If participation in DDR implies that women and girls are identified as ex-fighters in public, this may harm their reintegration into society.

These insights offer a more informed alternative to victim-prone policy work on young women in African wars. Programmes for disarming, demobilising and re-integrating former fighters must be based on a better understanding of women’s roles.

  • Practitioners must acknowledge young women as actors in war and assume their involvement as fighters in conflicts in Africa. Those attempting to assist and empower young women in conflict zones need to see that a focus on female fighters as victims alone denies their agency.
  • Humanitarian assistance and DDR programmes must support gender equality. Without gender sensitivity, interventions may exacerbate gender inequalities and fail to reach female fighters. Stigma and shame can be obstacles for reintegration.
  • Programmes must understand and connect to the local context. Young women’s experiences may vary depending on type of conflict, mode of conscription and roles within the armed group. Gender roles before, during and after war need to be evaluated when post-conflict reconstruction is planned.
  • Many young women fighters experience sexual abuse and exploitation. Local concepts of rape and sexual stigma need to be examined. Traditional healers often have the capacity to reach and cater to a large number of traumatised young women.
  • Women’s productive labour in the context of fighting forces has received too little attention. It should not be assumed that young women fighters are only abducted into fighting forces to be kept as ‘sex slaves’.
  • Female fighters should be given the opportunity to receive education. Many see this as a chance to regain control of their lives, support themselves and their children, become independent and reintegrate into civil society.


Coulter, C., Persson, M., and Utas, M., 2008, 'Young Female Fighters in African Wars: Conflict and Its Consequences', Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala