“I fought in the war with the Civil Defense Force. I had been a hunter and I had experience with community mobilization. I didn’t need much training to fight. I thought there was no other option but to fight.” An employee at Bo Peace and Reconciliation in Sierra Leone spoke frankly to our research group. He was a distinguished middle-aged man who spoke in an authoritative manner. He was the first ex-combatant we had knowingly encountered.
“How does your past dictate your role and aid your work at Bo Peace and Reconciliation?” I asked. He confidently explained that he has always been a mediator; leadership comes naturally to him, and his personality is what got him where he is today. This strength is what earned him a leadership position in the Civil Defense Force (CDF). He had even represented the CDF in the first peace talks in Bo.
All the projects that Bo Peace and Reconciliation had worked on were remarkable, as was hearing from an ex-combatant. However, I was perplexed and angered by yet another panel of employees of a community-based organization where few female staff members presented to our research group. There were three women on the panel at Bo Peace and Reconciliation, but only one spoke minimally.
At the closing of the group interview, I approached one woman who had not been given an opportunity to speak. She was a soft-spoken, articulate woman probably in her 30’s. We only had a short time for our conversation, but the combination of my intense interest in what she had to say and her explicit desire to be heard, worked in perfect harmony.
“I am interested in women’s needs post conflict in Sierra Leone,” I asserted. Immediately she smiled and began her story, always assuring we were making eye contact. She knew her personal story would be of interest to me. Leaning in to speak to me discreetly, she disclosed, “I was abducted by the rebels and was with them for three years. I had to walk hundreds of miles. I had to wrap my feet to protect them. I had to find my own food because the rebels didn’t give us much, if anything. If we disobeyed, they would take your eye.”
She was one of many women who had been captured and forced to stay with the rebel forces while the fighters ravaged the country, destroying everything in their path, burning villages and killing those who tried to defend their communities. Sometimes they would inhabit a village while waiting for more artillery, gathering food supplies or training new, young recruits. In many cases, young women were kidnapped, made wives of the commanders, raped, and impregnated. Others were forced to cook, serve, and carry heavy supplies long, grueling distances, their lives always threatened.
She went on to explain that she had received job training through the United Nation’s Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Program (DDR) and earned a certificate through the Institute of Commercial Management (ICM) whose headquarters are in London. The fact that she was a beneficiary of DDR surprised me considering one criticism of the program was the exclusion of women who had been forced to be with the rebels because participation required handing in a weapon. Had she not benefited from DDR, she might have been categorized as war wounded and received housing and a mere $85 in reparations, as some rape victims, war widows, war wounded and amputees had. The government is still formulating the plan for job training for women as the next step in delivering reparations, nine years after the war.
I was honored to meet someone who had the will to go on and who had found an occupation that was meaningful to her. She was living with dignity and hope even after experiencing torment and war. Women in Sierra Leone have important stories to tell and make valuable contributions to society. Women need to be heard by students, their communities, and their governments alike. In the words of a Sierra Leonean Parliamentarian, Dr. Bernadette Lahai, “Women and development are synonymous.”
Sierra Leone is the 17th country to create a Country Action Plan to implement United Nations Resolution 1325 that urges gender mainstreaming in post-conflict countries and peacebuilding initiatives. This is a promising indication of the inclusion of women in Sierra Leone’s future.
Shauna Kelly was in Sierra Leone for a two-week course led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Shauna’s blog is part of a series of reflections by Dr. Iyer and her students on the challenges to building peace in this war-ravaged country. -Ed.
About the Author:
Shauna Kelly is a 2011 MPA-International Development candidate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Shauna presented at the NGO sector of UN conferences including, the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, UN Habitat II Conference, Istanbul, Turkey, UN Conference on Teaching about the United Nations, New York, NY, leading participants through a process of envisioning a better future. She is currently an intern at the International Action Network on Small Arms in New York helping to coordinate NGO participation at the UN BMS4 and Arms Trade Treaty.