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Researching the female combatant’s experience of conflict, and social and economic reintegration when the fighting stops.

Gwen is a PhD student from the University of Warwick who visited Monash University in June as part of the Monash Warwick Alliance PhD Mobility grant awarded in 2019. She first met Professor Jacqui True, Director, Monash GPS at Warwick in September 2019 when the Monash GPS team travelled to Warwick as part of the Monash-Warwick Alliance funded project “Inclusive economies and enduring peace: the role of social reproduction.”

Gwen Cheve and Professor True saw an opportunity for a collaboration where Gwen would potentially contribute insights from her PhD, which focused on the post conflict reintegration experiences of former female combatants in Sierra Leone. At that initial meeting, Prof True mentioned her previous work on former female combatants in Columbia and how the challenges and the opportunities for post conflict gender sensitive economic reform would help Gwen incorporate a feminist political economy perspective. At that time Gwen contacted Prof True with concrete findings, specifically, how the social care responsibilities for former female combatants in Sierra Leone prevented them from participating in post-conflict programs, set up to assist them reintegrate into society (socially and economically).

From there with the support of WICID, Prof Shirin Rai and Prof True, Gwen submitted an application and was awarded the Monash-Warwick Alliance PhD mobility grant which provided the opportunity for her to travel to Melbourne in June this year to present at the Monash GPS seminar after a delay of two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Alliance PhD travel grant is a fantastic opportunity to connect with academics and fellow research students across the globe, expand your network, generate and share new ideas, and enhance professional and personal development. At Monash I presented a seminar on my research findings on the reintegration experiences of former female combatants in post-conflict Sierra Leone, and participated in a PhD workshop on feminist methodologies hosted by Monash Gender, Peace and Security centre.

I am glad I applied for the Alliance PhD Mobility programme, my time at Monash helped me identify opportunities where I can collaborate with PhD students and academics who are working on similar projects about female combatants in regions such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Nepal, opportunities which I had not had the chance to explore in the past. The workshop on feminist methodologies that Prof True led during my time at GPS also gave me the opportunity to interrogate and expand my knowledge which is invaluable for my research.

Gwendolene Cheve

Professor True hosted Gwen’s recent visit to Monash University and is a huge supporter of her interests and amazing work. She comments;

It has been great to host Gwen and to introduce her to the mini-United Nations cohort of Monash GPS PhD students working in diverse conflict and post-conflict-affected settings, who are similarly exploring women's experiences of security and at the same time giving them a voice. We have been able to share challenges with feminist methodologies for research in challenging contexts and to gain a powerful comparative perspective.

Professor Jacqui True

Gwen is keen to speak further with Monash students about future collaborations as she is yet to experience collaborating on research Australia, so for Gwen the comparative angle will be worthwhile. She will continue to work with Alliance students and academics in a set of activities that speak to the decolonising curriculum and research. In addition, she hopes to work and collaborate with PhD and undergraduate students on the Global South Initiative, a student-led initiative at the University of Warwick which she is co-directs in an effort to connect PhD student and early career researchers from the Global South..


“What happened after we put our guns down: Reconceptualising the reintegration experiences of former female combatants in post conflict Sierra Leone”

Gwen's interest in the topic was inspired by her grandmother who fought in the Liberation Struggle in Zimbabwe and like many female ‘gueriella soldiers’ left all her combatant identity and experiences of the war the day she was disarmed as female combatants were not valorised by society in those days. The fact that her grandmother’s experience (and that of many others female combatants in Zimbabwe) went untold or officially documented therefore inspired Gwen to research the untold experiences. Whilst she would have loved to include her grandmother and some of her colleagues a large number of them are now in their 80’s and are difficult to get a hold of or their memories aren’t serving them very well due to ill health or diagnoses of dementia.

After some research, Gwen decided to do her research on Sierra Leone which was a country that had experienced an 11 year conflict until 2002 in which some of the factions that were fighting had approx. 30% female combatants. Her desire to pursue her chosen research topic is also driven by the fact that as a Feminist Gwen also notes that “despite the creation of UN Resolution 1325 in 2000, which addresses how women and girls are differentially impacted by conflict and recognises the critical role that they play in peacebuilding efforts, there are insufficient resources allocated to strengthening the capacity of women to assume key leadership roles as peacemakers, peacebuilders and architects of rights-based and equitable reconstruction processes

Initially she spent four weeks in Sierra Leone in Nov 2019, looking into the relevant Government approvals whilst scoping out the environment to commence her research. Fortunately the language barrier was not too much of a concern given most of the women spoke English or Krio language. During this trip, she interviewed 23 female combatants with the support of some local research assistants, put in place arrangements for a longer fieldwork trip for March 2020 and even secured some funding from the British Institute of Eastern Africa (BIEA). However, with the onset of Covid the UK went into lockdown 4 days before her flight to Sierra Leone and she had to change her strategy and research methodology.

With the support of her supervisors, the Department of Politics and International Studies at Warwick and the BIEA she was able to revise her ethics approvals to meet covid protocols as well permissions to conduct data collection remotely using an in-country research assistant. Once all the approval were in place, the in country research assistant conducted the interviews started each interview with pre-recorded video messages from Gwen as she had met most of the interviewees in her previous trip. Whilst the plan has been to expand the number interviews, Covid restrictions made it difficult to move around to different provinces and the limited access to mobile phones or the internet meant that Gwen had to focus on the existing interviewees. Gwen is now in the final stages of writing up her PhD and will be submitting her thesis in January 2023.

The notion that war is gendered is now widely recognised in academic literature and beyond. In 2000, the United Nations formally acknowledged this through the creation of Resolution 1325, which addresses how women and girls are differentially impacted by conflict, and recognises the critical role that they play in peacebuilding efforts. In academia, this includes a growing literature from feminists from international relations and security studies on the plurality of the experiences of female combatants during conflict that goes beyond their experiences as only being victims who lack agency. Among other things, this literature suggests that the ways in which female combatants’ experience conflict transgresses local gender norms and renders their social reintegration particularly challenging. Feminists in peacebuilding and security studies have attributed this to the fact that peacebuilding interventions don’t employ a gendered approach or have inclusive participation of women (civilians and former combatants) from the peace negotiations to policy development and the design and implementation of interventions. Interventions of which reintegration through disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes is a major part of.

At the same time, histories of various post-conflict societies suggest that former female combatants face challenges to economic and social reintegration that have a long term impact on their lives. Despite this, research on post conflict experiences has continued to pay relatively little attention to the experiences and relationships of former female combatants in the years after they ‘put down their guns’. Recognising this gap in the literature as well as shortcomings with DDR in Sierra Leone, Gwen’s dissertation seeks to develop a more dynamic and nuanced understanding of the extent to, and ways in, which female combatant’s experience of conflict and reintegration efforts affected their post conflict realities in rebuilding social relations and the shaping of gender dynamics.