Female ex-combatants from Rwanda are seeking a role in regional peacekeeping missions in Africa, highlighting at a United Nations-sponsored meeting their experience of warfare and its particular impact on women as major advantages in efforts to bring stability to the continent.
Pointing specifically to Rwanda’s recent commitment to support regional peacekeeping missions by sending soldiers to help protect African Union (AU) cease-fire monitors in Darfur, western Sudan, speakers stressed their interest in assisting women caught in conflict.
"This has really caught people's imagination," the Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)," Noeleen Heyzer, told the UN News Service. "We will help their organization to meet with other women's groups not only within Africa but outside as well."
"We hope to create a network of demobilized women," Ms. Heyzer said, referring to their overall role in rehabilitation after conflicts, including education, health care and employment. On the specific issue of women in peacekeeping operations outside their countries, she said they would have to be prepared, but added: "We try to break new ground."
The role of women generally as peacemakers figures among the 10 stories the world should hear more about highlighted by the UN Department of Public Information earlier this year.
Rwanda has no tradition of female conscription but during the conflict that tore the small central African nation apart in the past decade, hundreds of women voluntarily took up arms alongside men to assume military responsibilities and fight for the liberation of the country.
The meeting, organized in the Rwandan capital of Kigali by UNIFEM and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to discuss the challenges of reintegrating into society, and the role female ex-combatants play as peace-builders in their communities, brought together over 200 members of an association of such former fighters called Ndabaga.
The group, established in 2001 as the first association of female ex-combatants in the Great Lakes Region, includes women from all 12 of Rwanda's provinces, and from both sides of the ethnic Hutu-Tutsi conflict.
"Since wars and conflicts affect children and women in a special way, and since women tend to confide in their fellow women more that they do men, peace missions should have a big representation of women to attend to the special needs of women suffering the consequences of war," Rwandan Minister for Gender Valerie Nyirahabineza told meeting.
She cited the Sudan mission as an example of where Rwandan women ex-combatants should have been included.
The meeting was organized in recognition of the fact that female ex-combatants, despite the essential roles they can play in post-conflict disarmament, demobilization and reintegration processes, are frequently excluded. Because of a strong focus on men, the needs of women ex-combatants are often inadequately addressed in demobilization phases, resulting in often untenable situations of deteriorating health and poverty.