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Women in armed groups: changing or reinforcing gender norms

Jenny Hedstrom from Monash University brings five tentative lessons from her ongoing research on women and armed groups, with the example of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

1. More women are being recruited into armed organisations in Myanmar, such as the KIA. Despite how newsworthy this appears to be to journalists covering the conflict, an increased number of women in armed organisations may NOT necessarily change traditional gender roles or impact on gender-based violence in any positive way.

2. This is because women are often recruited into armed groups to do tasks that are commonly understood to be women’s work. For example, in the KIA, women have typically been recruited into positions as nurses and seamstresses. In other words, women are expected to replicate the duties they already do in the home for their work in the army. Women are also prevented from undertaking active combat duty or to hold leadership roles, as these are reserved for men. It is very hard to challenge this traditional division of labour because women’s work in armed groups is based on supposed ‘innate feminine’ abilities, as opposed to learned traits. In this way, women’s inclusion in armed groups may not actually change gender roles but may instead reinforce them.

3. The ‘naturalness’ of women’s work also renders invisible the incredibly hard work done by women outside of their active soldier duties: women’s support for armed organisations fulfil the material and emotional needs of armed groups. But because these duties are seen as ‘naturally female’ it is not recognised as the crucial support it actually is. But where would the KIA, or indeed any other non-state armed group in Myanmar be, without women making food packages and uniforms for the soldiers? Without women nursing wounded soldiers back to health or organising prayer groups for the men on the frontline? Women’s traditional duties therefore play an incredibly important role in sustaining conflict.

4. Because armed groups need women to support them in ways which are seen to be typically female, women’s ability to fight or hold leadership positions on an equal level to that of men are brushed aside. This also reinforces the view of women as victims, and men as defenders of women. This is important, because violations of women’s bodies motivate people to fight, but only when men outside of the community perpetrate these violations. Violence experienced by a woman within her home or army unit does not serve the same purpose and is therefore not discussed to the same extent, if at all.

5. However, the violence and discrimination experienced by women both inside and outside of their communities is related. It is therefore important to recognise that the violations a woman experiences in her home or on the battlefield have a basis in women’s inequality in accessing legal redress, socio-economic opportunities and positions of influence. But this is difficult to do when the international community frames sexual violence in conflict as something entirely different from other types of gender-based violence and the Government of Myanmar doesn't want to talk about it at all. This is worrisome, not least because gender-based violence reinforces traditional gender roles by preventing women from participating in decision-making and helps to sustain the conflict by legitimating the fighting.

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