Female Combatants in African Wars and Conflicts


Tatyana Denisova, Sergey Kostelyanets


In most Russian and international studies, including African ones, their authors portray African women that reside in areas affected by civil wars and conflicts as victims of violence, robbery, forced labor, etc. At the same time, it is rarely taken into account that in most national liberation movements and rebel groups the number of women fighters constituted and still constitutes 10-30% of their rank and file. Moreover, many women became field commanders, chiefs of intelligence, or were responsible for the supply of weapons and ammunition. The present authors provide a new interpretation of the participation and role of women in the confrontation between armed anti-government factions and the central government. It is noted that in recent decades, not only in Africa, but also in other parts of the world, the trend towards “feminization of the militarization process” has become extremely noticeable.

Many women, along with men, participate in acts of violence, including against the civilian population, and thus contribute to the destabilization of the internal political situation. Women most actively participated in hostilities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Eritrea and Ethiopia. The present paper looks into reasons and consequences of women’s involvement in insurgencies. It is pointed out that while during the years of the national liberation struggle women were motivated by the overarching goal of achieving independence, in later conflicts many of them fought to expand their political and economic rights and opportunities, i.e., to achieve gender equality. In addition to joining “armed groups” for ideological reasons, women tried to prove that they were “no worse than men”; others joined the ranks of the insurgents to protect themselves and other women from violence or death, i.e., they followed a kind of “survival strategy”. Particular attention is paid to suicide bombers, who have been increasingly used by the Islamist organization Boko Haram in recent years. The authors also consider the conditions in which demobilized women-combatants find themselves. The authors conclude that as the level of women’s involvement in African conflicts is constantly growing, it ceases to be an anomaly and to some extent reflects the “successes” achieved by the “fair sex” in the struggle for equality, although the negative consequences of this participation prevail over the positive ones.


Africa, military and political conflicts, insurgents, female combatants, terrorism, suicide bombers




1. ‘Bad Blood’. Perceptions of children born of conflict-related sexual violence and women and girls associated with Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria. UNICEF. International Alert. February 2016. 28 p. https://www.international-alert.org/sites/default/files/Nigeria_BadBlood_EN_2016.pdf (acces-sed 09.02.2021). ISBN: 978-1-911080-10-7.
2. Aning E.K. Gender and Civil War: The Cases of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Civil Wars. 1998. Vol. 1, issue 4, pp. 1–26. DOI: 10.1080/13698249808402388.
3. Aning E.K. Women and Civil Conflict: Liberia and Sierra Leone. African Journal of International Affairs. 1998. Vol. 1, issue 2, pp. 45–58. ISSN 0850-7902.
4. Badmus I.A. Explaining Women’s Roles in the West African Tragic Triplet: Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire in Comparative Perspective. Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences. 2009. Vol. 1, issue 3, pp. 808–839. ISSN 1944-1096.
5. Barth E.F. Peace as Disappointment: The Reintegration of Female Soldiers in Post-Conflict Societies, a Comparative Study from Africa. Oslo. International Peace Research Institute. 2002. https://www.prio.org/Publications/Publication/?x=7293 (accessed 17.02.2021)
6. Behrend H. Alice Lakwena and the Holy Spirits: war in northern Uganda, 1985–97. Oxford. Kampala. Nairobi. Athens. James Currey. Fountain Publishers. EAEP. Ohio University Press. 1999. 210 p. ISBN: 978-0821413111.
7. Behrend H. The Holy Spirit Movement’s new world: discourse and development in the North of Uganda. Developing Uganda. Oxford. James Currey. 1998. pp. 245–255. ISBN: 9780852553954.