Building a movement in a projectized world: Wangu Kanja’s struggle for survivors of sexual violence in Kenya

by Anne Menzel

A few weeks ago, a friend drew my attention to an open letter published by the Women Peacemaker’s Program (WPP) which announced that the organization was closing its doors. WWP was a Dutch NGO based in The Hague with a history of 20 years and a wealth of connections across the globe. Still, to be honest, I had never consciously heard of WPP before my friend alerted me to their final letter.[1] This was in the context of a conversation about a blog post I was planning to write about my recent field research in Nairobi. My friend advised me that I had to read this letter, ‘It talks exactly about the stuff you want to write about.’ She was right. Continue reading Building a movement in a projectized world: Wangu Kanja’s struggle for survivors of sexual violence in Kenya

Ein guter Plan in unsicheren Zeiten- 1325 Aktionspläne im Vergleich

Artikel und Analyse von Dr. Anna Antonakis und Nicola Popovic

Die Implementierung von UNSCR 1325 auf nationaler Ebene hat insbesondere in den letzten zehn Jahren eine Inflation erlebt. Mittlerweile werden 75 nationale Aktionspläne[1] weltweit umgesetzt. Während sich die meisten Länder in ihrer ersten Implementierungsrunde befinden, haben manchen Länder (11%), insbesondere in Europa bereits über drei Aktionspläne zu Frauen, Frieden und  Sicherheit veröffentlicht. Continue reading Ein guter Plan in unsicheren Zeiten- 1325 Aktionspläne im Vergleich

 Sexual violence in post-Ebola Sierra Leone: Old problems and new policy priorities

By Anne Menzel

In July 2016, I began to prepare for my first return to Sierra Leone since the 2014-15 West Africa Ebola outbreak. My last stay had ended shortly before the first Ebola cases were officially registered, and my return was to begin in early November 2016. Its purpose was to conduct three months of archival and field research for a project titled Redressing Sexual Violence in Truth Commissions. The Labelling of Women as Victims and its Social Repercussions. One aspect to be covered by my research was the current state of fighting sexual violence against women and girls in Sierra Leone. Pertinent questions were: who is doing or funding which kinds of measures based on which policy-narratives, and (how) do these measures and narratives reflect local experiences, needs, struggles and aspirations? Among current reconstruction efforts after Ebola, I expected to meet a fair number of activities around sexual violence against women and girls.

My expectations were based on recent reports and on experiences in the aid industry: During and in the immediate aftermath of the epidemic, there had been press and NGO reports about increases in sexual violence and teenage pregnancy. Both were attributed to the closing of schools (a quarantine measure) and escalating economic hardship.[1] Girls were at home or in the streets rather than in school, while food prices were rising and while it was becoming even harder than usual to earn a living or survival. It was judged plausible that these conditions had rendered women and especially young girls even more vulnerable to sexual abuse. According to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) factsheet, there were coordinated plans to allocate USD 2 million to the fight against sexual violence from June 2015 until December 2016 ‒ as part of the Ebola recovery efforts.[2] I presumed that this was only the tip of the iceberg.

Also, I had already experienced that sexual violence was regarded as a relevant and actionable problem to be addressed in the context of post-Ebola reconstruction efforts. In May 2015, when Ebola cases had markedly decreased and organisations were rushing in to plan and pitch reconstruction projects, I was approached by an international NGO looking for a consultant to conduct a needs assessment among vulnerable populations (women, children and youth) in the capital city Freetown and some rural areas. Based on this assessment, the prospective consultant was also expected to come up with a project proposal. There had recently been an EU call for relief and reconstruction projects for Ebola-hit West African countries and the NGO was looking for relevant and actionable ideas that would match the call as well as its own established specializations and competencies. The country director clearly communicated her preference for a needs assessment result that would enable a project centred on Ebola-related sexual violence. During my skype job interview she told me,

Please don’t come up with something like ‘people are hungry and people are sick’. Everybody knows that, and there is nothing we can do about it. We need something more specific to get these EU grants. Maybe something like Ebola and sexual violence.[3]

I ended up not taking the job, but it still made a lasting impression on me. Over the following months (until July 2016) I did not have time to systematically follow up on current policy-developments in Sierra Leone. But I assumed that sexual violence against women and girls was a topic that donors and their implementing partners (international and national/local NGOs) were eager to address.

A post-Ebola diversion?

It did not take me long to begin to doubt my expectations. In fact, they did not even last until I left for Sierra Leone in early November 2016. Already in late August, I came across press reports that told a very different story. According to a BBC report, it had actually become more difficult to raise money to assist women and girls who had suffered sexual violence in Sierra Leone.[4] The report specifically focused on the Rainbo Initiative, a national organization, and Familiy Support Units (FSUs), which are part of the Sierra Leone Police structure. Rainbo Initiative runs three Rainbo Centres, one in the capital city Freetown and one, respectively, in two district headquarter towns, Kenema and Koidu. The centres offer a medical examination and counselling to survivors of sexual violence and, if possible, collect evidence for future criminal prosecutions of perpetrators.[5] They are also meant to closely work with FSUs. These are units within the national police structure that were specifically established to respond to domestic abuse (sexual or other) of women and children. Most importantly, they are supposed to make sure that allegations are properly investigated so that cases of abuse can be tried in court – instead of hidden away or settled within or between families according to customary law.[6] Both organizations had originally been established in the context of British-led security sector reforms during and after the 1991-2002 war in Sierra Leone.[7] And both were about to run out of funds and desperately looking for donors willing to step in. The Sierra Leone government had already declined their requests.[8]

Another press report about a post-Ebola lack of funds in the fight against sexual violence drew on interviews with the executive directors of Rainbo Initiative and AdvocAid. The latter is a Sierra Leonean NGO, which offers legal aid to women in Sierra Leone’s over-crowded prisons. The executive directors of both organizations agreed in their diagnoses: funding was going elsewhere. AdvocAid’s executive director, Simitie Lavaly, also provided an explanation, “[D]onors have diverted their priority from human rights funding to the health sector, since its weakness was hugely exposed by the Ebola outbreak.”[9]

Donor fatigue

But I soon began to doubt the idea of a ‘post-Ebola diversion’ as well. When I spoke with AdvocAid’s Simitie Lavaly in November 2016, she actually confirmed these doubts. She explained that AdvocAid had always found it comparatively difficult to attract donors, because the women they assisted were criminal offenders (though many are also imprisoned for non-criminal offenses, such as failure to repay loans) – and major donors preferred victim-centred projects. However, while AdvocAid was getting better at presenting their beneficiaries’ vulnerable aspects (the stories behind the stories that led them to end up in prison)[10] and while Ebola had indeed brought some new policy priorities and funding difficulties, they also had to deal with a more profound donor fatigue. This affected the FSUs and Rainbo Centres even more than AdvocAid. Donors had reached the point at which they really wanted the government to take over funding responsibilities for certain organizations in the area of responding to sexual violence against women and girls,

‘Donors feel that they have poured so much money in the justice system, but they just don’t see the results. So they say, let’s stop the funding, let the government take responsibility. And, of course, this is their right and it makes sense in terms of sustainability. But it also creates a gap.’[11]

FSUs have been chronically underfunded for years and Rainbo Centres can still only offer a very limited set of services in a few location. This has meant that sexual violence cases still rarely make it to court and that survivors do not receive necessary medical attention.[12] Common complaints are, for example, that FSUs have none of the necessary basic equipment, like cars, fuel, pens and paper, to engage in a criminal investigation. Unpaid and insufficient salaries are also a constant problem, as they cause petty corruption. Survivors and/or their families and friends are usually asked for financial contributions before they can even make a report. An elderly woman in Freetown (a petty trader surviving on a hand-to-mouth basis) recently told me this typical story,

One time, I went with a girl [to the local FSU]. Three men had beaten and abused her. We went to the hospital and they gave her a medical paper. Next, we went to the police and sat down with one police woman. This woman told us to bribe her. She wanted 20.000 [Leones, roughly 3 Euro) before ever she was ready to do something. I told her that I was only holding 10.000. She said that she would wait first. And that was it. We did not go there again.[13]

During an interview with leading officers at an FSU Freetown in early 2014 (before Ebola), I was told that it was only during the time of the British-led post-war security sector reforms that there was sufficient funding.[14]

While FSUs have been experiencing this ‘gap’ for a number of years now, donors’ retreat from the Rainbo Centres is more recent but still predates Ebola. In my first Rainbo interview with a member of the board of governors of Rainbo Initiative, she explained that the organization had been in a difficult process of transition since 2014.[15] Here is her account of the organization’s history in brief: She explained that the very idea to found Rainbo Centres had come from a British policeman, Bill Roberts, who was a consultant for the British-led security sector reforms in the early 2000s.[16] Because of his initiative, Rainbo Centres became modelled after an organization in Manchester (most likely St. Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre).[17] The idea was to establish more private and secure-feeling places outside the police stations where women and girls would receive care and counselling and, at the same time, where professionals would be able to collect physical evidence of abuse. The three Rainbo Centres were established in 2003 (Freetown), 2004 (Kenema) and 2005 (Koidu). Until 2014, they were fully managed by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an international NGO. This meant that IRC raised funds and managed the centres’ budgets. From 2014 on, however, IRC supported Rainbo to become independent – under a national organization called Rainbo Initiative. This process was also approved and supported by Rainbo’s most important donor, Irish Aid, the Irish government’s programme for overseas development. Irish Aid has a steady relationship with IRC, which is its implementing partner in Sierra Leone. This relationship continues[18] while Irish Aid has been seeking to phase out its support for Rainbo Centres.

The idea was that an independent Rainbo Initiative would be able to raise and manage its own funds.[19] But without an international partner and the accompanying donor-connections, Rainbo Initiative has been unable to attract new donors. As an emergency measure, it received one last grant from Irish Aid to cover nurses’ and counsellors’ salaries until the end of January 2017; an additional grant from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to cover medical supplies, stationery, food etc. did not come through.[20]  When I visited the centre in Kono in February 2017, it was still operating and patients were coming in every day. The staff told me that they remained hopeful and trusted that their new executive director − James Fofanah, who had just started the job in January 2017 − would soon find a donor for them.[21]

Moving on to teenage pregnancy

When I spoke to Mr. Fofanah in late February 2017, he was indeed in the process of preparing several grant proposals. He explained that, at the moment, he really just wanted to make sure that the centres survived. In the medium and long term, however, he was going for a different strategy. He argued that it was absolutely necessary to include medical care for survivors of sexual violence into the regular government budget as part of the ‘free health care package’. The existing package is only for pregnant women, breast feeding mothers and infants under the age of five (and even their ‘free’ treatments are often not actually free of charge; petty corruption has been a major obstacle hindering access to basic health care in Sierra Leone[22]). What this means in practice is that survivors of sexual violence officially have to pay for themselves if they want to receive medical care − aside from an initial free check-up at Rainbo Centres (if there is a centre nearby) and unless they fall into the categories of pregnant women, breast feeding mothers and infants under the age of five. Mr. Fofanah argued that this situation urgently needed to change. In this, he is in perfect agreement with donors such as Irish Aid who have been advocating for the inclusion of sexual violence survivor-care into the government’s ‘free health care package’.[23]

In addition, Mr. Fofanah was also hoping to be able to persuade donors to include Rainbo Centres into the new focus on teenage pregnancy. This focus had been pushed during Ebola when sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies were reported to be massively on the rise due to girls’ increased vulnerability. Still, the topic was not exactly brand new. It had been introduced to Sierra Leonean policy makers via a widely received United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report in 2010[24] and had already been designated as a priority area for coordinated donor and government action before Ebola.[25] After Ebola, there are certainly no signs that it is slowing down. To the contrary, as I was speaking with Mr Fofanah in late February 2017, Irish Aid and IRC had just launched a new project in Kenema and Kailahun and additional teenage pregnancy related activities were going on in partnership with the international NGO Save the Children and the United Nations Populations Fund.[26] All these current activities focus, in one way or another, on raising awareness for the problem of ‘teenage pregnancy’ − as sexual abuse, as a considerable health risk and as a barrier to education and empowerment – and on encouraging girls to ‘say no to early sex‘ and stay in school.

Mr Fofanah felt that Rainbo Centres could complement these efforts. He referred to a recently published independent policy analysis, which takes a critical stance on the emphasis placed on changing girls’ attitudes and behaviours and calls for an approach that also considers changing contexts and structures.[27] This was where Mr. Fofanah saw a potential role for Rainbo Centres that might still attract donor-funding – if and when donors were ready to again invest in a less individualized approach to social change.

Lessons learned

What is there to be learned from this glimpse into the world of donor-involvement in the current ‘sexual violence situation’ in Sierra Leone? It is clear that donors have certainly not lost interest. Instead, they have shifted their focus towards new priorities offering problems that may still be solved and towards areas where donor-funded projects may still make a measurable impact and generate ‘value for money’[28]. It appears that such impact no longer seems possible with FSUs and Rainbo Centres. They should long have become owned by the national government or, at least, they should have become independent of steady donors who are no longer willing to take over government responsibilities.

The current situation in Sierra Leone appears to confirm perspectives that interpret donor-funded activities in the name of aid, peacebuilding and development as self-referential. In practice, they are about designing and doing ‘good projects’ that can have a demonstrable impact according to predefined indicators and standards. This happens, ’relatively independently of beneficiaries’ needs and preferences.’[29] For example, it might well be that many Sierra Leoneans would prefer external donors to make good use of available money to fund basic services − even if donors consider this a government responsibility and regard such actions as unsustainable and prolonging dependency. But, in any case, this option is never on the table. Donors decide when it is appropriate to push certain topics and withdraw funding in other areas – all in the name of assisting/empowering vulnerable people while respecting the state’s sovereignty (and avoiding accusations of neo-colonialism). When desired impact seems no longer possible, it becomes plausible and even inevitable to move on to problems that are more ‘attractive’, in the sense that they can be perceived of and presented as actionable and rewarding. This appears to be the case for ‘teenage pregnancy’ in Sierra Leone, which has been made into a matter of changing harmful attitudes among teenage girls and encouraging them to focus on their education and socio-economic empowerment. In addition, it is also presented as an issue of sexual violence − only without the messy components of Sierra Leone’s post-war security structure that have turned out as such disappointments.

It is still uncertain where this situation is headed and whether critical voices regarding the current individualized approach to social change in the realm of ‘teenage pregnancy’ will be heard. Much will probably depend on Sierra Leone’s 2018 general elections and on a new governments’ willingness and ability to make credible commitments to effectively become responsible for old problems and new priorities.


[1] See, e.g.,  Nina Devries, ‘Ebola drives increase in sexual violence in Sierra Leone, experts say’, Al Jazeera America, 20 February 2015, (last accessed 19 April 2017); Sheik Alie Y. Kallay, ‘Ebola and Gender Violence in Sierra Leone’, Awareness Times, 16 March 2015, (last accessed 19 April 2017).

[2] See UNDP, ‘Ebola Recovery in Sierra Leone: Tackling the rise in sexual and gender based violence and teenage pregnancy during the Ebola crisis’, (last accessed 19 April 2017).

[3] Skype job interview, 20 May 2015.

[4] Umaru Fofana, ‘Sierra Leone: “Real men don’t sleep with school girls”’, BBC Focus on Africa, 25 July 2016, (last accessed 19 April 2017).

[5] See Lina Abirafeh, ‘Building capacity in Sierra Leone’, Forced Migration Review 28 (2007), p. 20.

[6] See Lisa Denney and Aisha Fofana Ibrahim, ‘Violence against women in Sierra Leone: how women seek redress’ (Overseas Development Institute, London 2012), p. 13.

[7] See Peter Albrecht and Paul Jackson, ‘Security system transformation in Sierra Leone, 1997-2007’ (Global Facilitation Network for Security Sector reform and International Alert, Birmingham and London, 2009).

[8] Umaru Fofana, ‘Sierra Leone: “Real men don’t sleep with school girls”’, BBC Focus on Africa, 25 July 2016, (last accessed 19 April 2017).

[9] Mustapha Dumbuya, ‘Funding issues threaten support for Sierra Leone’s sexual abuse victims’, News Deeply, 23 August 2016, (last accessed 19 April 2019).

[10] See, e.g., ‘Favour’s story’, (last accessed 19 April 2017).

[11] Interview in Freetown, 14 November 2016.

[12] For an overview, see Lisa Denney and Aisha Fofana Ibrahim, ‘Violence against women in Sierra Leone: how women seek redress’ (Overseas Development Institute, London, 2012).

[13] Informal conversation in Freetown, 10 December 2016.

[14] Interview in Freetown, 10 January 2014.

[15] Interview in Freetown, 24 November 2016.

[16] See also Peter Albrecht and Paul Jackson, ‘Security system transformation in Sierra Leone, 1997-2007’ (Global Facilitation Network for Security Sector reform and International Alert, Birmingham and London, 2009), p. 40.

[17] Rainbo Centres were originally called ‘Sexual Assault Referral Centres’. On the centre in Manchester, see (last accessed 19 April 2017).

[18] See Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, ‘Ministers Flanagan and McHugh announce €2.2 million in funding to the International Rescue Committee’, press release, 23 February 2017, (last accessed 19 April 2017).

[19] Interview with Irish Aid’s gender advisor, Freetown, 27 January 2017.

[20] Interview with a member of the Rainbo Initiative’s board of governors, Freetown, 24 November 2016.

[21] Interview in Koidu, 6 February 2017.

[22] See Amnesty International, ‘At a crossroads: Sierra Leone’s free health care policy’ (Amnesty International, London, 2011).

[23] This is according to Irish Aid’s gender advisor, interview in Freetown, 27 January 2017.

[24] Emily Coinco, ‘A glimpse into the world of teenage pregnancy’ (UNICEF, New York, 2010).

[25] Government of Sierra Leone, ‘Let girls be girls not mothers: national strategy for the reduction of teenage pregnancy (2013-2015)’ (Government of Sierra Leone, Freetown, 2013).

[26] Interview with Irish Aid’s gender advisor, Freetown, 27 January 2017.

[27] Lisa Denney, Rachel Gordon, Aminata Kamara and Precious Lebby, ‘Change the Context not the girls: improving efforts to reduce teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone’ (Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium/Overseas Development Institute, Report No 11, London, 2016).

[28] ‘Value for money’ as a principle for programming and project-making is, ‘is about maximising the impact of each pound spent to improve poor people’s lives.’ DFID, ‘DFID’s approach to value for money (VfM)’ (Department for International Development, London, 2011), p. 2.

[29]See, e.g., Monika Krause, The good project: Humanitarian Relief NGOs and the Fragmentations of Reason (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, and London, 2014), p. 4.

Putting Gender Training to the Test

By Nicola Popovic;

Training sessions, workshops and courses form part of the professional environment in the development cooperation world. Not only cognitive knowledge but also attitudinal and behavioral changes form part of the learning agenda when working on human rights issues, sustainable peace and gender equality. Gender trainings in particular address soft skills and socio-emotional changes. These factors and shifts are difficult to measure. How can we evaluate whether training sessions really help to break glass ceilings, close pay gaps, prevent trafficking and violence through institutional reforms, and aid in statistical data collection? Continue reading Putting Gender Training to the Test

Proving Peace and Participation- Thoughts on Monitoring and Evaluation of the National Action Plans of Resolution 1325

by Nicola Popovic;

Even though some –even high level presidential candidates in some countries- these three concepts do not belong together, there exist a whole normative policy framework on Women, Peace and Security. Since its adoption, Resolution 1325 and its sister resolutions embrace a whole range of topics and issues and recommend specific activities and action points for governments, non-governmental organisations and the international community:

  • Resolution 1325 itself points out three dimensions including the need for full participation of women in peace processes, as well as the protection and prevention of armed and gender-based violence.
  • Resolution 1820 focuses on the protection of civilians from sexual and gender-based violence during armed conflict.
  • Resolution 1888 consequently mandates that the Secretary-General appoint a Special Representative to coordinate UN actions aimed to address sexual violence in armed conflict and to carry out advocacy at the national level with Member States. The resolution places a strong responsibility on peacekeepers for responding to sexual violence and requires that peacekeeping mandates include provisions regarding sexual violence.
  • Resolution 1889 strongly stresses the need for better reporting and monitoring mechanisms. At the national level, the resolution calls on Member States to develop National Action Plans. In order to track these and other implementation efforts, the resolution requests that the Secretary-General ensures that UN entities, in conjunction with Member States and civil society, collect data to assess the needs of women and girls in post-conflict situations.
  • Resolution 1960 states that the Security Council will utilize this information as a basis for further UN action. It also calls on parties of armed conflict to take specific measures to combat sexual violence and for the Secretary-General to track such measures.
  • The Resolutions 2106 and 2122, were both adopted in 2013.
  • Resolution 2106 focuses very much on supporting Member States in post-conflict scenarios to include a gender perspective in their recovery and peacebuilding efforts.
  • Resolution 2122 requests DPA and DPKO to report and include women, peace and security issues in their regular briefings and reports.

So far, 60 countries worldwide have developed national action plans to implement the basic principles the above resolutions recommend. Among them are almost all Western European countries of which, especially the Scandinavian countries have been on the forefront of the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of their national action plans. Even though almost all activities outlined in the action plans of Western countries focus on initiatives outside their own state borders,the actors affected have almost never been consulted or involved in review processes of these action plans. When working on empowerment and peaceful conflict resolution a non-patriach approach seems key but often compromised by unequal power relations in and even between countries.

The Austrian Action Plan for example very strongly focused on measuring the success and implementation of its development cooperation projects and peacekeeping missions in countries such as Northern Uganda, South Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, Rwanda.[1] The national action plan of Norway of 2006 has addressed and funded projects in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sudan and Nepal.[2] Both action plans focus therefore also their indicators on outputs outside the country of the action plan.

An indicator is “a measure that helps answer the question of how much, or whether, progress is being made toward a certain objective”[3] and are an integral part of a national action plan facilitating the needed monitoring process to prove its success or failure in different areas. In the context of national action planning on resolution 1325, the development of indicators for activities outside the state border of the country with the NAP (National Action Plan) means that the objective of the women, peace and security agenda in country X still does very much depend on the national priority of the donor country.

Examples of most common indicators in national action plans include the number of women in the armed forces or the number of cases of sexual and gender-based violence reported and prosecuted in a specific country during a specific period of time. Looking at these indicators separately they may provide misleading or incomplete information. Therefore, the use of qualitative indicator and a more contextualizing narrative is considered more and more important when reviewing these plans. But the narrative very often is not told by the people affected but by the people managing the development cooperation projects.

Even though several national action plans such have been reviewed, evaluated and updated by the governments, they almost never invite the affected population on the ground, the beneficiaries of the development cooperation projects and the 1325 NAP to provide their input about the good practices and lessons learned. Also the OSCE has conducted a study reviewing national action plans of their member states comparing the activities, structure and process of the action planning in those countries.[4] While other global policies have their well-defined reporting mechanisms such as CEDAW, the reporting on the advances on the implementation of resolution 1325 has been rather informal and anecdotal. Despite the adoption of global indicators[5] the reporting and comparison at the international level has always been rather anecdotal than systematic, reflected in the Secretary General reports, regional organisations such as the European Union and reviews by civil society organisations.[6]

Even though there is a general agreement with the global indicators developed by the United Nations, the indicators in each action plan have been developed by the national governments developing the NAP themselves in accordance to their policy priorities and capacities. The monitoring of the activities and outputs in harmony with the indicators also lay in the hands of the respectives governments. Evaluation on the other hand are often conducted by external actors, such as NGOs or independent consultants but nonetheless, inherently depend on the indicator previously developed. The collection of data and input into these evaluation and monitoring indicators almost depend on the governments and especially the leading ministry –Foreign Ministry for example- or institution –development agency for example- that works on the ground or hands out the financial resources to a collaborating agency.

In the case of most European action plans, which almost exclusively focus on activities outside their own state borders, it is particularly difficult to collect the data needed and contextualize the data in relation to the priorities of the country with the action plan, as well as the country where the implementation happened. For example, when a country like the Netherlands has several projects that are financed through the national action plan on resolution 1325 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the data collection on how he cases of sexual and gender based violence have increased or decreased and can be attributed to the project activities, has several complex layers and requires an understanding for the meanings of gender dynamics and definition of sexual and gender-based violence in the Netherlands as well as the DRC.

Outputs, activities and indicators in national action plans of European countries, therefore need to take the realistic data collection and contextualization of gender definition into consideration when developed. They should not only reflect the priorities and capacities inside the government of the action plan but take its impact zone into major consideration, which in especially in the case of European countries may lay outside the sphere in which it is developed. Consultations, base-line studies and participation of the local population and decision makers in the areas and countries of impact should ideally participate in the development process of the action plan, as well as the performance indicators. What may mean success on paper here, may not be a success in the country the activities are conducted in. In order to move truly promote gender equality and positive peace more participation and dialogue is needed overcoming unequal power structures that are still inherent in today development cooperation dynamics between donor and recipient country.

Action planning processes therefore should increase the inclusion of the end beneficiaries and the social changes attributed to in the country of destination. Monitoring and evaluation then should contribute to NAP reviews and updates that also involve the same national actors on the ground in order to improve the efficiency and most important the impact, preventing conflict and gender-based violence here and the countries Europe wants to support.




United Nations Development Programme. Measuring Democratic Governance: A Framework for Selecting Pro-poor and Gender Sensitive Indicators. New York and Oslo: 2006.

Deutscher Bundestag. Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Claudia Roth (Augsburg), Dr. Franziska Brantner, Uwe Kekeritz, weiterer Abgeordneter und der Fraktion BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN – Drucksache 18/2680 – Umsetzung des nationalen Aktionsplans zur UN-Resolution 1325. 18/2922. Berlin: 2014


GNWP. Women Count. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 –Civil Society Monitoring Report 2014. New York: 2014.


Government of Austria, Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs. Austrian Action Plan on Implementation UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000). Vienna: Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, August 2007.


OSCE. OSCE Study on the National Acton Plans on the Implementation oft he United Nations Security Council Resolution  1325. 2014
UN Women. Tracking Implementation of United Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000). New York: 2012


United Nations Security Council. Report of the Secretary General. Women, Peace and Security. S/2010/173. New York: 2010

[1] Government of Austria, Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs. Austrian Action Plan on Implementation UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000). Vienna: Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, August 2007.

[2] Government of Norway, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Norwegian Government’s Action Plan for the Implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security. Oslo: Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 2006.

[3] United Nations Development Programme. Measuring Democratic Governance: A Framework for Selecting Pro-poor and Gender Sensitive Indicators. New York and Oslo: 2006.

[4] OSCE. OSCE Study on the National Acton Plans on the Implementation oft he United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. 2014

[5] United Nations Security Council. Report of the Secretary General. Women, Peace and Security. S/2010/173. New York: 2010

[6] GNWP. Women Count. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 –Civil Society Monitoring Report 2014. New York: 2014.

The F-words – Female Freedom Fighters in Post-colonial Zimbabwe

October 2016

by Nicola Popovic 

When she speaks about her decision to join the rebels across the border in Mozambique, her face and demeanor embody that of a teenage girl fascinated by the spiritual power around the freedom fighters, disappointed by her conservative Christian education, and denied the possibilities white kids had in Southern Africa in the 1970s. The Zimbabwean myth that a freedom fighter can change “from one being into another” attracted the young Shona woman. It led to her decision to pay back her old school director for his maltreatment of her and to join the rebel forces. The name she chose for herself is “Freedom” and she insists that it was not only a free choice for her to join the rebel forces.

The context in which Freedom grew up left no space for the professional development, political participation nor economic prosperity for a young black woman. Unequal power relations were determined by factors such as race, gender and ethnicity (for example, between the Shona, Nbdele and Tonga). During the colonialisation process, Rhodesia was under the rule of the British crown and foreign investors, most of whom were European. The country’s economic and social structures were determined by large farms inhabited by their white owners as well as the numerous black farm employees who earned very unequal pay.

When the pressure to hold democratic elections increased among the population in Zimbabwe, in 1965 Southern Rhodesia declared unilateral independence, maintaining colonial rule under Ian Smith. The continuation of the colonial structures eventually led to a civil war from 1966 to 1980 starting with an uprising of  the black local population. Among the most prominent objectives of the liberation struggle were the establishment of a democratic and representative government (one man one vote), the unification and identification of an African people, the end of oppression, and liberation from colonialism and imperialism.[1]

The promise for a more equal and just society led many young Zimbabwean men and women to join the freedom fighters. A female ex-combatant states: “I heard it said that if the armed struggle was successful we would have the same education as the whites. …The final thing that moved me to go to Mozambique was the curfew. Blacks were not allowed to go out after 6 o’clock. I knew by right I was a Zimbabwean yet I hadn’t the pleasure of moving in the country as an indigenous person.”[2]

The reasons men and women joined the rebel forces were as manifold, diverse and influenced by their gender roles as their actual experiences of the armed conflict. Because of the complexity of political and ethnic identities that still shapes Zimbabwe today, there is only limited space for the narrative of female freedom fighters. Their experiences of carrying a gun in hyper masculine and militarized environments as well as their experiences of sexual abuse, the double burden of family obligations, and changing gender identities have never been acknowledged in a way that recognizes and accepts these experiences. Even though they are celebrated by nationalist leaders, female freedom fights remain surrounded by images of violence, aggression and sexual availability that catapults them outside the recognised, –traditional gender role that society has prescribed for women.

In Zimbabwe and many other situations, traditional gender differences are overcome for the sake of the struggle. During the Zimbabwean struggle, women were welcomed as combatants, supporter, nationalists, and politicians but also maintained their traditional female roles in the household. Traditional female tasks as well as non-conventional tasks, such as carrying a gun, were part of the female involvement of armed struggle. Women often carried out traditional supporting roles as cooks, cleaners and secretaries rather than military commanders. Rural civilian women often supported the guerilla movement by providing food, information, warm water and shelter. The support in food and goods not only meant that women supplying the guerrillas would put themselves in danger but that they also had to compensate for the economic loss to their own families and households.

On the frontlines, men and women found themselves both voluntarily and non-voluntarily involved in the armed struggle. The reasons for involvement varied. Freedom’s reasons were based on her reflections about her societal status, and the dreams and freedoms she strove for through the armed struggle. While others had political objectives from the beginning of their involvement, Freedom only came to discover the political concepts behind the liberation movement when she was already involved in it.

Not all women who became part of the freedom fighters’ support system or even as active fighters joined out of political conviction. Fear, for example, could stem from both sides. Both the Rhodesian soldiers and the guerillas could be a central reason for the involvement in the armed struggle for men as well as women. Poverty, abduction and empathy can also provoke various forms of participation in an armed conflict. Even if not politically involved, civilian women often were caught in between the frontline requests for food, shelter and physical availability. “The connections made by women between the lights of poverty, violence and struggle during the revolution and aid policies, and the failures of government pointed to the continuities of this everyday terrain of local resistance.”[3]

In Zimbabwe, spirituality is an additional factor that interplays with other political and social dynamics. Spirits and mediums are highly connected to ancestors and the land, the ownership of which clashes with colonial land policies and economic exploitation, representing a central issue in the armed conflict and political debate even today. The myths around the spiritual power of the freedom fighters and the spirits inhabiting Zimbabwean soil played a large part in Freedom’s decision to participate in the armed struggle, which is also the case for other rebels.

Armed conflict can dissolve the public-private dichotomy that shapes the female role in society, and instead make women contributors and allies in the war, even if passively and indirectly. While mere survival for her and her family is a lot less romantic, it is a strong determining factor that made women compromise and participate in the revolutionary struggle. “Rich complexity marks women´s understanding of what they participated; the nature of women´s political consciousness was differentiated and varied from slogan-led politicization to grounded experiences of felt oppression. These women´s understandings of the politics of war emerged from their own local experiences in the main and involved a language of resistance that is dedicated on limited life choices, the degradation of poverty voiced as anger or the wordless lassitude of clapped hands to denoted hopelessness.[4]

While their contributions may have been diverse, there is a discourse that has a romanticizing connotation in political speeches in the liberated post-colonial Zimbabwe today. The fact that women have been fighting next to men is not a secret. For example, Robert Mugabe, then leader of the ZANU-PF armed wing, recognized that, ”‘our women fighters have demonstrated beyond all doubt that they are as capable as men and deserve equal treatment, both in regard to training and appointments. It is also necessary that we should promote more women to the High Command’.”[5] Even though there is political recognition of female freedom fighters, the voices of female ex-combatants are rarely heard; they seldom sit at the peace table and are hardly included in shaping national or international policy and politics now that the conflict has been settled. Their roles in  the armed struggle as well as after its termination and the subsequent change in political leadership have had to continuously be re-negotiated until today.

It is even said that the “actual number of female fighters tends to be exaggerated. Figures for ZANU vary from one third of the total fighting force inside Zimbabwe to accounts of 1,500- 2,000 female fighters. (…) Figures in 1987 show that 75 per cent of women fighters and workers in ZANU camps in Mozambique were between ages of 14-24 while the remaining 25 per cent were in the 25-29 age group.”[6] While the number of active fighters may be lower than is often referenced, the number of women participating in the armed struggle by supporting the fighting forces both directly and indirectly remains unknown.

The variety of roles that women played as well as their significance and contributions to the armed struggle are often indirect, untold, and hidden behind the grey area between the faithful housewife and the heroic female guerilla fighter. It is hard to grasp the female perspective about the liberation struggle, political movements and the current political participation of women due to the invisibility of women and their perspectives on political developments, the insecurities women still face regarding their identity, and their role in political processes. The oral tradition of storytelling, poetry and drama that forms a rich part of Zimbabwean culture lacks documentation and integration in the writing of history. This article does not attempt to do that justice, but rather to highlight the existence of a different perspective of a liberation struggle that started over 30 years ago and has yet to end.

Nonetheless, the narrative of female combatants differs significantly from civilians, the diaspora and the side of the Rhodesian army. “These experiences are so filled with contradictions whereby women may not be faithfully following the roles read off from their domestic existence or from a military imperative; a woman growing food in the face of guerilla demands or resources and state counterinsurgency attempts to cut off such supplies cannot remain in the cozy category of the domestic but is drawn into and forms part of the public reality of war.”[7] Supplying food, washing of the guerrilla’s clothes, and also the threat or pressure to sexual relationships with participants of either side are still underestimated as collateral damage and passive involvement in the war. Nonetheless, it represents active participation that shaped the historic outcome of the liberation movement even though it remains unmentioned and appreciated in political discourse.

Freedom becomes angry when she remembers one military commander who ordered her to come into his tent. Being only being sixteen and without military training, it was easy for him to rape her. She remembers how useless it was to the report to her supervisor since all reporting lines would end up at the commander’s hands. Chains of command within the military are highly hierarchal and it was impossible to organize independent judicial systems in a liberation struggle such as that in Zimbabwe in the seventies. Access to justice or even compensation for sexual abuse perpetrated against female freedom fighters is unheard of in Zimbabwe as in most armed conflicts. Women are often portrayed as victims rather than as survivors, especially when it comes to sexual violence, since this portrayal does not seem to fit the image of a comrade fighting at the front line. The role of the victim and perpetrator may not always be as clear in the chaos of war, and sexual relations are often far more complex and multifaceted as the story Freedoms tells us is.

Even though a lot of women joined the freedom forces out of their free will, there are also testimonies about forced abduction of young male and female children who eventually became soldiers and often mistresses and wives to the male commanders. Sexual violence, beatings and abuse are recognized to have been common occurrences in the military camps, even for those who joined voluntarily, like Freedom. As in any armed conflict, sexual violence has not only been used as a tool to reward male combatants for their sacrifices and joy, not only to scare, threaten and torture the enemy’s side, but also to discipline and control within ranks. In militarized environments, sexual relations that occur without the use of force may be influenced by military hierarchies, the fear of violence and an unspoken obligation to consent. The exchange of sex for food and goods may also be symptomatic of situations of armed conflict and limited resources in the struggle for survival.

For a women´s movement to drive social change and lay a foundation of gender equality after an armed conflict, social and political consciousness and continuous revolt against oppression that prevents the re-collapse in old patriarchal power dynamics is required. Promises to be freed from the discriminatory white rule and access to free education and farm land were gender blind and given to women and men equally under the conceptual umbrella of socialism.

Reintegration in the post-colonial society after the end of the liberation struggle has been particularly challenging for women who broke their traditional gender role, and returned as war veterans and female liberation fighters. A return to the rural communities to fulfill traditional female roles was impossible for most female war veterans. The degradation to a level of insignificance in the division of labour and political decision making led to disillusionment, even denial of having participated in the armed struggle. For a former female combatant, it is nearly impossible to identify and share experiences and sentiments not just with the women left behind, but also with male comrades because they have been denied an equal stance with them post warfare.

Though being mentioned, women returning from the battlefield did not receive the same recognition as their male comrades. No demobilization or reintegration program existed in Zimbabwe, and women in particular found themselves being relegated to old gender roles that they no longer fit into. Additionally, female former ex-combatants had more difficulty accessing public security services. Women ex-combatants confronted challenges over their social reintegration, both in terms of facing personal stigmatization and social rejection and, at the national level, in terms of being accorded inadequate recognition for the part they played in the liberation struggle.[8]

In the late 1990s, former war veterans played violent roles in the political realm due to the lack of appropriated compensation for their services, as they claimed. They as well as the unemployed youth were easily mobilised and instrumentalised for political rallies and campaigns. The involvement of female ex-combatants in this time is unknown.

The formation of governmental structures, such as the Ministry of Women Affairs and Community Development in 1981, are an attempt to create space for the inclusion of gender issues at the policy levels. The formation of women´s organizations, including the establishment of the Women´s Coalition of Zimbabwe shows that initiatives have emerged after independence to promote an agenda pushing and protect women´s rights. However, the lack of funding, political power and internal unity paralyzed a common agenda of the women´s movement.

Freedom wished to find a job in conflict prevention to share her experience and knowledge about the temptations and horrors of revolution and war. She wanted to inspire with poetry and activism for peace. She did for many years but died in an accident, this year, in 2016. She is one example of the many strong and courageous women in Zimbabwe who joined a struggle for liberation, women who were not afraid to get hurt or even die. But she is also an example of a woman who treasured peace and kindness, poetry, music and freedom of speech. These women and stories should be made more visible and listened to. There are very valuable lessons to be learned from them. The international community should involve them more actively in peace processes and peacebuilding initiatives.


[1] Kriger, Norma (1992). Zimbabwe’s Guerrilla War: Peasant Voices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Bond-Stewart, Kathy (1984) Young Women in the Liberation Struggle: Stories and Poems from Zimbabwe. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House. See also:‘liberation’-gender-and-the-‘national-liberation-movement’-in-zimbabwe

[3] Gorman, Eleanor. The Frontline Runs Through Every Woman. African Issue.CPI Group, London: 2011, p.13.

[4] Gorman, Eleanor. The Frontline Runs Through Every Woman. African Issue.CPI Group, London: 2011, p. 70.

[5] Chogugudza, Patricia (2006) ‘Gender and War: Zimbabwean Women and the Liberation Struggle’. p. 39.

[6] Gorman, Eleanor. The Frontline Runs Through Every Woman. African Issue.CPI Group, London: 2011, p. 57.

[7] Gorman, Eleanor. The Frontline Runs Through Every Woman. African Issue.CPI Group, London: 2011, p. 23.

[8] Lyons, Tanya (2007) ‘The Forgotten Soldiers: Women in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War’. Southern Africa Report, 12:2, February.

MPI’s Henri Myrttinnen for The Guardian: Sexual violence has many victims


“It’s good Angelina Jolie is highlighting the horror of sex as a war weapon, but the campaign risks overlooking male, transgender and peacetime victims”, writes MPI’s board member Henri Myrttinnen in a recent article for British national newspaper “The Guardian”. Read the full article here.

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