By James S. Shilue
One institution that has shown and continues to demonstrate high level of adaptation and professionalism in the face of the multitude of post- war challenges confronting Liberia is the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). The AFL, which is composed of the army, the Coast guard and the Air force, as far as my memory can serve, policies are drawn from US army doctrine. The US army has explicit Gender policy, which guides gender issues and recruitment processes. Considering that the AFL’s legal and regulatory framework is patterned on the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), it is presumed that the on-going efforts by AFL to recruit women in the army is based on a comprehensive Gender policy.
Worldwide, the military plays an important role in moving forward the (Women, Peace and Security) agenda by increasing women’s representation in the army and enhancing their role in both conflict-related and peacetime operations. The current efforts to recruit more women in the Liberian army is an adherence to United Nations Security Council (UNSC) 1325. The resolution acknowledged the changing nature of warfare, in which civilians are increasingly targeted, and women continue to be excluded from participation in peace processes. Thus, AFL initiative could be seen as a part of a wider strategy aimed at making AFL a force for good. However, in order to effectively do this, UNSC 1325 mandates members states to consider and specifically address how women and girls are differentially impacted by conflict and war. The resolution affirms that peace and security efforts are more sustainable when women are equal partners in the prevention of violent conflict, the delivery of relief and recovery efforts and in forging lasting peace.
As such, AFL’s preoccupation with recruiting more women should therefore take a holistic review of the entire organizational culture, military accession policies, demographic patterns, cultural values regarding gender, and structural patterns of gender roles. Indeed, this would require a visionary leadership, commitment and political will, which the current leadership seem to possess. Prior to the civil crisis, the Liberian army was one of those establishments that was not only known for keeping and accommodating regime loyalists and people at the lowest ebb of society locally known as ‘noko’ but the military was domiciled for patrons to provide their clients with employment opportunities based on ethnicity, identity and social affiliation. Moreover, the pivotal role played by the AFL during the crisis polluted its reputation such that some even refer to the national army as ‘warring faction’. There is even a common joke around Monrovia that because the AFL was so lethal during the war, even dogs were afraid of anything that looks green. This epitomizes the level of traumatization that AFL involvement in the crisis has caused, hence a need for a drastic transformation in order to make the AFL more representative of and responsive to post war Liberia development challenges.
That said, it is nevertheless worth noting that the AFL has made remarkable improvements since the war ended in 2003. Thanks to the support of the international community and the resolve of Liberians to never go back to war. Today, the caliber of leaders within the AFL brings pride to Liberians such that more Liberians trust the AFL than the police. One study shows that 77 percent of Liberians said that they trust the AFL, when it comes to corruption, compared to 58 percent that trust the LNP. Interestingly, the LNP receive huge support from international partners and has undertaken more reforms compared to the AFL. For example, in early 2005, LNP’s transitional leaders and their international counterparts created a gender policy that laid the groundwork for (1) correcting the gender representation imbalance, (2) setting up a gender unit, and (3) responding to the needs of gender-based violence survivors. Also, the LNP and UNMIL launched a countrywide recruiting drive that targeted women at high schools and universities, at community events, and at rural gathering places throughout Liberia’s 15 counties. Additionally, the LNP’s personnel office worked to build a recruitment strategy that emphasized special incentives for young women to join the police service, such as education, lodging, and meals at the National Police Training Academy, in addition to regular salaries. These measures certainly help to increase the presence of women in the police force. However, I am not sure the AFL has been able to receive similar support.
Before delving further, I am sure some would wonder why a non-military person have so much interest in this matter. The simple answer is I am concerned about this because of the theme for 2020 Armed Forces Day celebration. “Strategies to Incorporate More Females in the Security Sector; AFL in Perspective”. I was even piqued when military authorities recently lamented their frustration in getting more women to join the army. It was disclosed that since 2011, the percentage of women in the army has dropped from 8% to 3.2%. One of the questions that I ponder with is why is it that the LNP which attracts so much support and continues to initiate different reforms, as far gender representation is concerned, remains less trusted by many Liberians compared to the AFL that literally has very low support and less women representation in its ranks and files but more trusted?
To understand this paradoxical glitch, it is important to have an appreciation of the global context. In addition to the mandate to members state to implement UNSC 1325, the global calls for defense reforms is becoming imperative and when undertaking these reforms, there are several critical issues to consider. Among others, the need to encourage civil society into the debate and citizens’ awareness of and engagement with defense reform issues. Another important issue to take into consideration is the promotion of ethnic and social balances and equal opportunity policies, including gender diversity, according to the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD-DAC).
The issues of gender and inequality have been a fixation of development practitioners over the years and as a CSO practitioner with feminist inclination, there is no appropriate time to contribute to the quest for gender reform in the army and other national institutions than now. Gender mainstreaming and equality is a globally mandated requirement and of course, it is important to recognize that when men and women are allowed to equally participate in decision-making processes, be it in the army or other disciplines, better results are achieved for the community, the society and the nation.
In the context of the military in Liberia, women have unfortunately not been attracted to this profession largely because the army has historically been known as dumping ground for uncompromising male chauvinists. Furthermore, during the wars (1989-2003), most of the militia groups that masqueraded as armies dressed in rag-tag green attires and committed all kinds of heinous crimes against humanity, including raping women and dismembering pregnant women to see the undeveloped fetus. Child soldiers and with Rambo-like style, high on drugs acting under the command of their commanders killed unarmed civilians and forcibly took women and girls as their wives and slaves. Although such Rambo and regional warrior war culture have subsided, the pains and agony endured by majority of the female victims, most of whom have yet to receive any redress, hence these could be major contributing factors for the lack of interest in the army.
The suffering women and girls underwent during Liberia’s civil wars cannot be ignored, when trying to encourage them to join any institution, especially those that they perceived as been responsible for some of the social and economic problems they are faced with in today’s Liberia. AFL therefore needs to have a gender sensitive recruitment strategy that recognizes that our crisis affects men and women differently, hence the assertion that ‘women recruits will not be treated differently’ is unfortunately counterproductive to the overall goal of increasing the number of women in the army.
Virtually, every part of Liberia that was ravaged by conflict, women still labor under an avalanche of disadvantages due to the crisis and patriarchal system, which has historically placed men as the superior of the women, thus justifying the subordination of women to men. In the first Liberian civil war, there were widespread reports of sexual violence including sexual coercion towards women. Women were forced into sexual relationship with soldiers not with due consent, but they were often forced because of wartime conditions in order to feed themselves, their families or even to have shelter and clothing, or for protection and safety.
Experience shows that anywhere sexual violence against women takes place, it damages the health and wellbeing of women. The Liberia Demographic Health Survey (2007) states that 44% of women have experienced physical violence since they were 15 years old, also 10% of Liberian women aged 15-49 who have ever had sexual intercourse say that their first sexual experience was forced against them. World Health Organization (WHO) notes that women who suffer from sexual violence have poorer health in the long term than women who have not been affected by such violence. Recently, defense authority said about eighty per cent of female candidates who attempted to join the army were unfit. The recruitment process, among others, requires that candidates should be able to successfully complete some physical exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups and should be able to run two miles as well as pass an aptitude text.
While I am not arguing for a blank cheque for women candidates who are desirous of joining the army, I think Retired Major Gen. Daniel Ziankahn’s strategy to reduce the fears of females concerning the physical aspect of the recruitment process should not only be limited to pre-training exercise before the recruitment process; but extra efforts need to be made to address the awful and often painful experiences women and girls suffered at the hands of folks wearing “green attire”. The prevailing masculine culture embodied in the military will certainly make recruitment of women and girls into the military not to be as easier as it is for their male counterparts. Also, Liberia is a patriarchal society with male domination in all aspects of our living. In other words, we should not view the difficulties involved in recruiting women in the army as mere negative perceptional issue but the legacies of the war, which is further reinforced by the lack of comprehensive gender policy in most national institutions.
For a post-conflict country like Liberia, recruiting women and girls into the Military should be a part of a holistic national reconciliation package that involves mending and transforming relationships; healing the physical and psychological wounds women and non-militants experienced from the civil war, confronting and addressing historical wrongs including reshaping the entire security system, creating mechanisms of effective community- military relationships, building accountable state institutions and maintaining a healthy connection between the military and the rest of society. By executing these measures, we can engender changes in the construct and perception of the army, and these actions represent paradigm shift from the notion of state security to human security. It is important to realize that Human security incorporates the security of individuals and communities and broadens both the nature of security threats (including food security, environmental security, GBV, etc).
Therefore, in order to motivate more women to join the army, we need human security strategy to address some of the wider socio-economic and political issues hindering women capacity to join the military. This will require the AFL to work with CSOs, specialized entities and community-based groups. Essentially, it involves a general review of existing process, style and even the main questions for the aptitude test. It would also be prudent to critically analyze the urban-rural dichotomy in terms of the recent performance by candidates to understand why rural female candidates performed better in the physical exercises than their urban colleagues who performed better in the attitude test but poorly in physical exercises. Working with psychosocial and research organizations to understand sociological patterns and nuances will certainly help to improve subsequent recruitment process.
Another strategy is to create female mentorship programs to ensure that all female recruits and potential recruits have access to female recruiters and mentors. Again, working in partnership with NGOs will positively aid the process. There is no need to take anything for granted-for instance, we need to understand if many female recruiters are involved and what strategies are in place to increase the proportion of female recruiters to boost their presence as well as retain them to avoid burn out. Also, there is a need to find out if female candidates are expected to go through burdensome administrative requirements, for instance, does the aptitude test involve so much paperwork, long waiting time even if the female candidates have to return home and quickly look after their children. In a country where women are often raped, are there special attention and considerations for how long female candidates should be asked to wait, recognizing that when darkness comes, they will be at risk returning home? Streamlining the recruiting process to address the peculiar needs of female candidates will serve as impetus to the process.
Besides the emphasis on high school diploma and being a Liberian, what are the other criteria and how are they being applied? Who applies them? How information about recruitment are disseminated? Perhaps it would be helpful to create additional advertising and promotional materials highlighting the variety of roles that women fill in the military services and countering stereotypes and misperceptions about military service. The observation that women are good shooters than men needs to be put in context and properly explained to enable candidates to understand the message properly. AFL should consider organizing regular group events so that all female candidates can freely interact with female recruiters and colleagues.
In terms of educational qualification, what kinds of consideration is given to women who are physically and mentally capable but don’t have high school diploma because they dropped out of school because their male partners impregnated them and undermined their desire to become an army personnel? This question is important because having diploma is not all and in fact anybody can obtain a good diploma from ‘World Street’ but could not properly read and write. So, there needs to be some critical thinking here, considering that intelligence is not measured by diploma. Are there provision for child day care? In short, thinking out the box is inevitable in the recruitment drive.
Finally, recruiting women into the military requires a multifaceted approach, if we are interested in having an AFL, representative of all groupings within our country. Like any SSR reform process, we need to be concerned with re-rebranding the entire AFL and redesigning important structures so that they reflect the needs and challenges of post war Liberia. With women constituting 49.77 % of our population and the crucial role they have played in bringing peace to Liberia, it is imperative that they be included in the military to ensure lasting peace, to foster representativeness, and national ownership- all of which will increase trust and the legitimacy of AFL.