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date: 25 June 2022

Women’s Participation in Violent Non-State Organizationsfree

Women’s Participation in Violent Non-State Organizationsfree

  • Meredith LokenMeredith LokenUniversity of Amsterdam
  •  and Hilary MatfessHilary MatfessUniversity of Denver


Women are active participants in violent non-state actors/organizations (VNSAs). They engage in the front-line environment as armed fighters; participate off the front line as spies, recruiters, medics, and logisticians; and lead military units, hold political positions, and craft policy and outreach efforts. Women participate in VNSAs for a myriad of reasons and through a number of pathways: they join voluntarily as politicized recruits; are recruited through economic resources, potential for adventure, or other practical opportunities; may view VNSAs as a survival choice; or may be forcibly recruited. Women’s participation in VNSAs is significant both for the characteristics of political violence—as women often have unique discursive importance to organizational narratives and representations—and for conflict outcomes. VNSAs’ gender dynamics and the diverse experiences of women participants also shape post-conflict processes and durable peace efforts. The integration (or exclusion) of women from demobilization and reintegration programming, peace negotiations, and former-militant political parties affects the nature of the post-conflict political settlement.


  • Conflict Studies
  • Politics and Sexuality and Gender
  • Security Studies


War has never been only men’s domain, but research on conflict has historically marginalized women’s contributions. Still, efforts to assess women’s participation in violent non-state armed actors/organizations (VNSAs) across groups have been tremendously productive. The Women in Armed Rebellion Dataset (WARD), for example, found that at least 40% of rebel groups operating between 1964 and 2014 included women as combatants, defined as women who “underwent military training, received combat arms, and directly participated in organized violence on behalf of the organization in any capacity during the conflict” (Wood & Thomas, 2019, p. 2). Women not only serve as rank-and-file members of VNSAs, but in many organizations, they also compose part of the leadership structure. Indeed, subsequent research revealed that at least 20% of groups include both female combatants and women in leadership positions (Henshaw et al., 2019). Grounding and complementing these cross-national, quantitative tallies are rich qualitative accounts of women’s participation in armed groups (cf. Amusan et al., 2019; Baines, 2017; Coulter, 2011; Gowrinathan, 2021; Lyons, 2004; Matfess, 2017; Trisko Darden et al., 2019; Viterna, 2013). These accounts make clear that both voluntary recruits and women who are conscripted into their positions can play influential roles in VNSAs; that they participate in a variety of positions within groups; and that they often, but not always, internalize the objectives or ideology of the organization.

Many accounts underscore the frequency with which women work in non-combat roles, but this type of participation is relatively under-studied in the academic literature. Consider the assertion of Tarnaala (2016, p. 1), in her study of gender-sensitive disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programming, that women “typically perform non-combat tasks that are gender-stereotypical for women in their society, such as delivering messages; organising financial and intelligence work in communities; or preparing food, cooking, cleaning, and being porters in army camps.” Yet we have few estimates of how prevalent such work is across contexts. In these and other oft-overlooked roles, women constitute an important part of VNSAs’ infrastructure and organizational capacity. We cannot understand a country’s military by examining only its combat arms divisions. Similarly, understanding VNSAs requires recognizing participants who did not fight on the front line.

In addition to making tangible contributions as participants in VNSAs, women and representations of women can constitute powerful symbols and feature prominently in organizational imagery and propaganda. Images of women performing gender roles defined by the VNSAs can be a powerful means of motivating fighters, legitimizing group activity, and recruiting new members. This includes, for example, images of women taking up arms to demonstrate the righteousness of a cause or encouraging men to join armed groups in order to protect victimized women (Loken, 2021; Matfess & Nagel, 2020).

Women’s wartime contributions also have post-conflict significance. Their participation may reshape social gender norms, as the in-VNSA organizations that women form during conflict can go on to become influential lobbying groups, wings of political parties, or civil society organizations (Hassim, 2015; Jad, 2011). In other cases, women’s experiences as members of an armed group may encourage a “withdrawal” from politics (Ketola, 2020). In sum, women’s participation in VNSAs shapes the activities, capabilities, and trajectories of these organizations and their contributors. Women’s contributions have wartime implications, as well as post-conflict legacies.

This article examines the scope of women’s participation within VNSAs, summarizing the scale and significance of women’s combat, non-combat, leadership, and discursive contributions. It considers what is known and what is left to unpack regarding the origins, effects, importance, and context of women’s participation in politically violent groups. This article also discusses the post-conflict significance of women’s contributions by examining the gendered dynamics of postconflict agreements, reintegration, and efforts to hold women accountable for human rights abuses. It outlines an agenda for future research that grapples with the myriad roles that women take on in VNSAs and the symbolic importance of gender to these organizations’ political projects.

Conceptualizing “Armed Actors” and “Women’s Participation”

Much of the literature on women’s mobilization into VNSAs focuses on rebel groups, often drawing samples from the UCDP Dyadic Conflict Dataset (cf. Henshaw et al., 2019; Wood & Thomas, 2017). Women also compose an important part of communal conflicts, gangs, cartels, politico-criminal enterprises, and other non-state armed actors that fail to meet the inclusion criteria for these data (Arsovska & Allum, 2014; Matfess, 2020; Musa, 2018; Shaw & Skywalker, 2017; Thomas, 2021a). This article uses the following definition of VNSAs: rebel groups, community militias, organizations reliant on terrorist tactics, and any other formally organized armed group not formally affiliated with a government.

There are a myriad of pathways through which women join these organizations. Women, and girls, join non-state organizations voluntarily as politicized recruits; they are also recruited through economic resources, potential for adventure, or other practical opportunities (Viterna, 2013). Women may participate because life in or service to rebellion meets survival needs or is the least bad option, and some are forcibly—sometimes violently—recruited (Baines, 2017; Coulter, 2011; Matfess, 2017; Viterna, 2013). This article considers women’s participation in non-state armed groups, regardless of where along the spectrum of voluntary to forced recruitment their entrance into the organization falls.1

This choice is motivated by three characteristics of women’s participation in VNSAs and the related literature. First, a full accounting of recruitment practices is not available for many groups, so it is not always possible to meaningfully differentiate between abducted and recruited members across organizations.2 Second, the very notion of “voluntary” recruitment is a slippery one. While abduction of individuals into armed groups is clearly involuntary recruitment, the lines blur when we consider those who join rebel groups because of coercive material incentives, desperation, or in the face of intense social or familial pressure. Third, qualitative evidence reveals that forcibly recruited women may still exercise some degree of autonomy within group ranks and even go on to support organizational objectives. Consider, for example, the accounts of young women abducted into rebel groups in Sierra Leone who went on to serve in combat roles in these organizations (Coulter, 2011). Abductees into non-state armed groups may indeed form powerful wartime bonds (Cohen, 2016).

This is a broad approach to “participation” that conceptually distinguishes it from the question of consent and voluntarism. And while women may participate in VNSAs for reasons akin to men’s and take on similar roles and responsibilities, it is important to study women’s involvement as a unique phenomenon, both because it has been comparatively neglected in research focused on VNSAs and because of how pre-conflict gender norms and expectations frame pathways into and experiences of violence. Consequently, as this article makes clear, VNSAs’ gendered dynamics and the gender norms of their communities shape both how women participate in armed violence and how observers perceive these campaigns.

Determinants of and Pathways for Women’s Participation in Armed Groups

A rich scholarship suggests that women’s participation in VNSAs results from social characteristics, organizational factors, individual motivations, and the availability of pathways into political violence (Asal & Jadoon, 2020; Lyons, 2004; Parkinson, 2013; Thomas, 2021a; Thomas & Bond, 2015; Thomas & Wood, 2018; Viterna, 2006, 2013). Studies of women’s recruitment often focus on women in combat roles. Less attention is paid to women’s non-combat involvement, though there are deep case study accounts that examine women’s entry more broadly (Amusan et al., 2019; Hedström, 2022; Mason, 2001; Parkinson, 2013; Viterna, 2013).

Some research finds that gendered social characteristics, including women’s relative political rights, educational opportunities, and participation in the labor force, influence whether or not they will fight for VNSAs (Asal & Jadoon, 2020; Thomas & Wood, 2018). Yet these explanations have difficulty accounting for the variation within conflicts, where different groups integrate women at varying levels. For example, gender issues and the status of women have become fault lines and a means by which belligerents differentiate themselves in Syria’s civil war (Szekely, 2020). Similarly, women in some conflicts report side-switching to pursue new opportunities in other VNSAs (Trisko Darden et al., 2019).

Other studies conclude that organizational characteristics like ideology create more or less permissive conditions for female recruitment (Thomas & Bond, 2015; Wood & Thomas, 2017). For example, leftist rebel organizations appear most likely to recruit women combatants (Wood & Thomas, 2017). In contrast, religious fundamentalist groups rarely employ female fighters, even when faced with tactical incentives to do so (Wood, 2019). For groups that assert women’s equality as an objective, visibly incorporating female fighters can serve to further their broad imagining of a new society and as a demonstration of their commitment to the cause (Alison, 2009). VNSAs that rely on suicide attacks, assassinations, or other stealth-dependent tactics may especially benefit from integrating women into their operations, especially when prevailing gender norms limit women’s participation in public life. This is because under such conditions, security forces may be less likely to suspect women as attackers and, consequently, because women blend into civilian settings (Thomas, 2021b).

Group ideology or other governing tenants may also affect the nature of women’s contributions; leaders of VNSAs may restrict women to specific roles based on politics or situational demands. The Mong Tai Army (MTA), for example, formed when the Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA) merged with other armed groups in Myanmar. While women had been “actively recruited as rank and file soldiers” into the SURA, the MTA “barred women from being foot soldiers” and previously front-line women were “demoted” to support roles in the organization (Ferguson, 2013, p. 9). In another example, Hamas restricted women to non-combat roles for religious reasons until the mid-2000s, when “strategic restraints on men,” successful attacks by women suicide bombers in other Palestinian organizations, and new religious justifications led the group to re-evaluate its policy and condone women’s limited participation on the front line (Margolin, 2019, p. 43).

Shifts in organizational approaches to women’s integration (or lack thereof) demonstrate how ideology can intersect with battlefield conditions and organizations’ material needs. One telling example is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a left-wing rebel group that emphasizes its commitment to women’s political equality and eventually recruited female fighters in large numbers. Women were not always welcomed into FARC ranks on equal footing with men or in large numbers: this shift to a greater reliance on women’s participation was part of an organizational transformation from a “peasant self‐defence organization into a people’s army” (Gutierréz-Sanín & Carranza Franco, 2017, p. 770). This case suggests that organizational objectives and the demands of war shape the roles that women play within the organization. Other research finds that groups with territorial control are more likely to include women combatants (Asal & Jadoon, 2020). However, there is not clear evidence suggesting VNSAs are most likely to recruit women during specific conflict phases or in response to particular conflict intensities (Israelsen, 2020).

“Demand-side” factors alone cannot account for women’s participation in VNSAs, absent groups that include women entirely through forced recruitment. Unpacking voluntary recruitment dynamics is difficult because, as Viterna (2006, p. 2) noted, there is no “one causal factor or set of factors that ‘typically’ leads individuals” to participate; rather, participants “are heterogeneous,” and they “can follow strikingly different paths to the same mobilization outcome.” Still, many women are motivated to join VNSAs. While some scholars proposed gender-specific motivations (Bloom, 2011), others found that women are often mobilized for the same reasons as men (Thomas, 2021a). Women may join to improve their material well-being (Marks, 2017; Matfess, 2017), in response to abuses by the state (Oriola, 2016), to protect their families and communities (Lyons, 2004; Parkinson, 2013; Saksena, 2018; Thomas, 2021a; Viterna, 2013), because of their genuine commitment to groups’ ideological commitments or political objectives (Loken & Zelenz, 2018; Parkinson, 2013; Saksena, 2018; Vale, 2019; Viterna, 2013), or due to a combination of these and other factors.

Women mobilize into movements through social and familial networks, civil society activism and organizations, and recruiters (Matfess, 2017; Parkinson, 2013; Viterna, 2013). Some participants are forcibly recruited, often through abduction. While many abductees report attempting to leave VNSAs, abduction does not preclude women from rising within the groups’ ranks, receiving training in arms, or even coming to support, to some degree, the organizations’ objectives and developing a new identity resulting from group socialization (Coulter, 2011; Kelly et al., 2016).

Still, women’s pathways into VNSAs are often unevenly distributed and tempered by structural conditions. Consequently, women contributing to these groups have diverse experiences (Giri, 2021). For example, in Northern Ireland, there was a clear distinction among some women between those who joined the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Provisional IRA) or the women’s auxiliary wing, Cumann na mBan. As one former female Volunteer (fighter) recounts, “You got to do more in the Army. In Cumann na mBan, you got to go on camps and you learnt how to use weapons and different things, but with the Army it was the real thing. You were in there doing the real thing” (Wahidin, 2016, p. 89, emphasis in original).

Combatant experiences are further shaped by intersectional identities, life histories, and positionalities. For example, through his interviews with female Maoist combatants from the insurgency in Nepal, Giri (2021) emphasized that “different caste, class, social, cultural, ethnic, and geographical backgrounds [ . . . ] illustrate how the various vectors of identities and systematic inequalities interact and co-construct to shape their decision to join war, everyday embodied experiences of war and ‘post-war’ period.” Indeed, while women made up nearly 35% of participants in India’s People’s War Group (PWG), Mukherjee (2003) suggested that leadership roles were highly segregated by caste. Dalit and tribal women, the lowest in India’s caste system, composed rank-and-file cadre but achieved few, if any, leadership positions.

Motherhood and menopause also frequently shape women’s position in their communities; these rites of passage may afford older women with higher status and respect (Matfess, 2020; Thomas, 2021a). Thus, while younger women may be desirable recruits for physically demanding tasks, older women may also play important roles in non-state armed groups. In several conflicts, VNSAs depend specifically on older women to provide spiritual support and to legitimate group practices. Oriola (2016, p. 457) observed that in the Nigerian Delta, for example, most groups “rely on older post-menopausal women for spiritual protection.”

Marital status also varies considerably as a barrier to or pathway into VNSA participation for women. Compare, for example, Palestinian militants with Maoist rebels in Nepal. Peteet (1992, p. 144) suggested that “substantial numbers of women do drop out” from Palestinian resistance organizations “upon marriage.” One female Fatah recruiter who Peteet (1992, p. 133) interviewed concluded, “I don’t bother with married women, as it takes too much time to convince them to do anything and they rarely join the organization.” In contrast, Maoist rebels reportedly encouraged their unmarried female members to partner up “as unmarried women draw lots of suspicion from men as well as women for their unmarried status” (Parvati, 2003, p. 3).

Similarly, women in VNSAs recall diverse experiences with respect to other, namely male, members of their organizations. For example, many women and girls who participated in the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone reported sexual violence—included forced marriages and sexual relationships—from within the rebellion (Marks, 2013). In other cases, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, sexual abuse within ranks was strictly forbidden and brutally punished (Wood, 2009). Such variation occurs even within VNSAs: in the Provisional IRA, for instance, some women experienced misogyny, sexism, and subordination from male members. But other women in the same organization felt empowered and like gender equals with their male counterparts (Wahidin, 2016).

Women’s Contributions to VNSAs

Women take on many roles within VNSAs. As front-line fighters, they engage in the combat environment in support of the group and use physical violence. In auxiliary, or non-combat, roles, participants identify with the goals, ideology, or effort of the group and routinely offer supportive labor (Henshaw, 2016). This includes, but is not limited to, planners, couriers, nurses, cooks, spies, intelligence officers, fundraisers, and recruiters. And as leaders, women exercise direct control over and provide oversight of other participants and/or exercise direct control over the strategy, policies, and/or ideology of the group (Henshaw, 2016). In some VNSAs, women participate in all-female units. In others, women have unique discursive importance to organizational narratives and representations.

Women’s Contributions as Combatants

Scholarship focused on women’s participation in fighting roles has found that such activities are fairly common, though the scope and scale of this involvement varies between VNSAs (Alison, 2009; Cohen, 2013; Gowrinathan, 2021; Henshaw, 2016; Thomas & Bond, 2015; Wood, 2019; Wood & Thomas, 2017). In some groups, particularly left-wing ones, women constitute around half of all combatants (Wood & Thomas, 2017). For example, women composed a third of fighters in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) during the Ethiopian Civil War (Burgess, 2013). Berhe (2009, p. 136) also suggested that women stepped into fighting roles without officially joining the TPLF rebellion: “Parallel to the formation of regular fighting forces, a militia army, as a rearguard, was established throughout rural Tigrai[ . . . ] 5–10% of the militia were women.” Women’s participation in such roles often represents a sharp break in prevailing gender norms, which portray women as inherently peaceful.

Women’s front-line participation is limited in other VNSAs. Attacks perpetrated by women in al-Shabaab in Somalia, for example, are “in the single digits,” while women committed more than half of the suicide bombings for Boko Haram, an ideological peer in Nigeria (Allotey-Pappoe & Lamptey, 2019; International Crisis Group, 2019; Warner & Matfess, 2017). During Mozambique’s liberation war, the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) reportedly recruited “hundreds” of women and girls into the military (Katto, 2014, p. 540). But many of those trained note that they never actually participated in combat (Katto, 2014, p. 540).

On the front-line, women combatants engage in firefights with security forces (Alison, 2009), plant explosive devices (Wahidin, 2016), commit assassinations and suicide bombings (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006; Thomas, 2021b), and target civilians (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006; Thomas, 2021b). Women also commit sexual violence including rape (Cohen, 2013; Sjoberg, 2016). Still, as Trisko Darden and Steflja (2020, n.p.) contend, “Women war criminals go unnoticed because their participation in exceptional wartime violence challenges deeply held assumptions about war and about women.”

Women fighters’ participation has tangible consequences. One study suggests that rebel groups with voluntarily recruited female combatants are likeliest to win (Braithwaite & Ruiz, 2018). Suicide attacks perpetrated by women are in many cases most lethal, and female-perpetrated terrorist attacks garner the most media coverage (O’Rourke, 2009; Thomas, 2021b).3 Conflicts fought by rebel groups with female combatants are also among the longest, likely due to the increased resilience women offer rebellions (Giri & Haer, 2021) or to how women’s participation affects state and rebel bargaining processes aimed at ending armed violence (Wood & Allemang, 2021).

Women’s participation in VNSAs may also result in more sympathetic media coverage and international attention: journalists devote disproportionate attention to women fighters. For example, Sjoberg (2018, p. 303) noted that in international media coverage of Daesh and Kurdish militants fighting against them, “Brave women[ . . . ] exercising political agency to combat [Daesh] signifies the political legitimacy of their cause.”4 Indeed, evidence from Manekin and Wood’s study (2020) suggested that the presence of female combatants can help rebel groups secure external support.

Women’s Contributions in Non-Combat Roles

As the literature on rebel governance demonstrates, front-line fighting does not constitute the totality of armed violence (cf. Arjona et al., 2015; Mampilly, 2012). Women indeed make critical contributions as the logistical and organizational scaffolding of resistance and rebellion efforts. They work as nurses, medics, cooks, spies, scouts, intelligence officers, smugglers, couriers, planners, administrators, recruiters, mobilizers, radio or weapons operators, and guards, among a myriad of other roles. In the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), for example, reportedly an estimated 35% of administrators were women, as were 55% of health care workers and 32% of communications workers (Müller, 2005). In Frelimo, many female participants were weapons experts, intelligence gatherers, recruiters, educators, farmers, nurses, and medics (Katto, 2014). And because of the nearly universal expectation that women are nonviolent, women make effective spies and clandestine operators.

Women also contribute significantly to VNSA community outreach efforts by fundraising, recruiting members, and proselytizing. Consider the Syrian Sisters, a group of women affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood who established “civil society organizations to provide services to the exiled Syrian community” (Lefevre, 2013, n.p.). When Arab Spring protests in Syria turned violent, “these charities formed the backbone of the Muslim Brotherhood’s relief efforts—which have helped women heighten their profile within the organization and reach leadership positions” (Lefevre, 2013, n.p.).

In some community-based armed groups, women are responsible for conducting traditional ceremonies for fighters before they leave for a raid, thus serving as a critical link between group activity and the community. For example, Mkutu’s account (2005, p. 140) of pastoralist women in the North Rift noted that women use clothing and ceremonies to promote conflict, observing that they “smear [their sons] and they make them pass through their legs. When they return from revenge, they dance and sing songs of praise.”

Women often perform combat and non-combat tasks in tandem. Writing on the RUF in Sierra Leone, MacKenzie (2012, p. 54) argued that “the distinction between combatant and support is not useful” because many women and girls participated in both fighting and support roles. She concluded that this binary between role-types prioritizes war contributions that involve weapons and that, in reality, women (and men) perform in a myriad of positions.

Despite the importance of women’s non-combat contributions, researchers, practitioners, and governments often group non-combatant women together as simply “not soldiers,” minimizing their contributions and overlooking their involvement (MacKenzie, 2012). One reason that women’s non-combat contributions might be minimized is that women often do work for VNSAs that mirror work traditionally performed by women in the domestic sphere. For example, observers often write off women as “wives” or “girlfriends” of combatants to depoliticize and downplay their involvement. But in many cases, wives and girlfriends explicitly contribute to group operations and serve in important leadership positions. Wives of commanders ran RUF camps and selected women for specific non-combat jobs (Lahai, 2013). Husband and wife “teams” also perpetrated Basque Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) attacks in Spain (Merkl, 1986). And though news reporting and some scholarship focused on the “jihadi brides” of Daesh, participants viewed marriage and motherhood as part of an ideological commitment to political violence and a critical, operational commitment to reproducing generations of fighters (Loken & Zelenz, 2018).

Women’s Contributions to Group Leadership

Women also occupy leadership positions within many VNSAs, both in the political structure and in military hierarchies. Henshaw and colleagues (2019) concluded that at least 28% of sampled rebel organizations operating between 1990 and 2008 include at least one woman in a leadership role. An estimated 20% of Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) military leadership was female, and all of the Front’s member organizations had senior female commanders (Viterna, 2013). In the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), women participated in mixed units and women commanders oversaw women and men (Utas, 2003).

Women are also involved in political leadership. In some cases, this enables them to shape organizational platforms, outreach, or electoral strategies. For example, women compose a substantial and active proportion of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). EZLN women created “policy on women’s social and economic rights” and “contributed to negotiations with the Mexican government” (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 323). Women leaders and supporters drafted the EZLN’s “Women’s Revolutionary Law,” which was approved by the organization’s Assembly and “provides a regulatory framework for the rights and aspirations of indigenous women and positions them as active agents or subjects of their own history” (Pinheiro Barbosa, 2021, p. 12). Women’s political leadership is also not limited to gender egalitarian or leftist VNSA: for instance, Jad (2011) found that eight, or just over 15%, of members of Hamas’s Consultative Council were women.

Other VNSAs restrict women’s leadership. This is true even of relatively gender- progressive organizations with large proportions of women participants. Consider, for example, the Tupamaros in Uruguay: estimates suggest that women composed a substantive proportion of group members, but “there [were] fewer women in the organization in the positions of power and in military tasks” than other roles (Vidaurrazaga Aránguiz, 2019, p. 18). One former female militant recalled that leadership roles for women were “very few, very few . . . there was a woman as a commando at some point” (Vidaurrazaga Aránguiz, 2019, p. 19). At the same time, “The Tupamaros used popular societal stereotypes about women as harmless in order to help them in armed missions [ . . . ] incarcerated Tupamara usually functioned as an arm of propaganda for the organization” (Churchill, 2014, p. 153).

Women’s Wings

Though women work side by side with men in a myriad of roles, women also organize all-female units within VNSAs. These units, identified here as “women’s wings,” can be important spaces for women to develop a gendered political consciousness, to cultivate ties with like-minded others, and to develop a community among women that has a shared set of experiences and interests (Luciak, 1998; Shayne, 2004). These organizations can provide opportunities for women to rise to leadership positions within VNSAs (Henshaw et al., 2019), and they often persist into the post-conflict period.

VNSAs of all ideological stripes and political contexts have organized women’s wings. For example, the Amal Movement in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, the Free Papua Movement (OPM) in Indonesia, and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) all operated Women’s Departments. Some all-female units are brigades for fighters. For instance, the all-women “Lal Dasta” (Red Brigade) of the Communist Party India–Maoist (CPI-Maoist) reportedly carried out audacious attacks (Parashar, 2016). ZAPU also trained women separately in the all-female camps, and the group was training over 1,000 women for military action when the war ended (Lyons, 2004).

Women’s wings can also serve as auxiliaries or a political arm for VNSAs’ militant wings. The Polisario Front, for example, operates the National Union of Sahrawi Women (NUSW), which organizes nonmilitary Polisario activities (Lippert, 1992). Led by women, the NUSW also administered refugee camps in all aspects, including health care, logistics, and education. In Myanmar, the Karen National United Party (KNU) also operates a women’s group, the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO). In the 1980s, during the civil war, its objective was “to support the KNU through engagement in social work” (Israelsen, 2019, p. 182). KWO women were engaged in the “orphans and war victims” and mobilizing women’s participation in the KNU’s mission (Israelsen, 2018, p. 392). Near the end of the conflict, they began offering programs focused on women’s rights and education (Israelsen, 2018). Its leaders were women, appointed by KNU members.

Yet, some women members report frustration with the subordination of women’s wings within VNSAs. Even in groups with gender emancipatory platforms and where women compose a significant membership, gendered issues may be put on the back burner or sacrificed in the face of “more pressing” political concerns. Examining how women organize or are organized can shed light on the heterogeneity of women’s interests within the same movement. Consider, for example, the tension between Cumann na mBan, the women’s wing affiliated with the Provisional IRA, and the organization’s female fighters. There was internal criticism of the original Cumann na mBan as being “handmaidens” to the Irish Volunteers, which was seen as a retrograde step for the women who were campaigning for women’s emancipation in the 1910s and 1920s (McAuliffe, 2014). Cumann na mBann opposed the 1968 decision to allow women to become members of the IRA’s General Army, suggesting an internal controversy about what the proper role for women was within the movement and in society (Reinisch, 2013). In other cases, members of all-female units may develop a mindset of “double militancy,” in which they both fight for the cause of the group and for women’s rights during and after conflict (Ortega, 2015).5

Discursive Contributions: Representations of Women in Armed Organizations

Women’s contributions to VNSAs are not limited to organizations’ tactical capabilities or political strategy. Women’s involvement, both actual and symbolic, can have significant narrative utility for violent organizations because female participation can legitimize belligerents to key audiences. This is for two reasons. First, women-inclusive rebellions better reflect their target populations and can encourage broader support. Indeed, the social movements literature has recommended diversity for building sustainable movements, concluding that people are most likely to participate when they see themselves and their communities represented. As Stephan and Chenoweth (2008, p. 9) contended, campaign success relies on the ability to enhance “domestic and international legitimacy and encourages more broad-based participation in the resistance, which translates into increased pressure being brought to bear on the target.”

For example, in Uganda, the National Resistance Army (NRA) mobilized women combatants to engender civilian support. Mugambe (2000, p. 10) concluded that women involved in mobilization work were “very instrumental” in “convincing [others] to join or support the ‘guerrilla’ forces” because “women are community managers. They can organise members in their communities to do what they want for their own good.”

Second, “because women are assumed to be nonviolent, their participation in militant groups can humanize organizations and legitimize rebellion” (Loken, 2021, p. 22). As Matfess and Nagel (2020, n.p.) concluded of rebel groups, including women can “project an image of modern gender egalitarianism and concern with ‘softer’ issues in addition to military tactics.” Cross-national evidence has suggested that VNSAs capitalize on these gendered dynamics. In Nepal, for example, Maoists “mobilized women to give the message that the armed conflict was a demand on all people; such a noble war that even women would fight, supporting and sympathizing with it” (Dahal, 2015, p. 188). Such accounts suggested that “the cause is so important that the society needs women to move outside of their traditional and natural gender roles to bravely join the fight” (Sjoberg, 2018, p. 303). To this end, Loken (2021) demonstrated how rebels employ images of armed mothers to express circumstantial exigency (women combatants) without overstepping gendered, social boundaries (still mothers).

Thus, women’s participation may help legitimize VNSAs by humanizing their efforts, by making them appear inclusive rather than extremist, and by suggesting that conditions are so severe that even the most vulnerable are taking up arms. Viterna (2013), for instance, found that the FMLN used women as recruiters to empower potential female cadres and encourage the families of young prospects. These insurgents would get close to families, who reported being more comfortable letting their children join when approached by female recruiters. They reportedly viewed women as least threatening and most trustworthy (Viterna, 2013).

Representations of women fighters may also facilitate external support. The survey by Manekin and Wood (2020) experimented with national and student samples in the United States and suggested that respondents are more supportive of a fictitious, South Asian rebel group and its goals when they believe that women participate in the organization on the front lines. Wood (2019) also found that rebel groups with female combatants are most likely to receive external support from transnational activists and diasporas. Relatedly, images of women combatants in rebel propaganda are often accompanied by native language text and English translations, and supportive organizations use these images abroad to advance rebel efforts (Loken, 2018, 2021).

VNSAs may also rely on gendered representations of women combatants to shame men into participating in armed conflict. Szekely (2020, p. 421) concluded that the Free Syrian Army exaggerates and publicizes women’s involvement for this purpose: “there is also a subset of propaganda videos produced by various FSA factions featuring female fighters as a means of shaming men [ . . . ] for not participating in the war. [ . . . ] There are, however, few accounts of these factions actually participating in battle.”

In other VNSAs, women publicly call for a return to traditional gender roles that the state has disrupted. Groups like Dukhtarane-Millat (DeM) in India and Daesh recruit Muslim women by stressing the need to return to conservative, patriarchal values. Daesh, like other movements, aims to present an alternative vision of society. These groups link their jihad to the stifling of “appropriate” gender performance by the West and use women to demonstrate a commitment to piety and proper family roles (Loken & Zelenz, 2018; Vale, 2019). Framed this way, women feature prominently in Daesh propaganda.

Women Participants in Post-conflict Processes

The legacies of women’s contributions to VNSAs and shifting organizational gender dynamics over time can also shape post-conflict processes and durable peace efforts. Silencing guns, demobilizing armed units, and crafting sustainable periods of nonviolence involve complex infrastructure to which non-state, governmental, and third-party actors must contribute. These include, but are not limited to, ceasefires and peace agreements; disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programming (DDR); prosecutions and other formal accountability efforts; and civil society transitions for previously violent actors. Women’s participation in non-state armed groups contextualizes and sometimes complicates these efforts.

Negotiating Settlements

Though women compose key parts of VNSAs’ leadership structures, they rarely participate in negotiating the settlements, such as peace agreements, that often end armed fighting. There are exceptions. For example, one of the five Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) delegates who negotiated the peace deal in the Philippines was a woman (Santiago, 2015). The 2014 peace agreement included specific provisions for decommissioning MILF women auxiliaries and reintegrating them into the labor force (Hall & Hoare, 2015). Female ex-combatants of the FARC also participated in negotiating the recent Colombian accords that demobilized many former fighters.

But in other cases, group leadership restricts women from the negotiating table (Henshaw, 2019). For example, during peace negotiations, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) nominated a “small handful of women leaders” as members of their delegation, but women were often added with short notice or preparation, and attention to gender issues among negotiating parties was minimal (Small Arms Survey, 2008, p. 4). Women similarly found themselves excluded in the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (CPN-M)’s negotiations despite composing between 20% and 40% of the group’s membership (Dahal, 2015; Yadav, 2016). Women participated as commanders and in high military ranks (Dahal, 2015) as well as reportedly made up at least 10% of the Central Committee and other political positions (South Asia Terrorism Portal [SATP], 2017). The CPN-M operated a Women’s Front, for which secretary-general was a leadership position held by women, and women were brigade commissioners (Ogura, 2008). Still, women were not part of the peace negotiations at the end of the conflict.

This matters in part because negotiations excluding women are neither representative of nor, often, attuned to the breadth of participants and their wants or needs. This further entrenches women’s relative lack of visibility and negotiating power during war. Moreover, broader research on peace processes concluded that “women’s participation in peace negotiations contributes to the quality and durability of peace after civil war” (Krause et al., 2018, p. 985). And while the link between female combatants and settlement durability has not, to our knowledge, been robustly examined, Krause and colleagues (2018) found that rebel organizations with female combatants are most likely to secure durable periods of peace after settlement. It is important to note, however, that incorporating women into peace negotiations is not a guarantee that women’s issues will be adequately addressed. Women included in peace negotiations may prioritize the political agenda of the armed group over women’s issues.

Formal Demobilization and Reintegration Programming

Demobilization and reintegration are other significant concerns for post-conflict processes. Initially, formal DDR programs demonstrated a lack of gendered awareness that kept many women from participating. For example, some required women to present a firearm to qualify for inclusion, but many women found their weapons confiscated by other participants and others lacked firearms to present because of their shifting roles within VNSAs over time (Bouta, 2005). While many modern DDR programs have learned from these mistakes, there is still a considerable degree of institutional uncertainty of how to treat women and girls associated with armed groups. The pioneering examination by Mazurana and colleagues (2002, p. 118) of women’s experiences in DDR programs highlighted how a “series of miscalculations . . . .around the experiences of girl soldiers during armed conflict and the multidimensional role of gender as it affects girls in the conflict and postconflict periods” undermine efforts to reintegrate women.

Specifically, DDR programs still struggle with reintegrating women who served in primarily non-combat roles. As Coulter and colleagues (2008, p. 22) contended, “women who are only thought of as abducted women, sex slaves or simply as camp followers, and are excluded from formal demobilization, have actually formed the backbone of many armed forces, and were as such vital to the war enterprise.” The UN considers non-combat women, wives, and others to be “Women Associated with Armed Forces (WAAFs)” grouped together on the basis of simply not being fighters. As a result, critical DDR programming aimed at reintegrating women into post-conflict life often misses those in need of the programs’ financial, education, and potentially depoliticizing benefits (Mackenzie, 2009).

Another issue is that “for the women who are able to access them, the content of DDR often does not reflect their wartime experiences or post-demobilization needs” (Mazurana et al., 2018, p. 2). Coulter and colleagues (2008) noted that some women purposefully avoid DDR programs because they fear stigmatization if their identities as fighters were revealed. Others share significant safety concerns about demobilization centers and processes and encounter logistical hurdles like a lack of child care, lack of transportation, or inability to both care for family and self-livelihood while also meeting the requirements of DDR programming (Mazurana et al., 2018). Moreover, female former combatants are often provided opportunities and training associated with “traditional” gendered labor that they may not be interested in, including hairdressing, secretarial work, and other domestic tasks (Sabogal & Richter, 2019, n.p.). In Ethiopia, the attempt to train female EPLF veterans in “traditional female crafts [ . . . ] was a complete failure” and was abandoned after just a few years (Mehreteab, 2002, p. 49).

Mazurana and colleagues (2018, p. 13) recommended a “portfolio view” rather than a “project view” of DDR, wherein participants can choose from a “menu of options” based on what best suits their needs and interests instead of a program that “typically necessitates that beneficiaries participate in a series of predetermined and limited activities.” This approach more fully considers the full range of women’s—and men’s—activities within VNSAs, the nature of the internal hierarchies and beneficiaries’ standing within these rankings, social gender dynamics, the transferability of the skills that women developed during war to the post-conflict period, and the nature of some women’s identity transformations as a part of the armed group.

Accountability for Violence and Affiliation With Non-State Groups

More holistic assessments of women’s participation in VNSA’s are critical not only for meeting former militants’ needs and building durable periods of security and nonviolence, but also for evaluating accountability for wartime human rights violations. A small but important literature has identified how persistent gender norms coupled with a failure to recognize women’s agency can produce judicial impunity for politically violent crimes.

Steflja and Trisko Darden’s research (2020) on women war criminals demonstrated that the few women subject to criminal proceedings for their actions leveraged sociopolitical, gendered beliefs regarding women’s inherent peacefulness, their identities as mothers, and their lack of political agency in their defenses despite holding high-ranking positions in VNSAs. Similarly, in their analysis of the U.S. criminal justice system’s treatment of women accused of terrorism, Alexander and Turkington (2018, p. 24) noted that “from news media to defense attorneys, commentators regularly cast female terrorism offenders as naïve, gullible, susceptible targets of violent extremism, even when they admit their culpability by pleading guilty.” One defense memo, for example, describes the client as someone who “had ‘always been attracted to ‘bad boys’” and who “was drawn to the Islamic State ‘like the forbidden fruit’” (Alexander & Turkington, 2018, p. 24). The authors also found that women accused of supporting terrorist organizations receive shorter than average sentences, which they suggest is the result of pervasive gender assumptions about women’s lack of political agency and penchant for nonviolence (Alexander & Turkington, 2018, p. 24).

Women and Political Power After Conflict

A number of studies have found that conflict may bring about more opportunities for women to participate in political life. Indeed, in many cases, women’s participation in representative politics increases after periods of armed conflict. For example, Hughes and Tripp (2015, pp. 1515–1531) noted that in sub-Saharan Africa, “civil-war endings enabled faster and more sweeping changes in women’s legislative representation” because “large-scale wars are most likely to produce major disruptions in social relations, creating circumstances that allow for new understandings of women’s roles.”

When armed VNSAs demobilize or disband, participants return to civil society or transition into new roles. Often, former militants transition into nonviolent politics: over half of studied rebel organizations operating between 1990 and 2009 formed political parties that participated in elections after civil wars (Manning & Smith, 2016). In many, but not all, groups, former women combatants, leaders, and organizers make up part of these new political structures, contributing to women’s post-conflict political gains. For example, in Colombia, the FARC’s 2016 peace accords with the government produced a legally registered political party to compete in democratic elections. Women composed 23% of the party’s highest leadership in 2017 (Vanguardia, 2017). Female ex-combatants also represent the party in many local contests. One woman, running for a seat on Bogotá’s city council, campaigned under the slogan “From the jungles to city council.” Of the group’s Marxist platform, she concluded, “We were able to tell people what our grievances had been, what we want, and how we hope to build with the people,” reportedly “adding that people softened at seeing a human face behind what had been framed as a ruthless guerrilla group for decades” (quoted in Noriega, 2019, n.p.).

In other cases, however, women’s issues are marginalized or subordinated to the broader political agenda in the post-conflict period. For instance, after the war, the Sandinista women’s group, the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Association of Nicaraguan Women (AMNLAE) organized women to implement the political agenda of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). One report noted that, despite being an organization of and for women, AMNLAE prioritized “the needs of the population as a whole—such as improving health care and nutrition and keeping the economy moving . . . over adjusting relations between women and men” (Sherman, 1983, p. 8). In Eritrea, a leader of the National Union of Eritrean Women reported that after the war, there were complaints about the new government’s approach to women, especially given women’s contributions to the groups as VNSAs; she said “They say ‘after all we women did, the government is throwing us away, women are being sent back to the kitchen’” (Bernal, 2001, p. 141).

Areas for Future Research

Though women’s contributions to conflict have often been—inadvertently or deliberately—obscured, a robust literature demonstrates the persistent and widespread nature of women’s participation in non-state armed groups. This article summarizes the extant scholarship concerning the scope, scale, characteristics, and postconflict implications of women’s mobilization into these organizations.

But there is much that remains unknown about women’s participation in non-state armed groups. As demonstrated here, a systematic accounting of women’s contributions to non-combat tasks within VNSA is lacking in existing research. Qualitative evidence from a variety of conflicts suggests that women contribute immensely in these roles. Existing data sets help identify the prevalence and effects of women’s participation as fighters; a next step in the field is to similarly assess women’s participation as non-combatants.

Relatedly, relatively little work examines organizational infrastructure developed to manage women’s contributions. Women’s wings, all-female units, and mass associations for women are established by a variety of VNSAs—yet the characteristics and implications of these organizations are under-studied. Future research might explore how women within VNSAs self-organize and are organized, what explains variation between women’s organizing, and the postconflict implications of these different wartime organizations.

Future work may also focus on internal variation within and across VNSAs. For example, there is more work to be done documenting temporal variation in women’s participation. Even groups that are well-known for their high-levels of female participation and gender-egalitarian ideologies, such as the FARC, shifted their stance regarding women’s participation in the organization over time. Similarly, little is known about the effects of women’s involvement on group socialization processes. Existing studies have suggested that women are socialized similarly to men into acts of violence (Cohen, 2016), and that forced marriage can be an important regulatory mechanism for rebel groups (Donnelly, 2019). A broader research agenda may take up robust analysis of gender relations within VNSAs and their implications for organizational activities and effectiveness.

Finally, scholarship in this field can prioritize VNSAs beyond rebel groups. Civil militias, civilian defense forces, communal groups, and organized criminal organizations are all under-studied in political violence literature. The dynamics of women’s participation within them is particularly unexplored and a potentially fruitful line of research.

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  • 1. This decision reflects both the opaque and mixed nature of non-state armed groups’ recruitment tactics, as well as the evidence that abductees have gone on to support non-state armed groups’ objectives and even hold positions of leadership within the organization. See, for example, the ICC’s persecution of LRA commander (and abductee) Dominic Ongwen and the work of Coulter (2011) on women and girls abducted into armed groups in Sierra Leone.

  • 2. For a discussion of girls’ participation as armed combatants in non-state groups, see Haer and Böhmelt (2018).

  • 3. This is not true in all cases. Warner and Matfess (2017), for example, found that women and men are equally lethal when their weapons detonate, but that female bombers are less likely to detonate their weapons.

  • 4. In other instances, however, violent women are portrayed in a much more negative light: as either sadistic “monsters” or hypersexualized “whores” (Sjoberg & Gentry, 2007).

  • 5. For a discussion of double militancy in relation to the state and women’s movements see Beckwith (2000).