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Women Combatants – Myth or Reality?

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Women Combatants – Myth or Reality?
By Njeri Thuku
Posted: 2022-08-18T20:00:00Z

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By: Hon. Judge Njeri Thuku

For a long a time, women combatants have been ignored or forgotten. The objective of this column is to start telling their story, not only as a feminist, but also to acknowledge their role and contribution in combat and challenge the stereotype that, in conflict, women are always the victims. In some instances, they are the victor, the perpetrator, or the aggressor. I have a disclaimer to make. I have studied this subject but do not claim to be an expert. I am sensitive to the fact that some of you may have served in combat or have immediate family taking part in combat. Thus, I ask that you extend grace to me if I err in my portrayal of women combatants.

I will proceed by giving a thumbnail overview of the Laws of Armed Conflict also known as International Humanitarian Law. Then I shall define the term combatant and explain why this definition is important. This is followed by a whistle stop tour of women combatants across time and around the world to pique your interest. After this, I share why I think this area is important before giving my concluding thoughts.


 At its simplest definition, the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) exists to govern how conflicts take place.[1] One primary function of LOAC is to protect civilians who get caught up in the conflict. It takes pre-eminence during a conflict when human rights take a back seat. Gary Solis, a renowned scholar on armed conflict explains, that we need rules in combat “for similar reasons to those that dictate rules in football games. Some violence is expected, but not all violence is permitted. Are speed limits without value because they are commonly exceeded? In the western world, are the Ten Commandments, which are commonly disregarded, therefore, of no worth? There always will be limits on acceptable conduct, including conduct on the battlefield. We obey LOAC because we cannot allow ourselves to become what we are fighting and because we cannot be heard to say that we fight for the right while we are seen to commit wrongs”.[2] Another writer put it this way, “They can try to kill me, and I can try to kill them. But it is wrong to cut the throats of their wounded or to shoot them down when they are trying to surrender. These judgments are clear enough, I think, and they suggest war is still somehow, a rule-governed activity, a world of permissions and prohibitions-a moral world, therefore, in the midst of hell.”[3]

With that background we can now look at who a combatant is. According to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols I (which applies when one state is fighting another state), Article 43.2, a combatant is a “Member[s] of the armed forces to a conflict (other than medical personnel and chaplains…) are combatants, that is to say, they have the right to participate directly in hostilities.”[4] This is important because if they are captured then they will be given prisoner of war status which means they have certain rights and privileges set out in the Geneva Convention. It also means they are a target all the time[5]. If they do not have combatant status then, when captured, they do not have prisoner of war status and are referred as ‘unlawful combatants’, ‘unprivileged combatant’ or ‘unprivileged belligerent’.

One of the important features of combatants is that according to the Law of Armed Conflict, the combatant must belong to a group with a leader, have a distinctive sign, carry arms openly and finally follow all the requirements of the LOAC. Unlawful combatants do none of these things, and so they do not have or identify with a leader, they are not dressed in any kind of uniform and so it is hard to tell them apart from civilians; they conceal their weapons and they do not follow LOAC.

With this in mind, it is time to consider cases of women combatants through history.


Women have always and everywhere been inextricably involved in war, [but] hidden from history…During wars, women are ubiquitous and highly visible, when wars are over and the war songs are sung, women disappear.[6]

I have a confession to make. My mental image of a combatant was a man in military uniform lying down in a trench holding a gun; just like when someone said “child soldiers” I always thought of a boy and not girls. But I had an awakening in my conscience to the plight of both girl soldiers and women in combat this year.

I emphasize this point because it is at the heart of our understanding of the role of women combatants and hence my purpose in focusing on them to show that they are not a myth but a reality.

I will now briefly discuss the Women of Dahomey, the women in the combat in Colombia, and the UN Resolution 1325 to make my case.

A.   The women of Dahomey

Goldstein observes, “The eighteenth and nineteenth century Dahomey Kingdom of West Africa (present day Benin) is the only documented case of a large-scale female combat unit that functioned over a long period as part of a standing army.”[7]  The women were initially included at the back of the army to give the illusion to the fighting forces of a bigger army, but it turned out they fought just as well. Thus, the king increased their number from 800 in the early nineteenth century to 5,000 women by mid-century. Despite there being many women, they were still a minority. Goldstein states:

The women soldiers were armed with muskets and swords. They drilled regularly and resembled the men in dress and activities. They stayed in top physical condition and were fast and strong…The women showed at least as much courage as the men-more by several accounts-and had a reputation for cruelty. There was no known case of women warriors fleeing combat, although men often did so. One European observer concluded that, “if undertaking a campaign, I should prefer the females to the male soldiers”.[8]

He documents the dangers the women faced, like when they were captured, and their captors discovered they could not castrate them because they were not men. He goes on to state that the Dahomey relied on women because they were warlike and lost men to war, sold off its men to slavery and faced an army ten times its size. He concludes by asserting:

Dahomey is a critical case because it shows that women can be physically and emotionally capable of participating in war on a large scale, long-term and well-organized basis. Far from being weakened by the participation of women, the army of Dahomey was clearly strengthened. Women soldiers helped to make Dahomey the preeminent regional military power that it became in the nineteenth century. Yet Dahomey is virtually the only case of its kind. The puzzle is why this successful case was not emulated everywhere.[9]

B.    Colombia

In Colombia, it is estimated that over one out of every four combatants are a woman or a girl.

Prof. Shana Tabak.

Professor Shana Tabak makes an astute observation when she writes, “The existence of female combatants in conflicts worldwide is a phenomenon that is under-documented and under-analyzed.” Tabak provides a snapshot of Colombia’s conflict. She notes that it “has lasted longer than any other in the Western Hemisphere. It has internally displaced nearly four million, second only to the conflict in Sudan…[and] caused the deaths of over 700 civilians each month.”[10] The genesis is a competition between two political parties that started in 1958 and is between the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia, in English Revolution Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional). Tabak states, “FARC promotes its mission through guerilla warfare consisting of conquest of territory, kidnappings, and occasional direct combat with troops… Since the mid-1980s, the FARC has also supported its revolutionary efforts with revenue from narcotics sales.”[11]

Tabak write the FARC website invites women to join to “fight for a New Colombia with social justice, for better living dignity and independence.”[12] She notes there is no reliable data on women being forced to join the FARC. Tabak cites the following reasons from research available on why women become combatants-feminism :“because it causes some disintegration of gender societal barriers and lessen male opposition to women in combat”, he also cited the desire to join a partner, avenge past crimes, escape from domestic violence, fear of guerillas, scarcity of better options for survival, and the gain a sense of empowerment (promise of meaningful work and adventurous lifestyle).[13] She concludes, “All research reiterates limited options; “for many…females, becoming a soldier was a matter of kill or be killed.”[14] She writes, “One young woman who joined the FARC stated that she did so because she ‘saw these women in uniform, with rifles looking very beautiful’. Others explicitly are attracted by the FARC’s claim to have created a gender-neutral organization.”[15]

The bottom line is that there are women who are fighting, and it is tough for them.

C.   UN Resolution 1325

The United Nations made progress in passing UN Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000. It is a milestone because this resolution recognized public sexual violence during conflict. Tabak writes it was the “first resolution passed recognizing the disproportionate impact of conflict on women. It calls for visibility for women in the public sphere, inter alia the increased participation of women in decision making related to the prevention, management and resolution of conflict.”[16] There is much that has been written about the success and weakness of Resolution 1325 and that is beyond the scope of this paper. I refer to it because of the emphasis to include women in conflict resolution process.

D.   Heroine Combatants

There are women combatants who in recent times have been recognized for bringing about peace as envisioned by Resolution 1325. I will refer to three of them, all who are African women and all of whom have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. The first is Kenya’s very own Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to be awarded a peace prize. The other two are part of three women who were awarded the peace prize and they are both from Liberia and these are Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee. These women epitomize why the discussion on women combatants needs to go on and it is also a paradigm shift from focusing on women as victims to being victorious in their causes.


There are three reasons that I wanted to write this piece:

1.     To highlight women soldiers - Women combatants irrespective of the global north-south divide or east-west division are a reality and not a myth. Their story must be told. Their contribution for those who fight on behalf of the armed forces of our individual countries must be recognized and where possible they must be awarded medals of honor and decorated.

2.     To plead for women in militia groups – these women need better solutions to help them re-integrate in society when they leave the militia groups. Tabak notes that the DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization & Reintegration) programs need to also be tailored around women. For example: assisting women in acquiring a skill or furthering their education so that can be self-sustainable and not rely on groups like FARC, providing neo-natal or child-care for the ex-women combatants who are pregnant and psycho-social help to assist the women in the unique challenges they face settling back into traditional societal relationships.

3.     To de-construct the notion that women are victims in a conflict. As Tabak posits, “This tendency to equate women and victims reinforces a binary relationship: if women are victims, men are perpetrators…Although women in numerous armed struggles have taken up arms, women’s involvement, as combatants tends to be ignored by the press and by human rights analyses.”[17]


In closing, women combatants are a reality. The notion of women being the victims only in conflicts does not reflect the role women play in them. They are present in the uniformed forces and in militia. In the context of the Law of Armed Conflict, women combatants in the military are accorded prisoner-of war status when captured. If they belong to a militia group, the threshold of protection is minimal. Women combatants from Joan of Arc, to the Dahomey in West Africa, to the combatants in FARC in Colombia face unique challenges. Any solutions to helping women settle back in society should consider how the experience of war affects them. Ultimately their story needs to be told and this is what I have done today.


[2] Id. at 9-10.

[3] Id. at 11, Solis quoting Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 3d ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2000) at 26.

[4] Article 43.2, AP I.

[5] SOLIS, supra at 188.


[7] Id. at 61.

[8] Id. at 61-63.

[9] Id. at 64.

[10] TABAK, supra at 129.

[11] Id. at 130-131.

[12] Id. at 132.

[13] Id. at 140.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 144.

[16] Id. at 122.

[17] Id. 125-126.