Angola: Women's access to demobilization and reintegration program funding essential

Refugees International Advocate Veronika Martin just returned from a one-month assessment mission to Angola.
Refugees International met Teresa at a therapeutic feeding center in Huambo province. She was determined to save the lives of her two young children, whose bodies had swollen from acute malnutrition. She walked a day and a half to reach the feeding center. Teresa lived in areas controlled by UNITA since she was abducted from her home at the age of 12. "If I had said no, they would have killed me." She spent the next few years carrying supplies for the army, cooking and cleaning for the soldiers. "The soldiers would steal food and I would carry it to the next place." At age 17 she married one of the soldiers. "I did not want to be a UNITA wife, but it was obligatory. Life was very bad," Teresa says of her 12 years living in the bush where she bore six children. "We had no salt, clothes, blankets, or soap and no medicines when we were sick. We often had to run from one front line to the next. Sometimes we did not even have homes."

With the war finally over, Teresa, like most everyone in Angola, is trying to build a life after years of running a few steps ahead of death. Women like Teresa face a particular dilemma: do they go back to their home villages and join their families or do they stay with the husbands they were forced to marry? The dilemma is especially acute because of the possibility that they will be rejected in their home communities. Having been perceived as participants in a struggle that caused death and suffering, they face an uncertain reception. If they choose to leave, how can they care for their children as single mothers, especially if their home communities refuse to welcome them back? Are they and their children in danger of abuse from their husbands if they try to leave?

Women abducted into UNITA or Angolan army forces are thus especially vulnerable as peace comes to Angola. But the current demobilization and reintegration program, jointly planned by the World Bank and the Government of Angola, limits assistance to 100,000 UNITA and 33,000 government soldiers and excludes "wives" and abducted girls from guaranteed direct assistance. The proposed assistance package, which includes a generous supply kit, US$100 and, most importantly, six months of literacy, vocational training opportunities and access to micro-credit and employment is targeted to male ex-combatants.

Excluding women from educational and economic opportunities violates recommendations of the World Bank Africa Region Working Papers which explicitly acknowledge that girls under 18 years of age who have been subject to forcible recruitment, including as cooks, porters, and "wives", should be considered child soldiers. The logic of this policy is that women abducted as children should be considered soldiers and thus eligible for demobilization assistance. Second, the Africa Region's Paper on "Gender Issues in Demobilization and Reintegration Programs" recommends programs to "encourage access to vocational training and education for abducted girls and ex-combatants' "wives."

The World Bank's Gender Unit released a study on gender and poverty reduction showing that women in Africa play a key role in the economy and need to be included in all development initiatives. The Bank also states that it is critical to create transitional safety nets that will successfully reintegrate soldiers back into society and that including women is part of that strategy. Women in Angola take a leading role in ensuring the survival of their families and are the main implementers of petty trade activities as a means of doing so. This makes access to micro-credit critical. There are no guarantees that "wives" and families will benefit from Demobilization and Reintegration Program (DRP) assistance to male ex-combatants. Misuse of benefits is common, but the critical consideration is that the women forced to join UNITA at gunpoint would like to leave their husbands and start a new life. To grant them access to assistance exclusively through the partners they were forced to marry is encouraging them to stay in a situation that many have expressed a desire to leave; indeed, they have a right to do so. The current DRP's focus on male ex-combatants not only excludes women from direct assistance who stay with their partners, but those women who have the courage to leave their partners, resulting in an extremely vulnerable situation for these single mothers.

Teresa's husband died during fighting at the end of February. As a single mother, Teresa wants to find her family whom she has not seen in 12 years. "I have suffered too much. I want to move to the city with my family and open a shop. With a little money I could start a business to support myself and my children for the next phase of my life."

RI's fundamental recommendation is that girls and women who have lived under UNITA ---whether single or "wives" of soldiers, whether abducted or not, whether current or ex-"wives", whether widowed or abandoned, whether underage or adult --- receive special attention under the planned demobilization and reintegration initiatives put forth by the World Bank and Government of Angola and subsequent international programs. RI asks all parties involved to monitor and implement a gender sensitive DRP, ensuring that the special needs of abducted girls and "wives" be addressed.

RI therefore recommends that:

Government of Angola (GOA)

  • Guarantee abducted girls and current or former UNITA "wives" opportunities for educational and vocational training, including access to micro-credit under the proposed DRP, even if they are independent of their partners.

  • Publicly encourage acceptance and reintegration of UNITA ex-combatants, their families and those girls and single mothers who are returning to their areas of origin.

  • Establish verification criteria and gender sensitive units to ensure recognition of abducted girls and UNITA "wives", many of whom are without documentation.

  • Ensure transport for women who wish to travel independent of their partners.

World Bank

  • Support the GOA to guarantee abducted girls and UNITA "wives" opportunities for educational, vocational training and access to micro-credit under the proposed DRP.

  • Monitor the implementation of the demobilization program for compliance with World Bank gender policies in post-conflict settings.

Donor Countries

  • Countries on the board of the International Development Association insist that the reintegration plan for Angola explicitly include educational, training, and micro-credit for abducted girls and current or former UNITA "wives".

  • Acknowledge abducted girls and UNITA "wives" as a vulnerable category needing special assistance through Angola's post-conflict development programs.

UN and NGO Partners

  • Implement a sensitization campaign on post-conflict gender issues and overall social reintegration and reconciliation on the community level as soon as possible.