Africa's female fighters: They bled and died on the battlefields of freedom - and were forgotten after victory

Up to 30% of the total forces in the Tigray and Eritrean liberation movements were women.

AT a recent international women’s summit in Tokyo on human security and violence against women, especially in war zones, African women leaders spoke out strongly against the atrocities meted against women.

Indeed South Africa’s former vice president, now executive director of
UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, said dramatically that “It is more dangerous sometimes to be a girl or woman in war than a soldier”.

This portrayal of women as victims of war, is only partly true, and often leads many to forget thousands of women took up arms and fought alongside men for their ideals all over Africa.

The role of women was surely not always limited to just so-called female friendly roles such as nurses, cooks or community organisers. While we keep on praising the men for liberating us, the female fighter is not often celebrated. Thus when imagining those who opposed colonial regimes or fought to be liberated from cruel African regimes, we mostly imagine that the soldiers in combat were men and only men.

Eritrean, Tigray and Mozambique warriors

The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) are both famous for successfully attracting female fighters during the 70’s and 80’s when fighting against the military junta of Mengistu Hailemariam. Up to 30% of the total forces in both movements were women, many in combat roles. 

With a strict code of no sexual relations between fighters and sharing tasks equally between men and women, the role of TPLF women as fighters won high respect.

Another African liberation movement that prohibited sexual relations between its male and female members was FRELIMO in Mozambique when fighting the Portuguese colonial regime. This rule, together with the ideology that women’s inclusion was significant for the struggle, attracted many young females. 

A special women’s branch providing military training to women and girls was established in 1967,  but it quickly took on additional tasks of organising schools, establishing clinics and other efforts to build support in the communities.

Josina Machal and Joise Mjuru

However, the experience for girls during Mozambique’s civil war that started in 1975 was very different from the independence struggle. Sexual abuse against women was widespread. Women were also frequently forced to participate in the civil war to carry out domestic tasks such as cleaning, cooking and looking after children and wounded soldiers. April 7 is women’s day in Mozambique, in remembrance of the passing away of prominent freedom fighter Josina Machal.

Mozambique was also home to the military trainings camps of Zimbabwean guerilla movements Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) and Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA). Around two-thousand young girls and women conscripted voluntarily to participate in the independence struggle that started in the 60s, eventually overthrowing the Rhodesia regime and bringing Zanu-PF of Robert Mugabe to power in 1981.

Joise Mjuru is a poster example of a female fighter and has since been a successful politician, being the second Vice-President of Zimbabwe.

The role of women in the army became a hot topic in the late 90s after the screening of the feature film “Flame” discussed the widespread allegations of sexual abuse against female soldiers. The limited number of women included in the country’s national army after independence has also been a sore point for some former female fighters. And there was little room for promotions for those women who did join the ranks. Anyone visiting the National Heroes Acre in Harare will realise that the few women who are buried there were more often wives of male war heroes, not the female soldiers themselves.

Rwanda case

Rwanda has been much more active in honouring, empowering and promoting women. Not just those women that fought with the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) in the early 90s, but women overall. Former lieutenant Rose Kabuye is the most well known female fighter as is still the highest-ranking woman the Rwandese army has ever known.

She went on to become a peace negotiator, mayor of the capital Kigali and served in other high political positions before being fired by President Paul Kagame in 2010.

After the genocide, the majority of the population was female and women with high ranks in the RPF were appointed in the transitional government. The high number of female participants in Rwanda’s politics has contributed to many gender-friendly and progressive policies.

When the SPLA/M in South Sudan was still united and fighting for its independence from the northern part of Sudan, a large number of female fighters joined the military movement voluntarily or to follow their husbands. There were few all-female battalions and the duties of most women at the frontline consisted of carrying ammunition or looking after wounded soldiers. The current violent conflict in South Sudan has left many women and girls as victims of sexual abuse.

Sexual violence

Sexual violence against girls and women has been common throughout many African conflicts in the past and present, as it was against many of the girls who joined armed movements voluntarily.

Thus in Uganda they become sex slaves and captive wives after being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels that was active in northern Uganda for many years. Thirty percent of the rebel movement’s child soldiers are girls. Other movements infamous for abducting girls for forced participation were the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) in Liberia and several armed groups in DR Congo (DRC). Up to two-thirds of active girls in these groups were forced to take part in the conflicts. They would sometimes fight on the frontline, but mostly they carried out domestic tasks or were held as sex slaves.

The girls get shortchanged

After independence struggles were won or regimes were ousted and fighters returned home, women were not welcomed in the same was as men. For example, Algerian women in combat were romanticised during the independence struggle that ended in 1962, even if less than 100 of the 11,000 active women were doing military tasks or carrying out attacks.

Algerian women were expected to return home instead of taking up active roles in the new Algeria.

After Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1994, most of the empowerment women had experienced during the struggle soon evaporated. Female frontline fighters were being pushed back into more traditional roles. Also, the  wider community was prejudice against these women, claiming they had “lost their womanly qualities”.

So from heroes, after the war was won, many former female fighters throughout the continent were saddled with the stigma of having served at the very front lines that brought freedom!

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