Leena Vastapuu (2018) Liberia’s Women Veterans: War, roles and reintegration, London: Zed Books Ltd. Book review by Linn Marie Reklev
Scholars and policy makers put increasing attention on the role of women in conflict and peacebuilding. However, women are often portrayed as “victims”, and their multiple roles in conflict are often ignored. Leena Vastapuu’s new book aims to address this knowledge gap by exploring the various experiences of women in wartime and its aftermath. In doing so, Vasatpuu contributes to academic debates in peace and conflict studies by advancing arguments in feminist peace research, and fleshes out additional insights regarding women’s involvement in civil wars in West Africa. She also provides policy-relevant knowledge, uncovering the consequences of peacebuilding policies that lack an adequate gender analysis. The book is well-written, thorough and thought-provoking, and should be of great interest to a broad audience engaged in peacebuilding issues.
The book addresses the two Liberian civil wars and the post-conflict period, formulating four research questions that aim to capture the life trajectories of women war veterans: 1) addressing the roles of women and girls during the war, 2) the extent to which these roles were recognized in the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programmes implemented, 3) the situation of women war veterans in today’s Liberia, and 4) their aspirations and dreams today. These are discussed individually and chronologically in the book. By applying the theoretical concept of social rafters, arguing that the tactical agency of the Liberian women war veterans is somewhat limited due to their disadvantaged position in society, Vastapuu examines how these Liberian women use available resources to create sturdier “rafts of survival” in a complex security environment (p. 78). She does this through the methodological approach of curious contrapuntalism, which is a way to “critically observe and challenge overlapping and constantly evolving social realities” (p. 8). This approach allows for overlapping narratives and perspectives addressing the same phenomenon, also uncovering marginalized narratives often deemed insignificant. In this way, the author makes visible the perspectives of the women war veterans which provides a more nuanced and comprehensive picture of post-conflict Liberia.
Vastapuu’s book is an important work of methodological innovation as she explicitly acknowledges her limitations as an ‘outsider’ in the environment under study due to differences in culture, social structures and class. To shift the agency from herself to her interlocutors, she applies the ethnographic method of auto-photography, providing her interlocutors with cameras with which they took photos in line with particular themes. Following this, the researcher conducted individual interviews with the participants, where the participant explains why she took the specific photos and what insights they provide in relation to the given topic. In this way, the participants explain their “life-worlds” to the researcher in a “non-imposing manner” (p.5). Chapter 1 delves further into this method, showing how it can be used in practice to examine the everyday life of three Liberian women war veterans as social rafters, through their own eyes. The book’s autoethnographic style at times feels more like reading a novel than an academic book. However, this is not to say that the academic arguments come across as less sound, well-founded or significant.
Traditional notions of gender roles in conflict situations are consistently challenged. In chapter 2, Vastapuu opens up the reader to the realities of her interlocutors’ wartime actualities, including their reasons for joining armed groups and their experiences on the battlefield. She finds that the women’s reasons for joining are complex and diverse: a significant number of girls and women joined to avenge the deaths of loved ones, while some joined due to peer pressure and/or to gain material goods. As Vastapuu notes, the motive of revenge is a factor that “does not fit neatly into the picture of a peace-seeking Liberian mother” (p.49). She also finds that gender was not the most significant category of discrimination within the ranks. Female fighters and commanders were not perceived to be different from, or of less importance than, their male counterparts. In this way, the book highlights that gender relations in conflict contexts work in different ways, and that no assumptions of gender roles should be made without a context-specific analysis.
Chapter 2 also addresses the issue of sexual violence in conflict, finding that the main difference between male and female fighters was that the women were more likely to be raped. By emphasizing the personal stories of her interlocutors, Vastapuu effectively makes clear the brutality and scope of the problem, and not least the severe psychological trauma these women still suffer from today. However, the book also delves into the “strategic” use of intimate relationships in combat situations, which is rarely addressed in the academic literature. The author draws upon the individual stories of her interlocutors to show how many female combatants viewed intimate relationships with male fighters as an important survival strategy – a “channel for sturdier rafts of survival” (p. 79). In this way, the ‘social rafters’ concept proves a useful tool to uncover the complexities of women’s constrained agency in conflict situations.
Chapter 3 assesses the DDR programmes that were implemented in Liberia after each war. Vastapuu uses the curious contrapuntal approach, stringing together the ‘official’ institutional narrative, the experiences of women war veterans themselves, and the ‘external views’ of NGOs, external evaluators and independent researchers in order to discover a fuller story of “what really happened and why” (p. 86). In doing so, she successfully shows how the DDR programmes in reality failed to provide the results they had promised, and argues that they were not sufficiently adapted to the situation on the ground. The ongoing process was in itself seen as a manifestation of justice, “rather than instruments of justice” (p.113). Although arguments that the peacebuilding process must be locally grounded and context-specific are not particularly new, Vastapuu’s approach gives compelling empirical substance to these arguments, and provides new insights into how and why these processes may fail. As such, while conceptually and methodologically innovative, the book also proves to be highly policy-relevant.
Chapter 4 and 5 highlight the real-life consequences of the conflict and the failures of the DDR processes. These chapters address the women veterans’ attempts of ‘social rafting’ in post-conflict Liberia and their hopes and aspirations for the future. Moving between structural issues in modern Liberia related to corruption, employment and education, and the personal stories of the women war veterans, she presents a subtle postcolonial critique. Without explicitly stating so, Vastapuu shows how international actors deserve criticism for how they have operated and continue to operate in Liberia. In this regard, Vastapuu also makes clear the need to implement a gender perspective in all peacebuilding efforts, and the consequences of failing to do so. Indeed, the subtle way of uncovering structural problems by combining personal stories and other narratives to tell “the full story”, is one of the book’s greatest strengths.
Ultimately, the book is a compelling read and an important academic contribution also beyond the field of feminist peace research. The innovative methodological approaches of the book, although perhaps perceived to be radical by some, generate insights that traditional research methods may not have. Despite that the context-specific nature of gender relations in conflict are highlighted in the book, one should assume that women play multiple roles in conflict contexts also outside of Liberia. Yet, by emphasizing the perspectives of women war veterans, the perspectives of others – such as male war veterans – are lacking. This has been a conscious and justified choice by the author, from which others may build through additional comparative perspectives that distinguishes between the experiences of other social groups in environments of civil war and post-war reconstruction.