Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone: Sex, Security and


Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone:
Sex, Security and Post Conflict Development positions itself in the literary canon at the
intersection of feminism, international relations and war studies. MacKenzie
attempts to disrupt popular and largely gendered narrative surrounding conflict
in Africa, employing the Sierra Leonean war as its case study. The book champions
empirical data collected through a process of qualitative interviews with 75
former female soldiers in Sierra Leone to address the hyperbolised ‘male
warrior, female victim’ trope presented in literature and consequently policy. Over
the course of the 8-chapter book, MacKenzie weaves her central concept of conjugal order through various themes
which manifest themselves not only during war time, but are dynamic through perceived
peace times. The book succeeds in highlighting post-conflict reconstruction as
a gendered process which is widely imposed by external, non-African actors on African
states, and further questions the embeddedness of liberalisation and
modernisation propensities in post-conflict reconstruction. There are various pitfalls
of the text which highlight the need for increased intersectional and
interdisciplinary work in relation to studies concerned with gendered conflict
in Africa.

notion of conjugal order exists as an
analytical tool to scrutinise “the laws and social norms that serve to regulate
sexuality, (re)construct the family, and send messages about acceptable and
legitimate social relationships” (4). While this framework allows for engagement
with various motifs that present themselves in conflict and post-conflict, a
pitfall of the order is that MacKenzie
places it in the binary of the colonial period and independence era which
followed this, ignoring and erasing the impact of any precolonial norms or
events that may have formed Sierra Leone. Furthermore, movement from a colonial
perspective of analysis to a legal conjugal
perspective does not adequately critique the practices that were formed in
the liminal space of colonial and modern, hence we cannot not adequately understand
the shift presented by Mackenzie.

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Moving forward
with the notion of conjugal order, MacKenzie problematises presuppositions of notions
of state rebuilding, rehabilitation, freedom and empowerment; calling into
question the almost formulaic pursuit of intervention as enacted by western
actors. These notions are undoubtedly “liberal, capitalist, and patriarchal” (142).
One manifestation of the problems Mackenzie highlights is the influx of various Non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) and International non-governmental organizations (INGO’s) into
Sierra Leone at the terminus of the War. These NGOs and INGOs birthed various gendered
philosophies relating to policy formation and subsequent pools of funding made available
to aid former soldiers. The Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reconstruction (DDR)
programme existed as a rehabilitation mechanism for former soldiers. The widespread
assertion relating to DDR in post-conflict states is that the practice can
significantly reduce the likelihood of conflict resumption and garner a
platform for social, political and economic development.

Whilst methodological
individualism was present in the mechanisms employed by various NGOs and INGOs,
the policies were almost exclusively gendered as to reject aiding women soldiers
in the same way their male soldier counterparts may have been helped, due to
their deviation from the conjugal order of victimhood. Mackenzie’s critique of
NGO and INGO engagement with the DDR speaks directly to the ways in which largely
western organisations perceive African war and conflict, as well as the roles
that men and women ‘should’ play in those wars. Hence one of the aims of her
book is actualised in highlighting the restrictions placed on women when
attempting to come forward for rehabilitation. Thus, MacKenzie’s observation in
chapter 8 that women should be included in both the policy making and implementation
process seems logical, as the idea that “peace accord + disarmament +
transitional justice = healing, forgiveness and harmony” (139) is not a
trajectory that is representative of the nuances of the experiences of female
soldiers in Sierra Leone. Ultimately, giving insight to broader issues
surrounding gendered securitisation and de-securitisation as well as the state
of western humanitarianism. The fleeting nature of policy templates that have
historically existed at the sites of African conflict and post-conflict
resolutions typically attempt to one dimensionally tackle issues related to
conjugal order, mass trauma and reintegration through a largely ‘trial and
error’ approach.

issue which presents itself in MacKenzie’s book is that of race and how it is
seemingly overlooked. Neglecting race as a unit of analysis not only discounts all
the intersections that the women interviewed meet, but also the explanatory and
analytical power the category holds in relation to policy formation from INGO’s
and NGO’s. Sierra Leone has a Muslim population of approximately 78% and a
Christian population of approximately 21% (Sillah, 1994), hence many women in
the country meet at the nexus of culture, race,
gender and faith/ religion. Scholars such as Sullivan and Tuana in their work Race
and Epistemologies of Ignorance (2008)
aptly “delineate the contours of blind spots that operate both in academia and
in the social world outside it, tracing their origins and their consequences.
They identify questions that have gone not only unanswered but unasked for too
long” (Medina, 2008). IR scholarly work such as Mackenzie’s should aim to
identify all intersections relevant to analysis as essential sites of critical
engagement. As the author herself states in reference to Chris Coulter’s
ethnographic study Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers (2009), also concerned
with Sierra Leone’s female soldiers, the study of war could be revolutionised “if
we took women, their lives, and their experiences seriously” (2011).
Inextricably linked to this is addressing the subconscious racial and
potentially Islamophobic bias’s which permeate the existence of black women and
girlhood globally. This includes but is not limited to, hyper-sexualisation,
“adultification” and skewed views of innocence (Epstein. et al. 2007). Thus,
the purposeful failure of Mackenzie to incorporate her own definition of what
constitutes the phrases she employs such as ‘woman’, ‘young woman’, ‘girl’ and
‘child soldier’ (53) can further exasperate stereotypes that negatively affect

acknowledgment of the interdisciplinary nature of this book, and recognising Mackenzie’s positionality as a senior lecturer
of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, as well
as a former post-doctoral
fellow with the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs and the
Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University is important. There is an
implicit suggestion that this book would espouse feminist research from various
subdivisions of the social sciences, however there is great oversight in
crediting anthropologists such as Coulter
(2009) who’s work both contributes to the wider scholarship on female soldiers
in Sierra Leone and elucidates the extent to which the experience of female
‘soldiership’ in Sierra Leone is embedded within complex socio-political and
historical processes. This oversight ultimately simplifies the experience of
the women concerned with the study by confining it to the binary of feminist
international relations theory and dis-embedding it from wider debates.

(2015) eloquently highlights that taking seriously the experiences of women
should not only be limited to the content of a body of work, but as in this
context, should also extend to the choice of book cover. While MacKenzie may
have been under various constraints, such as editorial power relating to the
cover art distributed, it is nonetheless problematic and somewhat unethical
that a photograph of two Liberian -not Sierra
Leonean – girl soldiers holding AK-47s was utilised. Issues regarding fear of
stigmatisation, marriageability and reintegration back into society as
highlighted by Mackenzie of former Sierra Leonean women soldiers, also rings
true of former Liberian women soldiers. Hence, the image used on the cover is
suggestive of a larger issue regarding the fetishizing and homogenising of
women soldiers. In attempting to give agency to female soldiers and remove them
from the popular canon of ‘male soldiers, female victims’ in African conflicts,
MacKenzie falls into a somewhat essentialist
framework to speak to the experience of Sierra Leonean women soldiers. Beyond being
reductive, it highlights a chasm in her feminism and the intersections which
she considers for analysis; reading as somewhat anti-feminist.

the book achieves its aims of adding nuance and complication to the literature
surrounding the Sierra Leonean war, achieved largely through the unique concept
of conjugal order. Moreover, it addresses questions critical to ideas on gender
mainstreaming and post-conflict development. Its engagement with neoliberal
discourses and policy formation calls for its readers to consider the conjugal
orders that pervade their own society and the ways in which those orders
pervade other societies. The failure of Mackenzie to posit her work in wider
discourses, or credit previous studies on Sierra Leonean female soldiers stands
as a microcosm of the dangers of; the production of knowledge, perpetuation of
perceptions and formation of policy in a vacuum outside of active intersections
that can, and regularly do affect the ‘subject’ of study, hence reveals a need
to take seriously intersectionality. It calls for feminist social scientists to
carefully examine and critically engage with the realities of their own biases;
such as the employment of western models to critique western interventionism.
This bias also speaks to an epistemic blindness which feminist social
scientists cannot afford to ignore as “relations of oppression are protected by
being erased from the minds of those who perpetrate them and sometimes (when
possible) from the minds of those who suffer them.” (Epstein. et al. 2007).