Conceptualizing Combatants: The Re-integration of Female Soldiers as a Post-conflict Population

Problematizing the concept of “post-conflict” requires that we consider who applies the category and to what period. We must also consider how post-conflict as a temporal designator affects how we conceptualize people. In Nepal, post-conflict refers to the differentiated period of time after 2006. It has also given rise to several new populations. In response to the continued existence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in post-conflict Nepal, the United Nations has categorized former combatants into populations that were accommodated differently. The UN and its affiliated organizations drew on dominant gender and age norms to constitute female and child former combatants. The enforcement of external categorical assumptions in designating these demographics has had a particularly marginalizing impact on these former combatants.

The November 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Nepal’s ten-year civil war left the country with two standing armies. This situation flew in the face of political definitions of nation, which accept a maxim of one nation, one army. This necessitated that the PLA be dismantled at once to return the monopoly of force to the Nepal Army. The United Nations immediately began to work on a solution to this dilemma by seeking ways to divide the broader population of the PLA into smaller sub-populations, which could be more easily managed.

The first step in dismantling the PLA required that PLA soldiers be gathered in a physical location from which they could be assessed. For this purpose, the UN instructed PLA soldiers to report to the PLA’s seven cantonments and twenty-one camps. A year later, in 2007, 4,008 soldiers (a disproportionate number of them women) were deemed by the UN to be Verified Minors and Late Recruits (VMLRs). The UN divided the PLA into three subpopulations: those whom the UN considered to be “child” soldiers (verified minors) because they were believed to have joined the PLA before the age of eighteen, those whom the UN considered to be illegitimate soldiers because they joined the PLA after November 2006 (late recruits), and “legitimate” soldiers based on the date of their joining the PLA and their age at that time. Given that many “child” soldiers enlisted at sixteen years of age and have expressed strong convictions that led them to join the army, these categories are extremely contentious. The UN combined the two populations of illegitimate soldiers into the category VMLR and released this group from the cantonments in 2010.

During long-term seclusion in the cantonments, all PLA soldiers underwent two verification programs led by the UN. Ostensibly, this information was to be used to develop appropriate rehabilitation programs for the VMLRs. The designation of these programs as “rehabilitation” is significant, as it demonstrates that the UN considered VMLRs to have undergone a traumatic experience somehow different from the experiences of the legitimate PLA soldiers at whose side they fought. Four rehabilitation options were available to VMLRs: microcredit programs, educational support, vocational training, and health-related training. The statistical data for the outcomes of these programs is dismal with the most recent data available indicating that only 120 graduates (52 women) of the total 1,856 vocational students have secured employment. Most non-governmental organization (NGO) data seems to have predicted this, recognizing that Nepal’s economy could not provide jobs, but the training programs proceeded regardless.

The official UN documentation details an array of vocational training options, but reports in local media indicated that many female combatants were only made aware of a few, all of which were highly gendered, including beautician, waitress, and mid-wife training. Worse still, women with children were essentially denied participation in all but the microcredit option because arrangements for childcare were not provided. Most female former soldiers have settled outside of joint families, depriving them of traditional childcare arrangements and making the absence of childcare options a significant barrier to involvement.

The treatment of those soldiers deemed to be legitimate by the UN was strikingly different. Legitimate soldiers were eligible to choose between voluntary retirement and joining the Nepal Army. Many joined the Nepal Army, and the rest of the PLA soldiers have either received two sizable retirement payments or deserted the PLA and are unlikely to receive any remuneration. Newspaper reports continue to document the success of businesses opened with the use of these retirement funds.

In comparing the treatment of the three UN-created populations within the PLA, the assumptions implicit become apparent. The UN seems to doubt that women and young adults may have freely chosen to participate in violent conflict, and by insisting on guiding their “rehabilitation” rather than freely entrusting them to manage retirement payments as legitimate soldiers have done, the UN has undermined the agency of these individuals. In fact, by labeling soldiers as verified minors based on the date of their enrollment in the PLA and not their age at their release from the cantonments in 2010, the UN has denied these individuals both the right to alternate understandings of adulthood in 2006 and the ability to come of age within their own socio-political context.

The UN has overlooked that many of these “child” soldiers were adults when they were finally released from the cantonments and were thus presumably capable of making the same choices that their fellow soldiers had done. This discourse freezes soldiers in time and ignores the PLA’s own policy of prohibiting the involvement of children in combat positions. While this discourse justifies continued UN involvement in the Nepali peace process, it fails to empower ex-soldiers to make meaningful decisions about their own lives. Through this process, then, the UN has enforced Western notions of adulthood, has re-enforced the traditional gender roles of Nepal, and has ultimately left female former combatants in highly vulnerable positions when compared with soldiers who had once fought by their side as equals.