Conceptualizing Combatants: The Reintegration of Female Soldiers as a Postconflict Population

From the Series: The Politics of “Postconflict”: On the Ground in South Asia

Photo by Sara Shneiderman.

Problematizing the concept of postconflict requires that we consider who applies the category and to what period. We must also consider how postconflict as a temporal designator affects how we conceptualize people. In Nepal, postconflict 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 postconflict Nepal, the United Nations has categorized former combatants into populations that were accommodated differently. The United Nations 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 operate on 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 began to work on a solution to this dilemma by seeking ways to divide the broader population of the PLA into smaller subpopulations, 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 United Nations 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 United Nations to be Verified Minors and Late Recruits (VMLRs). The PLA was divided into three subpopulations: those whom the United Nations considered to be child soldiers—that is, verified minors—because they were believed to have joined the PLA before the age of eighteen; those considered to be illegitimate soldiers because they joined the PLA after November 2006—thus, late recruits; and “legitimate” soldiers, based on the date of 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 United Nations combined the two populations of illegitimate soldiers into the category of VMLR and released this group from the cantonments in 2010.

During long-term seclusion in the cantonments, all PLA soldiers underwent two verification programs. 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 VMLRs were considered to have undergone a traumatic experience different from that 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 on the outcomes of these programs is dismal, indicating that only 120 graduates (52 of them women) of the 1,856 vocational students have secured employment. A number of NGOs had predicted as much, but the training programs proceeded nonetheless.

The official 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 highly gendered, including courses to become a beautician, waitress, and midwife. Worse, women with children were essentially denied participation in all but the microcredit option because arrangements for child care were not provided. Most female former soldiers have settled outside of joint families, depriving them of traditional child care arrangements and making the absence of child care options a significant barrier to involvement.

The treatment of soldiers deemed to be legitimate by the United Nations was strikingly different. Legitimate soldiers were eligible to choose between voluntary retirement and joining the Nepal Army. Many did the latter, while the rest 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 seeded by these retirement funds.

In comparing the treatment of the three UN-created populations within the PLA, implicit assumptions become apparent. The United Nations 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, it 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 upon release from the cantonments in 2010, the United Nations has denied these individuals both the right to alternate understandings of adulthood and the ability to come of age in their own sociopolitical context.

The United Nations has overlooked the fact 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 made. This discourse freezes soldiers in time and ignores the PLA’s own policy of prohibiting the involvement of children in combat positions. While it 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 United Nations has enforced Western notions of adulthood, reinforced the traditional gender roles of Nepal, and ultimately left female former combatants in highly vulnerable positions when compared with soldiers who once fought by their sides as equals.