Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers

Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers: Women's Lives through War and Peace in Sierra Leone

Chris Coulter
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7z60f
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  • Book Info
    Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers
    Book Description:

    During the war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), members of various rebel movements kidnapped thousands of girls and women, some of whom came to take an active part in the armed conflict alongside the rebels. In a stunning look at the life of women in wartime, Chris Coulter draws on interviews with more than a hundred women to bring us inside the rebel camps in Sierra Leone.

    When these girls and women returned to their home villages after the cessation of hostilities, their families and peers viewed them with skepticism and fear, while humanitarian organizations saw them primarily as victims. Neither view was particularly helpful in helping them resume normal lives after the war. Offering lessons for policymakers, practitioners, and activists, Coulter shows how prevailing notions of gender, both in home communities and among NGO workers, led, for instance, to women who had taken part in armed conflict being bypassed in the demilitarization and demobilization processes carried out by the international community in the wake of the war. Many of these women found it extremely difficult to return to their families, and, without institutional support, some were forced to turn to prostitution to eke out a living.

    Coulter weaves several themes through the work, including the nature of gender roles in war, livelihood options in war and peace, and how war and postwar experiences affect social and kinship relations.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5848-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-30)

    After the war, Aminata stayed with her “bush husband” in Makeni and gave birth to their second child. Her parents had fled to Guinea during the war, and as she did not know where they were, she had nowhere else to go. One day she met an old neighbor from her hometown. At the sight of him she became happy and thought he might have news of her family’s whereabouts, but when she greeted him she noticed he was afraid of her. “Don’t be afraid,” she told him, “we are all human beings.” When she asked after her family, the...

  6. 1 A Decade of War—Centuries of Uncertainty
    (pp. 31-56)

    Although the war started in 1991, for many of my informants the war did not really begin until November 1994, when the northern town of Kabala in Koinadugu District was attacked by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).¹ The war was something that had been going on in the remote southeastern part of Sierra Leone and had something to do with diamonds, of which there were none in Koinadugu District. Few people seemed to know what the war was about and felt that they had nothing to do with it.² Was it a revolution against the corrupt state, or perhaps a...

  7. 2 Gendered Lives in Rural Sierra Leone An Ethnographic Background
    (pp. 57-94)

    Most of my informants were very young when they were abducted; only a few had married and had children. When they returned home after the war they were mature women, and many had also become mothers but had never been married. As I will discuss later, the ambiguous position of these young women—they were neither girls nor fully women according to cultural convention—created many problems for them, their families, and communities, as has been indicated already in the introduction with the case of Aminata. Many of these problems revolved around issues of morality and sexuality but also spoke...

  8. 3 Abduction and Everyday Rebel Life
    (pp. 95-124)

    In the introduction I argued that when fieldwork is done on war experiences after a war has ended, narratives take place in the register of memory (see Shepler 2002, 2) that are filtered through a variety of post-war experiences: for example, humanitarian discourse, responses from society, family situation, health, and poverty. In this chapter I will give an account of my informants’ narratives of abduction, bush marriage, and everyday life in the rebel movement. Many of these narratives of past experience were told in a sometimes hostile postwar environment. All of my key informants had been abducted, most had been...

  9. 4 From Rape Victims to Female Fighters Women’s Participation in the War
    (pp. 125-153)

    As can be understood from the preceding discussion in chapter 3, rape and sexual abuse were extremely common during the war in Sierra Leone.¹ Almost all girls and women I interviewed told of multiple rapes, gang rapes, and continual sexual abuse during their time in “the bush.” It is just not possible to write about abducted women’s experiences of war without going into the issue of rape and sexual abuse, as this was part of daily life for many women. In this chapter I will examine my informants’ accounts of rape and sexual abuse, and I will connect these to...

  10. 5 Reconciliation or Revenge Narratives of Fear and Shame
    (pp. 154-180)

    When the war was over, Aminata, who had been a fighter, wanted to register for disarmament. She said she wanted to disarm because she really “fought and suffered.” But her bush husband had told her that if she did, “they” would take her picture and she would be sent to court. This made her afraid, which was why when he later asked her to give him her weapon, she did. “When my ‘husband’ told me that they will take our pictures and go to court and told me to give him the gun, I had to do it because he...

  11. 6 Surviving the Postwar Economy Female Livelihood Strategies
    (pp. 181-207)

    Sitting with a group of my informants in one of their compounds, I was talking with them about what working and having one’s own income meant to women. As discussed in the previous chapter, working kept my informants from being “idle” and was, as I have noted, a recurring theme with many of them. They explained that it was very important for them to be able to contribute to the household, because this made them feel more respected, and this included the fact that having an income was seen as improving the relationships with their husbands. Aisha, Aminata’s friend from...

  12. 7 Coming Home—Domesticating the Bush
    (pp. 208-236)

    Toward the end of the war many abducted girls and women were released, some escaped, and many were abandoned by their bush husbands. But there were also those who stayed with their bush husbands and commanders, some out of fear, others by choice, and those like Aminata, who had nowhere else to go. There were those who lived in informal conjugal relationships with their bush husbands, had children or were pregnant, and were reluctant to leave for an uncertain future with their natal families. They were also concerned for their “rebel children,” fearing that the children would not be well...

  13. Conclusion Life in a War-Torn Society
    (pp. 237-254)

    In the introduction I posed a series of specific questions after presenting the case of Aminata. I asked what had happened to Aminata during the war and why her return to her family after the war had been so difficult. I also asked why people were afraid of women like Aminata and why her parents were dismayed at her return. After trying unsuccessfully to get her married to other men, why could Aminata’s father simply not legitimize her bush marriage? I also wondered why Aminata could not just leave her family and go to live with her bush husband anyway....

  14. Notes
    (pp. 255-268)
  15. References
    (pp. 269-284)
  16. Index
    (pp. 285-290)