AFGOYE, Somalia – Arabiska Forward Operating Base in south-central Somalia is unlike any battleground Captain Agnes Anywar had experienced. Here, the landscape is dotted with Ali Garob trees, a drought-resistant shrub that invaded Somalia in the 1980s and has claimed more of the country than any living organism, and the sun glares down so strongly the officer in charge doesn’t just offer visitors a glass of juice, but the entire box.
Originally from northern Uganda, Anywar had been through war first as a child whose family members were targeted by the violent Lord’s Resistance Army guerrilla group, and later as an internally displaced person. In that time, Anywar heard her mother being raped inside their home, squatted for months inside a police compound and commuted to school at night for over a year for fear of being abducted. When she finished school, she decided she was done being a victim.
“When I finished secondary school, I immediately enlisted in the Ugandan Military Academy,” she says, brow dotted with droplets of sweat. “I wanted to go back to northern Uganda and fight for my people suffering during the war.”
Though often depicted as the victims of violent conflict, women across Africa are increasingly making up military ranks, by some estimates comprising 30 percent of soldiers across the continent. In Somalia, women have taken up arms both in the nascent Somali National Army and as part of the 17,000-strong African Union Peacekeeping Force, AMISOM, where Anywar is one of 500 women in the Ugandan contingent. Unlike most peacekeeping forces, where the majority of women serve in support positions, in AMISOM women are tank engineers, drivers, and gunners fighting on the front lines in the battle against the al-Qaida-linked terrorist organization al-Shabab.
One of Anywar’s fellow servicewomen at Arabiska, Irene Nabulire – a gunner in AMISOM’s Ugandan contingent – sits in the shade of a tree outside her olive-green tent. A few weeks after Nabulire arrived in May of last year, she sat in the shade of the same tree discussing the climate – so different from the weather in her hometown in Uganda – with her colleagues. Now about to return home, Nabulire shares her delight in finishing her deployment and reminisces on the more exciting moments of her experience in Somalia.
“It was in November we went to al-Bowe [in south-central Somalia] for four days to support the contingent that was in a battle with al-Shabab,” she says sitting on a makeshift bench with some male colleagues, next to a large pack of once-feral dogs that have taken up residence at the base. “I was firing the 120mm mortar, 14 rounds in those four days. And then they [the militants] left their position.”
But women in security forces in Somalia aren’t just confronting al-Shabab on the battlefield. Their mere presence across the country may play an equally important role in influencing how Somali women view the positions they can fill in society, which, as a result of the militant group’s extremist Islamic ideology, have mostly been restricted to the household.
“Having female peacekeepers empowers the local women around them by giving them a role model,” says Riana Paneras, senior researcher on peace operations at the Institute for Security Studies. “Once you have female peacekeepers, women in that country see there are other avenues for women apart from what they are used to, that there is also a way they can get involved in military or police.”
In post-conflict societies like Liberia, this inspiration had a tangible impact. In 2007, an Indian all-female Formed Police Unit was credited with motivating Liberian women to join the national police force, boosting its female representation from 12 to 21 percent in just five years.
In Somalia, though figures have not been released due to security concerns, members of the Somali National Army and police force have noted an increase in the number of Somali women serving in both forces. It could be that women are inspired by the presence of female peacekeepers, they say. But some of the credit should also go to an outspoken 24-year-old, Captain Iman Elman, currently the highest-ranking woman in the Somali National Army.
After moving to Canada with her family during the height of Somalia’s civil war, Elman returned to Mogadishu in 2009 and enlisted in the national army in a conscious effort to inspire other women to do the same. There, she was one of two women in her battalion and the only woman asking to serve on the front lines. In return, she was subjected to verbal abuse from her male colleagues, who told her she didn’t belong in the military and that she was too weak to serve. Before civil war broke out in 1991, a number of women had served in the armed forces in positions such as fighter pilots and foot soldiers, but the emergence of al-Shabab nearly destroyed the perception of women as capable of fighting on the battlefield.
“We’re missing an entire generation here of anyone from 30 to 45 because of the war,” says Elman. “So you’re dealing with the older generation who are very familiar with women in the military and with young men under the age of 25 who grew up in a time when terrorists had such huge control over the country and had never seen peace or real governance, who don’t know anything about gender equality.”
Elman hopes her presence in the Somali National Army and the growing number of women joining her there can begin to change the mentality instilled by al-Shabab. In her tenure, she’s already seen the men’s attitude toward women in the military beginning to shift.
“I didn’t realize that I was making a difference in terms of the way the guys were thinking until a few years ago when I was put in charge of new recruits,” she says. “At first the negativity started again, they were calling me names. But then the male colleagues who knew me told them to back off. They said, ‘You don’t know what she’s capable of.’”
READ MORE STORIES IN OUR “WOMEN & JIHAD” SERIES:
- Former Boko Haram Captives Face Stigma, Often From Other Survivors
- With a Game of Basketball, Girls Dribble Round Extremism in Somalia
- Why Women Are Crucial to Fighting Radicalization in Afghanistan
- The Covert Project to Help Mothers Push Back Against the Taliban
This story is part of our special “Women and Jihad” series.