BO, SIERRA LEONE — IN a country where women have not traditionally asserted themselves publicly, Sierra Leone's civil war has propelled them into unprecedented new roles. Some have become guerrilla fighters; some bodyguards. And some have been thrust into the forefront of peacemaking.
Five years ago, the conflict in Liberia spilled across the border to create a separate war here. With politicians slow to react, the women quickly bore the brunt of the fighting. They took up arms, and made up a sizable portion of the "vigilantes" for the Army.
"I joined five years ago to try to save my mother, who had been captured by rebels," young Lance Cpl. Salimatu Barry recalls with pride. She said that a young woman with whom she had worked was the Army's most sought-after specialist in rocket-propelled grenades.
Few Sierra Leoneans can say what the war has been fought over. While this West African nation is made up of various ethnic groups, religions, and secret societies, none is associated more with one side of the conflict than the other. Soldiers and rebels, known collectively as "sobels," often come from the same families. Both male and female fighters have been known to swap sides.
People who have escaped capture often do not know which side had been holding them. "Both wear the same uniforms, carry the same weapons, and use the same tactics," says Adama Gurdura, a woman with burns on one side of her body. Six months ago, her house was set on fire with her and her family locked inside. Only she and her young son survived.
More than 2 million people, nearly half the population of Sierra Leone, have fled the rural areas to vast camps near the towns, leaving much of the countryside deserted. Despite an official cease-fire over the last two months, attacks have continued. Last week, the BBC reported that women were raped in the north near Makeni; their men were castrated.
Yet during this time, groups of women have been risking their lives to walk out along the empty country roads calling for peace and reconciliation, chanting "War no good," in Krio, the English-based language spoken throughout the country.
"Whoever they [the sobels] are, we want them to know that we love them, that we want to help them, and that they should lay down their arms," says Ines Toma-Elias, the mayor of Bo and chairwoman of the women's movement for peace in the southern region.
Often the sobels are as young as 12. Many reportedly use drugs, including crack cocaine. The approach of the women's movement is to preach tolerance and try to meet the attackers' needs. Recently some women have even gone out to stay with the fighters, says Ms. Toma-Elias.
At times, efforts have backfired. Last month, a group of about 150 women near the town of Kenema who tried to get the rebels to put down their weapons were fired upon. At least 12 died.
Undeterred, the peace movement joined with other women's organizations into a network that cuts across nearly all social divisions. Local representatives of the movement are often also heads of various traditional societies for women, notably the Bondo, of which an estimated 90 percent of the country's women are members. It is larger than any single male association in the country.
LAST year, at the height of the war, women organized a peace demonstration. It was the largest march ever seen in the capital, Freetown, with similar marches in all the major towns.
This year, the women pressed the military government into holding elections even though it would mean excluding the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF). They said they had information from women who knew the rebels that the RUF leaders were more willing to negotiate with a civilian rather than a military government.
The elections took place last month, and the civilian government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was installed. The government and rebels agreed Tuesday in Ivory Coast to a cease-fire, and they appointed groups to draft peace and disarmament accords.
In the newly elected government, women have only about 5 percent representation. But the rebels are reported to have many high-ranking women in their command. Television audiences were amazed last month when rebel leader Foday Sankoh arrived for peace talks in Ivory Coast surrounded by a team of young female bodyguards.