In the 17th century, a fearsome group of African soldiers defended their kingdom against invaders and marauders. Well-trained and thousands strong, the Women Warriors of Dahomey inspired fear and won battles for more than 200 years in what is now Benin.
In 20th-century Eritrea, women fought alongside men and led soldiers into combat throughout the country’s 30-year struggle for independence. They healed the wounded in underground hospitals sheltered from enemy fire and helped repair equipment for return to the battlefield.
For hundreds of years, women have played a vital role in African peace and security. They’ve sacrificed in liberation struggles and offered unique skills in peacekeeping operations.
But women’s contributions have come at a cost. Despite making strides toward representation across the continent’s militaries, women continue to fight harassment and discrimination at all levels of service. And when conflicts subside, they often receive fewer recognitions than their male counterparts.
South Africa’s military typifies the challenges women face. Gender-mainstreaming policies in the post-apartheid era have led to a steady improvement in representation; women now make up nearly a quarter of the country’s full-time armed forces.
But difficulties persist. Ingrained attitudes about women’s roles and abilities have led to systemic marginalization and sexualization, according to research funded by the African Peacekeeping Network and the Nation Research Foundation of South Africa.
Elsewhere on the continent, women constitute a small number of the armed forces, particularly at higher ranks. And in some countries, women are blocked from certain roles or excluded from the military altogether.
Preconceptions about women’s roles and abilities haven’t prevented some female soldiers from ascending to the highest ranks of their countries’ militaries.
Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the continent’s longest-serving female defense minister, has held her post in South Africa since 2012. Kenya’s defense minister, Raychelle Omamo, has served since 2013.
And the Central African Republic’s Marie-Noëlle Koyara has led her country’s armed forces for nearly two years.
In a conversation with Koyara and VOA’s French-to-Africa service, Elizabeth Fitzsimmons, the United States’ deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs, highlighted the bilateral opportunities that a female defense minister creates.
“We have a democratically elected government [in the Central African Republic]. We have a military with a minister of defense at the head who is a woman. And I think that speaks volumes about the potential for cooperation between the United States and the Central African Republic,” Fitzsimmons said.
The CAR has a newfound chance to improve representation throughout its ranks. As part of an effort to bolster security and assume responsibility from international peacekeepers, Koyara plans to rebuild the country’s army.
“For there to be a return to security, it is necessary for our security forces, of which the Central African Army is part, to be reconstructed, because we have experienced the highs and the lows with this army,” Koyara said. “So it’s necessary for an army to be republican and engaged in defending its country and its population.”
Elsewhere in Africa, Aisha Mohammed Mussa became Ethiopia’s defense minister in late 2018, after a cabinet reshuffle. And Rose Christiane Raponda, the continent’s newest female defense minister, assumed office earlier this month after Gabon reorganized its government following a failed coup attempt in January.
Women also face challenges in peacekeeping missions across Africa, despite offering unique strengths.
Female peacekeepers play a critical role in bringing women in conflict areas into the peace process and giving them a voice, according to the United Nations.
Women can assist victims of sexual assault and shield children from violence in ways male soldiers cannot. In some cultures, only female peacekeepers can speak to women in need of aid — an unknown man doing so could cause fear or offense, shutting down important conversations and interventions.
Women make up 22 percent of civilian peacekeeping posts, but they are poorly represented in military roles.
In the seven active peacekeeping operations in Africa, women make up less than 4 percent of military personnel. MINURSO, the United Nations Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara, has the highest rate of female troops, at nearly 19 percent, but it’s also the smallest operation, with just over 200 personnel involved.
Bintou Keita of Guinea, the U.N.’s assistant secretary general for peacekeeping operations, said the U.N. is committed to achieving gender parity by 2030. “Women peacekeepers act as role models in the local environment, inspiring women and girls in often male-dominated societies to push for their own rights and for participation in peace processes,” Keita wrote.
As more women take on leadership roles across Africa’s military, the prospects for representation appear to be growing. Fatuma Ahmed, Kenya’s recently appointed major general, told Kenya CitizenTV that women in her country have accomplished a lot, but they’re just getting started.
“We have doctors, we have engineers, we have lawyers, we have jet pilots, we have pilots in air defense. We’ve been able to be deployed in various phases of operations in the military at the tactical level, the operational level. Basically, in defense, in attack, in rescue, in reconnaissance. We are spoiled for choice. This is just the beginning.”
Idrissa Fall, with VOA’s French-to-Africa service, contributed to this report.