SSP PhD looks to understand: when, why and how do rebel groups incorporate women? | 2021 | News

SSP PhD looks to understand: when, why and how do rebel groups incorporate women?
Christopher Burns | MIT Security Studies Program
Apekshya Prasai

Focus on Apekshya Prasai's research


Photo: Chris Burns

SSP PhD looks at the impact of female-fighter inclusion in rebel groups

SSP PhD student Apekshya Prasai traces her involvement in the study of politics back to the earliest years of her life. Experiences within her home, and the broader Nepali society, all played a role.

She was raised in the periphery of the People’s War, led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, a conflict she focuses on in her current research. According to official estimates, up to 17,000 people were killed during the war.

 “Growing up, what I knew about women in the People’s War and how it compared to women’s status in Nepal and across South Asia, all helped shape the questions I am asking” as a political scientist, she said during an interview last month.

Prasai is one of two SSP PhD students who have been named by The U.S. Institute of Peace as a 2021-22 Peace Scholar Fellow. She was awarded the fellowship for her dissertation project that examines women’s inclusion in various South Asian conflicts, including the People’s War in Nepal.

“I grew up in Kathmandu, the capital city, and was privileged enough to be sheltered from the conflict and direct violence that engulfed the countryside. But the participation of large numbers of women in the conflict, including as fighters, was well known,” Prasai says.

These early experiences inform her current research, which examines the processes that trigger women’s inclusion in rebel groups.


Prasai was awarded the Peace Scholar Fellowship for research she is undertaking as part of her dissertation at MIT.

Her primary question, she says, is: “When, why and how rebel groups incorporate women and why this process varies across groups.”

She’s interested not just in the initial moment in which women join a rebel group, but how their presence starts an internal, gendered, political process.

“How does female inclusion start? How does inclusion evolve over the course of conflict? How does it consolidate? How does women’s presence influence rebel behavior?,” she asks.

A recent wave of political science research on women’s inclusion in non-state armed groups highlights how rebel leaders’ ideological and strategic interests influence women’s inclusion as fighters, Prasai says. These works connect female-fighter-inclusion to leftist rebel leaders who believe in gender equality, or interpret female-inclusion as a sign that the rebel group is facing recruitment pressures.

What this framework omits, she says, is women’s voices and an examination of how women themselves shape the dynamics of inclusion.

“Women are important actorsplayers in driving this process,” Prasai says: . “My research indicates that, in several conflicts, once mobilized into rebellion, women agitate for more inclusion, leadership representation and equality within rebel groups. My data indicates that women play an often neglected but pivotal role in influencing the outcomes of such contestation.”

Prasai says she finds inclusion is best understood as a complex, temporal phenomenon shaped by internal contestation over gender roles, relations and norms within rebel movements.

As an example, Prasai notes, during the People’s War, female rebels regularly agitated for more opportunities, more responsibilities, more female representation in command and leadership roles and greater gender equality within the movement as a whole. Through agitation, they managed to secure provisions like leave for female fighters during menstruation, and helped elevate more women into leadership positions.


Prasai’s dissertation develops a new framework for understanding women’s inclusion in rebel groups and advances a theory that recognizes women’s agency and role in shaping the gendered practices that rebels adopt. She tests this theory using two sets of comparative case studies of women’s inclusion in various South Asian conflicts, including the People’s War in Nepal.

In order to fully understand the dynamics of women’s inclusion, as part of ongoing data collection efforts, Prasai has interviewed many elite as well as rank-and file male and female rebels who participated in the People’s War in Nepal.

When interviewing female rebels, she has two broad goals. First, she charts an oral history of the woman’s life, before and after involvement in the rebel group. Then, she seeks to understand specific details about their wartime experiences.

“When you were in the movement, what roles did you fulfill?,” she asks. “Were women mobilized as fighters regularly? Were women excluded from any kind of military activities? What were the criterions for promotions? Did women command military units? What kind of units did they command?

“I use a variety of questions like this to understand wartime gender dynamics ” she says.

With USIP’s support, Prasai plans to continue such data collection in Nepal and beyond. Her research has also received support from APSA Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant, MIT Center for International Studies and MIT Governance Lab.