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To Defeat Boko Haram, Nigeria Must Get Women on Board
To Defeat Boko Haram, Nigeria Must Get Women on Board
To Keep the Peace, We Need More Women
To Keep the Peace, We Need More Women
Op-Ed / Africa

To Defeat Boko Haram, Nigeria Must Get Women on Board

Originally published in Mail and Guardian Africa

It is largely because of women’s compromised position in society that insurgent groups such as Boko Haram can continue to survive.

The midnight kidnapping of 250 schoolgirls by the Islamist group Boko Haram from their dormitory at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok on April 14 2014 sparked headlines worldwide. Nearly two years on, 196 are still being held captive.

There was nothing isolated about the incident, which embodies the horror of the insurgency plaguing Nigeria and its neighbours. Scores of women and girls, initially Christians but later on Muslims, have been abducted as part of the sect’s strategy to extend its grip over the country’s northeast state. By awarding “wives”, willing or forced, to fighters, its leaders seek to attract male recruits and encourage combatants.

 But, according to a new International Crisis Group report, from early on some women also saw the attractions – the group’s religious discourse; potentially greater freedom and protection; socioeconomic opportunities; and a refuge from endemic corruption, entrenched discrimination, widespread poverty and social anomie. 

Because they were not considered a threat at first, women and girls could circulate in government-controlled areas more easily as spies, messengers, recruiters and smugglers. For the same reason, from mid-2014, Boko Haram turned to female suicide bombers. Increasingly pressed for manpower, the sect began training women to fight.

As the counterinsurgency grew, some women responded by helping to guard checkpoints or taking up arms in local vigilante units.

Although disrupting established patterns has given some women better prospects, seven years of war has mostly caused suffering. It has also further entrenched discriminatory practices and gender stereotypes in a deeply divided, traumatised society.

Women were often the only survivors after Boko Haram had either forcibly recruited or killed their men and older boys – or the military had arrested them. As the war spread, the insurgency and counterinsurgency forced nearly two million people, the overwhelming majority of whom were women, to leave their homes.

Women were often the only survivors after Boko Haram had either forcibly recruited or killed their men and older boys.

But the means women have resorted to to survive and the blurred line between victims and perpetrators have led to a climate of suspicion surrounding those displaced, not only by Boko Haram’s other victims but also by government agencies.

Separated from their husbands and sons, hundreds of thousands of women live with their children in government camps where food is scarce and healthcare dismal. In these camps, mostly staffed by male guards, some have suffered sexual violence or have resorted to “survival sex” in exchange for food, money or permission to leave the camp. As they struggle to feed their loved ones, some have denounced corruption and the diversion of food aid, relief funds and services by officials.

The situation of widows is particularly problematic. Although they can inherit a husband’s assets if they have supporting witnesses or records from village or district heads, there is little to claim in places ravaged by war.

Gender-based violence, poor treatment of those displaced, distrust of women either known or suspected to have associated with Boko Haram, and abuses by the Nigerian military have added serious long-term risks to the humanitarian crisis. They are undermining military gains and fuelling grievances against the state of the kind that gave rise to Boko Haram in the first place.

Immediate measures should be taken by the federal and northern state governments to combat the stigmatisation and marginalisation of former Boko Haram wives and slaves, as well as children fathered by Boko Haram members.

Immediate measures should be taken by the federal and northern state governments to combat the stigmatisation and marginalisation.

Bearing in mind that the group remains capable of launching attacks, Nigeria should support isolated women, especially widows, given that they are more susceptible to manipulation by jihadists.

The army should not systematically detain all women found in newly recovered areas. The tactics some have had to adopt to survive should not be held against them indiscriminately. The reunification of families – the only safety net for many – should be a priority. A federal database should be set up to facilitate the search for missing persons and more resources made available to reunite families.

Attention should be paid to gender-sensitive programmes, including those designed to strengthen women’s participation in politics and local governance, and to increase girls’ access to education, in both state schools and upgraded Quranic schools.

Mainstream Islamic groups can play a significant role in empowering women to do their part to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and build support for women’s education and civic participation.

Countering the sect and rebuilding society in the northeast requires the government and its international partners to tackle entrenched gender discrimination, and to enhance the role of women in building sustainable peace.

Op-Ed / Global

To Keep the Peace, We Need More Women

Originally published in The Globe and Mail

Ahead of the 14-15 November 2017 UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial conference in Vancouver, Crisis Group's President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno writes that greater female participation in UN peacekeeping can help UN missions fulfill their mandates.

International commitment to greater female representation in peacekeeping has lost considerable impetus. Though rhetorically committed, United Nations leaders, both civilian and uniformed, have often regarded gender issues as non-essential and dispensable. But in the absence of genuine attention to women's political participation and gender dynamics in conflict-affected societies, UN peacekeeping risks failing to fulfill its mandate.

On Nov. 14 and 15, Canada will host the annual UN peacekeeping summit. With more than 500 delegates from 70 countries and international organizations gathering in Vancouver, this high-profile event can serve as a much-needed catalyst to reinvigorate international commitment to gender equality in peacekeeping. Without global leadership, decades-long efforts to strengthen gender-sensitive responses risk falling into inertia.

Evidence suggests that female peacekeepers can serve as role models for local women, improve relations with the host community, and facilitate information-gathering in societies where locals are dissuaded from interacting with outsiders of the opposite sex. Increasing women's presence is also key to reducing the incidence of rape and use of prostitution by peacekeeping forces. In cases of sexual abuse, victims indicate that it is easier to report sexual crimes to peacekeepers of the same sex.

Increasing women's presence is [...] key to reducing the incidence of rape and use of prostitution by peacekeeping forces.

Efforts to increase the number of female peacekeepers, however, have long been disappointing. In recent years, women's participation, which comprises less than five per cent of peacekeeping forces globally, has remained low and shows no signs of increasing. There are currently only two women out of 15 heads of peacekeeping operations.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has pledged to reach gender parity across all UN agencies by 2030, but the organization has little influence on who gets recruited and deployed by troop-contributing countries. Some member states have adopted policies to increase the number of women in their security forces – Canada is a case in point, with its goal to increase the number of female peacekeepers every year – but most troop-contributing states have poor credentials in female representation in their forces. Contributing nations should be encouraged to provide more female peacekeepers.

Of course, addressing gender-specific needs and interests in peacekeeping requires more than simply increasing the number of women. It calls for thorough analysis of gender dynamics and realities in societies where peacekeepers operate. This can only be achieved if UN peacekeeping leaders make a conscious effort toward integrating gender dynamics in their work and reflecting them as they devise new policies and interventions. Increasing the number of gender advisers directly supporting heads of peacekeeping missions, and ensuring that they are not sidelined, would be concrete steps in that direction.

Research on gender by International Crisis Group has shown that, in times of conflict, the experiences of men and women vary considerably. As conflict disrupts traditional livelihoods, men predominantly join the ranks of soldiers on the front line, while the economic burden on women increases, along with the number of female-headed households. Likewise, crises are likely to exacerbate existing discrimination against women and girls and distort traditional social norms. Devising sustainable solutions for peace is impossible without taking into consideration these issues. Liberia, where women played an important role in the negotiations leading to peace, is a case in point.

There is also a need for greater awareness of the gender-specific impacts of conflict, in order to devise appropriate interventions. In recent decades, forms of violence have emerged that take the gender identity of the victim as their primary target. This is especially true in situations where sexual violence is turned into a weapon of war. But more broadly, at times where law and order have broken down, women and girls of all ages may be left with few options to survive, sometimes compelling them to break societal norms. This fuels a vicious circle of violence, exclusion and stigmatization.

It is particularly regrettable that reports keep emerging of sexual abuse by peacekeeping troops while the UN has limited means of holding those responsible to account. The revelations of widespread sexual abuse in recent news illustrate that violence against women and girls, including in the home, exists within many societies – rich and poor. But as conflict exacerbates underlying tensions that encourage predatory behaviours and further compound women's insecurity, it is the responsibility of national leaders, as well as peacekeeping heads, to support robust systems to prevent such violence and protect groups at risk. A strong personal commitment of the leadership is a critical component of an effective response to sexual abuse.

Without resources or dedicated personnel, there is a strong possibility that gender expertise will remain excluded from decision-making and program development processes.

In June, the UN General Assembly voted to cut $600-million (U.S.) from the organization's annual $8-billion peacekeeping budget, resulting in the removal or downgrading of several field-level positions responsible for integrating the gender perspective in the work of peacekeeping missions. One of the impacts of budgetary pressure on peacekeeping has been the reluctance to ensure that vacant gender adviser positions within missions are filled. Without resources or dedicated personnel, there is a strong possibility that gender expertise will remain excluded from decision-making and program development processes.

As Vancouver prepares to host this year's United Nations peacekeeping summit, member states should follow Canada's lead as an internationally recognized advocate for women's rights and gender equality. They should make concrete commitments to expand female recruitment in their security services and concurrently increase the deployment of female peacekeepers.