While violent conflicts have declined in the West African sub-region, the on-going insurgency in the North of Mali, Nigeria and in Niger sends alarming signals of the possible re-surfacing of internal and regional violent conflicts.
After decades of conflict in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau and the Casamance region in Senegal, the region is experiencing some level of stability and entered the new millennium with hopes of strengthened peace and security.
Women and children suffered enormously as a result of these conflicts which resulted in loss of lives and property, the internal displacement of people, a region-wide refugee crisis, poverty and
disease, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, human and drug trafficking, illegal exploitation of natural resources and banditry’ (Afolabi 2009). While both men and women suffer as a result of conflict their experiences are not always the same.
Besides differences in situation and experiences between men and women it is important to also understand that women are a ‘heterogeneous’ group of social actors who play certain roles and positions during peace and conflict situations. These roles may overlap or coincide but can also differ in place and time. For example some women may be willing combatants in conflict while others may have been forced into these roles.
Some women suffer greatly as a result of the conflict. “They are specifically targeted for rape «their bodies become a battleground over which opposing forces struggle. Women are raped as a way to humiliate the men they are related to, who are often forced to watch the assault” (Rehn, E and Johnson Sirleaf, E. 2002). They also note that « women who are already pregnant are forced to miscarry through violent attacks. Women are kidnapped and used as sexual slaves to service troops, as well as to cook for them and carry their loads from camp to camp. They are purposely infected with HIV/AIDS, a slow, painful murder. »
Many women flee their homes with their families in search of safe havens. In refugee camps, many displaced women are now exposed to other threats and risks to their personal securities. These include sexual attack and gun violence as they care for their families. Those in positions of power, including aid workers and peace keepers, often turn a blind eye to violations for fear of compromising their “neutrality.” Cases of sexual abuse of girls by aid workers and peacekeepers is well documented but very few cases if any have been addressed.
The risks do not end when the war is officially over; the number of guns in the community increases with returning soldiers and other warring parties, whose often violent behaviour is now directed at women and other family members.
Existence of landmines and other explosive remnants of war pose grave threats to lives and livelihood in humanitarian and development terms. The catastrophic impact on the lives of women and children in Mali and Senegal (Casamance region) in communities that simply want to build and grow after years of instability and conflict have made some of the areas no-go zones thus stifling development.
Women have not been passive sufferers of these violent conflicts but have played a pivotal role in building lasting peace within communities and states. The initiatives of groups such as the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP); West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI); Mano River Union Women’s Peace Network (MARWOPNET); Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET); the National Women’s Movement to Safeguard Peace and National Unity (MNFSPUN), Mali and Femmes Africa Solidarité (FAS), among others, have brokered peace and ended violent conflicts in West Africa.
MARWOPNET through engaged advocacy were able to bring the presidents of Liberia (Charles Taylor), Sierra Leone (Tejan Kabbah) and Guinea (Lansana Conte) to the table for peace talks in 2001. This action marked the first time the three leaders had come together to discuss insecurity and peacekeeping along their borders. The sustained advocacy of MARWOPNET and WIPNET, through its ‘We want peace, No More War’ campaign resulted in the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Liberia on Ceasefire and Cessation of Hostilities on 17 June 2003. MARWOPNET is also active at the grass roots level in community mobilisation and sensitisation.
The work of Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist in founding a Liberian Mass Action for Peace is documented and led to her being a co-winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, alongside the president of her country Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The Network on Peace and Security for Women in ECOWAS Region (NOPSWECO) launched in 2009 in Cote d’Iviore brings together women organizations in the ECOWAS region working in peace, and security with the view to promoting strategic partnerships for women’s empowerment and gender equity and equality. The Network seeks to optimize women’s roles and initiatives in conflict prevention, peace building, post conflict reconstruction and the promotion of human rights particularly of vulnerable groups to find sustainable solutions to peace. The ECOWAS Gender Development Centre (EGDC) facilitated the setting up of the Network.
The Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC) in Ghana has been instrumental in building capacity for gender mainstreaming in peacekeeping operations in the region. In 2009 the Centre in collaboration with the Women Peace and Security Network Africa (WIPSEN-Africa), the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) developed a Gender Mainstreaming in Multidimensional Peace Support Operations and conducted a training of trainers (ToT) for 20 representatives of institutions engaged in peace support operations across Africa. The training provided a core group of end-user-institutions with skills for effective gender mainstreaming.
The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 adopted in October 2000, continues to be the cornerstone for any peace process activity aimed at the inclusion and protection of women. It recognises for the first time the role of women in conflict not as victims, but as actors in the prevention and resolution of conflict and in equal participation in peace processes and decision-making. Since then, other international bodies have adopted resolutions and declarations emphasising the importance of women participation in peace processes.
A follow up resolution in 2008 UNSCR 1820 focuses specifically on the protection of women from sexual and gender-based violence in conflict and post-conflict situations. This resolution builds off the provisions set forth in the CEDAW and Resolution 1325, noting the particular importance of gender-based judicial reforms, which create an enabling environment where women can participate in, seek justice or protection from gender-based crimes.
UNSCR 1325 National Chapters in West Africa Under the auspices of the ECOWAS Commission and WANEP, were able to review progress made in the implemetation of the UNSCR as part of UNSCR fifteenth anniversary Celebrations in Accra in Ovtober 2015. Under the theme, “15 years of Implementing UNSCR 1325 in West Africa: Looking Back and Looking Forward” participants highlighted the successes, best practices, lessons learnt and challenges in implementing their UNSCR 1325 National Action Plans (NAPs).
A Global Study on the UNSCR 1325 highlights the substantial increase in frequency of gender-sensitive language in peace agreements, and the number of women, women’s groups and gender experts who serve as official negotiators, mediators, signatories, witnesses or in advisory bodies. It notes however that «in many conflict-affected contexts, women’s official participation may be temporary, their delegated roles may be more symbolic than substantive and their influential capacity may be directly resisted by cultural norms».
The Global Study concludes with a call to action for the expansion and support of networks of women peacebuilders and peacemakers as their solidarity is essential if the world is to move toward the original vision of the United Nations, where nations turn their ‘swords into plowshares.’
By Adelaide Sosseh
Gender and Education Specialist
Photo: Nobel Laureates Liberian President Ellen Johnson SIrleaf and Leymah Gbowee, women’s rights activist