“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”- Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Conflict is one of the biggest challenges facing the African continent, fuelled by inequality, poverty, unemployment, corruption or illegal financial flows. Of the 69 conflicts currently active globally, 30 of them are in Africa. The AU Commission, Heads of States Assembly decided to mark this year with the theme “Silencing the Guns”, an initiative aimed at ‘ending all wars, civil conflicts, gender-based violence, violent conflicts and preventing genocide in the continent by 2020.’ A laudable vision, however, unattainable and set up for failure, because women and girls are still excluded, unrecognised or undervalued for their contributions, experience and rights.
We cannot silence the guns if the voices and needs of over half the population remain unheard. Achieving the bold vision our African leaders have set out for themselves must start with ensuring that the rights, needs and experiences of women are reflected in all areas of life. We know that in times of conflict women and girls suffer disproportionately. Research shows that during conflict and militarization of societies, there is often an increase in sexism and violence towards women, and sexual violence in particular, which usually goes unpunished. Women face a greater risk of harassment, domestic violence, rape, trafficking and forced prostitution. They also bear the brunt of the longer-term social, psychological and economic impacts.
A report by the office of the AU Special Envoy of the Africa Union Commission Chairperson on Women Peace and Security, “WPS agenda in Africa: Report on Implementation 2019”, categorised three challenges of implementing women, peace and security (WPS) in Africa. The first is institutional; the plans are not supported with the necessary resources and there is little coordination or documentation of how they are being implemented.
Secondly, was the conceptual interpretation of the WPS agenda, which combines concepts of gender discourse and peace and security. The concepts have been narrowly interpreted, with limited understanding of the interceptions between conflict drivers and gender inequality, hence weakening the scope of the agenda.
Lastly, the country’s environment is one of constant hardship, whether political, social or economic hardship. This context makes it difficult to address structural factors to conflict such as gender inequality, which in turn fuels systematic violence.
Currently, there are 24 African countries that have adopted the WPS action plans. The overarching challenge still remains the full and equal participation and inclusion of women. In South Sudan for example, in an Oxfam published briefing, women have persisted on making their voices heard, yet with a few days until the country forms a transitional government, South Sudanese women are still demanding 35% women’s participation in the government and more leadership roles at all levels of decision making. Things must change and here are suggestions of steps our leaders can take to ensure the full and equal participation and inclusion of women.
Firstly, African leaders must put measures in place for women to participate in all decision-making spaces and in peace processes. Inclusion and participation of women are non-negotiable in pursuit of sustainable peace. With just months to the 20th anniversary of UNSCR 1325 resolution on women, peace and security, which outlined women’s critical role in peacebuilding, women’s participation in post-conflict recovery, governance and development has remained low. Women’s inclusion in peace processes remains a mere 3% globally.
Women are often leaders in their community during the conflict; focusing on countering violent extremism, supporting social cohesion, disarmament and reintegration of combatants including children, and promoting psychosocial support and relief. They are active in emergency response like distribution of much-needed aid, providing basic services even in corners where NGOs and international agencies can’t reach. Yet, because their informal roles are rarely recognised and after the crisis, they are often pushed back into the private sphere and lose their hard-won gains.
Secondly, our leaders must invest in gender equality through gender-transformative policies, engaging local and grassroots women-led and women’s rights organizations in developing national action plans, and ratifying and implementing international and regional gender treaties and conventions. Having a feminist foreign policy is also a necessary step to take as it will support women’s own voice, agendas and seek men’s backing as allies. This creates an enabling environment for women’s leadership at all levels and domains. Sisterhood and solidarity are also fundamental for women and girls to demand positive change and support women who say “#IMatter, I deserve to be heard and to take part in building peace, to be protected and to be a leader in my country”.
Lastly, it is imperative to invest in the structures and systems that would support in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation progress, with women at the centre of these structures. In the Central African Republic (CAR), for example, on average, an alleged gender-based violence (GBV) incident is reported every 60 minutes, and 92 per cent of victims are women and girls. However, women still have to fight for representation in the peace processes and commissions that are being formed to seek justice and reparations for survivors.
Women whose bodies were used as weapons of war still lack reconstruction processes to heal their body, mind and spirit. Having this information, documentation and yearly progress will begin to hold more leaders accountable to their commitments and push for the complete implementation. In efforts to silence the gun, tell your leader to prioritise the inclusion, participation and protection of women and girls in all spaces. African women matter. #SheMatters.
Amina Hersi – Humanitarian Campaigns Lead for Oxfam International, human rights analyst with a focus on gender justice. Twitter: @aminaa_hersi
UN Photo/Evan Schneider
05 April 2014
Bangui, Central African Republic