As the world is gripped by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, conflicts in Africa and elsewhere remain seemingly forgotten. In these wars – as in all wars – women’s bodies have become battlefields and collateral, while men alone are brought to the table to strategise on tactics and post-conflict reconstruction.
In the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia, which is affecting over 6 million people, for instance, women and girls are facing displacement, abduction, sexual slavery, and an HIV/AIDS crisis. In countries across the Sahel, humanitarian crises have left many are facing hunger and lack of access to healthcare, including sexual and reproductive health services. In South Sudan, Cameroon, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, women and girls are similarly disproportionately affected by conflict. In all these places, the situations are compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and food insecurity – issues that have also tended to increase risks to women and girls the most.
Even though conflict’s disproportionate effect on women is well-known, these vulnerabilities are rarely discussed, and women remain largely excluded from the rooms in which decisions are made. Studies suggest that peace agreements are reached faster and that deals last longer when women are included in peace processes. Yet still, women are rarely included. When they are, their participation tends to be representational rather than substantive. Gender rights are hesitantly, if at all, integrated in negotiations for ceasefires.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day urges us to “Break the Bias”. It is essential we do this in conflict situations too and include women’s voices and expertise in discussions and decisions around war.
On paper, we should already be doing this. 22 years ago, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, which recognises that women and children “account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict”. Among other things, the Resolution therefore recognises the “urgent need to mainstream a gender perspective into peacekeeping operations”. It further stresses the importance of women’s “full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security, and the need to increase their role in decision-making with regard to conflict prevention and resolution”.
Three years later, the African Union adopted a charter commonly referred to as the Maputo Protocol. This comprehensive legal instrument guarantees women’s rights, and Article 10 specifically provides for the right to peace and women’s participation in the promotion and maintenance of peace.
Many countries have localised the implementation of Resolution 1325 through national action plans. Several African states have also taken steps to turn the Maputo Protocol into domestic law and are required to report their progress.
Nonetheless, women continue to be side-lined in peace efforts. However, there are some positive examples that ought to act as model examples. One is from 2015, when a network of over 500 women in Burundi served as community mediators after the country was plunged into political turmoil. Working across all the country’s 129 municipalities, these trained female mediators addressed over 5,000 conflicts at the local level and initiated dialogues in 17 provinces. Although violence spread across much of Burundi, their actions in diffusing tensions, promoting non-violence, dispelling rumours, and mediating talks likely averted much more misery for many more people. There are undoubtedly several more exemplary but under-reported and under-recognised examples of women promoting peace in conflict situations, but there ought to be many more.
Promoting women to the heart of decision-making during conflicts will require concerted efforts by both state and non-state actors. These groups must deliberately consider the gender dimensions of war to protect women and girls. Civil society groups must integrate gender to the centre of their work on conflict, while governments must abide by their commitments and obligations under international law. Intergovernmental organisations meanwhile need to be sufficiently resourced to carry out their functions in holding member states to account.
War creates disaster and misery for all those caught in it, but women are both those worst affected and those likely to hold the key to its meaningful resolution.