Reporting back from a trip to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), United Nations deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed expressed deep disappointment that women were significantly marginalized in critical peacebuilding efforts in the two populous countries.
Ms. Mohammed had led a team of UN and African Union (AU) officials earlier this year to raise awareness of the vital role of women’s participation in peace and security processes and in the fight against sexual violence.
The team included UN Women’s executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Nguka, the UN special representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, and the African Union special envoy on Women, Peace and Security, Bineta Diop.
During the trip, described by the UN as the “first of its kind,” the delegation hoped their voices against sexual violence and for women’s empowerment would resonate in other African countries.
Ms. Mohammed reported that “Both [countries] have dismayingly low levels of women’s political participation and are experiencing conflicts marked by extremely high levels of sexual and gender-based violence.”
There is widespread sexual violence in the DRC, while abductions, forced marriages and the use of women as suicide bombers are rampant in Nigeria, reported Ms. Mohammed.
Nigeria was their first port of call. After meeting with some of the girls once held by Boko Haram kidnappers but freed two months earlier, Ms. Mohammed lamented, “We heard stories that young girls should not have to tell, and these [stories] have been a tragedy for all of us.”
In April 2014 the Boko Haram militant Islamist group abducted 274 schoolgirls from Chibok, near Maiduguri, in northeast Nigeria, and spirited them away into Sambisa forest. Over the years many were rescued or managed to find their own way out of the forest.
Ms. Mohammed did not elaborate on the freed Chibok girls’ stories, but a UN Women press release preceding the trip provided some details: “Boko Haram since 2014 has abducted more than 7,000 women and girls in Nigeria, subjecting them to sexual violence, including sexual slavery, forced marriage, as well as physical and psychological abuse.”
Ms. Mohammed recalled that the freed Chibok girls “refused to be victims.… We saw girls who talked about their dreams—no longer their nightmares. It shows there is hope.”
Visit to the DRC
The International Crisis Group, an organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, reported in 2017 that “while men have disproportionally been killed [in the Boko Haram insurgency], women are an overwhelming majority among the estimated 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northeast Nigeria.”
The group then visited the DRC, including the Mugunga camp for internally displaced persons on the outskirts of Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province. At the camp the delegation met with women engaged in small-scale trading. Still, Ms. Mohammed stressed that the women have a right to return home in “dignity and humanity.… It is not a favour.”
Almost a million people have fled the armed conflict in the DRC that began in 1994. The war was so bad between 1994 and 2003 that it earned the moniker “Africa’s first world war.” A central government has asserted control, but skirmishes in the interior continue to put thousands of women, children and others at risk.
The number of women raped in the DRC has topped 200,000 since the war began, reports the NGO, which is now working to support war-affected women, particularly female ex-combatants, wives of ex-combatants and women abused by militia groups.
Ms. Mohammed and her team expressed frustration at the level of violence in both countries. “Without peace we cannot have development. Whatever investments we are putting into development, we are seeing them being eroded by the lack of peace,” she said, a sentiment she expressed repeatedly at several meetings in both the DRC and Nigeria.
What role could women play in achieving peace in conflict countries?
“Evidence shows that women’s meaningful participation helps with the conclusion and implementation of peace agreements,” notes UN Women, “yet women are almost completely missing from peace negotiations.”
In the book Women and Power in Postconflict Africa by Aili Mari Tripp, a professor of political science and of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in the US, the author noted that women’s involvement in resolving conflicts often leads to higher rates of female political representation post-conflict.
As evidence, Professor Tripp points out that “post-conflict Liberia was the first African country to elect a woman president. As early as 1994, post-conflict Uganda had already had a woman vice president for 10 years. Post-conflict Rwanda today has the highest rate of female legislative representation in the world—63.8% of its legislators are women—and has held that spot since 2003.”
She further explains that during conflicts in Africa, “women are among the most engaged in behind-the-scenes peacemaking, pressuring militia to lay down their arms, demonstrating for peaceful elections and negotiating the release of kidnapped civilians.”
But the professor maintains that women’s rights advance faster if the conflict ends through peaceful negotiations than if one side wins decisively.
Whether women will engage in conflict resolution efforts in the DRC and Nigeria will depend on those countries’ authorities.
The UN and AU team urged both governments to foster gender equality to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “Women often account for half of the population.… We are not able to achieve our goals if we are only investing in half of the population,” said Ms. Mohamed, speaking in Nigeria.
The Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill, designed to protect human rights and eliminate cultural practices that impede women’s progress, remains stalled in Nigeria’s legislative process. The delegation urged the Nigerian government to expedite the signing of the bill into law. “It’s about action,” Ms. Mohammed told a group of journalists. “It’s about implementation.”