Women and conflict in West Africa and beyond

By Dr Diene Keita, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director (Programme), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

Women are deliberately targeted in conflict

When conflict happens, the rule of law breaks down, freedom of movement is restricted, institutions and services are weakened, creating a lack of access to social services and information, and to food and livelihoods. This situation affects the entire population, but it disproportionately affects women. Research has shown that female-headed households are more vulnerable to stress and less capable of absorbing shocks, due to gender inequality, cultural restrictions and the feminisation of poverty. Conflict affects women and men differently and existing gender inequalities are compounded in times of conflict. Women and girls make up a large proportion of internally displaced populations (IDPs) and refugees. In Burkina Faso, 51% of IDPs are girls under the age of 14. Moreover, gender norms that associate masculinity with aggression make men more likely to perpetrate violence against those over whom they have power – usually women and children.

Overall, conflict increases women’s exposure and vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence. The Sahel and West Africa Club’s publication on Women and Conflict in West Africa, shows that Islamist organisations and militias deliberately target women. In north-eastern Nigeria where Boko Haram has its roots, women are victims of systemic attacks and kidnappings, and are forced into slavery as sex slaves, informants and even fighters. Additionally, women in conflict are victims of rape and forced prostitution, pregnancy, abortion, sterilisation and marriage, as well as many other forms of sexual violence. The higher risk and exposure to sexual and gender-based violence during conflict leads to increased reproductive health problems, which, compounded with the lack of access to health services in particular in conflict settings, have a severely detrimental effect on women and girls. Age compounds gender discrimination and disparities: in conflict and post-conflict contexts, adolescent girls and young women face even higher risks. Moreover, conflict widens the gender gap in school enrolment and retention.

Changing discriminatory social norms into positive norms in conflict-affected areas

A DevTalk organised by the Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat and the OECD Development Centre on 1st March 2021, highlighted the following promising strategies:

More gender awareness-raising activities in military services: Conflict-related sexual violence emerges from culturally tolerated gender-based violence, including tolerance by commanders. More gender awareness-raising activities among military personnel in conflict-affected countries can help combat conflict-related sexual violence.

Better co-operation and inclusion of communities, religious leaders and faith-based organisations will ensure a progressive norms shift, gradually deterring people from turning to Boko Haram. Through a holistic and respectful approach, with a focus on local cultures and communities, co-operation among these groups contributes to creating enabling environments to build on positive gender and social norms, transform attitudes and behaviours and tackle unequal social systems. This means, for example, empowering girls and women to have a say, to lead and to make their own decisions, with an understanding of what is at stake for their lives and their future. 

A multi-sectoral response to sexual violence implies a range of comprehensive services for victims and survivors that aim to reduce the effects and consequences of harmful practices and prevent further traumas. The objectives of such a response can include facilitating access to support services for victims; ensuring accountability at all levels and institutions; mainstreaming and co-ordinating action to address and prevent sexual violence; creating safe spaces for girls to learn and transition before re-joining families; and ensuring more accurate records of cases of sexual violence and responses.

Investing in men and boys for positive masculinity can contribute to changing social norms and provide a way to build back better after the pandemic. First, by educating the new generation of young adolescent boys and girls, to shift social norms and build a new generational and more egalitarian mind-set towards equity. This means investing in an education system that includes proper literacy in local languages for religious understanding, and that enables girls to stay in school and decrease child marriage. Second, increasing women’s participation in land management creates a fairer world and strengthens nutrition. Finally, promoting best practices such as the “school of husbands” can initiate behavioural change towards women e.g. by learning the basic needs of women and girls and the benefits of having a wealthy and productive family.  

Today, conflict is a major challenge for the Sahel. However, strong efforts are underway to restore progressive national authorities in remote areas. The Sahel is also a land of opportunities. The region’s biggest asset is its population immediately followed by potential resources such as renewable energy, the green and blue economy and mining resources. All Sahelians are nomads. With more physical infrastructure including roads, educational and health facilities, markets will emerge and livelihoods will be secured for a more empowered population. Conflict will eventually decrease and social cohesion will find its way. Interactions between traditional, Arabic and western cultures will help drive a new dynamic that is positive for trade and cross-border activities for a growing population.  

Watch a short video by the Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat on “Women and Conflict in West Africa”

Watch the replay of the DevTalk on Women and Conflict in West Africa, featuring Dr Diene Keita, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director (Programme), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)