Africa Renewal: You were on mission to the Central African Republic and Cameroon a few weeks ago. What are the main challenges facing women and girls in these two countries?
Ms. Kang: My visit’s primary focus was the Central African Republic. I went to Cameroon to meet refugees fleeing from the CAR. The main crisis in CAR is the ongoing armed conflict. Although there is a transitional authority in place, as well as a French peacekeeping mission, there are still sporadic outbreaks of armed violence, especially in the eastern part. When you have violence and lawlessness, women and children are the first to suffer and the crisis worsens the discriminatory social structures that already exist.
There are incidences of sexual and gender-based violence attributed to armed groups. Internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) camps are completely unprotected and armed elements move among them almost freely. The line between civilians and armed militants is blurred. So the most vulnerable groups like women, children and girls face risks. This calls for an extra effort to reach out to the women and children. While the humanitarian situation continues to be dire and humanitarians continue to provide support, it is a complicated situation with many risks involved.
Are there any opportunities or entry points for women and girls to participate in peace-building, conflict resolution and reconstruction in CAR?
There is a political process to try and consolidate the ceasefire and gradually drive away armed elements and bring security to the whole country. There is an ongoing process called the Bangui Forum, which is a national level forum seeking to bring peace and reconciliation. It involves not just the Bangui discussion but also local discussions at every corner of the country, including the IDPs.
The forum now reaches about 65% of the country, hoping that in every process there are women’s voices and women leaders participating. I had a very interesting meeting with women leaders in the CAR capital of Bangui – I have never before had an encounter with women leaders that was so full of frustrations like this one. The women were almost at the point of anger because they felt left out and not part of the peace process. It was an indication of the real frustration about the continuing lack of security and lack of women’s integration and participation in key processes. I think the transitional authority and the international community should make sure that women’s voices are heard, elevated and made part of the peace process and reconciliation efforts.
When we went to visit an IDP camp of a mostly nomadic community, we had to talk to the women first and then the men separately. It was therefore interesting that when we went to meet the same nomadic tribe who had crossed into Cameroon as refugees, a young woman spoke on behalf of both men and women. I thought this was a very encouraging sign and that with the right interventions and the right sensitization of the community, there are opportunities for constructive interventions for women’s empowerment. This crisis situation can provide an opportunity for transformation and space for participation of women.
What are some of the local initiatives communities are using to cope with the crisis? What kind of support are humanitarian workers giving to these initiatives?
Even before the current conflict, the CAR was a poor country that required a lot of development assistance. On top of that, there are now huge humanitarian needs. Communities are trying to cope whichever way they can. It is also a country where government authority is really minimal outside Bangui. When you go to the rural areas it is really the community leaders doing all they can to serve the people
However, the key message – whether from IDPs or refugees – is “give us peace”. Without peace and security people cannot return home nor can they rebuild their lives because they are constantly under threat knowing that whatever they rebuild today can be taken away tomorrow. Furthermore, the minority Muslim population is saying “we were marginalised before but this conflict situation further marginalized us”. So any return to normalcy and peace has to get to the root cause of the conflict and deal with the grievances of all the people in the country.
Anywhere in the world, conflicts arise because there are pockets of populations who feel aggrieved, marginalised and do not have a fair share in their country’s prosperity. If those grievances are allowed to accumulate, they turn into social tension and if this is not well managed, it becomes a violent conflict and if that is not contained then it becomes civil war.
It is not enough just to stop the war. The peace process has to go beyond reconciliation and address some of the root causes. It is going to be a long process. The Bangui Forum seems to be a very good start but it is not the end of the story, there has to be more long-term initiatives for transitional justice and for political power sharing, and for the way society treats minorities.
What were the objectives of your trip to CAR?
We visited several IDPs. First of all, our objective is to protect them from harm. Second, to help the displaced build livelihoods and to give them some sense of normality. This involves vocational training and giving them some resources to develop a sense of self-sufficiency. This constitutes the early part of humanitarian intervention in which the gender dimensions of a particular community are taken into consideration.
What were the key demands from women, both in CAR and the refugees in Cameroon, to the international community, the government and to their national leaders?
They all want to rebuild their lives sustainably. They want to be able to send their children to school. Basically, they want a normal country. They want to overcome the sense of fear and victimisation.
Women play a critical role in overcoming these negativities. My point to everybody was you need to build on the small things, facts and truths. There are so many rumours going around and it is not helpful for building trust. If you empower women to conquer their sense of vulnerability, it would likely free them from the disabling fear and victimisation.
Women would probably be the key to unlocking and liberating the psychology of fear and victimisation. It is easier to accomplish this among women than men. After a decade of political tension and divisions, women have a special role to play in bringing democratisation in CAR. If the international community is to provide any support to this country in a way that gets to the root causes of their problems and remove that sense of fear, it has to start with the women.
Are you getting enough funds to deal with the humanitarian crisis?
CAR is one of the top four priorities for the humanitarian community along with Syria, South Sudan and Iraq. Because it is such a high profile case, the funding was comparable to other protracted crises for example Somalia, DRC, Afghanistan, etc. Of the over $555 million requested last year, only 74% has been funded so far. This year we are asking for $612 million.
Is there any prioritizing for women and girls in this funding?
The healthcare intervention is very important and so is education. CAR is a country where education levels are been very low, so investment in this area is very important. Then there is the sectorial support that comprises the whole package of humanitarian intervention.
What is OCHA’S message to donors and member countries?
My tour was to refocus global attention on CAR because, with so many crises claiming the headlines, CAR was slipping off the radar screen and we really needed to bring it back. My message to the world is to “keep the focus on the CAR”. The country still needs support from the international community and donors to help continue the humanitarian work.
What about Cameroon?
Cameroon is relatively stable and the economy is doing well. But the discussion here was about Boko Haram threats in the north. Refugees from Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria have fled to Cameroon and group is striking right inside Cameroon.
The humanitarian actors are really alarmed by the consequences of Boko Haram attacks in the north of the country.
This year’s meeting of Status of Women took stock of the Beijing +20. In October, the world will mark the 15th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. What is your take on the situation in CAR? Have the commitments to women and girls been implemented?
Overall, there is so much more to do for the full realization of the promises of Beijing, 20 years later. We were all idealistic and very hopeful in Beijing but as the years have gone by, we have seen how difficult it has been to implement the promises made to women. We now have a better sense of reality.
The backlash against women that we see in conflict countries, for example, the brutality with which extremists treat and subjugate women, is an indication of how the advances for women in some societies are falling behind. So Beijing +20 and the 15th anniversary of UNSC 1325 is a good opportunity to reaffirm the importance of these global commitments. At the end of the day, you need governments to act upon those commitments.
In conflict countries such as CAR it is very difficult to see any advances for women, so there is a need for a fresh look into that. I don’t think the women leaders in CAR would have come to a meeting with me with so much frustration and anger if they were making significant progress. I would not necessarily blame that on the current transitional government but the fault is on the past governments. There were so many years of missed opportunities to implement some of these commitments for women and girls.
What are your recommendations going forward?
In the case of CAR, the goal is to stop the war, restore peace and rebuild the country. Women have to be an integral part of it - whether it is the Bangui process or the preparation for elections. Yes, the country has a woman as the transitional president and some women ministers. That is good. But they should have women at every step of this national process. The international community should push for that. I would like go back to CAR and see a peaceful country.
What’s your message going forward?
My message to my fellow humanitarians is that we need to integrate gender dimensions in all aspects of our work. Every time we do an evaluation we always fall short, so there is a lot of work to do.
To our national partners and the parties in conflict societies, the key to success for any peace processes will be the genuine integration of women in the process.