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Women can help defeat terrorism in Africa

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Women can help defeat terrorism in Africa

Experts at a UN forum in New York call for sustained support
Sharon Birch-Jeffrey
Photo: Africa Renewal/Adam Melville
Photo: Africa Renewal/Adam Melville

With terrorism and extremism taking a heavy toll on communities in Africa in recent years, there is need to involve women in the fight against these evils. This was said by various speakers at a discussion forum held on June 28 on the sidelines of this year’s conference of heads of counterterrorism agencies at the UN headquarters in New York.

The side event was organised by the UN Office of the Special Adviser on Africa, UN Women and the UN Office for West Africa in collaboration with the Permanent Mission of Japan to the UN and the Permanent Mission of Germany to the UN. The theme was “Leveraging partnerships and strengthening cooperation with women to counter and prevent violent extremism and terrorism in Africa.”

To be effective, African women need sustained international support and partnerships, agreed many speakers at the Africa-focused side event, attended by top officials of African governments, civil society, the UN, nongovernmental organisations and Africa’s regional bodies.

Improved women’s education, establishment of continent-wide networks and sufficient funding for women’s antiterrorism activities were the other recommendations.

In her opening remarks, UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Africa, Bience Gawanas, said that although all people—civilians and security forces alike—are affected by terrorism and violent extremism, women and girls experience specific forms of violence on the basis of their gender.

“The increased use of rape, other forms of sexual violence and abduction from schools as tactics of systematic terror attacks on civilian populations is a demonstration that terrorism and extremism target and affect women, men, girls and boys in different ways,” said Ms. Gawanas.

Terrorism not only destroys lives, human dignity, livelihoods and property, but also destabilizes governments, weakens the social fabric of communities as well as of civil society, causes forced displacement, harms the environment and socioeconomic development, and is a grave threat to international peace, security and stability, said Ms. Gawanas.

To tackle terrorism, Ms. Gawanas stressed the need to ensure women’s active participation, empowerment and leadership are at the centre of all efforts, at all levels.

“Women and girls are not only victims of terrorist and extremist acts. They too play diverse roles in support of or as part of terrorist and extremist groups, just as they also contribute to actions and strategies to counter and prevent terrorism and violent extremism in their communities, countries and across the world,” she said.

Currently the UN Secretary-General Plan of Action on Prevention of Violent Extremism, Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security, the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the UN-AU joint frameworks on peace and security and the implementation of Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are focusing on integrating gender issues, women’s participation, empowerment and leadership in all efforts to counter and prevent terrorism and violent extremism.

The Dakar Call to Action, urging governments to fight child marriage, that was recently adopted by women’s groups in West Africa and the Sahel, as well as other frameworks, highlights critical issues that African women want considered in the implementation of all policies and initiatives to counter and prevent terrorism and violent extremism. The Dakar Call to Action urges governments to fight child marriage.  

Women want to be consulted and involved in the analysis of the root causes of violent extremism and terrorism, and they want to be represented in mechanisms and structures to counter terrorism—including in national security agencies.

The continent is witnessing a growing momentum on women’s engagement. Ms. Gawanas noted that the UN, the AU and its member states and the continent’s regional economic communities have adopted policies and strategies that encourage the involvement of women in preventing and tackling terrorism.

Lazarus Amayo, the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Kenya to the UN and chair of the African Group for July 2018, said African countries will “continue to ensure that national and regional policies and strategies are informed by women’s experiences.”

He said the AU’s Mechanism for Police Cooperation, G5 Sahel, the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism, the Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram and the support of the global community will all support continental efforts to prevent and tackle terrorism.

“Acts of terrorism hinder…realization of the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Mr. Amayo. He also reiterated the importance of involving women and partnering with them on the fight against terrorism and extremism. He said that this fight is a collective responsibility.

The Japanese permanent representative to the UN, Koro Bessho, said terrorism often results from social exclusion and a lack of opportunities and basic services. He pointed out that “the root causes of terrorism cannot be addressed by men only” and called for the mobilization and empowerment of women so they can play an important role in building peace in their communities. He promised Japan’s continued support for Africa.

“The Nairobi Declaration also recognizes the need to harness the power of women networks in order to drive against extremism and terrorism,” Mr. Bessho said, referring to a three-year plan adopted by Japan and the 54 African countries to advance sustainable development in Africa.

A representative from the Permanent Mission of Germany to the UN touted the African Women Leaders Network, a platform to enhance women’s leadership, as an example of a group working to tackle the root causes of terrorism.

He emphasized the need for Africa to look for local solutions to local problems, and the establishing better networks among stakeholders that countries can use to exchange best practices in tackling terrorism and extremism.

One of the participants expressed concern that terrorists have taken over some regions of the continent and are using social media to communicate. “We must fight the causes that make people radicalize,” she said. She called for programmes to teach communities about fighting terrorism and extremism by eliminating their causes.

Sandra Oulate, the director of ECOWAS Gender Development Centre, said the conference enabled her to share with participants some of the achievements of women in West Africa—the efforts of civil society and regional organisations.

“The fight against terrorism does not require only the interventions of heads of state. Women are needed to play their part. Women must be key actors in efforts to stop terrorism,” said Ms. Oulate.

The president of G5 Sahel Women’s Platform, Justine Coulidiati Kiélem, said terrorism is wreaking havoc in the Sahel and called for concerted efforts to focus on the region.

“It is crucial to give women an opportunity to help end terrorism,” according to Ms.. Coulidiati Kiélem. She said women are the first to see what is not good in the family and in the community, and that they can contribute to economic development that will in turn keep men engaged in helping their families.

“Women in the Sahel face poverty—they have no money, no land to farm on. Our governments and international partners must do more. They sometimes spend money on the wrong priorities. They need to spend money on where there can be a good impact—supporting women,” said D Coulidiati Kiélem.

Globally, terrorism continues to destroy lives, destabilize governments, force displacement and severely harm the environment. In 2017 alone, there were 11,000 terrorist attacks in more than a hundred countries, resulting in 27,000 deaths.