Even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the four countries around Lake Chad — Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria — faced serious security, humanitarian and development challenges. Now, in addition to slowing economic growth, COVID-19 has exacerbated political and social tensions and humanitarian challenges in the sub-region. Extremist groups in the region have not heeded the Secretary-General’s call of last March for an immediate global ceasefire in view of the pandemic and instead have called on their followers to intensify attacks. At the same time, the delivery of humanitarian assistance within conflict-affected areas has become increasingly complicated.
These challenges were among the issues discussed in a meeting of the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission on 9 September. The meeting included one civil society voice: Dr. Fatima Akilu, who heads a Nigerian non-profit, non-governmental organization, working on building inclusive communities, providing and raising the standards of psycho-social care and countering extremist narratives. Dr. Akilu, highlighted the specific impact of the current security and health crisis on women and girls. After the meeting, she talked to Politically Speaking about what she is seeing on the ground.
What are some of the challenges faced by women and girls in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region?
Dr. Fatima Akilu: As in conflict settings the world over, women’s vulnerabilities to domestic and gender-based violence, forced sex work and early marriage are exacerbated. From a mental health perspective, many women and girls across the region live with the trauma of experiences they have witnessed at the hands of the insurgents as well as the increased vulnerability to sexual exploitation and abuse.
Another major challenge for women in the Lake Chad Basin is access to economic resources. The insurgency in the region has thrust many women and young girls into roles of responsibility and decision making. New family structures — single mothers, female headed households and more decisive power — have increased economic and financial pressures on women, who’s limited education, skills and access to land and finances renders them economically vulnerable. The resulting challenge being food insecurity and limited access to sustainable livelihoods.
Furthermore, violent extremist organizations operating in the region have deliberately and successfully targeted women and young girls for a variety of reasons. Women are abducted and married off to fighters as benefits, prizes and rewards. Of course, over time as the military has rescued and won back land, this has led to the release of these abducted women, often with newborn children or pregnant with the children of their captors. Unfortunately, the reintroduction of women associated with these armed groups to society has been far from straight forward and a faulty and neglected reintegration process has led to pervasive and deep-rooted stigmatization
How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these challenges and what in your opinion should be the peacebuilding priorities for women and girls in the Lake Chad Basin?
Generally, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a particularly severe impact economically for women and girls. Necessary phased lockdowns implemented by governments have unfortunately meant that women who are typically engaged in entrepreneurial undertakings are limited in their ability to render their services and products to their target markets, whilst already limited access to land has become even more limited.
While there were protection concerns for the Lake Chad Basin due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no concrete data pointing to either an escalation or decrease of issues like gender-based violence (GBV) or sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) as a direct result of the pandemic. There is therefore an immediate need for research that sets out to understand how the pandemic has affected women and girls as a special demography. Apart from carrying out research, important steps to take would be mapping out country by country impacts and generating innovative evidence-based policy, assessing health risks and ethical implications of social service interventions, countering misinformation to keep women and girls up to date with the right information and as safe from the pandemic as possible, as well as designing conflict-sensitive community-based programmes that do not aggravate existing socio-political and security problems in some of the countries. For women and girls in the Lake Chad Basin, peacebuilding priorities should continue to revolve around two main areas: Protection and economic empowerment.
What do you think should be done to empower women and to include them in the peacebuilding process in the region?
Women are still primarily seen as victims of conflict — as opposed to agents of change — therefore responses mostly deal with reactionary aspects of sexual and gender-based violence. Given that women’s roles in conflict are complex, there is a need for relevant systematic policy research and analysis, including on issues related to dispute-resolution, access to justice and economic empowerment
It is important to continue to establish platforms and opportunities for women to have a voice, and more so, platforms for economic empowerment and collaboration among women. In a context where there is an increasing number of women and girls leading households, it is increasingly necessary that women are able to access resources to help fulfill their roles as the heads of their households.
The first step would be to correct the pervading notion, even among women, that women have no valuable input in matters of peacebuilding in their communities. This can be done by placing at the forefront, women who have in one form or another contributed to the growth of their local communities. These women could be trained to spearhead the entire process. Likewise, women and girls can be trained in skill acquisition or taught to lead and run their own businesses.
Has COVID-19 also created or highlighted new opportunities for peacebuilding initiatives?
Yes, it has. The pandemic has shown itself to be an equalizer of some sort, revealing that none is superior to the other whether based on gender, level of education or wealth index. Moreover, it has proven that each and every person can play a role and contribute to the general wellbeing of the populace. It was noted how, at community level, women were instrumental in ensuring that safety measures such as proper handwashing practices were observed in their respective homes to prevent their families from being infected by the coronavirus.
Leveraging on this ‘sense of responsibility’ shown by these women, we would teach these women that they can also be luminaries for peace in their communities and promote campaigns that would foster peacebuilding among members of the community. The added advantage of this venture would be a paradigm shift in not just the minds of these women, but also their male counterparts, who would see the value that women bring to the table thus causing a re-orientation of the notion that resources need not be expended on capacity building of women and girls.
The pandemic has also forced development practitioners and field implementers to use technology and traditional media, such as TV and radio, to reach their target clients. In certain situations, this has proven to be more effective and allowed practitioners to reach a wider audience and client base. As one of many examples, Neem Foundation for example, during the lockdown resorted to educating women and young girls vulnerable to GBV through FM radio, reaching its direct target audience and many other unintended but curious listeners and learners.
All photos courtesy of Dr. Akilu.
Dr. Fatima Akilu is the Executive Director of the Neem Foundation, a non-profit, non-governmental organization working on building inclusive communities, providing and raising the standards of psycho-social care and countering extremist narratives. She is a trained psychologist with over 20 years of experience in the field of mental health, psychology, Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) and communications.
Neem Foundation is currently implementing the Heroines of Peace initiative in the North-East as a platform to empower women and girls to understand their rights and have a say in the peace processes in their communities. Under this initiative, women lead sensitization campaigns in the communities experiencing the peak of the pandemic.