Having worked in the gender-skewed field of conflict for over 15 years, I was very excited to be part of an all-women delegation of the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) African Peacebuilding Network (APN) alumnae to Washington, DC. We started our meetings with a panel discussion on “Understanding Chronic Crises,” at the conference held on March 5, 2020 at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) on the theme of “Rethinking Approaches to Chronic Crises in Africa: American and African Perspectives,” which was ably moderated by Mike Jobbins, the very amiable director of Global Affairs and Partnerships at Search For Common Ground.
My remarks in this panel drew on a just-published article in the African Security journal titled “Women, Internal Displacement and the Boko Haram Conflict: Broadening the Debate.” It is one of several outcomes of my APN-supported research on the broader theme of how women have experienced and responded to the Boko Haram conflict. During my presentation, I first outlined the scale of displacement in Northeast Nigeria. According to 2019 estimates, two million people have been displaced, with women and children comprising at least seventy-nine percent, problematizing it as an underexplored outcome of the conflict. I then highlighted some of the pressing challenges confronting displaced women and girls, particularly widespread sexual violence by diverse actors, discussing the impacts of inconsistent legal and humanitarian responses by a broad spectrum of actors. I ended my presentation by inviting the audience to rethink established conceptions of the roles women play in conflict and the need to contextualize empowerment in order to increase women’s autonomy without endangering them. I also urged the integration of non-military approaches, including the use of mothers, to address the conflict so as to mitigate the growing displacement crisis.
The audience, a culturally and professionally mixed group of about seventy people, was keen. The first question queried the role of security actors in Nigeria’s conflict response and the anomaly of protectors-turned-perpetrators with regard to the sexual abuse of women and girls. Another question sought to know the prospects for greater equality for Nigerian women in peacebuilding and other fields, given many men’s “aversion” towards women, as reported by a Gender Social Norms Index published that week by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). I was asked about the feasibility of locally led solutions to the conflict and the nexuses between ongoing, multilevel interventions. Some participants were interested in whether Nigeria has a Women, Peace and Security process, how women can maximize their agency, and what external actors can do to help. In my responses, I underlined the need for comprehensive, gendered, and long-term security reforms that address the lapses identified in my and other robust research on Nigeria’s security sector. I also emphasized the point that success in this regard hinges on political non-interference and the acknowledgement that women’s inequality mediates their experiences of conflict and must be tackled structurally as well as conceptually. I discussed disconnects in coordination among the numerous actors doing important work in Northeast Nigeria and the Sahel/Lake Chad Basin, pointing to the terse relationship between the Nigerian government and international humanitarian organizations and the need for greater synergy in overcoming such gaps. In closing, I noted the potency of collective action and greater gender awareness for enhancing women’s political participation. The most intriguing part of this event was a question about why the panel was all women and whether this was not a “’feminist”’ reenactment of longstanding male domination of peace and security. I took the opportunity to restate the persistent knowledge gaps in gender and security and the continuing need for greater women’s involvement and visibility in this field that made the APN’s support of our work so commendable.
The following day, each APN alumnus attended separate country briefings on Nigeria, Kenya, and Cameroon. I thoroughly enjoyed being able to interact with a mixed group of Nigerians and other civil society colleagues working on Nigeria in a Friends of Nigeria meeting at the Search for Common Ground office. The thrust of my remarks was the imperative of integrating the roles and needs of women and girls into the planning, implementation, and evaluation of responses to the Boko Haram conflict. This is necessary in order to leverage diverse gendered capital, but also to forestall the prospect of female radicalization which has occurred in other contexts of violent extremism. In response to questions about the gender dynamics of Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) faction, I shared that although women are primarily seen as victims, they also took part in or supported violence, taught ideology. However, some have helped to build peace and been involved in formal and informal security responses. Here, too, the issue of gender inequality was raised, and I spoke about the troubling backlash against women’s rights and the optimism offered by a growing young Nigerian feminist movement. I suggested that external actors can support women affected by the conflict through local women-led and -focused initiatives like sexual assault referral centers and girls’ community schools that are making a difference on the ground but with limited resources. I also stressed the need for further research because the conflict is dynamic, while exploring alternative gender-inclusive ways to end the Boko Haram conflict.
Together with APN Program Director Dr. Cyril Obi and Search for Common Ground researcher Nicolas Wicaksono, I also met with development and humanitarian staffers working on Africa issues in several government agencies in Washington, DC. In each meeting, I presented the highlights of my research on women and the Boko Haram conflict and exchanged views with our hosts. I particularly emphasized that reports about some displaced women returning to ‘captivity’ signal the helplessness that they feel toward the difficult conditions of displacement and their situation as women in a highly patriarchal society and the need to integrate gender equality into responses to the conflict.
All the people I met were well-informed on Nigeria and keenly interested in knowing how they and their various institutions, including the US government, could help. Knowing that practitioners, activists, researchers, and policy makers tend to work independently, this visit was a unique opportunity to share my research findings and draw attention to emerging research by Africans that might otherwise not be visible. The meetings also enabled me to learn and exchange perspectives about how policy actors in the US are engaging with the conflict in Northeast Nigeria. In all, the meetings were enriching and helped broaden my networks considerably. I recognize the instrumentality of the roles of the SSRC’s APN, and Search for Common Ground in making this possible by leveraging their vast and communal networks and the synergies in their mandates. I am indebted to them for facilitating the visits. I look forward to continuing to engage with efforts aimed towards finding a durable end to the conflict, including advocacy targeted at intersectional support for the thousands of women and girls worst affected by it.