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Addressing issues of Nigerian women in conflict areas: A Norwegian minister’s perspective

Norwegian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Laila Bokhari.

In advance of the recently concluded Women, Peace and Security conference in Abuja, this reporter met with the Deputy Minister of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Laila Bokhari, to speak about her work addressing violent extremism, especially the impact and value of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 which focuses on women in conflict.

Collaboratively organised by UN Women, the Nigerian Ministry of Women Affairs and the Norwegian Embassy, the conference was an opportunity for transnational discussion on issues of conflict, insecurity, women’s empowerment, the insurgency in the North-east, and the expanding public role of women in reconciliation and conflict prevention efforts in Nigeria.

“When [the UNSCR] 1325 was adopted at the Security Council in October 2000, there was a realisation that [women in conflict] was an issue that needed to be addressed both multilaterally and nationally,” Ms. Bokhari said. “Since then, several countries have taken on board the policies set forth in the document, and Nigeria has made an impressive effort to domesticate the resolution.”

In recognition of the importance of UNSCR 1325, Nigeria has created not one, but two National Action Plans geared towards reducing women’s vulnerability in conflict, and strengthening women-led peace advocacy.

The overrepresentation of women and children among those traumatised and displaced by the conflict in the North-east necessitated a robust framework for proposed peace processes, and the Nigerian policy response has been encouraging. The National Action Plan (NAP 2017 – 2019), launched in May 2017, was created to address gaps in the original domestication plan released in 2013. The updated NAP tackles specific problems that arose post-2012 from the spread of the Boko Haram insurgency which, besides claiming several thousand lives and subjecting thousands more to unprecedented levels of sexualised violence, has also precipitated a humanitarian crisis in which millions are at risk of acute hunger, including 1.4 million children.

“The responsiveness of the Ministry of Women Affairs to the needs that have emerged in the North-east reflects the commitment of the Nigerian government to achieving a sustainable peace,” Ms. Bokhari said. “Nigeria has created an opportunity for itself to join countries like Colombia and the Philippines as one of the success stories of this process. It’s not just big words, and we are really encouraged by this.”

Undoubtedly, the road to designing and subsequently implementing a truly inclusive peace process for North-eastern Nigeria will be arduous, due not only to the many factors that set women at a disadvantage in the region. Issues like religious conservatism and pervasive sexism will mean that women may have significant difficulty getting their voices heard; the likelihood of their contributions being erased or dismissed is high in the absence of intentional inclusion from the grassroots to the policy-making table. “This is why we believe religious leaders are crucial to inclusive peace processes,” Ms. Bokhari asserts. “The authority of religious leaders in their communities allows them to do valuable work on the front lines of religious extremism. The global network of religious leaders working with 1325 has been a valuable tool for getting the voices of women heard more.”

Besides cultural conservatism, the stigma attached to having been subjected to sexual violence by insurgents is another problem. Surviving sexual violence can lead to almost total social exclusion for women who would otherwise be able to provide valuable insights into sustainable peace processes. This can represent a real loss for society at large, which is why robust psychosocial services for victims and survivors as set out in the NAP are necessary. “Even victims can be made into positive actors if the right support system is in place,” Deputy Minister Bokhari said.

The National Action Plan provides a means to address the de-radicalisation, demobilisation and reintegration of negative actors in the insurgency, many of whom also happen to be women. As has become clearer in recent times, the role of women in an insurgency is more complex than mere victimhood. Recognising women’s agency allows for a realistic view of the landscape in conflict situations and creates a properly informed setting for working towards progress on the ground. “Women’s role in violent extremism is being examined in much greater detail due to the framework,” Ms. Bokhari said, “both as actors within extremist movements and as agents of reconciliation post-conflict or even while conflicts are ongoing. There’s still a long way to go in including women, as many existing and active women-led initiatives are still going unseen or unacknowledged. Still, political will is a crucial ingredient in recognising and scaling up the effectiveness of reconciliation efforts by women.”

Girls’ education is also a vital feature of the framework. During her visit to the country in July, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai stated that Nigeria has the highest number of out of school girls in the world, and UN statistics reveal that Nigeria indeed has the highest number of girls aged 6 to 11 out of school. “We know that girls very often drop out or are not prioritised, so we have a program with UNICEF to deliver education to girls and women who have come out of captivity, and also to areas that are underserved. Education is an important tool to enable women and girls gain power to become positive actors in their communities.”

Circling back to subject of the conference, during which she met with several key actors in the Nigerian political space including First Lady Aisha Buhari, Ms. Bokhari once again commended the Nigerian government for its efforts and urged local peace movements and women activists to key in to the work being done.

“In the presence of political will, it is important for women and civil society organisations working to mitigate conflict to also reach out to policymakers and government officials. Once there is the recognition that women’s voices are valuable, it makes it easier for inclusive peace processes to be established,” she said.

In closing, Ms. Bokhari mentioned that the easy way out would be to create peace accords that only reflect the needs and desires of small segments of the population. She however reiterated that women being at the table during peace negotiations invariably leads to longer lasting and more sustainable recovery from conflict.

“The Women, Peace and Security framework is about more than just conflict. In Norway, we use it to think about how we can include more women in our security forces. 1325 encourages us to strive for inclusion in every aspect of society, because the impacts of all policy positions are felt by every member of society, whether or not they are represented at the policymaking table. So why lose out on 50 per cent of the voices you have? Inclusion is the smart thing to pursue.”