Conflict and pro-longed situations of instability exacerbate pre-existing discrimination and rights violations against women and girls. Conflict can result in higher levels of gender-based violence, sexual violence, trafficking, and forced marriage, as well limit the basic freedoms of women and girls.
The West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) is a leading regional peacebuilding organisation founded in 1998 in response to the civil wars in West Africa in the 1990s. WANEP collaborates with diverse actors from civil society, governments, intergovernmental bodies, women groups, and other partners to promote cooperative responses to violent conflict and resources for peacebuilding to ensure sustainable peace and development in West Africa and beyond.
Commonwealth Alumnus Patience Ikpeh is a gender and peacebuilding policy specialist and the Head of Programmes for WANEP Nigeria. She ensures that the challenges faced by women and girls during conflict and in the peacebuilding process are integrated into WANEP’s programmes. In Nigeria, WANEP works across five thematic programme areas: women in peacebuilding, active non-violence and education, early warning response, democracy and good governance, and document, research and networking.
Women’s experience within conflict
The types of conflict women may be exposed to in Nigeria differs across regions. In Borno State in the northeast, communities are at risk of the Boko Haram insurgency and approximately 1.9 million people are internally displaced within the region because of conflict, whilst in north central Nigeria there is conflict between farming communities over cattle rustling and cattle invading farmland.
Patience shares that the views of women are typically not invited or included in discussions on peace, security and conflict, despite their unique experiences of these different types of conflict.
The biggest barrier to participation is entrenched patriarchy within African society, which limits the role of women to maintaining households and as caregivers and reinforces assumptions that they are unable to contribute or hold useful opinions on wider matters, such as conflict prevention. Patience notes that similar views are held towards young people, who are also sidelined from contributing to discussions and conflict interventions.
Creating a network
For Patience, one of the most effective ways she has led WANEP’s programming in Nigeria to address these challenges is through capacity strengthening training for women in conflict-prone communities. As a result, Patience and her team have supported over 1,000 women to understand how they can contribute to conflict resolution and peacebuilding discussions, as well as challenge the gender stereotyping and cultural norms that typically prevent their engagement.
Depending on the location of the community and the type of conflict they may face, the training content and roles that women may play in conflict prevention and resolution changes.
For example, in Borno State where communities are at risk of insurgents, through the WANEP Nigeria National Early Warning System, women have been trained to observe and monitor activities within the community and report potential early conflict signals to WANEP and security agencies in the region through a mobile app. This has enabled agencies to tap into a network of trained women peacebuilders to better monitor and understand how conflict situations may occur and ways to manage this.
“At the centre of it all, the women are watching, the women are very much aware of what is going on in the community, and women can also keep peace. They can also ensure within their community they are able to build peace.”
Another successful example of the impact of this training is amongst women in the Osisa community in Delta State. Here, the conflict facing women includes the rise of militant groups over the government’s investment of oil revenues in the state, and land disputes between chieftains.
Following a five-day training workshop on leadership and peacebuilding skills and subsequent step-down training sessions, the women set up a community forum to share their experiences and created the Women Peacebuilders Network. The network has grown to include over 50 community women, including young women, and has also created a cooperative where women can access soft loans to support themselves economically.
“As a result of building capacity, building their skills, enabling them to have a clear understanding of their role in the community, they’re also able to see how they can set out avenues to empower themselves economically. Because they believe that when women are economically empowered, they also have a voice within the community.”
Participants of the training workshops are also invited to share their experiences through WANEP’s weekly radio programme, Women’s Voices for Peace. The programme provides a platform to promote and raise awareness of how women manage disputes and conflict in their communities and encourage more women to get involved.
Highlighting the role women can play
As well as supporting women, Patience also conducts advocacy amongst wider stakeholders, in particular men, to raise awareness of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. Adopted in 2000, the resolution acknowledges the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and girls and the importance of the participation of women in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Following the launch of the resolution, countries were encouraged to develop National Action Plans (NAP) to provide a framework on how they will fulfil the resolutions objectives.
“There is a need for the stakeholders to understand that women also have unique roles, unique opportunities, unique views and concerns they can bring to the table when it comes to issues of peace and security.”
Patience is proud to share that WANEP was engaged in the development of the first NAP and is currently on the committee charged with conducting a third review to ensure that it still meets the needs of women and girls in conflict.
“We’ve come a long way in terms of engaging women and engaging stakeholders to have women on peacebuilding tables.”
The power of girls’ education
In 2021, Patience took up a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship with Lifegate Outreach Centre UK, as part of the CSC’s Time Limited Programme on Girls’ Education. The programme sought to support the UK government’s ambitious initiative to get 40 million more girls in low- and middle-income countries into primary and secondary school by 2026 and improve learning levels so girls can achieve their full potential.
Patience shares that the Fellowship has played an important part in developing her knowledge in girls’ education and identifying how this can be integrated in her work. During the Fellowship, she took part in training on gender-based analysis, safeguarding in education, and how girls can use technology to address inequality in accessing education.
Applying this to her work in conflict and peacebuilding, Patience highlights that in times of conflict, schools shut down and often when they re-open, boys are prioritised to return to their education whilst girls are kept back at home to support household duties. To address this, on her return home she carried out several advocacy visits with key community stakeholders in conflict-prone northern Nigeria to raise the issue of low school enrolment amongst girls and the longer-term impact denying access to education can have on girls and women.
“Getting back home to Nigeria, I realised that I’d been doing a lot for women, women, women, but there was need to now bring the issues bordering on the girl child to the table.”
She has also reviewed the community training delivered to women and adapted and extended the content to include leadership, advocacy, and peacebuilding training targeting young women. As part of this, she has included a session on girl-child empowerment to ensure that younger women understand the need to help young girls in their community to attend school.
Advocating for women and girls
In the last year, Patience has also developed and delivered new content as part of WANEP’s Peace Education Programme, which provides peace education to primary and school students. The new sessions raise awareness of gender-based violence and drug abuse. Working with the Ministry of Education in Lagos State, WANEP have successfully delivered the programme in six education districts in over 100 public schools, reaching more 2,000 young people.
Patience hopes to continue her work advocating for the inclusion of women and girls in peacebuilding, and looking ahead, she has already identified new opportunities to champion this.
“I would love to continue work with the young persons. But on a larger ground, I would like to get across into the academia… Working with universities to enable more young persons to understand this field and what they can do differently to help women and young persons in issues of peace and security.”
Patience Ikpeh is a 2021 Commonwealth Professional Fellow from Nigeria. She completed her Fellowship with Lifegate Outreach Centre UK.