Promoting peace through women’s leadership and political participation: evidence from the Sahel

The rationale for the participation of women in peace and development in Africa is undeniable. In fact, there is emerging evidence and increased recognition of how intergenerational women leaders are shaping the continent and promoting a culture of peace, particularly in fragile settings.

In the Sahel, a vast, semi-arid region spanning over 10 countries and serving as a border between North Africa and the tropical regions in the south, women play a pivotal role in the economy, making up nearly 80 percent of the Sahel’s agricultural workforce[1] as well as leading the informal sector. However, Sahelian women are often extremely marginalized.

Laws and policies that regulate formal institutions, as well as gender-related socio-cultural norms in the informal sector, continue to limit women’s power of self-determination in the economic and political scene. Socio-cultural factors hinder the equitable participation of women in leadership positions and positions of authority in their communities.

Women in the Sahel are often victims of discriminatory cultural practices and beliefs that further reinforce existing gender inequalities. They also frequently contend with gender-based violence at home, including forced marriages, physical and sexual violence or sexual exploitation.

Women are excluded from education and literacy, with their roles reduced or confined to domestic responsibilities. In Mali and Burkina Faso, it is estimated that one out of every three women has never attended school or attended for just one year.[2] The low numbers of women enrolled in secondary education, compared to men, further deepens the gender gap in higher levels of education. As a result, the proportion of women in decision-making roles remains severely limited.

These inequalities have further been compounded by natural and anthropogenic crises. Climate change, for instance, is a growing threat to farming activities with the loss of financial income, especially for women in the sector. Repeated shocks, including droughts and floods, have led to disruption of livelihoods.

For decades, the Sahel region has served as a battleground for surrounding conflicts and is currently afflicted by terrorism and violent extremism. Girls and young women are particularly hard hit in such crises. Pervasive violence has destroyed schools and made attendance unsafe, stripping adolescent girls of their basic rights and freedoms.

The situation has led to mass displacement — Central Sahel has recorded one of the fastest growing displacement crises, with almost 2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and 850,000 refugees fleeing across borders as they move from one conflict to another.[3]

In addition to the negative impact on health, livelihoods and food security, the region is now facing the additional challenge of COVID-19, which is placing pressure on already fragile health infrastructure and worsening the humanitarian emergency.

There is good news however, Sahelian women are forming groups and informal networks at local and national levels to increase their voice in national debates and create space for political participation. This resilience building in defiance of the conflict and political instability has been possible through an innovative 3-month project titled “Building an Inclusive Post COVID-19 Recovery, Crises Transitions and Governance Reforms in the Sahel and Côte d’Ivoire-Phase I”.

Implemented by the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) in partnership with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and UNDP, this initiative works in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire to advocate for responsible citizen-state relationships and increased participation in governance systems at the local and national levels.

Tapping into existing women’s networks, four National Women Coalitions (NWC), each represented by 30 leaders, were formed across the four countries to advocate for the inclusive participation of Sahelian women in political processes at all levels.

Women of all ages are coming together to bridge the intergenerational gap and collectively work towards tackling issues affecting their peace and security. 11 collaborative platforms were created by the NWCs to provide young women and girls with the opportunity to leverage the expertise and experiences of older women.

As one young woman from Niger emphasized: “I’ve worked alongside smart, older women fighters and I’m going to follow in their footsteps so that I can do what they do, if not more.” Marie Chitou, Niger

Bridging the intergenerational gap is fundamental to strategically engaging with younger generations, who make up approximately 60 percent of the total population across the continent. Young people are increasingly playing a larger role in their communities. Thus, a deliberate effort was made to ensure the 120 women leaders selected for the NWCs represented an intergenerational mix across urban and rural areas.

Reflecting on this strategy, Raaya Issoufou Nadia, a youth leader from Niger, “This is the first time I was being treated this well, there was no difference between us and the older women. I felt like I had my place in the process and that we (young and old alike) were of equal worth.”

Thanks to the project, over 120 women from the NWCs have been empowered with the relevant skills to successfully engage key stakeholders, including state actors and traditional and community authorities, to secure commitments for women’s inclusion in governance structures.

Collaborative platforms between NWCs and community women’s groups have also contributed to amplifying their voices in governance, peace and security discourse. Building on this momentum, phase 2 of the UNDP-WANEP-ECOWAS project was launched in November 2021 to consolidate on the gains from phase 1.

A key initiative of this new phase is the introduction of the Women Influencers Portal (WIP), which will allow the Women Coalitions to assess and evaluate their work and track progress on women, peace and security (WPS) reporting in line with the Continental Results Framework (CRF) pillars. Phase 2 will also focus on broadening inclusive approaches to WPS planning, implementation and assessment by fostering collaborative platforms between state and non-state actors as well as strengthening systems for inclusive women’s psychosocial and economic recovery.

Intergenerational women leadership can be instrumental in sustaining peace in the Sahel. Despite the challenges faced in the region, women are increasingly showing determination and commitment to act towards enabling peace and protecting their communities.

Source: UN Development Programme

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