Dr Peace A. Medie, Senior Lecturer in Gender and International Politics, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol – Written evidence (ZAF0052)


Submission to the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee, 4th May 2020





What roles do women play in conflict and in combatting it in Sub-Saharan Africa? Please give examples.


1. While there are often differences within and across conflicts, women have participated in armed conflict in a variety of ways and have also been key actors in combating this conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. Women and girls participate in combat and also play support roles in conflicts. Although in the minority and typically not occupying leadership positions, women form part of national armed forces and in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have participated in combat. Women and girls have also been combatants within non-state armed groups in several conflicts, including in northern Uganda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the DRC. A few of them have held leadership positions within these armed groups. In Nigeria and neighbouring countries in which it has launched attacks, Boko Haram has deployed girls and women as suicide bombers.[1] Some of these attacks have been carried out by girls who were kidnapped by the group and in many cases involved coercion.[2] Women and girls also perform support roles within non-state armed groups. These support roles include cooking, cleaning, farming, and serving as porters.[3] Some women and girls are abducted and forcibly conscripted into non-state armed groups while others join for reasons that range from ideology to survival.[4] Violence, including sexual violence, against women and girls in non-state armed groups has been widespread, although some high-ranking female fighters have not been subjected to this violence.[5]


2. Women are also key actors in combating conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. At the sub-national, national, and international levels, women have advocated for and worked towards the prevention and resolution of conflicts. They have employed a variety of strategies in their efforts, including protest marches, sit-ins, strikes, and mediation. Women mobilized to demand an end to conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and in other countries in the region. Some of this advocacy is ongoing in countries such as South Sudan and the DRC. One of the most notable efforts was launched by the women’s movement in Liberia, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, in response to the country’s civil war, which began in 1989. Women mobilized across religious and ethnic lines and employed a variety of strategies, including protest marches, to pressure warring factors to the peace table and to demand that they sign and implement the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Women also facilitated the country’s Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration process. Some of the activism by women has been transnational. For example, The Mano River Women Union Peace Network (MARWOPNET), which was created in 2000 by peace activists from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, pressured the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to find solutions to the conflicts in the Mano River countries. Women have continued to advocate for peace transnationally through organizations such as the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET). Women’s activism in sub-Saharan Africa has contributed to their inclusion in some peace processes. However, they continue to be excluded from many peace processes and are therefore underrepresented in peace negotiations.[6] Their exclusion undermines the quality and durability of peace that is established in the aftermath of armed conflicts.[7]


3. Another way in which women combat conflict in sub-Saharan Africa is by serving in peacekeeping missions as military, police, and civilian personnel. For example, women from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) have served as military personnel in several peacekeeping missions in the region, including in Burundi, the DRC, and Sudan. While the SANDF has been a leader in contributing female personnel to peacekeeping missions, women remain highly underrepresented in most missions, making up only 4.7 percent of military personnel and 10.8 percent of police personnel in UN peacekeeping missions in 2019.[8]



How effectively do the United Nations and the African Union work to support women and girls in Sub-Saharan Africa?


4. The experiences of women and girls vary within and across conflict-affected countries in sub-Saharan Africa. However, certain political, social, and economic problems are prevalent within this context and affect many women and girls. They include sexual and physical violence and the lack of access to justice. Furthermore, high levels of poverty, partly caused by conflict, make it difficult for many to access basic needs, including food, shelter, and healthcare, and thus to realize their social and economic rightsThese issues cannot be divorced from the social norms that support gender inequalities in most societies. Women’s activism has drawn attention to these issues and placed them on the agenda of the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU). Both organizations have developed instruments that urge state and non-state actors to address gender-based violence and other problems that confront women and girls in conflict-affected countries. They have supported states in harmonizing international instruments with national laws and policies and in implementing them. The UN has also implemented programs to advance women’s rights across conflict-affected countries. While some of these initiatives have led to improvements in women’s and girls’ lives, many continue to face major barriers to realizing their rights.


5. The UN and the AU have produced progressive policies that address a range of challenges that women and girls face in conflict-affected countries. The UN’s Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda has been a major development in this area. The four pillars of the agenda are: ‘1) The role of women in conflict prevention, 2) their participation in peacebuilding, 3) the protection of their rights during and after conflict, and 4) their specific needs during repatriation, resettlement and for rehabilitation, reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction.’[9] Womens rights activists from African countries played a key role in placing issues that eventually constituted the WPS framework onto the Security Council’s agenda.[10] The Security Council has adopted ten WPS resolutions, beginning with Resolution 1325 (2000). A host of other international policy documents have been developed by UN agencies since the early 2000s to address women’s political, social, and economic rights in conflict-affected countries. Similarly, the AU has adopted instruments such as the Maputo Protocol and the 2009 Gender Policy that urge states to implement measures to advance women’s rights. These developments in the UN and AU have contributed to legal and policy changes at the domestic level, with post-conflict countries leading in the adoption of women’s rights reforms.[11] The UN and the AU have also supported states in policy implementation.


6. The UN has implemented a range of programs to enhance security and rights for women and girls in conflict-affected countries. These programs span the political, social, and economic spheres and have sometimes been implemented in collaboration with civil society organizations. They include programs to raise awareness of gender-based violence and to provide access to justice and healthcare. For example, a major initiative that the UN has promoted in post-conflict countries is the establishment of specialized criminal justice sector mechanisms to address gender-based violence.[12] These include specialized courts and police units, which have been established in many countries, including Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire, and South Sudan.


7. These specialized mechanisms and other related initiatives are major developments in the area of women, peace, and security and constitute support to women and girls in conflict-affected countries. For example, specialized police units have removed some of the barriers to justice for survivors of sexual violence. The UN has lauded the achievements of Rwanda’s One-Stop Centre, a specialized unit in which trained police officers work with healthcare providers to provide a comprehensive service to survivors of sexual and other forms of gender-based violence. In Liberia, the creation of the Women and Children Protection Section, a specialized police, unit led to some improvements in police performance. Nonetheless, the country’s specialized units were often poorly equipped, limiting the effectiveness of the police. Consequently, some barriers to formal justice persist for many survivors of sexual and physical violence. Similarly, while social and economic programs have aided many, levels of poverty remain high in conflict-affected countries, preventing girls and women from fully enjoying many social and economic rights. This is partly because much of the UN’s work on women’s economic rights has ‘centred around short-term and temporary initiatives that fail to generate long-term impact’.[13]



How would you assess international efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict?


8. Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) ‘refers to rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict’.[14] There has been growing international attention to CRSV, particularly to preventing sexual violence in conflict, with the UN’s WPS framework at the core of international efforts.  The UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative is also an important part of international efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict. It prioritizes the challenging of harmful attitudes towards survivors and victims of sexual violence; improving access to healthcare, justice, and livelihood programs; and improving the response of security forces and peacekeeping missions to sexual violence in conflict.


9. There are indications that some of these measures have led to changes in conflict-affected countries. For example, the UN’s inclusion of Côte d’Ivoire in the Secretary General’s conflict-related sexual violence report in 2012 led to a reform of the country’s armed forces and of other areas of the security sector.[15] In Liberia, community members concluded that the participation of female peacekeepers in the United Nations Mission in Liberia enhanced physical safety and security.[16] However, more research is needed to assess how international efforts have contributed to preventing sexual violence in various conflict settings.


10. Furthermore, despite the progress that has been made, sexual violence in armed conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa remains widespread. According to a report by the UN Secretary-General, ‘Trends analysis of incidents in 2018 confirms that sexual violence continues as part of the broader strategy of conflict and that women and girls are significantly affected’.[17] Sub-Saharan African countries covered in the report include Somalia, the Central African Republic, the DRC, Burundi, and South Sudan, and the victims have included very young girls and boys. This violence has been perpetrated by non-state armed groups. In Somalia, Sudan (Darfur), and South Sudan, state agents have been implicated in the violence and access to formal justice and healthcare remains inaccessible to most victims. Thus, while there has been growing attention to sexual violence in conflict, many people remain highly vulnerable and are in environments where health and psychosocial services are severely lacking.[18]


11. There are intersecting political, social, and economic reasons for the persistence of this violence. Deficits in the implementation of initiatives such as the WPS agenda also have implications for prevention outcomes.



To what extent does the UK play a leading role in this agenda? Are there ways in which the UK’s PSVI work could be enhanced? 


12. The UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) is an important component of international efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict. It has contributed to advancing the UN’s WPS agenda. With the establishment of the PSVI, the UK has become a norm entrepreneur in the area of women, peace, and security.[19] A comprehensive review of the PSVI has identified some strengths and gains, but also points to major limitations, including decreased funding and staffing for the initiative since mid-2014.[20] The review concludes that the initiative falls short of the government’s stated ambitions. My recommendations to the Inquiry for enhancing the PSVI are:


a. Invest in programs that have the potential to generate long-term impact. Short-term and temporary initiatives are not sufficient to produce long-lasting changes within societies. The factors that contribute to sexual violence, to the stigmatization of survivors, and to the erection of barriers to justice are deeply entrenched and require sustained efforts in order to be eroded.


b. Address the global political and economic factors that contribute to the perpetration of sexual violence and negatively impact the experiences of survivors. PSVI programming overwhelmingly focuses on actors and processes at the national and sub-national levels in conflict-affected countries. While this focus on the domestic level is important and necessary, it only addresses a part of the problem. Research has shown that the conditions and experiences of women in conflict-affected countries are also negatively impacted by global structures and processes.[21] These include macroeconomic policies, global capital accumulation, and trade liberalization. These global structures and processes are linked to the perpetration of sexual violence and shape survivors’ access to justice, healthcare, and psychosocial services, as well as their ability to rise out of poverty. Thus, measures that exclusively or mostly focus on domestic factors, to the neglect of global factors, are not adequately addressing the causes of these problems and are unlikely to produce widespread and sustained societal changes in conflict-affected countries. Therefore, the significance of global structures and processes should inform the PSVI’s mission, approaches, and programs.


c. Invest time and resources in conflict prevention. Attention to conflict prevention would enable the PSVI to address underlying issues such as militarization and the arms trade that render women and men insecure.[22]


4 May 2020



[1] Freedom C. Onuoha and Temilola A. George, ‘Boko Haram’s use of female suicide bombing in Nigeria’ (Al Jazeera Center for Studies, 2015).

[2] Vesna Markovic, ‘Suicide squad: Boko Haram’s use of the female suicide bomber,’ Women and Criminal Justice 49, 45 (2019), pp. 283 – 202.

[3] Oluwatoyin O. Oluwaniyi, ‘Women’s roles and positions in Africa’s wars,’ in Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso and Toyin Falola (eds), The Palgrave handbook of African women’s studies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

[4] Chris Coulter, Mariam Persson and Mats Utas, ‘Young female fighters in African wars: Conflict and its consequences’ (Policy Dialogue No. 3, The Nordic Africa Institute, 2008).

[5] Coulter, ‘Young female fighters’.

[6] Council on Foreign Relations, ‘Women’s participation in peace processes, < https://www.cfr.org/interactive/womens-participation-in-peace-processes> (1 May 2020).

[7] Jana Krause, Werner Krause & Piia Bränfors, ‘Women’s participation in peace negotiations and the durability of peace,’ International Interactions 44, 6 (2018), pp. 985–1016.

[8] United Nations Peacekeeping, ‘Women in peacekeeping, <https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/women-peacekeeping> (1 May 2020).

[9] Women, peace, and Security, United Nations <https://dppa.un.org/en/women-peace-and-security> (1 May 2020).

[10] Toni Haastrup, ‘WPS and the African Union’, in Sara E. Davies and Jacqui True (eds), The Oxford handbook of women, peace, and security (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2019).

[11] Aili Mari Tripp, Women and power in post- conflict Africa (Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 2015).

[12] Peace A. Medie, Global norms and local action: The campaigns to end violence against women in Africa (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2020).

[13] United Nations Security Council, ‘Women and peace and security report of the Secretary- General’, 9 October 2019 < https://undocs.org/en/S/2019/800> (1 May 2020).

[14] United Nations Security Council, ‘Conflict-related sexual violence: Report of the United Nations Secretary-General’, 29 March 2019 < https://undocs.org/en/S/2019/280> (1 May 2020).

[15] Medie, Global norms and local action.

[16] United Nations Mission in Liberia, ‘Gender mainstreaming in peacekeeping operations Liberia 2003 – 2009:

Best practices report’ (United Nations Mission in Liberia, Accra, 2010). 

[17] United Nations Security Council, ‘Conflict-related sexual violence’.

[18] Indeed, most civilians rely themselves for protection during conflicts. See Betcy Jose and Peace A. Medie, ‘Understanding why and how civilians resort to self-protection in armed conflicts,’ International Studies Review 17, 4 (2015), pp. 515-535.

[19] Toni Haastrup, Katharine A. M. Wright, and Roberta Guerrina, ‘Bringing gender in? EU foreign and security policy after Brexit,’ Politics and Governance 7, 3 (2019), pp. 62–71.

[20] The Independent Commission for Aid Impact, ‘The UK's preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative:

Joint review’ January 2020 < https://icai.independent.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/The-UKs-preventing-sexual-violence-in-conflict-initiative.pdf> (1 May 2020).

[21] Peace A. Medie and Alice J. Kang, ‘Power, knowledge and the politics of gender in the Global South,’ European Journal of Politics and Gender 1, 1-2 (2018), pp. 37–54; Sara Meger, ‘Toward a feminist political economy of wartime sexual violence,’ International Feminist Journal of Politics 17, 3 (2015), pp. 416–434; Jacqui True, ‘The political economy of violence against women,’ The Australian Feminist Law Journal 32 (2010), pp. 40 – 59.

[22] For a discussion of the conflation of ‘prevention of sexual violence’ with ‘prevention of conflict’ see, Soumita Basu and Laura L. Shepherd, ‘Prevention in pieces: Representing conflict in the women, peace and security agenda,’ Global Affairs 3, 4-5 (2017), pp. 441–453.