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John Garang  · Human Rights  · Role of Women

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Regulation of information during conflict situations: The role of women

by Amie Joof- Colé


If women are to participate fully in brokering peace, in decision making, and in post conflict reconstruction, it is imperative that they work in partnership with all forms of media at their disposal to raise awareness, to ensure participation of women of all ages, to influence policy decisions, and to ensure accountability on the part of governments, NGOs, and international organizations, writes Amie Joof- Colé.


West Africa has experienced and is still experiencing very high levels of conflict, especially intra-state conflict. The conflicts have had a devastating effect on the African people, causing drops in political, economic and social development, and continuous instability for both the states concerned and the continent as a whole.


In the late eighties conflict erupted in Liberia, which lasted for almost a decade and signalled the advent of Charles Taylor, who exported war to Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone witnessed one of the most gruesome civil crises ever seen in the West African sub-region. Not only had it recorded the most gruesome murder and mutilation of civilians by the rebel factions, it had also displaced a significant number of the nation's population, most especially women and children, some of whom are yet to return as they continue to receive rations as refugees in the neighbouring countries of Guinea Conakry and The Gambia. Ivory Coast, a former bastion of democracy in Africa, is today the epicentre of crisis in the region.


Politically, the West African sub- region is prone to crises, with almost all its countries, with the exception of Senegal and Cape Verde, having experienced military coup d'etat. One can say that taking West Africa as a whole, the military regimes that emerged ended up being even worse than the civilian governments that they overthrew. Consequently, the sub-region is confronted with economic crises, indebtedness, poverty, political instability, disease, and frequent human rights violations.


Women and children are often among those most acutely affected by conflict, though they frequently have little or no role in creating the situations in which they find themselves. It is important to consider what impact conflict has on women's lives in practical terms.


Article 10 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa puts emphasis on the right to peace. It states:


1. Women have the right to a peaceful existence and the right to participate in the promotion and maintenance of peace.

2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure the increased participation of women:

a) in programmes of education for peace and a culture of peace;

b) in the structures and processes for conflict prevention, management and resolution at local, national, regional, continental and international levels;

c) in the local, national, regional, continental and international decision making structures to ensure physical, psychological, social and legal protection of asylum seekers, refugees, returnees and displaced persons, in particular women;

d) in all levels of the structures established for the management of camps and settlements for asylum seekers, refugees, returnees and displaced persons, in particular, women;

e) in all aspects of planning, formulation and implementation of post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation.

3. States Parties shall take the necessary measures to reduce military expenditure significantly in favour of spending on social development in general, and the promotion of women in particular.


Women as involuntary and voluntary participants in hostilities


Few women who participate in conflicts do so by choice. In many cases, women are abducted by soldiers to be used as "sex slaves", cooks and cleaners in the camps. During their abductions, women are frequently subjected to physical abuse, sexual abuse, torture and even killings. Sometimes when opposing forces attack, these same women are abducted again.


It would be a mistake, however, to believe that women are always innocent bystanders to conflict. When it comes to infiltration and attacks, some groups prefer using women because they are less suspicious, they are not always subjected to body searches, and they can wear devices beneath their clothes and appear pregnant. Women may also take part in hostilities by providing men with the moral support needed to wage war. They can also be useful providers of information in relation to the enemy's position or strategies.


Women as civilians


Most women experience the effects of armed conflicts as part of the civilian population. Women and girls (like men and boys) suffer the direct and indirect effects of fighting, enduring indiscriminate bombings and attacks as well as lack of food and other essentials needed for survival. Invariably, however, women bear greater responsibility for children, the elderly, and the larger community - especially when the men have left to fight or have been detained or killed. With men gone, and the traditional support mechanism for protection in the community broken, women are at increased risk.


Most women and children flee conflict in search of safety and end up being refugees. Those who refuse to flee often stay because they are either too sick to go or are widows; to take care of the elderly, the sick, and the young; to support family members; or to assess the security situation in order to advise fleeing relations on whether to return. Ironically, many of these women believe that their gender will protect them from hostilities. But contrary to their beliefs, women are frequently targeted precisely because they are women. Women also suffer when the fighting is close to where they live and work. This limits their movements as well as their access to work, food, water, and medical assistance. The situation is especially grave for those in need of maternal or child healthcare.


Women are also subjected to harassment, intimidation, and attacks, at their homes, in their villages, and at check points. Their personal security and freedom of movement is greatly hampered by a lack of identity documents, increasing their risk of abuse and sometimes even sexual violence.


Women as victims of sexual violence


In many conflicts, women and girls are systematically targeted for sexual violence, sometimes with the broader political objective of ethnic cleansing. It is now evident that rape is being used as a weapon of war. Reliable statistics concerning the number of victims of sexual violence are not easy to come by as they are often simply based on the number of people seeking medical help for pregnancy-related issues and for sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDS.


Conflicts force many women and girls to go into sex work in order to make a living and survive. They also create room for other forms of sexual exploitation such as trafficking. Those who survive sexual violence are frequently unwilling to speak out for fear of being ostracized and rejected by their families and communities. Many victims also believe that no one can help them because the harm has already been done.


Displaced women in times of conflict


Women and children make up the majority of the worlds refugees and internally displaced persons. Fleeing and living in displacement camps creates numerous problems for women and exposes them to enormous risks. Women who flee their homes generally take few possessions with them and many become separated from their families. They are then forced to rely on the people in the countries in which they are seeking refuge or on assistance from international and non-governmental

organizations. When they are forced to travel long distances to look for water, food, firewood, and medication, they are frequently exposed to attacks by soldiers, injury from mines, and sexual abuse.


Women in camps for displaced persons frequently have to shoulder all the responsibilities for the entire family's survival. At the same time, the special needs of women are sometimes not taken into account by camp authorities and organizations. Women in situations of displacement lack the privacy needed to maintain their personal hygiene and dignity because they have to share facilities with other people, including men. For these reasons, women need to be actively involved in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of the humanitarian activities carried out and of the assistance distributed.


Detained women during conflicts


Women are also detained as a result of conflict, often in conditions worse than their male counterparts. Women in detention are sometimes detained with their young children; sometimes, they have to leave those children behind to be taken care of by other people.


This enforced separation can be very traumatic for women. Women also have specific needs that are hard to meet in detention. For instance, women and girls of menstruating age often have problems in obtaining suitable sanitary protection, regular access to sanitary facilities, and appropriate clothing to deal with their menstruation in a manner that preserves their health and dignity. Furthermore, women are subjected to maltreatment, including sexual violence, torture and other forms of degrading inhuman treatment while in detention. This abuse puts them at risk of pregnancy and may cause health problems as HIV/AIDS. They therefore live in perpetual fear.


Women in peace building


There are many examples of women's groups coming together in support of peace. One example is Roots for Peace, an association formed by Angolan women in 1994 with the aim of bringing an end to the conflict and promoting peace and security. Another example is the Liberian Women's Initiative, also established in 1994. They claimed that the disarmament process in their country needed to be speeded up and called on the UN not to ignore their recommendation to provide incentives to the fighters to disarm.


In 1999, the First Pan African Women's Conference for Peace and Non Violence was held in Zanzibar. In 2000, women peace activists from Liberia and Sierra Leone met in Abuja at the invitation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and together with their counterparts from Guinea, launched a regional women's peace movement, the MANO River Union Women Peace Network (MARWOPNET) There are many other examples of women organizing themselves to promote peace in conflict torn areas.


However, the consequences conflict has on women's lives needs more attention than it is currently receiving. Women have realized that conflicts in Africa tear apart families and destroy lives. We therefore need to establish approaches to peace and security that include women's ideas and interests.


Women, media, and conflict


If more attention is to be given to how conflict affects women, women must play a role in the identification, treatment, dissemination, and evaluation of the information that is produced. If women are to participate fully in brokering peace, in decision making, and in post conflict reconstruction, it is imperative that they work in partnership with all forms of media at their disposal to raise awareness, to ensure participation of women of all ages, to influence policy decisions, and to ensure accountability on the part of governments, NGOs, and international organizations.


Women must put themselves into the picture both as producers of information and as subjects of it. When we look at the media, we are referring to radio news, radio dramas, television programmes, print media, popular music, interactive video dialogues, posters, talk shows, call-in shows, community media projects, the Internet - and more. By doing this, women may ensure their voices are heard at the local, national, sub-regional, regional, and international levels.


Currently, very few women journalists are taking an active role in peace and conflict reporting. This is partly due to the highly gendered bureaucratic structures of media institutions where the majority of women do not have decision-making powers. At other times, women journalists are not interested in such tasks, are afraid of the risks involved, or do not have access to the training needed to take up the challenge. It is therefore necessary to address gender specific professional problems so that we may get women's perspectives on conflict.


Of equal importance is the need to document efforts undertaken by women to create and promote peace and security in Africa. The media should publicize ?women's involvement in peace processes and actively lobby for inclusion of women in peace negotiations at all levels. It is worth investigating how women define peace and reconciliation at both family and community levels, and the skills and knowledge they use to work towards these goals. The media should show such aspects of women, rather than portraying them as mere victims.


The media can also play an important role in the process of healing following conflict. During the period of reconciliation and rehabilitation, the media can help empower groups such as women's groups that had previously been voiceless. Television, radio and print materials can provide specific social support to women's groups. The media can thereby ?help in rebuilding civil society. Women outside of the media also have a role to play. The women's movement ?must establish its presence in organizing anti-conflict campaigns so that women become more visible as peace initiators. Others must work to ensure people are not denied information because of poverty, lack of access, repressive media laws that inhibit free expression, or illiteracy.




It is crucial to document through research the role of the media in generating conflict and its potential to manage conflict. Documentation should also include finding out the use of language, culture, sources of information, adherence to professional norms and ethics. The media should be systematically engaged as an agency for peace promotion and conflict resolution. We should develop media resource packages on reporting on peace and security and endeavour to democratise the media so that it becomes easily accessible to and useable by different social actors.


The perpetrators of violence against women, especially rape and unwanted pregnancies, which constitute a crime against humanity, should be brought to justice. Women in post conflict situations should be encouraged and protected to give evidence against the perpetrators of rape and other forms of violence against women.

In order to make these changes, women's organizations, human rights groups, media outlets, community groups, and other social actors should collaborate to maximize human, material, and financial resources to avoid unnecessary duplication and conflict among themselves. If we do this well, we may all come to better understand how women are affected by conflict, how they can participate in preventing and managing conflict as well as promoting peace and stability.



Amie Joof- Colé is with FAMEDEV: The Inter Africa Network for Women, Media, Gender and Development/ Réseau Inter Africain Des Femmes, Genre, Médias et Développement  Reprinted with permission.


Posted  October 05, 2005

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