Women are more than victims of disaster

Date: January 25, 2011
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Violence against women in conflict areas in Africa has reached epidemic proportions. Yet as conflict continues to unfold, from the Ivory Coast to the ever-turbulent Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), it is still mostly a silent disaster.

It remains out of donors’ reach and almost invisible in the media, increasing during and after disasters as already fragile structures of law and order break down.

But does this mean African women are always helpless, voiceless victims in places of conflict?

Some research seems to make that point. The Global Fund for women reports that more than one million women were raped, mutilated and abused during and after the civil wars in Sierra Leone, the DRC and Rwanda.

It is important to understand that women, men, boys and girls experience and cope with violent conflict and disasters in different ways. Yet evidence proves that women and girls are disproportionately affected because of their low socio-economic and political status.

In their everyday lives, women and girls are often exposed to abuse when fetching water or gathering firewood. Women are restricted access to credit and are rarely allowed to inherit or own land. In disasters, women refugees are often forced to trade sex for survival, and relief policies typically favour male refugees.

Despite the circumstances women find themselves in, evidence from the ground has started to dismantle the “women as victims” myth. Time and again, women continue to show resilience in the face of disasters. They help build shelters and soup kitchens, organise self-help groups, and mobilise community members to take action.

Post-conflict, they play crucial roles in formal and informal peacekeeping initiatives.

In 2003, with the support of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), Liberian women mobilised and demanded an “unconditional ceasefire, a negotiated settlement and international community presence in Liberia”. That same year while Liberian women were markedly absent from formal peace negotiations in Ghana, a group of women held a parallel meeting resulting in the Golden Tulip Declaration, which articulated women’s demands for peace.

The award-winning documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, follows the grassroots movement of women in Liberia who directly flout the “women as victims” myth. Despite the atrocities they experienced during the war and regardless of their exclusion from the peace talk table, women activists were determined to take action for a safer Liberia.

Women physically barricaded the stalled peace talks using their bodies as human shields and demanded that an agreement be reached. The extent of their exclusion from the peace talks is evident when these women – older, respectable, devout women – threatened to remove their clothes when faced with eviction from the male-dominated space. Pray the Devil Back to Hell documents this remarkable moment, proving the tenacity of Liberian women who managed to affect the outcome of the talks without being at the table.

Many similar stories of women’s resilience exist and there is increasingly a need to document these accounts in support of evidence-based research that could inform policies, programmes and, more broadly, the development agenda.

There is also a need to build networks and coalitions to amplify the advocacy on gender justice and women’s rights in post-conflict and disaster situations. Writing on the status of women in Africa, Pumla Dineo Gqola, a feminist writer and academic, argues for a “coalition of women across the continent to further the cross-pollination of strategies, experience and research.”

Gqola highlights the growing importance of ICTs, while also mindful of the gendered access to, and control over, this resource as well as its effects.

One initiative, the Gender and Disaster Network (GDN), draws on the interconnectivity provided by the internet to generate, share and transfer knowledge on gender and disaster risk reduction by documenting, analysing and transmitting the experiences of women and men; girls and boys, before, during, and after disasters.

GDN highlights the gender-differentiated impacts of disasters, climate risks and conflicts on social groups whose vulnerabilities are products of biased socio-political and economic structures and institutions.

There are those hoping to see a regional hub in Africa which can facilitate the exchange of experiences and lessons learned between various groups, from grassroots women’s groups to international scholars. It will also hopefully give voice to Africa’s vulnerable and marginalised groups.

It might just be time we stop only seeing women as victims and instead harness their many skills, finally making sure they are an integral part of the conversation. They’ve proven time and again they deserve a place at the table.

Kristinne Sanz is the Gender and Disaster Network Web Coordinator. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service which provides fresh views on everyday news.


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