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Nigerian refugees who fled across the border with Niger to Gagamari camp when insurgents of Boko Haram attacked their town. Nigerian refugees who fled across the border with Niger to Gagamari camp when insurgents of Boko Haram attacked their town. Photo credit: European Commission DG ECHO

Improving peace and security for women in areas affected by Boko Haram: lessons from Nigeria’s Stability and Reconciliation Programme

by Dr Eleanor Ann Nwadinobi
15 November 2017

Women and girls in Nigeria suffer sexual violence and exploitation at the hands of armed groups, vigilante and community self-help groups and the security forces. Their access to services, freedom of movement and physical security is curtailed, with women and girls afraid to go out alone or at night. Abductions and forced marriage to fighters from Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati wal Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, has been a feature of the conflict in the north-east of the country, with at least 2,000 women and girls kidnapped between January 2014 and April 2015 alone. Women and girls have also contributed to the conflict as combatants, and more recently as suicide bombers. Women also act as informal peace-builders.

Beginning in 2012, the five-year Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme (NSRP) was designed to address the key elements of conflict in areas of Nigeria affected by Boko Haram. It did so through four main streams: by providing an inclusive dialogue platform; addressing drivers of conflict such as youth unemployment, tensions over land and resources and the consequences of oil spills; providing an enabling environment for women and girls to participate in and influence peacebuilding and reduce violence against them; and using research for conflict-sensitive communication and advocacy for change. The NSRP was funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), with the participation of the British Council, International Alert and Social Development Direct. It was the first initiative of its kind in Nigeria, and the first time these partners had worked together in a consortium anywhere.

The programme design was ambitious, as the scope was broad and there were very few examples of best practice to look to. Two key principles informed all NRSP interventions: ‘do no harm’ and allowing flexibility, without compromising high standards of accountability and transparency. In terms of improving peace and security for women and girls in conflict-affected areas, the NSRP considered the vulnerabilities of women and girls as victims of sexual violence in warfare, children bearing children, female-headed households and ‘layered widows’: women who had lost their husbands to Boko Haram, who were then forcibly abducted  and ‘married’ by Boko Haram fighters, only to lose their  Boko Haram ‘husband’, with the additional stigma of being labelled as a Boko Haram ‘wife’. The NSRP had two main objectives in this area: the increased and more influential participation of women and girls in peacebuilding institutions and initiatives by supporting safe spaces for girls and women and building a constituency of support amongst leaders, men and male youth; and improved policies and practices for the reduction of violence against women and girls.

Supporting safe spaces

The ‘safe spaces’ component consisted of physical environments called ‘peace clubs’, where young people (female and male) learn how to deal non-violently with conflict (with each other and adults); and a ‘virtual’ safe space called the observatory, where violence against women and girls can be safely reported and responded to by relevant agencies. The physical locations of safe spaces in the north-east were not fixed, and changed depending on the threat at different times. In some instances, peace clubs were held in the homes of traditional leaders or in the open air. The integrity of the space was preserved by identifying trusted community facilitators, using a manual with familiar language and methodology, in gender-disaggregated groups.

Attendees in the peace clubs learn to manage conflict non-violently and to report and challenge gender-based violence, thereby breaking the culture of silence. They also learn skills that encourage them to participate in leadership, mediation and peace-building initiatives. The clubs have provided life skills for male and female youth, widows, hawkers and people with disabilities, to speak up on violence against women and girls. Peace club members are changing their behaviour regarding leadership roles for women, respecting the rights of women and savings options as a direct result of taking part in the clubs.

Supporting changes in policy and practice

The second key objective of the NSRP was to improve policies and practices for the reduction of violence against women and girls. Policy and practice change, including in the north-east, takes time and strategic advocacy (one clear example is the ‘Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act’, which took 14 years before it finally passed into law in May 2015). In 2012, the NSRP supported the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development (FMoWASD) in drafting the National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1325. The three-year NAP, launched in 2013, included provisions on women’s participation in peacebuilding and conflict management and tackling violence against women and girls. The NSRP also advocated specifically for the inclusion of a gender section in the National Security Strategy (NSS), and supported the FMoWASD and the Ministry of Health in developing national guidelines and referral standards on gender-based violence.

To raise awareness and monitor implementation of the Action Plans, the NSRP brought together civil society organisations in Women, Peace and Security Networks (WPSNs) at the federal level and in the NSRP’s eight programme states.+These eight states were identified at the inception of the NSRP in 2012 as the most affected by conflict at the time. These networks were critical to the passage of action plans at state level, as well as taking up thematic issues including reporting on the abduction of the Chibok girls.+The Borno State WPS verified that the abduction of the Chibok girls had taken place, and held a press conference to alert the world to what had happened. At state level, State Action Plans (SAPs) have been implemented in eight states, including two of the states most affected by Boko Haram, Borno and Yobe. In March 2017, representatives of members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) requested copies of the Borno SAP to use as an aide mémoire in their interactions with the state government. Funding of National Action Plans on Women, Peace and Security by Nigeria is encouraged in the wording of Section 14 of Security Council Resolution 2349 on Boko Haram on 31 March 2017.+See http://unscr.com/files/2017/02349.pdf.

With support from the NSRP, MoWASD also convened a federal steering committee to drive implementation of the NAP, with representatives from relevant ministries, departments and agencies, including defence, justice, humanitarian affairs and finance and security agencies. The steering committee identified gaps in the first-generation NAP which needed to be addressed in the second iteration, including issues around terrorism, violent extremism, crisis management, early recovery and post-conflict reconstruction.

With support from the NSRP, the process of refreshing the NAP began in August 2016 with consultations at zonal level, on aspects to be included in the new NAP. The consultations resulted in submissions which were collated and harmonized, followed by a stakeholder validation. The new NAP was unveiled in March 2017 at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), and subsequently launched in Nigeria in May 2017.

One challenge in the NSRP process has been identifying civil society implementing partners through a rigorous and transparent process, which took more time than anticipated. Some partners had capacity from past programmes, such as HIV or malaria interventions. Specifically in Borno State, there was a dearth of CSOs working on peace. Generally, funders are expected to build their partners’ capacities and, while generally rewarding, it can be very frustrating when, once trained, personnel leave for better opportunities. Multiple funders were attracted to the same partners, though different deliverables, reporting templates, assessment teams and timelines often left CSOs overstretched.

Looking ahead

As the NSRP comes to a close after five years, we are looking for opportunities for sustainability. However, this is challenging, for three main reasons. First, interventions are intended to fill gaps where there are systemic failures, and a short programme lifespan is not long enough to entrench long-lasting change. Second, interventions involve stipends, which act as an incentive, but when these are withdrawn and not replaced, volunteering may not continue. Third, it is assumed that there would be visible changes in social norms and practices within communities, and that these would automatically trigger a desire to sustain the initiative. In reality, when funding is suddenly cut off, it is unrealistic to expect the intervention or initiative to continue at the same level and pace as when the whole machinery was in place and working optimally. Sustainability is not possible where development-led pilots are experimental and innovative, but not integrated into existing community-led initiatives.

In its last six months, the NSRP produced knowledge management products showing its impact. Lessons learned and ‘how-to’ notes are also being drafted, laying out a step-by-step process for other practitioners in the sector, who may wish to carry out similar initiatives.+http://www.nsrp-nigeria.org/research/nsrp-learning-series. It is however more difficult to measure impact in the lives of individuals. Doing so will require a large-scale study to track the cohort of beneficiaries several years down the line, in order to determine how their lives were shaped by the NSRP interventions.

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