UN Panel Discussion Focuses on Boko Haram, Extremist Violence against Women and Girls

The Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination’s Project on Women in the Global Community co-sponsored a panel discussion, "Boko Haram and Cycles of Violence: Strengthening Prevention Using the Women Peace and Security Agenda," on Thursday, October 30, 2014, at the United Nations in New York. Panelists included  Joy Onyesoh, President of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Nigeria; Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo, President of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Cameroon; and Liesl Gerntholtz, Director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. The session was moderated by Ambassador Christian Wenaweser, Permanent Representative of Liechtenstein to the United Nations. 

This lecture was part of a series of lectures and panels on the UN's Women, Peace, and Security Agenda, organized by the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein to the United Nations, the PeaceWomen Project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and LISD.

The panel convened against the backdrop new reported abductions of schoolgirls in Nigeria, more than six months after 276 girls were captured by Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria, most of whom are still missing today. Panelists discussed the root causes of the Boko Haram-related conflict and violence against women and girls, as well as prevention strategies to mitigate extremist violence, including strengthening the social and economic rights of women, enhancing opportunities for political participation, and addressing cultures of impunity.

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s Joy Onyesoh discussed “the war Boko Haram has waged on women, girls, and all the people of Nigeria,” noting that although the abduction of girls has received the most international attention, the entire population of Nigeria—especially in the northeastern part of the country—is being impacted by the violence and instability. Onyesoh emphasized the link between the global arms trade, the rise of extremist violence, and the current conflict in Nigeria, saying that in security discussions about Boko Haram this is an issue that demands more serious attention. Focusing on the participation pillar of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, she highlighted the need to include women and civil society more broadly in security discussions, noting that although organizations like WILPF are aggressively working to expand the space for women’s participation in the dialogue about security in Nigeria and the region, no women’s groups were included in talks that took place at three recent regional security summits. Building capacity on the ground and creating strategic partnerships to mobilize the women’s rights movement in Nigeria, she asserted, are crucial for “ending impunity both for Boko Haram and the military.”

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo, President of WILPF Cameroon, followed on these remarks noting that in Cameroon, Boko Haram is largely “invisible” and carrying out attacks from hideouts in the country. Insufficient intelligence, the lack of collaboration among stakeholders, and especially a “culture of denial” has made it difficult to confront Boko Haram-related violence in Cameroon. “Cameroon needs to stop the attitude of denial and accept something is wrong,” Ndongmo asserted, “and recognize [Boko Haram’s] impact on the economy, girls’ education and women’s health.” Boko Haram, she noted, is operating in an area that is extremely poor and impoverished, and it is therefore able to easily recruit members with small payouts. With potentially devastating long-term consequences, parents are keeping their children at home rather than sending them to school out of fear of abductions and killings, and Boko Haram violence is leading to increased numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region, especially women and children who are largely resourceless and therefore highly vulnerable. In this context, Ndongmo said that there needs to be a emphasis on the prevention pillar of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, including sensitization activities, capacity building, and media campaigns to draw attention to the underlying causes and ripple effects of the extremist violence.

Liesel Gerntholtz next discussed the findings of field research undertaken by Human Rights Watch, noting that it must be remembered that Boko Haram’s violence against women and girls is taking place within a broader context of widespread attacks on civilians and churches generally. This broad context is particularly important because without a clear understanding of it, appropriate responses to Boko Haram cannot be conceived and implemented. In regards to women and girls specifically, Human Rights Watch is actively documenting abductions, sexual violence, and forced marriages of girls, as well as forced military service. Though rapes and other gender and sexual based violence are occurring on a daily basis, Gerntholtz emphasized that there is very little incentive for women and girls to report crimes against them. In addition to the widespread culture of impunity that exists, little attention is paid by police to reports, there are few comprehensive health and recovery services in place for victims, and cultural stigmatization of victims is high. Reiterating the linkages between poverty as a root cause of extremist violence, Gerntholtz reminded those in attendance that creating space for women to actively participate in political and security dialogues and on-the-ground implementation of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda is paramount because there can be “no development without peace.”

The panel session is available for viewing on LISD’s YouTube channel.