Early this year, a few colleagues and I were in Liberia for a workshop aimed at strengthening efforts by women mediating conflicts between ethnic communities.
We converged at Sinoe, 363 kilometres from Monrovia. The drive from the capital, Monrovia, was a great experience. Liberia is the country with the most forest cover in West Africa. Two days of driving on untarmacked roads through virgin forest unexploited by human activity was a reality check of an Africa we could only have imagined.
The real story though was the women we met. Many had travelled distances ranging from 68 kilometres to 180 kilometres to the workshop. In comparison to the distance we had travelled from Monrovia, this might not seem like much. But we had come by car, and the women had come by motorcycle taxis, or boda boda defined by the Cambridge dictionary as East African English for “a bicycle or motorcycle used as a taxi for carrying a passenger or goods”.
It was humbling to imagine the women, some in their 70s, sitting on the back of a motorcycle taxi as it weaved its way through deep forests and dusty roads for 180 kilometres, all in the quest for new knowledge.
With 2020 marking the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the much-heralded United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security, African women in rural areas have scrambled to not get left behind. In this era of virtual online meetings, they converge around the person who owns an android phone or in rare cases a computer, contributing to buy airtime bundles.
They carry different items, cassava, fruit, yam, sweet potato from their farms, eggs and homemade buns — something to share with the group. Clustering around the gadget does not allow them to contribute ideas as much as they would in a face to face meeting but they make do with what they have.
Their major concern is the stability of the internet connection. The owner of the gadget is under great pressure to ensure it works, and know how to mute or switch on the videos for their faces to be seen, when necessary. They adapt quickly to the chat box as they are familiar with sending text messages.
Their inputs give context to the theoretical ideas coming from people in faraway lands.
In areas with violence, such as the Sahel, women are still playing a significant role as responders, providing solutions in the violent conflict cycle, mitigation and post-conflict reconstruction.
Many, however, feel unsafe doing so, as they are subject to harassment and sexually related assaults than men.
This year has also seen floods sweep through many African countries with devastating effect. Homes have been destroyed.
One woman, Nafeesa, from Sudan, writing in Arabic in the Zoom chat box explains the adverse effects of the floods, by describing the intense loss of livelihood and her home.
The river that flooded her home charted a new course it now seems determined to stick to, and she now wonders how to describe where she belonged, when everything, even graves are buried underneath the water.
The women speak about increase in gender-based violence during crises like the pandemic, floods or violent conflict. Human rights perpetrators get away with quite a lot in these circumstances mainly because survivors have to prioritise on basic needs. Security response systems even when available, are often overwhelmed with other humanitarian priorities.
The women also make the connection of how the effects of despair, anger and frustration become mental health crises. They speak about relatives unwilling to seek help so as not to appear weak.
They worry about older people, particularly those with pre-existing medical conditions afraid to go to hospital for fear of contracting Covid-19. They speak about lockdowns affecting the capacity to access reproductive health services such as clinics for those pregnant or lactating.
Women in refugee camps describe how crowded settings exacerbate gender-based violence and how street lights make a difference in crime reduction.
The women have direct requests. Build our capacities to respond to gender-based violence, abductions and human trafficking. Facilitate personal identity documents. Change humanitarian responses such as prioritising relief food and instead promote economic recovery programmes for self-sustainability and not dependence on handouts.
Support reproductive health services, the physically challenged as well as older vulnerable people particularly those requiring chronic illness medication. Support family re-unifications during conflict. Strengthen community health workers to reach people unable to access services. Provide information. Put up more street lights.
The women have spoken. Has anyone heard them?
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity for Educators, and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides [email protected]