During the Nordic Women Mediator’s meeting conducted on June 3rd and 4th 2020, Mie Roesdahl of Conducive Space for Peace is leading a group session on Women Peacebuilders on the Frontlines of the Covid-19 Crisis. Two wise, experienced and innovative women peacebuilders, Nomfundo Walaza of South Africa and Comfort Attah of Nigeria are sharing their insights with the Nordic women mediators and discussing ways of providing relevant support to long-term peacebuilding at this critical time when it is needed more than ever, and with a particular focus on women’s role in peacebuilding.
The story of Comfort Attah of Nigeria is illustrating the challenges that women peacebuilders working in local communities face at this time, and how they are doing a remarkable job to overcome them.
Ms. Comfort Attah, Executive Director of ASHHF (Attah Sisters Helping Hand Foundation), is active in both local and global discussions on how Covid-19 impacts local communities. She is constantly exploring possibilities to continue the work of ASHH on peacebuilding and gender-based violence. She has urged the government in the Northern Nigerian state Bauchi, where she lives and works, to take action to monitor sexual and gender-based violence. What she experiences is a drastic increase in cases of gender-based violence during lockdown. As Comfort says: Homes are no longer safe, yet we are asked to ‘stay home and safe’ during the Covid-19.
20 rape cases of minors have been reported through the Community Peace Observer’s Unit of ASHH FOUNDATION in the month of April and May 2020, as well as over 27 domestic violence cases and 3 child/ forced marriages. As you read this, one young girl’s life is being hampered. But it is difficult to deal with these cases because of restrictions on movement and because the court system has halted all operations and a backlog of cases is developing. Still she and her colleagues are able to take testimonies from victims of gender-based violence and monitor the situation. While at home she is faced with family obligations of taking care of children, and other issues.
The government response to Covid-19 in Nigeria has, as in most other countries in Africa, made life very difficult for ordinary people. Violence emerges in already fragile settings when people cannot get food on the table, when unemployment from both formal and informal economies is sky-rocketing, when people who are already vulnerable experience further marginalization, when participation in decision-making and ability to have a voice is limited, when children are not allowed to go to school and are losing out on future possibilities to change their lives, and when the heat is unbearable in confined space. Women peacebuilders face double difficulties, because their normal ways of dealing with both peacebuilding work and caretaker work in their home are circumvented by the crisis and are equally prone to violence as others during this time.
It takes time and energy to refocus an organization’s work on peacebuilding at a time when physical meetings are not possible. Much of ASHHF’s work evolves around engaging directly with communities, but now there are restrictions. Comfort is keen to explore digital ways of communicating, doing consultations, recording cases, but only few have access to a sufficiently good internet connection for this to work.
While struggling to deal with these challenges in her local context, Comfort Attah is also finding time to engage in global discussions on the implications of Covid19 for local peacebuilding. In April, she took part in a consultation led by Conducive Space for Peace, Peace Direct and Humanity United leading to this report, and has been advising on the development of our online platform to connect local peacebuilders and sharing experiences on how to deal with the challenges following the pandemic.
There are many parallels to be drawn from Comfort’s everyday reality in Nigeria during Covid-19 and to other women peacebuilders around the world working tirelessly to address issues related to peacebuilding and gender-based violence. UNFPA reports that global movement restrictions imposed during the pandemic has heightened the risk of intimate partner and domestic violence for women and girls when being forced into isolation with abusers. In addition, movement restrictions hinders women from accessing decision making and peace processes, and restricts them in continuing to effectively physically interact and build trust within their local communities. Therefore it is vital to find ways to continue supporting the work of women peacebuilders like Comfort so that services like the ones ASHHF provide can continue being implemented throughout the current crisis.