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Boko Haram, Women, and War

"It is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflict.”* According to the United Nations, women and girls are targeted as a tactic of war to “humiliate, dominate, instill fear in, punish, disperse and/or forcibly relocate members of a community/ethnic group ” around the world. This information provides a lens to understand the news of this month, both at home and around the world.

#Bringbackourgirls is the hashtag of the moment after the abduction of 276 girls from their classroom by the extremist group Boko Haram. To simplify an extremely complicated situation, there have been consistent power struggles between the Islamic north and Christian south, especially for control of the oil-rich Niger Delta area. International investment and the presence of multinational companies have served to further complicate and deepen the situation. Abubakar Shekau, the group’s leader, warned last May that he would kidnap girls, in retaliation for the Nigerian military capturing his wife and children. In fact, this is not the first time that girls have been kidnapped and used for ransom and attention, in a clear example of girls being used as a tactic of conflict. What has been uncommon is the amount of media attention this case has received, in contrast to other cases and countries.

In Colombia, left-wing guerrilla groups, right wing paramilitaries and government forces have struggled for over fifty years in what has become an impossibly complicated battle over land, in a country where 1 percent of the population owns 60 percent of the land. In official government reports, over the last 27 years, there have been 1,744 cases of sexual violence related to the conflict. Another report claims 85 women are killed and 924 suffer sexual abuse each month. However, due to 98% impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence, as well as a lack of trust in state authorities, the actual numbers are much, much, higher. Women human rights defenders are threatened with sexual violence when they try to claim their rights. Again, rape, as a tactic of war among all armed groups in order to further divide society and consolidate land control, is clearly present.

While Canada is not in the middle of armed struggle, latent conflict and structural violence are a present reality due to a colonial history. Another story with much less news coverage is the newest numbers of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada; according to the RCMP over 1,186 have gone missing or been murdered over the last thirty years. For over four hundred years, Canadian politics have centred on control of resource-valuable land, resulting in the reservation system and institutionalized racism. Aboriginal women are not being disappeared to gain land control. The lack of attention, however, paid to this issue and the consistent refusal of the government to launch a national inquiry is indicative of their disenfranchised position in society. It is also a tacit acceptance of violence, a violence that continues to weaken Aboriginal communities and make collective action difficult.

Each of these incidents is different and specific to the context in which it is taken place. Yet all have this in common: the bodies of women are being used for political purposes. It is our job to learn to listen, just as we did in Nigeria, to see the violence all around us. This is, paradoxically, a gift: the more we learn to see the violence, the more we also learn to see the incredible bravery of those who fight against it. We do ourselves a great disservice if we view women as only victims in all of these situations; we must learn to recognize the way women work for positive change and express agency in their local situations.

From Nigeria to Colombia to Canada, there are many women leaders speaking out against violence and the structural causes behind such violence. In both Canada and Colombia, I have had the privilege of working with women who have both been highly impacted by violence and are also committed to stopping it, including the causes behind it. Yet these women do not hold official positions and are often missing from mass media reports. Miledys Vásquez Navarro is a Colombian leader whose husband is currently imprisoned on false charges for their work in community organizing. Despite threats to her own life, she continues to work tirelessly to ensure that her community receives their rights to education, health and a dignified life. The Yukon Aboriginal Women's Council is a group that has researched missing women in the Yukon as well as working to improve the quality of life for all Aboriginal Yukoners since 1983.

In light of #bringbackourgirls, how do we support peacebuilding efforts and work to nonviolently stop conflict, recognizing that armed intervention, even when it  purports to “save women,” generally makes things worse? Situations, such as Nigeria, are much more complicated than a simple hashtag response. For me, the first way to bring about change is to listen to the solutions that the women most impacted are calling for, such as a National Inquiry about missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Our job is to recognize the complicity of all of these situations, seek to understand how our state´s policies and politics are involved, and then respond by following the call of the women themselves to work for a just peace for all involved.

*Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, UN Peacekeeping Operation commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 2008

[Image: Flickr user Toban Black]

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