By Dr. Annie Bunting
With the Canadian government about to confirm the deployment of peacekeepers to Africa (likely to Mali), and Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent visit to Liberia and address to the Francophonie on the centrality of the rights of women and girls, it is important to reflect critically on both these agendas in tandem. Trudeau needs to do more, as he engages in Africa, to support local civil society organizations directly and hold the United Nations accountable for abuse.
Trudeau’s government has continued his predecessor’s foreign policy emphasis on child, early, and forced marriage (CEFM), and maternal and child health. The government is a lead sponsor of the UN Security Council resolution on CEFM; supports the work of the UN Special Representatives on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and Children in Conflict; and supports the umbrella organization Girls Not Brides. On November 24, Trudeau also announced more than $12M of funding to support gender equality in Africa — most in West Africa, all of it through the UN. The commitments include support to UN Women to increase the participation of women in politics in West Africa; $1.5M to the Global Acceleration Instrument on women, peace, and security; and funding to UNDP to support the 2017 election in Liberia. These are all laudable initiatives.
The government’s ongoing reliance on the UN as the main organization through which to work on these priorities, however, is short-sighted. Grassroots organizations in conflict-affected or fragile African states report duplication of services by the UN in their work with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Partners we work with in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Liberia, for example, report UN staff extracting information and data without due credit to their organizations. They also report inadequate or insensitive follow-through on service provision and cessation of services with little notice, leaving non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to fill the roles created and then left by the UN.
NGOs within countries such as DRC, Liberia, Mali, and Uganda deserve direct, multi-year support from the Canadian government to address the complex needs of individuals and communities when rebuilding after war and preventing future violence. This includes holistic programs of skills training and education (including university), psychosocial support, access to justice, land and economic rights, and healthcare. A lot of development funding is directed at skills training such as tailoring and artisanal crafts where the local economy may not support the influx of newly trained women and men or where lingering injuries from the war may make the profession inappropriate for recipients. It is only through innovative and culturally sensitive programs (such as working with men and boys, family and community mediation, storytelling and popular theatre) that we may see long-term change in post-conflict communities.
In the UN Women’s global fifteen-year study of UN Resolution 1325 on women peace and security, the authors write, “A study of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 revealed that only nine per cent of negotiators were women—a negligible figure given the issues that are involved. Only three per cent of the military in UN missions are women, and the majority of these are employed as support staff. These two areas of peacemaking and peacekeeping are among the most persistently challenging for ensuring women’s equal and meaningful participation.” In light of Trudeau’s commitment to gender parity, Canada is well placed to take a lead in this area.
Further, given their concern about gender equality and violence against women and girls, it would behoove Trudeau to speak to the sexual harassment and violence perpetrated by UN peacekeepers, including Canadians. Recent reports document cases of rape and coerced sex by peacekeepers against local women in Central African Republic and DRC — resulting in UN Resolution 2272 (2016) and the social media campaign #predatorypeacekeepers — more indicative of a culture of entitlement and abuse than one of respectful engagement with local communities.
While not enough data exists about cases of sexual assault, harassment, or so-called “transactional sex” by peacekeepers, this is again a problem of accountability systems within the UN. Peacekeepers are rarely subject to local prosecution or military sanction for allegations of sexual assault or harassment. As Guilaine Kinouani argues in her piece, “Since I gave you a phone it’s not rape,” “speaking of ‘transactional sex’ is, therefore, both a vehicle for old colonial notions and a way for predatory peacekeepers to resist accountability for their rape and sexual exploitation of children and of vulnerable women.” It is imperative that Trudeau’s government push for accountability and commit to building a culture of peacekeeping based on mutual respect and collaboration with local actors.
There is an important place for UN-led initiatives and bilateral government support. More funding and programming, however, needs to reach the intended beneficiaries directly, rather than being filtered through UN agencies. Abuses by UN agencies, including peacekeepers, must be thoroughly investigated and sanctioned if the UN and Canada’s role within it is to be respected by the communities in which we work. The most impactful way to affect change is by engaging with local activists and researchers who work in affected communities to prevent and heal from violence every day. The time for unidirectional development is over — just ask those living in conflict-affected regions in DR Congo, Nigeria, and Mali.
Dr. Annie Bunting is the Project Director, Conjugal Slavery in War Partnership, and Deputy Director of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas at York University.