We have women negotiating with Boko Haram—Bridget Osakwe, Programme Manager, WANEP

Cites interventions in Gbaramatu, Ogoni

Bridget Usifo Osakwe is Programme Manager, Women in Peace-building, a West Africa Network for Peace-building (WANEP) project in Nigeria. With over 15 years of peace-building learning and practice, she is active in facilitating conflict mitigation and prevention across Africa and beyond. Osakwe who sits on the board of several civil society organizations also holds an M.A. in Peace and Reconciliation studies from the Coventry University, United Kingdom. She speaks on the interventions of women in crisis and conflict situations in the country in recent times, in this interview.

By Josephine Agbonkhese

CAN you compare the role of women in peace building today to what obtained in the past during conflict among let us say ethnic groups, politicians and geopolitical zones?
Women in the olden days were very strong. I’m taking a leap from the leaders of the Aba Women Riot, women like Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Hajia Gambawa Sambo of Kanduna and Queen Amina of Zaria. We still have strong women today but what you will see is a transformation in the dynamics of the realities of those days and the realities of now. Their roles seem to be changing—and differently too, because the challenges faced in the past are different from what we have today.  Now, women are faced with a situation in which they have to respond constantly to emerging issues. As we are settling down to respond to issues of violence against women, other issues like violent extremism and young girls now being used as suicide bombers, rear up their ugly heads. You can see women are now moving from being victims to perpetrators in this regard.

Violence against women

And then we see ourselves beginning to change our roles from time to time, to adjust and respond accordingly. Overall, I would say women are doing their best. However, there are chances for improvement.

But we don’t see them come out to broker peace in conflict situations. Instead, we see them protest, take sides and aggravate issues like in the Dino Melaye and Remi Tinubu saga last year…

Yes, their interventions are not much but there are good interventions that I can speak of.  For instance, the Women in Peace Building Network that we have in Jos as a WANEP project, had come out in the heat of Jos crisis in 2012 to bring all the ethnic groups together to mediate. First of all, they had a confrontation with all the women in different groups, and then they agreed on strategies. Then they all started moving from ethnic leaders to others, advocating for peace. And in that year, what also happened was that during Sallah, the Christian women gave Moslems Sallah gifts and during Christmas, the Moslem women also gave Christians Christmas gifts.

For us in WANEP, we have such experiences in different communities and I can send you the reports of those documented interventions. In Gbaramatu for instance, in Ogoni, we intervened. Same with many other communities but of course, there is room for more work.

Are you saying women have neither been silent nor relegated their role as peacemakers?
Not at all. Except that their voices are maybe few or drawn into the patriarchal nature of the society. This is not an excuse but these are things that are possibly responsible.

But how have they intervened in the crisis in the North East?
As far back as 2011, working with the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs, WANEP had worked on an action plan on how women could intervene in the North East. That plan is currently being implemented. As we speak, there are women on ground in the North East, intervening in their different localities. But what they are doing is not projected in the news as much as we would want it.

How are they doing this? Are they going to members of Boko Haram to plead with them to eschew violence or are they going to traditional and community leaders?
They are using different strategies. I have a woman that has talked successfully with a lot of Boko Haram members but for security reasons, I won’t mention her name. Also, you know she should not be publicised unnecessarily.

In the name of feminism, some women these days encourage victims of domestic violence to take a walk out of their marriages. Many are beginning to see such advice as an aberration in the context of expectations from women as peace makers and seekers. What’s your opinion on this?

Domestic violence situations are different just as our realities are different. But when it comes to threat to life, it’s very important to make a choice between the sanctity of marriage and the sanctity of life. And I will advise every woman to choose life. Of course, there are so many strategies we counsel women on, to make their homes work.  Our first choice is to advise victims to stay in the marriage. But as soon as their lives become threatened or security can no longer be guaranteed, I would say “Please, take a walk”.   It is when you are outside and alive that you may get the opportunity to reconcile again or take care of your children.

What can be done in the home front to ensure lasting peace in the larger society?

Women, on their part, have been doing a lot to ensure peace in the society from the way they raise their children. But the truth is that the pressure is too much on them. Men should begin to understand they have a hand in bringing up children morally. Yes, women have the patience, but of course men also have a huge responsibility towards children. Let us begin to preach that gospel of parenting and help people understand it is the responsibility of both the mother and father. That way, we will have less conflict and crisis in our society.

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