women, disability and conflict – why we should say and do more

The number of documents I have read on the experiences of women and girls with disabilities during times of conflict and violence in all my years of peacebuilding do not take even two hands to count. And I have gone looking for them. This lack of evidence is one of the main reasons why I am so happy to have been involved in the study What Violence Means to Us: Women With Disabilities Speak. Led by women with disabilities themselves, this research examines the situation for women in Plateau, one of Nigeria’s most conflict affected states.

Grace Jerry (one of the report’s co-authors) and I discuss research findings in this recording.

We also wrote conflict deepens dangers and worsens exclusion for women with disabilities for The Guardian:

Conflict can be both a cause of disability and a devastating complication for those already living with disabilities. Although all disabled people are affected, women face intersecting discrimination because of their gender and disability.

There is little research on the experiences of women and girls living with disability in conflict. To fill this gap, Inclusive Friends, a disability rights organisation, and the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme studied the implications of violence for women and girls living with disability in Plateau state, where there has been sporadic violence along ethno-religious lines and between farmers and pastoralists for the past 15 years.

Women with disabilities led and participated in the research, which found that women’s experiences during conflict were an extension of the difficulties they lived with during peace time.

Daily life for those with disabilities in Plateau, and elsewhere in Nigeria, is bleak. Families rarely send disabled children to school and many keep them indoors to protect them or to hide them. Women said healthcare is often inaccessible – physically, financially and because staff have little knowledge of how to manage care for patients with disabilities. Workplaces are also inaccessible: many employers presume that disabled women have poor intellectual skills, and customers may be reluctant to buy goods from them.

Violent conflict exacerbates this reality. Women with disabilities find it difficult to flee violence and are often left behind. The study found that in one village in Riyom, members of the community locked all those who were elderly or had disabilities in a room before an attack; but the room was set on fire when the attackers came.

People with hearing impairments might not hear warnings, gunshots and sounds of others running away, and so remain behind, in danger. People with visual impairments might not know what is happening, exactly where they are, or how to escape. We heard of visually impaired women who were deliberately left in unsafe areas. We also heard of women who mistakenly ran towards the attackers and were raped and killed.

The family of Godiya* left her behind when violence broke out. Unable to walk, she tried to crawl along the ground to escape. But then she fell into a river and almost drowned before someone walking by rescued her. She told us she still wonders what would have happened to her had the passer-by not come to her aid.

Even when they are able to escape, women with disabilities might have to leave behind mobility aids, such as wheelchairs, medicine and hearing aids. This can lead to long-term health consequences and restrict their independence. If their caregivers have left the area, the women may become completely dependent on others.

Camps for internally displaced people (IDP) are often difficult to navigate for those with mobility problems or other disabilities. We have heard of men forcing disabled women and girls to have sex with them in exchange for “help” getting food and water. In the Jos North district, 15 out of 35 women with disabilities spoke of violations in IDP camps.

During peace and conflict, women and girls with disabilities are more likely to experience gender-based violence but are less likely to be able to escape, speak up, to be believed, or to access services. Globally, women with disabilities aretwice as likely to experience domestic violence and up to three times more likely to be raped by a stranger or acquaintance.

Because women with disabilities rely on those in power, the risks of sexual violence and abuse are greater. When asked to identify perpetrators of violence, most of the women we interviewed named caregivers and family members – followed by security agents. We heard of female students experiencing violence from those charged with helping them. In one case, a student who was supposed to be helping a visually impaired woman to transcribe her notes raped her. She became pregnant and had to drop out of university.

When Uhuam* went into labour, her family were shocked and confused, as she had been confined to a room in the family home. They later found out that a male neighbour had sneaked in when no one was around and raped her. During our research, we heard from girls with mental and intellectual disabilities whose parents had injected them with contraceptive implants in case men raped them.

Godiya and Uhuam were among many women who felt that no one was helping them. They said they were not included in existing projects, and definitely did not benefit from programmes designed for them. Most said they received no assistance from community leaders or social services. When we spoke to people working in civil society, almost four-fifths said their organisations had no programmes to mitigate violence against women with disabilities.

The main reason decision-makers do not take these realities and needs into account is because women with disabilities are not involved in policymaking. Although there is increasing recognition of the need to put women at the centre of peace and security efforts, women and girls with disabilities are rarely included explicitly.

This general exclusion leads to further marginalisation, and undermines any hope of maximising their unique perspectives, skills and talents. Worldwide, people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority, making up 15% of the global population, or one billion people. Three-quarters of people with disabilities in low and middle-income countries are women.

As development, security, peacebuilding and women’s rights activists, professionals and officials, we need to start thinking about women with disabilities when designing and implementing laws, policies and interventions. Our work has to protect, empower and include them. If we do not, we are failing.

The report is available to read here.

bombs ready to explode? unearthing the relationship between Africa’s youth, unemployment and violence

At the top of my list of lazy assumptions people make about peace and security that I hate (should really create that list one day) is that violence is caused by high numbers of ‘idle youth.’ I wrote this for Ventures Africa examining the extent to which it is true.

A hungry man is an angry man.’

This phrase is often used to connect youth unemployment, poverty and violence. A dire warning, it is meant to act as a call to action. But, is there any evidence to prove this link exists?

Half the current population of Sub-Saharan Africa is under 25 years old. In Somalia, 62.9 percent of the population is under 24. The median age in Nigeria is 14.

A country with more people of working age can be good for the economy and development. However, rather than viewing these demographic changes as positive, there seems to be an unyielding anxiety of what this ‘youth bulge’ could mean in terms of peace and security.

After all, high economic growth, seen in many African countries, has not led to job creation. This is true in Nigeria where the last decade has seen both economic growth of 7 percent and double the rate of unemployment. At the same time, modernity and globalization have increased the gap between the hopes of young people and their realities. Once you see how others are living, you tend to be less satisfied with your own lot in life. Adding to this, state and non-state institutions have weakened and are struggling to cope. These changes are taking place against a backdrop of increased insecurity and violence, with young people at the center of these conflicts.

The combination of these factors has led to oversimplified assumptions about the relationship between increased youth populations, high unemployment and violence.

“People say that young unemployed people cause armed conflict,” said Kimairis Toogood of International Alert, a peace building organisation. ‘They say this without any nuance, without looking at the different factors contributing to youth frustration and grievances and without any evidence backing this up.”

‘Youth’ have become a threat and a source of worry. ‘Idle youth’ are seen as ticking time bombs, ready to be activated at any moment. They form a ‘ready pool of recruits’ for armed movements and criminality alike. They are a problem waiting to happen. This narrative has led to panic, with politicians scrambling to come up with solutions (or at least claiming to do so).

It is understandable why people think this way. After all, we have seen many violent groups and gangs across the continent made up largely of young people. With only an estimated 16 percent of young people across Sub-Saharan Africa employed in waged jobs in the formal sector, unemployment seems a likely cause of why they join these groups. As Ms. Toogood said, “They cite any civil war and say ‘see all those young boys with guns? They were probably unemployed.’ And then it’s done. People don’t want to take the time to ask nuanced questions. People are generally too lazy to do that.”

Indeed, this way of thinking has a fundamental flaw. Study after study says there is no evidence to support this assumed correlation. A review of research on the topic found no evidence on the effect of creating jobs on stability for countries with a history of violence. For example, support for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (commonly referred to as the Taliban) did not decrease in Afghanistan once young people found jobs. In Somalia too, young people getting jobs did not lead to decreased support for armed groups.

It seems that, although unemployment can cause frustration and marginalisation, it is not the only reason young people join violent groups. Indeed, research finds young people take up the gun not because they are poor, but because they are angry. It is these experiences of injustice that drive involvement in political violence, not poverty. These dynamics are heightened by failures of the state.

“We need to acknowledge the heterogeneity of youth,” said Ms. Toogood. She noted that grievances which, lead to youth involvement in conflict are diverse and linked to many socio-economic and political factors. “It is more about systemic, structural inequalities that are institutionalized. These trump whether a young person is employed or not,” she said.

Grace Jerry, Executive Director of Inclusive Friends, a disability rights organisation in Plateau, agreed. She talked to me about the realities for young people with disabilities. “When people are marginalised for too long, they become perpetrators of violence. They want to just break free. They want to do something. They want to prove a point,” she said.

Indeed, while young people can accept unemployment- corruption, discrimination, feeling cheated or humiliated and abuse by security agencies leads to them feeling angry. Given the wide gap between the rich and the poor, young people see the differences between their lives and those of the elite, rich or connected. While others attend good schools and are provided jobs, they struggle to survive, are cheated by employers and harassed by the state.

Indeed being automatically judged as potential threats can heighten feelings of frustration and alienation. As Ms. Toogood said, “It makes them constantly perceived as ‘perpetrators’ by the system and those in power and also the victim at the same time.”

After all, most young people do work. They cannot afford not to. They need to feed themselves and their families. However, working in farming or the informal sector, they are not necessarily engaged in what people view as ‘jobs.’ Despite the money they earn and the hours they work, they themselves say they are ‘unemployed.’

David drives a taxi when he does not ‘have work’ in the hotel service industry in which he gets temporary work. Although he earns money when he drives, he does not consider this as real work. He sees this rather as a short term measure for economic survival. He talked about how this kind of work is looked down upon by family and friends.

As a result of this kind of thinking, young people spend years ‘technically’ unemployed without achieving recognition or status despite substantial contribution to their families and communities.

This gap between aspiration and reality is heightened by the barriers and challenges they face while engaged in these precarious jobs.

For example, despite the employment okada riding creates – revenues for government, income for those engaged in repairs and cheaper cost of trading – okada riders are often viewed as irresponsible, (potential) criminals, earning money only to buy alcohol and drugs. In both Ghana and Nigeria, research found no evidence for the link between okada riding and criminality. However, many places have banned okadas, especially in cities, tarring all riders with the brush of a small minority. Not only has this destroyed the livelihoods of millions of young people and their families across Africa but it has added to the transport costs of those now struggling to afford alternative forms of transportation.

Street traders and hawkers too have been instrumental to economic growth, particularly that of cities across the continent. In recent times, more young people have joined the older women who make up the majority of traders. However, they too complain of challenges: evictions, ongoing harassment, abuse of authority and extortion. According to David, “you need to know how to avoid the police but sometimes, you just cannot escape and get caught.”

By seeing young people as threats, we fail to see these realities.

The youth necessitates violence narrative also means that ‘youth’ becomes shorthand for ‘young able-bodied men’. All the programmes and politicians focusing on trying to create jobs for them often ignore the marginalisation and disenfranchisement young women and young people with disabilities experience.

After all, frustration with inequality and difficulties providing for families are reasons young women as well as young men join armed groups. In recent months, women’s involvement in Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati Wal Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, has hit the headlines due to the number of women carrying out suicide attacks. This is just one example of the ways in which women play direct and indirect roles in all conflicts, from taking part in the violence themselves to encouraging others to do so.

Ms. Jerry talked of the anger that builds up when a young person with disability sees others getting opportunities that are blocked to them because of their disability. They notice others looking at their disability first rather than their skills or expertise and what they can contribute. “A youth in that situation will become angry. And when they get angry, they become violent. In some situations, you can’t blame them. They have been marginalised. They have been left out for way too long,” she explained.

She told me of an incident where community members were shocked that a person with a disability was among those who committed violence. “When he was asked why he did that, he said he wanted to prove a point. ‘They think I can’t kill. They think I can’t carry a gun? Well, let me prove to them.’ He had been marginalised for too long and he needed to do something” she said.

People also often fail to see the realities of young men in context. In many contexts, being ‘a man’ means providing for families, being married and generous with the community. Achieving these signs is often hard, particularly in contexts of corruption, inequality and marginalisation. Although these routes to manhood may be blocked, the pressures on young men do not decrease. Many young men are trapped in places where they are no longer ‘children’ but they are not ‘adults’ either. Violence may be seen as a source of addressing this frustration to gain respect and be seen as ‘a man.’

An un-interrogated narrative ignores these structural factors. It also shifts responsibility from the powerful and influential in society, including governments, and displaces it to the vulnerable. After all, it is older, richer men that send the young and poor to die in their battles for power and supremacy. Young people may be the majority in many countries but are on the fringes of society. They are low in societal hierarchies compared to their elders – but they see these same people who they are expected to respect taking opportunities meant for them for their own ends.

James is studying part time while he works so he can support his family now and provide better in the future. His wife has just given birth to their second child. “It’s not the youth, it’s the rich men,” he said. “Look at my community. For the last year, people have not been living there because of the conflict. The politicians sponsor the fighting because they want control over the oil that is there.”

The panic around ‘idle youth’ blames young people for violence rather than seeing the needs and interests invested in their mobilization. It also ignores the reality that not all young people are violent. Many of them work for peace and the development of their communities.

Mariya collects food and clothing from people in her community to distribute to those who have been internally displaced due to violence. She has been doing this for the last two years. She said, “They live in our community. I have to do whatever I can to help them.” She also solves disputes, acting as an informal mediator, and reaches out to girls who have experienced violence.

Chukwuma has just started a computing center in his town. It is a place where people can come to surf the internet or learn how to use a computer. He runs classes free of cost for children, making a particular effort to reach out to those from poorer families. He tells me about his excitement in doing this work, knowing the potential of computing skills to create opportunities for young people in today’s technological world.

Mariya and Chukwuma are working for the wellbeing of their communities. They help people learn and live in peace. People seldom think of those like them – or like David and James – when they think of youth.

Trying to prevent violence by focusing on youth unemployment treats the symptom not the cause. It stigmatises and scapegoats young people, further adding to their marginalisation. Evidently, even employing all youth would not necessarily curtail violence if fundamental issues of inequality and injustice remain unaddressed.

Preventing young people from choosing violence requires addressing difficult issues. These include improving security, creating meaningful educational and employment opportunities, rooting out corruption and tackling prejudice. Taking action on these areas is much more difficult than simply creating jobs, but it is also much more effective.

After all, an angry man (or woman) may be more likely to be involved in violence – but it’s not hunger alone that makes people angry.

in northern Nigeria, the streets are open… just not for women

Again, I am woefully behind on keeping this site updated with what I have written. Back in June, I wrote this piece for Ventures Africa on the gendered dynamics of street work. It starts in Nasarawa with a scene I saw while observing elections there in April and ends in Kaduna. However, the situation for women working on the streets is similar beyond these states – and indeed beyond northern Nigeria.

People around me initially dismissed my concern. ‘These people are always fighting, they’re like that.’ It was only when he had his hands around her neck that they moved to intervene. He ran off as we approached, leaving her in a torn dress with her mangoes scattered at her feet.

When I spoke with Maryam (not her real name), she told me she had been walking down the street selling mangoes when this young man started talking and flirting with her. A few minutes into their conversation, angered by something she said, he dashed her mangoes to the floor. Worried about what her parents would say when she came home with neither mangoes nor money, she tried to get him to pay for the mangoes he had damaged. He refused and, when she continued to insist, the physical fight between them ensued.

Onlookers gave her the money to cover the damage, admonishing her that she should be in school at her age, not selling things on the street. Of course, as she told me, her family has no money for her education and relies on the income she brings in through hawking. Maryam is 14 years old and has been hawking for years. This is not the first time something like this has happened to her, but this time she was particularly worried as to how she would explain away the tear in her dress, so large that it exposed her entire shoulder, when she got home.

This happened in Lafia, in Nasarawa state, but the same scene could have taken place anywhere in the country.

Women in Nigeria earn just 62.7 percent of the wages that men earn. Every year, 6 million young people enter the labour market but only 10 percent of them are able to find jobs in the formal sector. Just one third of these 10 percent are women. However, research shows that nearly all women are involved in economic activities.

As such, it is not surprising that most of women’s income is earned in the informal sector, particularly in street based work. There are 7.5 million female informal sector businesses compared to the 6 million owned by men according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Of course, this work is more precarious. Income is unpredictable and benefits, including access to banking, social security and union representation, are rare in the informal sector.

Within this context, streets are a place where gendered norms of what women and men can and cannot do are clearly observable. Keke drivers, okada riders, taxi drivers, newspaper vendors, recharge card sellers and mai-guards are mostly if not always men. Women on the streets however are mostly engaged in selling food such as akara, fruit and vegetables, or sex.

Indeed, it is difficult not to come across groups of men congregating, sitting outside the houses or buildings they are guarding, particularly in the evenings. They pass the time talking or listening to football on the radio. As I walked around Abuja’s streets on a Sunday afternoon, I came across a cluster of men sitting in the shade huddled around a radio listening to the Chelsea-Arsenal match while guarding a nearby plaza. The score was 0-0 and there was good-natured banter flowing between supporters of the two teams. They told me about how guarding the plaza and listening to football together had cemented friendships between them, marveling at how well men from Benue, Kaduna and Nasarawa of different religions and ethnicities could get along. They themselves say that it is not a bad way to work.

Stanley has a very different perspective. Originally from Enugu, he has been in Abuja for 13 years. Previously an okada rider, he has been driving his taxi for the last five years. ‘This job is stressful,’ he says, speaking about the constant hassle he gets from different government agencies. He would like another job but does not know how he can find one. He tells me he has only ever known two women taxi drivers and they have since stopped. ‘This job is not meant for women. It’s a very hard job,’ he said.

The idea that certain jobs are not for women is a recurring theme in my conversations. Undeniably, a woman’s very access to streets is more restricted, particularly in the North. Here, married women face cultural restrictions that limit their movements whereas single, divorced or widowed women have more freedom to work outside the home. Women often make things at home and use their children to purchase goods and sell products. In this way, single women often support their mothers by hawking items for them. However, they also risk being marked a ‘bad woman’ for being seen doing certain kinds of work or even for being outside alone. That men can go anywhere but women’s activities should be based at home is a perception that is widespread.

Men strongly believe their wives should stay at home so they will not become ‘spoilt’. Restricting women’s movement is a type of controlling behavior that makes up domestic violence.  Levels of violence against women and girls, both inside and outside the home, are high in Nigeria, with male partners the most likely perpetrators. Often, the risk comes from within not outside the home. One in three Nigerian women aged 15 to 24 years old have experienced some form of violence.

Further, men who restrict their wives from going out to work do not recognise the dangers their daughters and sons might face. The younger the girl or woman, the more likely she is to be harassed while hawking. Girls aged 10-14 are 1.7 times more likely to experience harassment than those 20-24 years old. Women and girls who are migrants or have had no formal education are also more likely to experience harassment. This ranges from verbal abuse, seizure of goods being sold and physical bullying to beating and sexual assault. Research in Anambra found that 93.1 percent of girl street hawkers, of an average age of 13, had experienced verbal abuse. It also found that 69.9 percent of the girls had been sexually abused, with almost 20 percent of them having been raped penetratively. They spoke about the pressure to flirt and be seen as sexually attractive so people would buy the products they were selling. This explains why Maryam felt she had no choice but to be nice to the young man – she is used to having to entertain certain behaviour so that she can sell her mangoes and get the money she needs for her family.

Women who sell sex experience particular harassment from the police. In Abuja, which has passed several directives to ban prostitution, they were given 48 hours to leave the city. Picked up during raids aimed at ‘sanitising cities,’ they have to give ‘protection money’ or they are taken to police stations where they either pay or are forced to have sex with officers to be released. Kaduna, Port Harcourt and Ibadan are other cities where women are being arrested, detained and imprisoned on suspicion of sex work.

Women with disabilities are another group which faces harassment, molestation and violence due to attitudes, stigma and the poverty they are more likely to experience and as streets are not designed for them. Risikat Mohammed of Women With Disabilities Self Reliance Centre in Kaduna tells me of a recent case where a woman with physical disabilities and learning difficulties was raped by 5 men where she slept. She also tells me about how it is common for blind women begging on the streets to be raped and for the men in question to go free with little if any efforts to arrest and prosecute them.

In addition to these risks of violence, when women with disabilities try to earn an income through selling goods, people do not go to them. Often, the only way of earning income left to them is through begging. ‘It’s time to start thinking of opening markets for women with disabilities,’ she says.

Indeed, it is stressful, challenging and risky for people with disabilities to even be on the street at all according to Ms. Mohammed. They face challenges in using transportation without assistance, communication if they have hearing or speech impairments and accessibility. She has to ask passersby to help her over the central demarcation when crossing – and sometimes people complain she is disturbing them.

She recounted a recent experience where she was in the middle of the road and a keke came at high speed towards her. ‘The risk is too much,’ she said, ‘I can’t run and I can’t pass.’ She also spoke about the discrimination and stigma. ‘The way that people talk to you is that you are not good for anything but being a beggar,’ Ms. Mohammed explains. She tells me how parents leave their children who have disabilities on the street and use them as sources of income. They then grow up on the street, facing many hazards at an early age.

The streets are full of potential for women to earn money and support themselves and their families but it is not always easy. Far from neutral place when it comes to work, they are a profoundly gendered space. In a deeply patriarchal society, even getting access to working on the streets, in a manner that is safe and economically viable remains a challenge for women in Nigeria.