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Life goes on – yet everything has changed. Stop violence against women.

Last year we visited several counties in the West African country of Liberia with our partner organization WIPNET (Women in peace Building Network). We had wished to approach women that work with WIPNET outside the Liberian capital Monrovia, in order to speak about gender based violence during the country’s devastating civil war. We also wanted to record the recommendations these grass-roots activists had for future peace mediation in West Africa. Starting with the first meeting, the same pattern repeated itself. Many women told us they could forgive the perpetrators but they would not forget. There were questions and there were answers. But the conversation really started when we enquired about what had changed, and how violence manifests itself today.

Nothing had changed and everything had changed. Some women could speak out and some were in leading positions in the society and in the communities. There was a feeling that life could change and that the economic obstacles could be overcome. But at the same time violence against women had increased, and a pressure to return to the pre-war ways of life was considerable. Within the household, arms were used by intimate partners and friends to commit violence. Especially attacks against young girls were common, in order to “show them their place”.  Fifteen years after the Liberian Peace Agreements, the violent and authoritarian figure of an ex-combatant seemed to be idealized among youth, both male and female. The older women we met explained that when the demobilised but not completely disarmed combatants had returned to their homes and families, war behaviours had moved to the private sphere. With this explanation it was easy to see that the keeping up and reproducing of hyper-masculine patterns and hierarchies that had played an important role during the war, had continued strong in the immediate post-conflict when other social structures were weak. The focus groups in Liberia feared that children and youth who have seen violence in their communities during conflict were more likely to repeat aggressive behaviour themselves.

Research on post conflict situations supports this fear. In many countries that have suffered a violent conflict, rates of interpersonal violence remain high after the cessation of hostilities. Violence against women, according to some studies, is even higher after the war than during it. Echoing these findings, the International Refugee Council states that the primary threat to women in West Africa is not a man with a gun or a stranger. It is someone from their own community. According to a study by Small Arms Survey, despite the persistent stigma that would appear to surround the group of ex-combatants in Liberian society, their role in sexual violence in post-conflict may be overstated. A disturbingly high number of survivors are very young girls who have been raped by family members, friends, or neighbours. In a country recovering from conflict, encountering the right classification for a perpetrator can be difficult, as the roles of ex-combatant, family member, community member or friend can all merge. This contributes to the silence around the violence. The deepest scars of domestic violence however, are often the least visible because they manifest themselves as shame, humiliation and isolation. This isolation inhibits women’s participation in social, economic or community activities. It inhibits young girls to become full members in their societies.

In this sense, disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration are at the heart of gender-sensitive peace agreements. Not everything can be resolved in a peace process, but with today’s knowledge on post-conflict violence, mediation should always address the prevention of future domestic and inter-community violence. Both the international community and the actors in conflict countries are becoming more and more aware of this fact. Even more people should be made aware of the fact that violence against women should not increase after conflict, it must be stopped altogether.

Is Mali a fragile state?

The concept of fragile states has evidently become as one of the buzz words in policy discussions on development, security and peacebuilding. It is often cited that one fifth of the world population live in fragile states, but there is no standard definition for a fragile state. One definition could be: a state that lacks ability and/or will to provide for the basic needs and human security of its population. Various lists of fragile states typically include some 30-50 countries. The Failed State Index by Foreign Policy journal and Fund for Peace ranks Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan to the top three of state failure.

One of the recent hotspots of instability in the international news is Mali. It was for long known as a more stable African country with significant economic growth and a promising path of democratisation. Bamako’s age-old problem of controlling the arid northern part of the country and its Tuareg population was exacerbated by flood of weapons from the chaos of Libyan civil war in 2011. Year 2012 witnessed an undecided military coup and conquest of the northern half of Mali by Sahelian Islamists.

So, is Mali now a fragile state? Let’s have a look on the often referred indexes. In 2006-2009, Mali ranked around 80th in the Failed State Index. This year its position was 79. There is virtually no change despite the coup d’état and loosing of half of the sovereign territory to first Tuareg rebels and then Islamist fighters!

The same situation with the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance: Mali ranks 20th among 52 countries and its index figure has changed only a little, and to positive direction, during 2006-2011. In fact Mali gets its highest relative points in the sectors of ‘safety and rule of law’ and ‘participation and human rights’. The more traditional development indicators (such as the Human Development Index) give much grimmer picture of human suffer, but also there the problem is more a chronic one – as opposed to the acute political and military situation.

In this methodological framework, one could say that Mali is resilient in a very difficult situation it is facing. Mali may not necessarily be a fragile state, at least yet. But Mali is certainly facing a fragile situation that will define its path for future. Unfortunately, there are all the ingredients for further destabilisation. Mali could be spiralling to become a country in full-blown conflict with serious regional consequences.

The text is based on a presentation in CMI seminar Reflections on the Sahel conflicts – drivers, context, resolution on 27 November in Helsinki

Social media and conflict – why are we talking about this?

Kony 2012, Nigeria Oil crisis, the Arab Fall: Not a week goes by without the news telling us that there is a connection between conflict and so-called social media. It is very much a matter of debate though what connection that is. The bottom line question being: does social media use affect conflicts, and if so, positively or negatively? All of the above, one might answer -  as this social media blog series will demonstrate.

Before the Arab spring, both academic and non-academic audiences would have easily denied any role for social media to play in uprisings, revolutions and violent conflicts. And with social media I mean tools in the digital sphere, such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and many others. Iran’s “twitter revolution” was argued to be neither a revolution or a twitter revolution. In post Arab Spring times though this has changed, and suddenly all kinds of roles are attributed to social media. Now we are in the middle of the “Arab Winter”, and the exact role still is debated.

So what are we discussing about? In simple terms, in violent conflicts (perhaps more than in more peaceful times), people need to communicate, need to be informed. This is true both for parties to the conflict, for civilians, and the international community at large. During the Arab spring for example, social media provided an additional channel for populations almost ready to stand up. And this catalyst role worked because of a highly censored mainstream media, a history o small scale resistance, relatively youthful and well educated populations etc.    

With little confirmed information about the conflict, social media plays multiple roles: It can provide additional yet non-reliable sources of information; social media is a popular global dissemination mechanism, and yet again, this does not say anything about the quality of the information. Which is also true for governments being able to finance PR or distribute own views through social media channels or use social media tools to actually identify supporters of the other conflict party.

The truth is -  as each violent conflict is different from another, so are the roles of media and social media in that conflict.  And while the topic is complex and terminology confusion, still we live in a world that cannot ignore social media interaction in relation to violent conflicts any longer.


Watch this blog for further postings on this topic in the future.

 

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