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Africa in Transition: The Role of Women in Peace and Security

The Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and Maternal Health Initiative, in partnership with The Population Institute, hosted this event to discuss holistic approaches to complex security challenges in sub-Saharan Africa. This was the third public event in our three-part series, Africa in Transition.

Date & Time

Oct. 29, 2019
9:30am – 11:30am ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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A country can achieve sustainable peace and security only if women are included, said Monde Muyangwa, Director of the Wilson Center’s Africa Program at a recent Wilson Center event on the role of women in promoting peace and security in Africa. “And I would argue that part of the challenges that we face on the African continent, the insecurity that we face in parts of the African continent,” she said, “is precisely because not all segments of society are included.”

Sub-Saharan Africa faces multi-dimensional security risks in the 21st century, such as rapid population growth and urbanization, ethnic tensions, environmental degradation, and climate change. Not only are the impacts of these risks present now, but they are looming on the horizon, said Muyangwa.

“You can’t ignore 50 percent of your population and expect to grow economically, socially, or peacefully,” said Ambassador Phillip Carter III (ret.), President of Mead Hill Group, LLC. Addressing gender inequality to promote peace and security will involve more than taking an “add women and stir” approach, said Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, President of Women in International Security. In 2000, the UN Security Council passed the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Agenda which recognizes two key points. First, gender inequality produces instability, insecurity, and violent extremism. Second, sustainable and durable peace requires the participation of everyone in the society, including women. The WPS agenda encourages the implementation of a “gender perspective” in policymaking which can show how structures of gender inequality impede access, opportunities, and well-being for certain people, as well as ultimately impeding peace, said de Jonge Oudraat.

Close to 50 percent of African Union states have created national action plans to implement the WPS agenda, which is progress, said de Jonge Oudraat; however, implementation remains problematic. Of the 24 plans, only 14 are still active. Much like their global counterparts, African politicians are really good at talking the talk, but not very good at walking the walk, said de Jonge Oudraat.

Redefining Security

How you define security matters, said Muyangwa. When you look at security more holistically, including softer issues, it sets the stage for a more comprehensive approach. “That way you’re able to invest in the right places,” she said. We need to stop defining security risks as just those hard, violent risks such as terrorism, or conflict, and instead incorporate soft security sectors such as family planning and girl’s education, said Carter.

We must consider our development agenda in the context of sustainable security, said Carter. You can’t have security without development, and you can’t have development without security. Yet, he noted, the Departments of Defense and State operate in distinct silos, treating security as separate from development, instead of connecting them. There is a growing awareness within the security community that we can and must continue to deal with the hard security threats, said Carter. But in order to be sustainable there needs to be greater investment in development, or we will ultimately need to invest in more bullets. 

The biggest unaddressed security problem on the African continent, said Carter, is that we do not know the drivers of the problems we’re seeing. For the younger generations, desperation, disillusionment, and disaffection inform much of why they get involved in violent conflict as they cannot see opportunities for their future in the current governance structure. Solving for these drivers through better governance may be the best way to “staunch the wave of violence on the continent,” Carter said. 

Improving Governance

In thinking about women’s role in governance, de Jonge Oudraat said, it is important to think about which societal institutions wield the greatest power. While global society regards Rwanda as a “success story” because women are well-represented in Parliament, she noted that Parliament is not necessarily the most powerful institution in Rwanda. So while better representation may reflect growth, it is not as progressive as it may seem. Additionally, in many countries violence against women in politics is exacerbated by police. A potential solution, said de Jonge Oudraat, would be to involve women in the police force and increase their representation in more powerful institutions in society. 

Without improved governance, the high fertility rate and younger age structure of many African countries will contribute to a higher conflict rate. In countries with a history of revolutionary conflict and a youthful population, there is a 75 percent likelihood that they will continue to experience that type of conflict in future years, said Elizabeth Leahy Madsen, Senior Program Director of International Programs at the Population Reference Bureau. 

Why Population Structure Matters

One aspect of development is related to population change. When a country’s fertility rate falls and a larger percent of the population is composed of working-age adults, rather than dependent children, economic growth may accelerate, according to the “demographic dividend” concept. When fertility drops, the benefits of a stable age structure, or the proportion of the total population in each age group, go beyond economic prosperity—expanding across multiple sectors. For example, research shows that when the median age of a country is 29, the country is more likely than not to attain the Sustainable Development Goals for child health, Madsen said.

However, simply creating a more stable age structure by lowering the fertility rate will not ensure economic growth, peace, and security. Investing in women’s empowerment, specifically in family planning, education, and economic growth, is essential to promoting growth and stability in African countries. When you invest in girl’s education, it has many impacts on economic growth, said Carter.

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“There is a direct relationship between increases in contraceptive use according to women’s wishes and declines in the fertility rate,” said Madsen. For every 13 percent increase in voluntary contraceptive use, fertility rates drop by one child per woman. In Africa, one in every five women have an unmet need for family planning. This means that they are sexually active and want to delay or avoid pregnancy but are not using any type of contraception. Providing comprehensive family planning services can help countries achieve a stable fertility rate. We need to meet individuals’ stated preferences for family planning, while not imposing something on them, said Madsen. 

Women and girls’ education has a bi-directional relationship with fertility rates, said Madsen. A study conducted in Ethiopia found that for each additional year of girls’ education, there was a 6 to 7 percent decline in early childbearing and early marriage. The low-hanging fruits that could help address the population question in Africa are actually child marriage and early age at first birth, said Alex Ezeh, Dornsife Professor of Global Health at Drexel University. Delaying child marriage and age at first birth by two years, he said, can reduce projected population growth by 10 percent.

In addition to promoting family planning and education, it is crucial to enable women to build the skills to be the drivers of economic growth, said Madsen. Women are already economically active in most countries. But most are stuck in low-wage work like subsistence agriculture and small-scale trading. Providing skills training to allow women to transition to the formal and higher-paying labor force can ensure greater economic security. Investing in girls’ education should be one of the most important priorities for African peace and prosperity, said Carter. They will need not just reading, writing, and arithmetic, but the technical skills to prepare for a 21st century economy. 

The solutions to build African peace and security are not in military security systems, said Carter. They are in engendering prosperity and allowing women to own the prospect of creating worth. By doing these three things—promoting voluntary family planning, girls’ education, and economic empowerment—and many more, we can not only enhance women’s well-being, but also promote national development, economic growth, and peace and stability, said Madsen.

African Agency

“You can’t create security for Africans,” said Muyangwa. “They have to own it and create it themselves.” Current engagement models with Africa need to fundamentally change since they denigrate what Africans bring to the process, said Muyangwa. Without respect for the knowledge and agency that Africans bring to the process, it will not be possible to create sustainable peace. In fact, as de Jonge Oudraat said, African women’s organizations in civil society are leading the charge to promote gender equality within the implementation of the WPS agenda. Engagement models with Africa need to acknowledge the work that Africans are already doing to promote peace and security on the continent. 

One problem with the current development model is that it tends to operate in emergency response and crisis, said Ezeh. Part of the sustainable peace process in the African continent will involve getting Africans to own the process of thinking about and then building local institutions to provide innovative solutions and ensure government accountability. “The ideas that will change Africa tomorrow and today are sitting with Africans in Africa,” said Ezeh.

Written by Brigitte Hugh & Deekshita Ramanarayanan, edited by Sandra Yin 

Continue the conversation on twitter by following @NewSecurityBeat, @Wilson_MHI, and @AfricaUpClose using the hashtag #AfricainTransition and find related coverage on our blog at NewSecurityBeat.orgPhoto Credit: An aerial view over Dali, near Tawila in North Darfur, Sudan. UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran, 2011. 

Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Maternal Health Initiative

Life and health are the most basic human rights, yet disparities between and within countries continue to grow. No single solution or institution can address the variety of health concerns the world faces. By leveraging, building on, and coordinating the Wilson Center’s strong regional and cross-cutting programming, the Maternal Health Initiative (MHI) promotes dialogue and understanding among practitioners, scholars, community leaders, and policymakers.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

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