I. Catastrophes as Opportunities
Humanitarian crises often pose unique challenges to women. New vulnerabilities are created and old ones are exposed more brutally. However, in these times of chaos there is also a window of opportunity, a period of restructuring, when the role of women can be improved in a society transitioning into peace. As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “transitions can present an opportunity to strengthen women’s leadership, empowerment and rights in the process of restoring rule of law and governance systems.”
In the Central African Republic, the status of women was one of the worst in the world before the crisis began in 2013. Is it possible that the country could seize this opportunity of reconstruction to start anew in a more gender equal society?
II. The State of Women in CAR
Prior to the conflict, CAR’s women were already incredibly vulnerable. Sitting at the bottom of the UN’s Gender Equality Index (pdf), CAR ranks 147 out of 155 countries globally, meaning it is one of the top ten worst countries in the world to be a woman. The UN measures gender equality in three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment and economic activity.
As of 2014:
III. Vulnerabilities in Conflict
During the conflict in CAR, as in almost all situations of violence and lawlessness, women have suffered disproportionately. With little distinction or physical separation between militant and civilian groups, and a complete lack of law and order in many areas of the country, sexual and gender based violence is widespread. And lacking the mechanisms to hold individuals accountable, perpetrators act with impunity.
Even at the hands of those meant to protect them, the women of CAR have suffered. CAR has become an epicenter for allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers: approximately 98 cases are currently under investigation.
In addition to direct security threats, women have often also borne responsibility for holding their families together as violence and displacement tear them apart. Economic strains, worsened by conflict and the potential loss of their husbands, have often fallen on their shoulders.
IV. Opportunities in Reconstruction
But through the upheaval of conflict and the process of reconstruction, space is created for a new, more gender equal order. That is, if women are included as equal partners throughout the peacebuilding process.
A step towards involving women was made when CAR elected the third woman head of state in Africa in 2013, Catherine Samba-Panza, to lead it through a transitional period. Many hoped that as a uniting figure, someone completely neutral to the ongoing conflict, Samba-Panza could lead the country out of crisis. Unfortunately, this has not triggered any real further engagement of women in peace or state-building.
The priority of including women in peacebuilding was recognized by national and regional organizations. It was mentioned both in the founding documents of the UN mission to CAR (MINUSCA), and in the African Union’s security sector reform plan for CAR. However, this has failed to translate into any widespread involvement of women leaders and women’s groups beyond Samba-Panza.
Women have expressed frustration at being side-lined in peace-building. Kyung-wha Kang, Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator said that she had “never before had an encounter with women leaders that was so full of frustrations like this one. The women were almost at the point of anger because they felt left out and not part of the peace process.”
V. What’s next for the women of CAR?
To date, most efforts by national and international actors in CAR have focused on preventing sexual violence and prosecuting assailants, as opposed to empowering women politically and economically. That is, treating them exclusively as victims rather than also as agents in their own right. There is a need for a longer-term comprehensive solution to change the status of women in the Central African society. Women need to be integrated more comprehensively as partners in the peacebuilding and decision-making processes, not just as victims.
Catherine Samba-Panza’s term ended with the successful and peaceful election of a new president, Faustin Archange Touadera, who was sworn in on Valentine’s day this year. Samba-Panza said that she had accomplished her mission in helping bring CAR through elections, though the country still had a long way to go.
So what’s next for women in CAR? President Touadera has made security, demobilization of armed groups, and the reestablishment of law and order top priorities for his term. This is good for women’s security and the prevention of further sexual violence. He has also appointed four women to the 23-member cabinet, perhaps signaling the will to further include women as participants and not just victims. This is a slight improvement from the former government of Francois Bozizé but more work is needed to achieve gender parity.
So, though CAR has not yet achieved ideal gender outcomes, it has made some steps in the right direction. And now is the time to seize the opportunity that this transition presents to further the agenda of gender equity.