The Women Situation Room (WSR) last week convened a conference in Monrovia to review its operations in order to catalog its successes and challenges over the years, and identify opportunities to improve and become more viable regionally, continentally, and globally.
The WSR is a peace-building initiative that empowers women to be the leading force for democratic and peaceful elections. The concept was first introduced by Yvette Chesson-Wureh, coordinator for the Liberia-based Angie Brooks International Centre (ABIC), a non-governmental organization working on women’s empowerment.
The WSR mobilizes, harnesses and taps into the expertise and experiences of women to act to mitigate potential conflict, leading to violence that could emerge before, during and after elections. It empowers women and youth to play an active and direct role in peace and security efforts and to engage in peace processes and conflict prevention mechanisms in accordance with UNSC resolutions 1325 and 1820.
Several countries have established the WSR, which seeks to reduce cases of violence and sexual violence, and increase the number of women in electoral processes — either as voters, candidates, supporters, or observers during elections.
The coordinator of the Angie Brooks International (ABIC), Liberia Chapter, Cllr. Yvette Chesson Wureh, said the review process is meant to outline the work, challenges, and success of the WSR, and interrogates its role in preventing and managing violence during the election periods and its link to conflict early warning and early response, and conflict resolution.
The ABIC coordinator said the involvement of women at the decision-making table is vital to the sustenance of peace in any nation. Cllr. Chesson Wureh is the vision bearer of the WRS—an initiative she started in 2011 when former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was vying for her second term. The review is critical at a time when Liberia is headed for special senatorial elections and other countries are headed for general and presidential elections subsequently.
Since the initiative first started during the 2011 elections in Liberia, it has since been successfully replicated in Kenya (2013), Senegal (2012), Sierra Leone (2012), Nigeria (2014) and Uganda (2016), among other countries. There were also plans to use it in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Togo. The operational approach of the WSR is expected to differ in individual countries, allowing for flexibility to adapt to local conditions and dynamics.
It is no secret that violence during an election cycle is an all-too-frequent phenomenon in many African countries, where it may be triggered by political or ethnic tensions or flawed electoral processes.
Elections in some African countries are often marked by violence, which ranges from low-level intimidation and harassment to more intense violent displacement and death.
With these, Cllr. Chesson Wureh called for the involvement of more women, which she said has the ability to detect and defuse potential violence into peace, adding that it is wrong to downplay the expertise of women during the elections period.
Speaking during the review of the WSR recently in Monrovia, she mentioned that the organization seeks to incorporate influential women on the continent who are also charged to propagate the message of peace in their respective countries.
She wants African leaders to always solicit the inputs of women in matters that tend to affect the peace evolving from elections dispute.
Electoral violence of any kind can deter citizens from voting, discourage candidates from running for office, weaken civil society’s scrutiny of elections, and hurt the legitimacy of a government. And often, women are affected by the intimidation caused by this violence, she said.
She singled out Nigeria as a case in point where the WRS has made more impact. She said due to the work of the room, the Nigerian elections held in 2015 were considered peaceful because of the utilization of the WSR.
For the first time since independence in 1960, Nigerian voters peacefully voted to transfer political power from one party to another. Given Nigeria’s chequered electoral history – filled with violence, rigging, and lack of a viable opposition party since military rule ended in 1999 – Nigeria’s recent success story is a positive sign for its democratic consolidation and a potential game-changer for other African elections, the WSR head noted.
She believes that the pervasive human rights, socio-economic, health, and political inequalities that disproportionately affect women and girls impede Africa’s efforts to achieve transformative and sustainable socio-economic development.
This is seen in countries affected by electoral violence and political instability. To respond to these challenges, Cllr. Chesson Wureh suggests that there is now greater recognition of the centrality of ensuring gender equality and women’s empowerment if development is to be sustainable.
One continental law that also echoes this belief is the 2003 African Union Maputo Protocol, which expressly demands affirmative action measures to assure women’s participation in electoral processes, decision-making, and conflict prevention.
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is also a progressive blueprint for advancing women’s rights. This declaration identified 12 critical areas of concern and outlined actions to be taken in each of these areas to create a better world for women. The role of women in conflict prevention and decision-making was among these areas of concern.
However, more than twenty years after this comprehensive affirmation of women’s rights and empowerment was adopted, it remains only partially fulfilled. Confronted with slow progress, more than half of all countries use some type of gender as the quota for an elected office.