UNITED NATIONS - Several high-level women are calling for more international support focused on helping women and girls in Africa's Sahel region respond to the impact of conflict, terrorism and underdevelopment.
The foreign minister of Sweden, the U.N. deputy secretary-general, and the African Union's special envoy on women, peace and security just wrapped up a joint visit to Niger and Chad where they met with women from all areas of society.
"The countries we visited and the Sahel region are located between hope and despair," Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström told a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday. "Hope, because the Sahel is blessed with abundant human, cultural and natural resources. … Despair, because of chronic underdevelopment, terrorism and violent extremism, a lack of respect for human rights and the negative effects of climate change."
The delegation said women and girls in the Sahel disproportionately suffer the consequences of these negative factors, as well as harmful cultural practices such as early marriage.
Mitigating terrorism's toll
One of the biggest obstacles to development is the battle against Islamist radical groups such as Boko Haram.
"The response to security challenges faced by the regions that we have just visited requires investment in the development of the individual human being to prevent the radicalization and violent extremism, which has become the scourge of the Sahel," said AU envoy Bineta Diop.
But limited resources often mean the military's needs take precedence over the people's.
"Security comes at a price," said U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed. "Too often, it comes at the expense of development."
Diop urged the international community to step up assistance.
"Everything hinges on prevention — which can be achieved through sizable investment in education, management of natural resources such as water, in job creation, in the protection of women and young girls, and in the promotion of the role and leadership of women and young girls in the quest for peace," the AU envoy said.
While women are often victims of terrorist acts, they are also increasingly being exploited to carry them out.
"The increased use of female suicide bombers — two-thirds of suicide attacks in 2017 were carried out by women or girls — illustrates the cruel way in which terrorists seek to exploit the perceived 'goodness' of women to maximize harm," Wallström said.
From victims to leaders
"We heard a universal and increasingly frustrated call by women for greater inclusion, representation and participation in all areas of society," the U.N.'s Mohammed said.
"And we were encouraged to see that in both countries, women were coming together in networks to address the challenges they face," the Swedish foreign minister added.
They underscored the message that women are no longer just victims, but with the right support can also be effective agents of change.
"They are intelligent and smart, and have initiatives they wish to share to respond to the challenges they are faced with," Diop said.