Navigating Human Terrain with GPS (Gender, Peace, and Security) in Western Africa

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The recent international blockbuster, Black Panther provided an image of African women as the warriors, technology chiefs, and moral compasses of Wakanda, a fictional Afro-futuristic nation. This portrayal of women is not only borne of African history, including the Amazons of Dahomey, a group of female fighters in Benin in the 17th century, but also the rising tide of women in African governments, militaries, and civil society in West Africa and the Sahel. A conference on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS), run in conjunction with Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) Operation Flintlock held in Niamey, Niger, between April 14-15, provided an opportunity for security forces, civil society, and government officials from the United States, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and a host of other African countries and partner nations, to reflect on the central role that women play in promoting stability throughout the region.

As a result of the tragic loss of four American soldiers during an advise and assist mission in October 2017, much of the media coverage of the U.S.’s role in Niger – and the Sahel more generally – has focused on the ongoing investigation into the conditions under which these soldiers were killed. While this is obviously an important investigation, this story does not represent the totality of the U.S.’s role in the region.

Through security partnerships in the region, the United States is successfully building a robust community of women, peace, and security practitioners. A burgeoning body of research suggests that the status of women within a country is the best predictor of that country’s likelihood of going to war, suggesting that integrating the WPS agenda into the Flintlock exercise and regional partnerships is crucial for the success of counter-terrorism operations in the region.

The WPS conference was an opportunity for these practitioners to share their lessons learned about the integral role that women play in advancing peace, through a variety of social roles, not just as mothers and peacemakers, but also as civil society leaders, police officers, and members of the armed services. At this conference, Special Operations Command – Africa (SOCAFRICA) provided a forum where women voiced concerns and enabled them to create plans for implementing change.

The presentations at the conference, and the conversations during a tabletop exercise on disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), and even in the casual conversations over coffee, that integrating women into security considerations was not an effort to be politically correct, but rather a necessary aspect of operating as efficiently as possible. The conference’s participants, the majority of which were women from African countries, shared rich stories about the challenges they face in their countries and more importantly, collaborated as a team to propose structural changes that they were eager to work with the United States and other security partners to advance. Including (1) strengthening civil society as a means of amplifying women’s voices and (2) improving resilience in their communities by changing gender norms. At the heart of these reforms is the simple idea that we must take women’s issues, opinions, and security seriously.

Civil Society as an Integral Tool to Advance Women’s Rights

Time and again, participants emphasized the importance of civil society as one of the most effective ways of amplifying women’s voices, advancing their rights, and articulating their agenda. USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives provided data to collaborate women’s anecdotes, noting that women in Diffa – a region long marginalized economically and socially, and more recently destabilized by incursions by Boko Haram – were more likely to trust NGOs than their male counterparts were and that they frequently expressed greater trust in local NGOs than traditional leaders. As an intermediary institution between the people and the polity, civil society is crucial for fostering an environment that is more inclusive and more stable. Furthermore, participants suggested that civil society is an important factor for preventing violent extremism, by providing community members with a sense of belonging, community, and agency.

Strengthening civil society, like U.S. efforts to build partner capacity, is integral to long-term strategic objectives in the region. Developing working relationships between military organizations and civil society organizations (CSO) can be mutually beneficial, helping the military understand the human terrain they are operating in, while ensuring that CSOs priorities and concerns are understood, respected, and implemented. Developing these human networks of partners provides a critical context and understanding in times of crisis and ultimately, building community resilience prevents the spread of extremism. Such relationships should be considered as part of the endeavor to win hearts and minds; furthermore, the objective of strengthening civil society fits into the ‘whole of government’ approach to preventing and ending conflict, through engagement by the State Department, military, and USAID.

Norm Change

Integrating women into security infrastructure requires navigating communities away from norms that portray women as inherently non-violent, innocent, and ill-suited to participate in the sorts of activities and conversations that the security community engages in. Several female participants from African partner militaries noted that they had encountered armed female combatants, and nearly every nation represented noted that women had played integral, non-combat roles in the organizations threatening regional stability. Effectively countering these armed groups, then, requires engaging with the roles that women play supporting them -- and dispensing with norms that suggest that female participation is anomalous.

One female lieutenant colonel from Niger proposed a campaign to educate mothers on the equal treatment of boys and girls as a way of eradicating restrictive gender norms; she observed that in the home there’s a pervasive belief that girls should help cook and clean while boys are left alone to play. This sort of socialization is where gender norms begin – and would thus be an effective place to target to undermine these norms. Some participants noted that restrictive gender norms are also associated with undesirable and potentially destabilizing outcomes, such as early marriage and fewer years of schooling for girls.

At the heart of the discussions about the role of gender norms in conflict is the simple observation that people matter most in contested environments. Integrating gender norms into our understanding of the context in which the military is operating, and programming can serve both to improve operational efficacy, as well as prevent the outbreak of conflict. 

One of the presentations, given by a co-author of this piece, discussed how gender norms portraying women and girls as inherently innocent and non-violent contributed to the appeal of female suicide bombers for Boko Haram, which has now deployed more than 300 women and girls in such attacks.

Understanding the prevailing gender norms of a community helps identify people’s motivations; eradicating the blinders that gender norms can exert on the military’s assessment of group membership and operations will improve our operations against armed groups.  


During the closing remarks of the ceremony, one male participant from an African partner military expressed his appreciation for the tools that the conference had provided him to combat armed groups “without firing a single bullet.” While much attention has been paid to kinetic operations in the region, partnerships with Sahelian and West African countries are also helping to advance non-violent strategies to counter armed groups and prevent conflict from erupting. Engaging women in security planning and operations in the real world - not just in Wakanda - will contribute to more effective operations and regional stability.

Arnel David is a civil affairs officer and army strategist. He is the chief of staff for the Army Future Studies Group and is a co-author of Military Strategy in the 21st Century: People, Connectivity, and Competition (forthcoming).

Hilary Matfess is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University. She is the author of Women and the War on Boko Haram: Wives, Weapons, Witnesses (2017). Follow her on Twitter @HilaryMatfess.

The views and opinions in this article do not officially represent the DoD or any other government organization.

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