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Training women to avoid conflict in Sierra Leone

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In the West African country of Sierra Leone, the UN is supporting a government programme, training women and men to take on leadership roles in areas such as peacebuilding, with the aim of promoting peace and non-violence.

“We have learned how to see the sparks before they turn into fires, metaphorically speaking,” says Susan Pessima, from Selenga Chiefdom, Bo District, in the south of Sierra Leone. “That’s important, because fires can spread fast if the conditions are right for it”.

Ms. Pessima is talking about the fires of conflict and violence, fanned in part by the climate crisis, and dwindling natural resources. Often these take the form of land disputes. For example, there may be a disagreement over the boundary line between two properties. The problems often seem small, but they reflect larger and long-simmering tensions over class, ownership, and land rights. Sometimes, these disputes turn violent, and may even unleash bigger waves of violence.

‘Women see things other people don’t’

That’s why the government is training local people, including Ms. Pessima, to take on new leadership roles in peacebuilding, agriculture, entrepreneurship, and governance in their communities. So far, a total of 80 “community peace and conflict monitors” have been trained to work in their villages and towns to spot the signs of conflict before it leads to violence.

A big emphasis has been placed on training women, who make up three quarters of the peace and conflict monitors. “It’s no coincidence that these problems sprout and grow bigger even as women are discriminated against,” says Nyabenyi Tito Tipo, Country Representative for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Sierra Leone. “Any solution that leaves out half the population is bound to fail.”

Women, says Ms. Pessima, are essential to building peace, and must be empowered. “We women know our communities well. We are in the homes, we are in the markets. We go out on the streets. We see things that other people don’t.”

Taking charge

The project involves women not just in making peace but in making decisions. Women have been appointed to half of the positions in all of the 16 newly created “village area land committees” in the four participating districts, and two villages have their first-ever women Town Chiefs.

Another training session brought together Paramount Chiefs, local leaders, and “mammy queens” (important women leaders) in selected chiefdoms to help empower women in implementing the government’s National Land Policy.

One of the training participants was Desmond Kagobai, Paramount Chief of Selenga Chiefdom, Bo District. He says the message of the training was strong, and the practical guidance was useful. “If we want lasting peace and prosperity in our communities, then women must be involved from top to bottom and from start to finish.”

Mutual support

The four-district program has also trained nearly 1,000 farmers—85% of them women—on finance and cooperatives. Women farmers have a harder time to secure resources than their male counterparts, as they are liable to be discriminated against in financial services—a big factor in poverty. Participants have formed Village Savings and Loan Associations (VLSA) for mutual support.

VLSA members can get small loans to cover expenses such as school fees and medical bills without selling farm equipment or other productive assets. That means they can contribute more to their household incomes. With support from UN-backed programmes, eight new farming cooperatives are now being registered with the government.

Another 2,500 people—80% of them women—have been trained in climate smart agriculture (CSA), with a focus on groundnuts, cassava, rice, and pepper and other leafy vegetables. Previously, most women farmers were practicing slash-and-burn agriculture; such practices may be more profitable in the short-term, but they damage the land and environment in the long-term. So, farmers have been taught good farming practices such as, mulching, soil and water conservation techniques, liquid and organic manure, among other conservation practices.

Imaging a better future for Sierra Leone

Training programme officials and participants say they feel more hopeful than ever before about the prospects for their villages and their country. “I learned a lot in the training, and I appreciate that,” says Paramount Chief Desmond Kagobai. “Just as important is the fact that the government and the United Nations have affirmed the role of women in the country’s future.”

One solution to the problems of Sierra Leone and the Sahel is simple but very difficult”, says Ms. Tipo. “Women have got to be empowered and men have got to embrace women’s power. There’s nothing we can’t do if we do it together.”

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Africa Today

UN chief condemns ‘ongoing military coup’ in Sudan

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Protesters take to streets in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. UN Sudan/Ayman Suliman

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres on Monday condemned the “ongoing military coup” in Sudan, saying Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and all other officials, “must be released immediately.” 

Long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by the military following months of popular protest in April 2019, and a transitional government was set up comprising both military and civilian leadership, after a power-sharing agreement, that was due to lead to full democratic elections in 2023. 

Now, according to news agencies, Sudan’s military has dissolved civilian rule, arrested political leaders and declared a state of emergency. Protesters have reportedly taken to the streets of the capital, Khartoum, and there are reports of gunfire. 

In a statement posted on Twitter, the Secretary-General said that “there must be full respect for the constitutional charter to protect the hard-won political transition.” 

The UN will continue to stand with the people of Sudan”, Mr. Guterres assured. 

Progress in jeopardy 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also condemned the attempted coup. 

“These actions threaten the Juba Peace Agreement and jeopardize the important progress made towards democracy and respect for human rights”, Michelle Bachelet said. 

She called on military authorities to abide by the constitutional order and international law, withdraw from the streets, and resolve any differences with civilian leaders serving on the Transitional Council through dialogue and negotiation. 

“I utterly deplore the reported arrest of the Prime Minister, several Ministers, leaders of the Forces of the Freedom and Change and other civil society representatives, and call for their immediate release”, she continued.  

Communication systems down 

Ms. Bachelet also pointed out reports that the internet is down in the country and other means of communication are suspended.  

Blanket internet shutdowns contravene international law, and Internet and mobile services must be restored, as they are essential for people to seek and receive information, particularly in these unsettling circumstances”, she explained.  

She asked military and security forces to refrain from unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, to respect people’s freedom of expression, as well as the right of peaceful assembly. 

According to her, “it would be disastrous if Sudan goes backwards after finally bringing an end to decades of repressive dictatorship.” 

“The country needs to move forward to consolidate democracy, a wish expressed countless times by the Sudanese people, including loudly and clearly on the streets last week and today”, she added.  

UN Mission 

The head of the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission Sudan (UNITAMS), also released a statement, declaring that the arrests of the Prime Minister, government officials and other politicians are “unacceptable.”  

“I call on the security forces to immediately release those who have been unlawfully detained or placed under house arrest”, Volker Perthes said. “It is the responsibility of these forces to ensure the security and wellbeing of people in their custody.”  

The UNITAMS chief, who acts as a Special Representative of the Secretary-General, also urged everyone involved to exercise the utmost restraint.  

“All parties must immediately return to dialogue and engage in good faith to restore the constitutional order”, Mr. Perthes concluded. 

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Madagascar: Severe drought could spur world’s first climate change famine

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Children under five are among the most affected by malnutrition in southern Madagascar. © WFP/Tsiory Andriantsoarana

More than one million people in southern Madagascar are struggling to get enough to eat, due to what could become the first famine caused by climate change, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). 

The region has been hit hard by successive years of severe drought, forcing families in rural communities to resort to desperate measures just to survive. 

Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, has a unique ecosystem which includes animals and plants found nowhere else on the planet. The country experiences a dry season, usually from May to October, and a rainy season that starts in November.  

Daily life disrupted 

However, climate change has disrupted the cycle, affecting smallholder farmers and their neighbours, said Alice Rahmoun, WFP Communications Officer in the capital, Antananarivo, speaking to UN News on Thursday. 

“There is of course less rain, so when there is the first rain, they can maybe have hope and sow some seeds. But one little rain is not a proper rainy season,” she said.  

“So, what we can say is that the impacts of climate change are really stronger and stronger….so harvests fail constantly, so people don’t have anything to harvest and anything to renew their food stocks.” 

Varying impacts 

Ms. Rahmoun was recently in southern Madagascar, where WFP and partners are supporting hundreds of thousands of people through short and long-term assistance.   

The impact of the drought varies from place to place, she said. While some communities have not had a proper rainy season for three years, the situation might be even worse 100 kilometres away.  

She recalled seeing villages surrounded by dried-out fields, and tomato plants which were “completely yellow, or even brown”, from lack of water.  

Surviving on locusts 

“In some areas they are still able to plant something, but it’s not easy at all, so they are trying to grow sweet potatoes.  But in some other areas, absolutely nothing is growing right now, so people are just surviving only eating locusts, eating fruits and cactus leaves,” said Ms. Rahmoun.   

“And, just as an example, cactus leaves are usually for cattle; it is not for human consumption.”   

The situation is even more dire because, she added, “even the cactus are dying from the drought, from the lack of rain and the lack of water, so it’s really, really worrying”. 

Families barely coping  

The plight of families is also deeply troubling. “People have already started to develop coping mechanisms to survive,” she said.  

“And that means that they are selling cattle, for example, to get money to be able to buy food, when before, they were able to get food and feed themselves from their own field production, so it’s really changing the daily life for people.” 

Valuable assets such as fields, or even houses, are also put up for sale.  Some families have even pulled their children out of school. 

“It’s also a strategy right now to gather the family’s forces on finding income-generating activities involving children, so this has obviously a direct impact on education,” Ms. Rahmoun said. 

Providing life-saving aid 

WFP is collaborating with humanitarian partners, and the Malagasy Government, to provide two types of response to the crisis.  Some 700,000 people are receiving life-saving food aid, including supplementary products to prevent malnutrition. 

“The second one is more long-term response to allow local communities to be able to prepare for, respond to and recover from climate shocks better,” said Ms. Rahmoun. “So, this includes resilience projects such as water projects.  We’re doing irrigation canals, reforestation and even microinsurance to help smallholder farmers to recover from a lost harvest, for example.” 

WFP ultimately aims to support up to one million people between now and April, and is seeking nearly $70 million to fund operations.  “But we are also involving more partners to find and fund climate change solutions for the community to adapt to the impacts of climate change in southern Madagascar.” 

COP26: Prioritize adaptation 

In just over a week, world leaders will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 UN climate change conference, which UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called the last chance to “literally turn the tide” on an ailing planet. 

Ms. Rahmoun said WFP wants to use the conference to shift the focus from crisis response, to risk management.  

Countries must be prepared for climate shocks, and they must act together to reduce severe impacts on the world’s most vulnerable people, which includes the villagers of southern Madagascar. 

“COP26 is also an opportunity for us to ask governments and donors to prioritize funding relating to climate adaptation programmes, to help countries to build a better risk management system, and even in Madagascar, because if nothing is done, hunger will increase exponentially in the coming years because of climate change,” she said, adding: “not only in Madagascar, but in other countries.”

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‘Overzealous’ security services undermining South Sudan peace

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South Sudan has suffered years of underdevelopment, corruption and conflict. UNMISS/Amanda Voisard

State security forces in South Sudan have been responsible for imposing new and potentially arbitrary restrictions against the country’s most prominent civil society leaders, issuing “credible” death threats that have undermined peace efforts, UN-appointed independent rights experts said on Wednesday. 

In an alert, the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan alleged that “overzealous” security forces had prevented dissent so dramatically, that civic space was now eroding “at an accelerating pace”, forcing rights defenders to flee and discouraging others from taking their place. 

“The State’s targeting of high-profile human rights defenders will have a chilling effect on civil society and will discourage public participation and corrode confidence in the important processes of transitional justice, constitution making and national elections, which are essential for the success of the transition envisaged by the 2018 Revitalised Peace Agreement,” said Commissioner Andrew Clapham.  

Communication breakdown 

The actions of the National Security Services (NSS) have included detentions, raids, a likely internet shutdown and an enhanced security presence on the streets of Juba, the panel said in a statement. 

Those targeted by threats, harassment and intimidation have included prominent human rights defenders, journalists and civil society actors. Many have played a key role in the country’s peace and justice processes. 

“Jame David Kolok and Michael Wani are among those now sheltering outside the country in fear for their lives,” the UN Commission said, in reference to Mr. Kolok’s membership of the Technical Committee to Conduct Consultative Process on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing – a position reaffirmed in May by the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.  

Frozen out 

Mr. Wani had been a youth representative on the National Constitution Amendment Committee, according to the UN panel, which noted that both men’s bank accounts, “and those of the non-government organisations they lead, are among those recently blocked on government orders, with other civil society actors also affected”. 

The 2018 Revitalised Agreement for the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan contains power-sharing arrangements between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader, Riek Machar.  

The accord requires the drafting of a permanent Constitution and the establishment of a Commission on Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing. 

Although implementation of these and other measures – such as public consultation requirements – have been slow, government leaders have renewed pledges and taken steps toward these in recent months, the UN Commission said. 

“These latest restrictions and acts of harassment follow the formation on 30 July of a new civil society coalition whose members planned a public assembly to take place on 30 August,” it explained.  

Clampdown in Juba 

The UN Commission – which was appointed by the Human Rights Council in March 2016 to investigate crimes linked to civil war that erupted in 2011 – noted that this public assembly could not take place amid “detentions, raiding of premises, an apparent internet shutdown, and an enhanced presence of security forces on the streets of Juba”.  

Numerous civil society leaders are still in detention and their wellbeing is unclear, the commissioners said. 

“The State’s authorities must respect and protect the rights of human rights defenders; this is an obligation under international law,” said Commissioner Barney Afako. “It would also demonstrate that South Sudan’s commitment to strengthening its systems for the consolidation of human rights is genuine.” 

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