Source: Institute for Security Studies

Research in the region most affected by violence shows why focusing on gender-specific needs would deliver better responses.

The security crisis in Niger's south-western Tillabéri region is taking a heavy toll on local communities. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project has documented over 2 500 deaths in the area since 2017. This is 52.8% of the national count over that time - making Tillabéri the epicentre of violence in Niger.

Nearly 100 000 people in the Tillabéri region had been displaced by the beginning of 2022, and the figure is growing. Women and girls make up 51% of those in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Basic social services are lacking for everyone, but displacement makes it difficult for women needing healthcare, especially maternal care - a major concern in a country with the highest fertility rate in the world.

This is only one of the many ways the security crisis affects women and girls based on their gender. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the Niger chapter of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP-Niger) recently teamed up with 10 women from conflict-affected localities to shed light on the experience of girls and women in the Tillabéri region.

The lack of maternal care is a major concern in a country with the highest fertility rate in the world

Through 52 testimonies, the research found that the security crisis not only threatened lives, physical integrity and livelihoods, but significantly aggravated various forms of gender-based violence common during peace time.

Child marriage is a telling example. Niger has the highest prevalence rate in the world, with 76% of girls married before the age of 18, and 28% before 15, according to the UN Children's Fund. Yet the ISS-WANEP study's empirical data, 70% of which was collected by local female teachers, suggests even more concerning levels in areas affected by conflict and displacement. This perception has been corroborated by other surveys

Marrying off their young daughters is a way for impoverished families to cope with increased economic pressure and uncertainty by reducing the number of dependants or establishing protective alliances with the groom's families. Interviews suggest an increase in girls being married off before the minimum legal age of 15.

Girls are disproportionately affected because of both gender and age norms. But the problem can only be identified and addressed if gender-disaggregated data is available. Without it, remedies will fail to deal appropriately with the gender-specific needs of conflict victims.

Girls being married so young negatively affects their emotional wellbeing and physical integrity, especially when it leads to sexual relations and early pregnancy. There is also an important two-way link between child marriage and girls' education. Youngsters who marry early usually drop out of school to assume their new spousal role. At the same time, those already failing academically are at greater risk of early marriage.

Interviews suggest an increase in girls being married off before the minimum legal age of 15 years

In August 2022 alone, 817 schools in the Tillabéri region were closed due to violence and insecurity. This impedes the right of all children to education and raises the risk of child marriage for girls, and recruitment into armed groups for boys.

Cases of conflict-related sexual violence have also been reported, although the few figures available represent only the tip of the iceberg. The social stigma surrounding these acts often discourages survivors from reporting them.

While most of these crimes are committed by members of non-state armed groups, incidents such as those in Téra in March 2021 are a reminder that security forces can also be involved. Chadian soldiers stationed in the region as part of the G5 Sahel Joint Force were accused of raping at least three people, including an 11-year-old girl and a 32-year-old pregnant woman.

ISS and WANEP-Niger's consultative study also notes the worrying situation faced by widows and orphaned children of civilian victims of the conflict, who largely have to fend for themselves. As the family economy is traditionally male-dominated, the sudden death of a husband can expose his wife or wives - polygyny remains prevalent - and their children to acute economic distress. For widowed older women, losing adult sons can mean isolation and poverty.

Systems to identify and support widows of civilian conflict victims should be a public policy priority

As the crisis constrains economic activity and disperses extended families, the support mechanisms on which widows traditionally rely are proving less accessible. Although wives of soldiers killed in combat benefit from national programmes, these aren't available to civilians' widows. Systems to identify and support these women should be a public policy priority.

Beyond securing territory, the response to violence in Tillabéri must support human security broadly to mitigate the negative effects on men and women, girls and boys. This will only be possible if the experiences and concerns of those directly affected are addressed, including women living in rural areas.

Establishing mechanisms for community consultation, as tried by the ISS and WANEP-Niger in their study, could enable the government to identify local concerns and maintain constructive dialogue regarding responses.

The lack of gender-disaggregated data hinders the analysis of gender-specific impacts of insecurity and the formulation of responses. State and non-state organisations that produce data on the security, humanitarian, social and economic situation in conflict-affected areas should systematically disaggregate the data in order to inform public policy.

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