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International Women’s Day: a spotlight on women’s role in armed violence reduction and community safety

Mariem Zaid, one of AOAV's clearance operators in Western Sahara. / Image: Louise Orton

Mariem Zaid, one of AOAV’s clearance operators in Western Sahara. / Image: Louise Orton

To mark International Women’s Day, AOAV would like to highlight the invaluable contributions and courage of women involved in projects to promote their rights, improve their safety and reduce and prevent armed violence in their communities. AOAV also wishes to thank and congratulate the work of de-mining teams – made up of both men and women – who risk their lives to clear landmines in Western Sahara.

AOAV works to promote the rights of and improve the safety and security of women survivors of armed violence through its work on the ground with local partners and through its international advocacy. AOAV also actively encourages women’s active participation in initiatives to reduce and prevent armed violence, including promoting employment opportunities for women in its in-country projects.

Women’s active and equal participation in decision making processes at all levels and involvement in initiatives to promote their rights and safety is essential to preventing and reducing incidents of armed violence. The impact of armed violence on women is significant and multi-faceted.  Women survivors have their rights violated and often face discrimination and socio-economic marginalization, especially where they may be ex-combatants or have disabilities. Women’s empowerment is essential to sustainable development and preventing conflict.

The Millennium Development Goals, Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 underline the pivotal role of women in development, conflict prevention and peacebuilding. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) recognizes that women and girls are at increased risk of violence, injury and abuse globally. The CRPD specifically articulates the rights of women with disabilities, recognizing the double discrimination they face, both as women and as persons with disabilities.

In Burundi, AOAV and its local partners work to promote women’s rights and improve their safety and security by providing skills training, mentoring and, by providing psycho-social support and counselling , support advocacy and awareness raising campaigns and providing psycho-social support and counselling.   For survivors like Elisabeth Nibigira peer support has helped her overcome the destructive legacy of violence:

“I abandoned my studies when I was in primary school because my parents were no longer able to pay for tuition. That’s when I joined the rebellion. I was recruited to treat the sick and wounded. I was raped and I had two children. Since the trainings, I am very proud because I have learned many things, such as how to help others who are facing trauma. [The trainings] helped to change my life and I will help others to change their lives”.

Women survivors who are trained in peer support, rights and advocacy help each other to identify and address issues affecting their daily lives and find solutions to their problems.  Women survivors and those with disabilities, empowered with knowledge and skills, lead campaigns advocating for Burundi’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Women involved in AOAV programmes advocate to end violence against women, for meaningful participation of women in decision-making processes, as well as their increased access to educational and employment opportunities.  In 2012, the AOAV support project provided support to hundreds of women survivors, which will be expanded in 2013 to support hundreds more women in need.

AOAV encourages women to become involved in mine action in its Western Sahara programme. Working in demining teams provides non-traditional employment opportunities for women. By consulting men and women equally, promoting mixed work teams and trying to achieve a gender balance AOAV’s work is benefiting and engaging women, men, girls and boys equally. Since beginning survey and clearance of explosive remnants of war in Polisario-controlled Western Sahara, AOAV’s country team (the majority of whom are Saharawis) has cleared over 200 dangerous areas contaminated with ERW and destroyed over 22,000 cluster munitions, unexploded ordnance and landmines. These deadly items were often located close to populated areas, wells and grazing areas and on transport routes, posing a significant risk to the local communities.

Initially, there was some scepticism amongst male staff about the benefits of employing women de-miners.  However, over time stereotypes about women being less capable of carrying out the physical and technical work of demining have been broken down.  In addition, female staff have reported increased status within their community as a result of their role in making their community safer by clearing cluster bombs and landmines. “I am helping to make the land safer for my people. I feel very happy when we have cleared land as I know that people can herd their animals and children can play safely.”,Mariem Zaid, AOAV deminer.

AOAV recognises the extraordinary work and commitment of its teams and its staff are rightly proud of the work they do. Families of women staff are proud of their work; in some cases the women de-miners are the only wage-earners in their families. Mariam’s family are “very proud of the work Mariam is doing. We encouraged her from the beginning to do what she wants to do in life and supported her ever since she first thought of applying. Through her job, Mariam has been able to gain new skills and life experience she could otherwise not have gained.” Mariam supports 14 members of her family.

The women who work with AOAV help improve their safety and the security of their communities on a daily basis.  AOAV’s work with women on the ground and with local partners prioritises women’s empowerment and gender equality. AOAV will continue to seek ways to increase women’s engagement in armed violence reduction initiatives and work to support women survivors of armed violence, promote active participation of survivors, in its country programmes, and advocate for their full empowerment.