The countries of Central Sahel—Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger—face an unprecedented crisis, marked by violent extremism, forced displacement, and rising insecurity. The sharp increase in armed attacks on communities, health centres, schools and other public institutions and infrastructure has disrupted livelihoods and access to social services. The impact on affected people is devastating.
As the international community responds to the crisis, we must meet immediate needs, and invest in long-term development. We must also work on shaping peace together, the theme of this year’s International Peace Day.
In Central Sahel, shaping peace together requires the full participation of women and young people. Engaging, employing, and empowering women and young people offers the best hope for peace, stability and recovery.
While the responses to address this complex crisis to date have centred on humanitarian and military interventions, collective investments are required simultaneously in all sectors including humanitarian response, economic and social development, and peacebuilding to foster a sustainable and resilient society.
As a priority, governments and partners must take action to reduce massive human suffering. It is important not to lose sight of the centrality of protection in our collective response to this crisis. Of 63 million people, more than 13 million, about 1 of 5, need humanitarian assistance. More than 1.5 million people are displaced, fleeing from non-state armed groups in the Central Sahel region and from neighboring countries, and violence is taking a massive toll.
Assistance is needed to address gender-based violence, lack of basic health services, growing food insecurity, rising poverty, and COVID-19. In Central Sahel, as in countries around the world, women and girls bear a disproportionate impact during crises, and face increased risks of sexual exploitation and abuse. During COVID-19, reports of violence against women are rising.
Given overstretched health systems and health worker capacity, it is vital that frontline responders are equipped with personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19, respond to the needs of survivors, and provide much needed services.
An estimated 12 million girls in the Sahel are out of school due to the pandemic, which puts them at greater risk of sexual assault, child marriage, and early pregnancy, according to the Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend (SWEDD) programme.
Launched by the United Nations and the World Back Group in response to a call made by Sahel governments, the ambitious SWEDD programme, led by UNFPA with the West Africa Health Association and partners, is a benchmark initiative to reduce gender inequality and convert population growth into an economic dividend.
To move forward, the vulnerabilities and violations of women, adolescents and youth affected by the crisis must be addressed to avoid a disaffected and dependent generation, from which to draw young people (and young men in particular) to armed groups and extremism.
It is time for collective action to put women and young people at the center of efforts, support social reform, and invest in social services while responding to the pandemic. Dynamic partnerships between governments and humanitarian agencies could provide women and young people with opportunities and support protection, health including sexual and reproductive health, and education.
Enabling women and youth to develop their skills, receive training, and earn an income would foster social cohesion, reduce economic dependency and extreme poverty, and promote peace, resilience and recovery in a more sustainable manner. Building more inclusive and healthy communities diminishes risks such as early marriage and early and unintended pregnancy.
Enabling women and young people to become self-sufficient creates an atmosphere of ownership and empowerment.
To drive progress, there is a need to develop economic incentives for private sector companies to employ young people, including young women. A strong partnership with the private sector will allow governments to spur innovation, progress, and a more diverse funding base supporting longer-term youth employment strategies. A win-win with young people is one where companies can find a balance between philanthropy and business, and young people can achieve financial goals and independence as they transition into adulthood.
To succeed, the governments of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger should lay the institutional and structural foundation for youth employment by promoting programmes and partnerships for skills training and establishing small and medium-sized enterprises. This is especially important in remote communities to benefit young people and the communities in which they live.
Efforts should reflect the rights, and drive to self-determination and economic prosperity, of young women and men, and promote gender equality, social cohesion, and access to quality health services and care, including psychosocial support and family planning.
Given growing funding constraints, the UN system must demonstrate new and innovative ways of working and efficiency in “doing more with less”. A complementary humanitarian, development and peacebuilding approach is the only way to address the complexities of the Central Sahel crisis . Investments across these three pillars can address immediate needs, root causes, and fund efforts to build back better with women and young people at the centre.