Group of participants in an activity in Nigeria

Gender responsive peacebuilding addresses the effects of inequality and conflict. Gender transformative approaches aim to identify and shift some of the underlying - and interconnected - causes driving inequality and conflict in the first place. Because gender inequality rarely exists in isolation, we also look to analyse how gender interacts with other forms of inequality related to age, sexual orientation, race and other factors.

These causes and effects are complex, and differ across contexts. Effects can include stigma, gender-based violence and trauma which prevent people from healing and reconciling. Causes can include narratives which fuel violence towards certain people, expectations around the roles of different people - which can disempower them or pressure them to engage in violence - and imbalances of power.

If neglected, these eventually resurface over time. 

How have gender responsive and transformative approaches strengthened our peacebuilding? 

For nearly ten years, we’ve been working with communities in northeast Nigeria impacted by the Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) insurgencies.

People’s experiences have varied widely according to their identity. Despite forming the majority of internally displaced people, deeply-ingrained power dynamics exclude women, youth, people with (dis)abilities and religious and ethnic minorities from community security, rehabilitation and peace processes.

This has limited the effectiveness and durability of these processes, which have failed to cater to the diverse needs of different people and remain dominated by male elites. It has also fuelled grievances and resentment within and between groups, with those most excluded being vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups.

Taking a gender responsive approach helped us to support divided groups to reconcile, heal and increase their confidence in raising concerns. 

Through taking part in storytelling and Intergenerational Peace Kitchens, people were able to build relationships and exchange experiences across gender, age, ethnic and faith lines. Women living with (dis)abilities now report a sense of solidarity and empathy with women from religious minorities, who have suffered intensely but differently to them. This has helped them to feel less alone, rebuild trust with their wider communities and communicate their collective needs. A religious minority woman in Borno state, who previously reported having her house stoned and being denied access to basic needs, now approaches community leaders directly to call for change. Similarly, women mediators are leading dialogues with vigilante groups, confronting the mistreatment of different people in their communities.

“Their perceptions towards us have really changed. Before, we were not regarded as capable of doing anything in ensuring peace in the community… but we started executing the things learned [through this project]. When we come across other women and men having issues, we always try to mediate and solve the problem. When the Bulama and other men in the community see this, they encourage us to do it more” - Young woman, Borno state

Taking a gender transformative approach helped us shift underlying power dynamics and build more inclusive community peacebuilding processes.

Those in positions of power have gradually come to understand the value of more inclusive approaches and reported a shift in previously limiting attitudes. For example, older male religious leaders and younger men reported a shift in gender norms, now associating manhood with qualities like being a good listener and consulting others rather than physical strength, ego and violence. They now feel better able to reconcile their role as leaders with being supportive husbands, brothers and sons. 

“Force and power were everything to me, and consulting women for decisions was a weakness... Now I realise that inclusion in all aspects of life is a blessing that will make life easier. Now I listen to my wife, children and other women and this changed my behaviours toward others in the community” – Young man, Borno state

Some men have also started to shift decision-making approaches to actively accommodate excluded groups of people. For example, traditional Bulama leaders have set up regular meetings with elder women to take decisions on resource allocation, reflecting that this made their jobs easier and exposed them to greater ideas and experiences in addressing community challenges. In other cases, the Police are proactively engaging with young people to resolve communal conflicts amicably before these escalate, helping to dispel stereotypes that young men are the ‘architects’ of violence.

“The inclusion of youth, women and most importantly people living with special needs in decision making has made a positive impact on our community - so much that once we include them we always have fair and unbiased decisions. Before, my perception was that they were not important… but now I understand they are equally important as everyone else” - Male traditional leader, Yobe state

What have we learnt about designing and delivering gender responsive and transformative peacebuilding? 

The UK Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) Gender, Peace and Security portfolio recently funded an evaluation of our intersectional programming in northeast Nigeria, together with our partners Hope Interactive, Unified Members for Women Advancement and Borno Coalition for Democracy and Progress. This evaluation covered our work from 2017-2022.

It highlighted five key learnings relevant to gender responsive and transformative peacebuilding:

1. Carry out a gendered conflict analysis early on. This provided a safe space for religious leaders, police and former vigilantes to step back and apply a new lens to conflict dynamics in their communities. It helped them to uncover how people - who they had previously treated as one ‘marginalised’ group - are impacted differently by violence, and how certain attitudes, behaviours and structures perpetuate their exclusion. This then helped them pinpoint priority issues and co-develop more nuanced, inclusive responses to community conflict. A male religious leader noted that this was the most useful activity for his work.

2. Foster trust and healing between excluded people and wider communities. For gender transformative approaches to take root, people need to have the confidence to collectively raise their interests and shape peace initiatives. But many groups in northeast Nigeria had not yet had the opportunity to vocalise their experiences of violence, and carried deep traumas. Storytelling helped people to gradually build their confidence in expressing themselves to others. By placing a focus on the ‘self’ (rather than the perpetrator) and emphasising strength-based experiences over those of suffering, people who had been historically excluded were able to reclaim their resilience, free themselves of psychological burdens and be heard by others for the first time.

3. Engage constructively with societal and cultural ‘gatekeepers’. Male leaders have the power to redefine limiting norms and unlock more inclusive processes. Excluding them from gender transformative initiatives can result in backlash, yet singling them out can lead to defensiveness. We found engaging men at all levels in a non-confrontational way was most effective - from those with very little power (such as men with (dis)abilities and unemployed youth), to men with certain degrees of power (former vigilantes and armed youth) to men with comparatively more power (traditional and religious leaders, police and security officials). This helped us to facilitate awareness of power and masculinity implicitly rather than overtly and connect people across perceived lines of difference and hierarchies. It also exposed male leaders to different interpretations of violence, helped them to gradually understand their own role within this, and understand how power also extends across wider groups of people, including women and girls.

4. Tailor approaches and don’t treat people as categories. The term intersectionality can be seen as technical and alienating in some of the contexts we work in. We used creative methods to highlight its importance without using the language itself. For example, we invited people to bring their full, multi-faceted selves into circles and take steps forward or back based on their experiences. This helped to uncover aspects of people that might not always be visible, reduce perceptions of threats across different groups and create common ground. Involving leaders helped to humanise them, with communities starting to recognise them as human beings who deserve respect while also being accountable. At the same time, it helped leaders to understand how many community issues are shared and thus become more open to taking action. 

5. Accompany locally-owned processes and be patient. Communities weren’t rushed to discuss difficult issues before ready, and there was a recognition that gender transformative change is incremental and cannot be forced. It was important for communities to lead on identifying which groups experienced multiple forms of exclusion and should be prioritised in each community, rather than rigidly defining these ahead of time. The evaluation also found that staff and partners consciously modelled projects’ values of equity, power-sharing and flattening of hierarchies in their work. Observing customary practices like sitting on mats with community leaders, wearing locally-made head coverings and using religious proverbs to contextualise messages helped to build trust in particular with women and religious leaders who otherwise may have withdrawn.

UK Aid logo in colour

This evaluation was funded by the UK Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF).