Women’s Situation Rooms boost peaceful voting in Africa

As countries across the African continent gear up for elections in the coming months, women are taking an active role in ensuring peaceful voting and meaningful participation, through Women’s Situation Rooms.

Date: 09 October 2015

It’s 28 March 2015—Election Day in Nigeria—and scores of youth incident reporters are working around the clock to record complaints, observations and queries about violence against women, fielding calls from across the country received at a toll–free line . The constant hum of ringing phones and the rising rhythm of voices crescendos around this special room, known as the Women’s Situation Room.

Working around the clock, 40 youth incident reporters fielded calls from the public and from election monitors across Nigeria, from 25 March – 3 April 2015.
Working around the clock, 40 youth incident reporters fielded calls from the public and from election monitors across Nigeria, from 25 March – 3 April 2015. Photo: UN Women/Khadidja Sall

“The Women’s Situation Room … [puts] the focus on [eliminating] obstacles to women’s participation to electoral processes, especially violence against women in all its forms, that has been identified as a major obstacle to women’s involvement in political affairs,” explains Grace Ongile, UN Women Representative to Nigeria and ECOWAS.

Because women face additional threats and barriers to voting, early interventions are key to reduce, forestall or take decisive action if any electoral violence erupts. The Women’s Situation Room aims to ensure the elections are peaceful and women and youth can play an active role in sustaining peace.

In late March-April 2015, a physical Situation Room was set up at a hotel in Abuja, for nine days around Nigeria’s general elections, which had been repeatedly postponed as the country dealt with escalating violence. This operation centre housed 40 youth incident reporters fielding calls in two shifts, day and night. They took 2,748 calls from the public during that period. An additional 300 all-women election monitors—who were deployed in 10 targeted states for two days during the elections—reported nearly 5,000 incidents.

These monitors collected information on incidents through questionnaires, reporting issues ranging from voting complaints to gender-based violence incidents. Incident reports were handed over to the Situation Room’s “Eminent Women” – eight high-profile nationally renowned women who intervened, mediated, liaised and engaged key stakeholders, including heads of political parties, security sector institutions and leaders of faith-based entities, to secure their active support, and respond to specific situations.

Around Nigeria’s general elections, the Women’s Situation Room received more than 7,000 calls from the public and election monitors combined, reporting incidents ranging from voting complaints to gender-based violence
Around Nigeria’s general elections, the Women’s Situation Room received more than 7,000 calls from the public and election monitors combined, reporting incidents ranging from voting complaints to gender-based violence. UN Women/Ikechukwu Attah

The concept of the Women’s Situation Room was initiated by the Angie Brooks International Centre to ensure women’s empowerment, leadership development, international peace and security during the October 2011 presidential and legislative elections and subsequent November 2011 run-off presidential election in Liberia.

The initiative has included a wide range of activities to ensure that women are actively involved in peace advocacy, intervention, coordination, political analysis, monitoring and documentation. Such efforts have contributed to securing peace and stability before, during and after elections across the African continent. Powerful peacebuilding platforms, they rally women, youth, media, stakeholders, professionals, religious and traditional personalities and institutions to ensure a transparent and peaceful electoral process.

In Senegal in February 2012, the Women’s Platform against Violence, supported by UN Women, trained 50 West African women leaders to act as observers during the country’s elections. In collaboration with UN Women, UNDP and several civil society organizations, this same team then joined other teams from around the world in forging similar spaces.

Senegal was followed by Sierra Leone in November of the same year, Kenya in March 2013, Mali in May 2013 and Guinea Bissau in April-May 2014. The Nigerian process in 2015 was strongly led by civil society organizations through the National Women Platform for Peaceful Elections (NWPPE), coordinated by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and with the support of the Angie Brooks International Center.

An innovative strategy adopted in Nigeria was the inclusion of police and Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) desks within the Situation Room. Complaints received by phone were dispatched to these officials, who contacted their offices in different states to resolve issues and report back to the Eminent Women.

“If a situation happens in the field and we want answers from the police—like violence erupted in a certain state while [women] were taking part in the election,” explained Turrie Akerele Ismael, Nigeria’s first female Solicitor-General and one of the Eminent Women. “Immediately we respond by finding the particular arm of government, INEC or police, to tackle the situation. If they’re in the room, it’s of course easier and faster.”

This real-time incident reporting, as well as conflict resolution and peace mediation, took place at Nigeria’s Women’s Situation Room not only on Election Day, but before, during and after the elections.

As a result of their recognized success, Women’s Situation Rooms will be set up in a number of countries holding elections in the near future, including Guinea in October 2015, and possibly Central African Republic, Uganda and Burkina Faso in the coming months.