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Context matters – Why Africa should tailor its own measures to fight COVID-19

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This post was originally published in Africa Policy Brief by the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations. You can find the original post by clicking here, along with a list of references. The post also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve. Nina Wilén is Research Director for the Africa Programme at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations and assistant professor at the Department of Political Science at Lund University as well as a Global Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

African governments have been faster than most of their European counterparts in imposing measures to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak despite dealing with numerous other challenges. However, context matters, and for Africa, the political and socioeconomic consequences of the lockdown measures may cause more havoc than the actual virus. This brief identifies political, economic and social risks related to coronavirus responses in Africa and emphasises the disproportionate burden carried by women. It argues that localised measures, which include dialogue, transparency and flexibility, may be the only realistic way forward, while underlining the need for wealthier states to provide generous aid packages, debt cancellations and continued investments, in spite of current challenges, in order for Africa to pull through yet another challenge.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visits Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation COVID-19 Command Centre. Photo: GovernmentZA via Flickr

Introduction

As Europe and the United States grapple to cope with the effects of COVID-19, Africa is getting ready to add the coronavirus to the long list of challenges the continent already faces. Against a backdrop of widespread poverty, armed conflict, terrorism and climate change, African governments have reacted surprisingly swiftly, many imposing social-distancing measures and closing borders early on. But extensive lockdown measures are probably not, as others have already pointed out, [i] the right, or even the possible, way to go for most African states. For a continent where 70% of the population are under the age of 30 [ii] and around 5% aged 65 or over, the political, social and economic consequences of isolation measures are likely to cause more havoc than the actual virus.

This policy brief analyses the risks related to the spread of, and the responses to, the coronavirus in an African context. In particular, it looks at the political risks of emergency laws, extended powers and suspended elections; the economic risks related to both Western and African states’ lockdown measures, including rising unemployment figures, food insecurity and deepening debts; and the social impacts to which hard-hitting isolation measures may lead, focusing on how women are disproportionately affected – even though men are overrepresented among the victims of the virus. Finally, it points to the fact that Africa is a continent composed of highly heterogeneous states where localised measures that include dialogue, transparency and flexibility may not just be the most appropriate response but also the only realistic way forward.

Above all, it underlines the necessity for the continent’s wealthier neighbours in the North to ensure that the desperately needed solidarity is extended further south in the shape of generous aid packages, debt cancellations and continued investments. While this might seem like a utopic vision for an ever-more isolationist United States and an EU that faces problems raising solidarity among its own Member States, a quick glance at the repercussions that an Africa in crisis might have, in the shape of more refugees, starvation and a vaster breeding ground for terrorists, should convince the Northern states of the necessity to extend backing to the continent. If those arguments are still not enough, the leeway left for Chinese and Russian influence on the continent should alter the balance in favour of reinforced European and American economic, political and  social support to Africa, even if it will be challenging as the former face their own crises.

Emergency powers, suspended elections and political tensions

The current pandemic has provided political leaders with the opportunity of a lifetime to extend their powers through a variety of different measures. In Europe, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has pushed through a bill that allows the government to maintain the state of emergency as long as it wants, while in the United States, Trump’s vast emergency powers and history of attempts to erode institutional checks and balances, should send shivers along any democratic citizen’s spine. The risk of political leaders using the coronavirus crisis as a means to grab more power is thus a global phenomenon.

Yet, this risk is especially worrying in states with a history of weak democratic institutions, which are overly represented on the African continent. The 2019 Democracy Index, where half of the 44 sub-Saharan governments included are categorised as authoritarian and the remaining 22 as hybrid regimes or flawed democracies (with the exception of one state), paints a bleak picture of the strength of the continent’s democratic institutions. [iii] Furthermore, a worryingly high number of senior political officials have contracted COVID-19 incountries that are already unstable gerontocracies, including Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Popular unrest and increased political instability related to power competition are just two of the consequences that the death of a leader can trigger in states where politics are highly personalised and democratic institutions weak.[iv]

In 2020, Africa is set to host a dozen presidential or general elections, the majority of which will be held in countries confronting or emerging from conflict. COVID-19 is likely to disrupt electoral processes because of public health concerns and logistical impossibility of organizing them. Ethiopia has already postponed its first election, scheduled for August, since Prime Minister Abiy opened up the political space. While this decision has been taken in accordance with some of the opposition parties, in other states, less democratic leaders may use this as a precedent to circumvent elections. However, leaders inclined to stay in power may also choose to go ahead with elections, benefitting from the limited possibilities that the (few) opposition parties will have to prepare and execute election campaigns. They may also use emergency powers to extend their time in office. Somewhat ironically, Uganda’s 2013 law against meetings between more than three people, aimed at stifling the opposition, was declared unconstitutional on 26 March, yet the nation-wide lockdown, which, among other measures, prohibits public transport and exercise in public, will supersede it for the weeks to come.[v] In sum, the options for undemocratic leaders to avoid elections, extend powers and suppress opposition are disturbingly many this year.

Burundi, which is preparing for presidential elections in just a month,[vi] has so far not put any additional restrictions on political or sport-related gatherings, claiming that the country is protected by God’s grace.[vii] This should, however, be seen in a context where members of the opposition have faced heavy-handed clampdowns that have reduced their camps and sent most opposition members into exile. The appreciation for God’s grace also means that people continue to visit churches en masse, which may increase the spread of the virus and work against God’s protection.

Unemployment, food insecurity and the risk of increasing debts

The vast majority of the world’s poorest countries are located on the African continent, with over 40% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population living in extreme poverty [viii] and 55% of the urban population living in slums.[ix] A large part of the urban population gets by on work in the informal sector, such as street trading and open markets, with no access to unemployment benefits or sick pay. Imposing isolation measures in such contexts is not only practically impossible but also counterproductive, as it will increase poverty and lead to food insecurity. Outcries against lockdown measures can already now be heard across the continent, with people rightly identifying starvation as a bigger threat than the virus.

Africa is an integral part of the global economy and, as such, the economic downturn related to China, Europe and the United States’ quarantine measures has seen the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) give bleak prognostics for the continent. Africa may lose half its GDP due to the COVID-19 crisis, due to falling oil revenues, disruption of export trade, and a decline in tourism and investments. [xii] In addition, African states importing goods such as basic food and medicines see their currencies losing value against the dollar in an instable economic context. Predictions of the loss of nearly half of all jobs in Africa underline how the corona crisis is likely to deepen socioeconomic inequalities, unless wealthier states help carry the disproportionate burden shouldered by many of the states in the southern hemisphere. [xiii]Few states on the continent have the financial capacity to offer a sufficient number of welfare packages or adequate support measures for lost incomes. South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised economy, has yet to come up with a way to compensate the loss of income for the three million informal workers who dominate the day-to-day economy in the country’s townships and downtown areas. [x] The Nigerian government has promised a subvention of ten billion naira (23 million euros) to alleviate the economic consequences felt in Lagos, a city that is home to more than 20 million people,[xi] and while the initiative is important, it is uncertain whether it will be enough to cover the loss of incomes.

The UN launched a two-billion-dollar coordinated global humanitarian response plan to fight COVID-19 for the world’s poorest countries, while the EU announced 15 billion euros to fight the virus in vulnerable countries, with EU High Representative Borrell promising that Europe would not forget its sister continent – reflecting the new EU-Africa strategy proposed only a few weeks earlier. [xiv] Wealthier states and individuals have also made contributions to fight both the virus and its socioeconomic consequences on the continent. The Chinese billionaire, Jack Ma, has donated a total of 1.1 million testing kits, six million masks and 60,000 protective suits to help Africa, [xv] while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will provide up to 100 million dollars to improve detection, isolation and treatment efforts and protect at-risk populations in Africa and South Asia.xvi

Upcoming discussions between the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the G20 leaders about debt reliefs [xvii] and the creation of one-trilliondollar special drawing rights (SDRs) to offer grants and loans provide short-term relief for many African states. Yet, delaying debt payments while giving greater access to credit only risks delaying the economic shock until a later date. Debt cancellations and increased aid budgets in the current context are not only signs of solidarity but also self-protective measures for wealthier states that are otherwise likely to see spillover effects from their Southern neighbours’ crises. Importantly, the consequences of the responses to COVID-19 will not be limited to the political or the economic sphere but will also increase social inequalities.

When social distancing is not an option

Social distancing and hand washing have been hammered into populations across the world as the main measures to avoid spreading the virus and to flatten the curve of its exponential growth. ‘Flattening the curve’ implies slowing down the rate of infection so that the number of severely ill patients is reduced, allowing countries to prepare and increase hospital capacity. This three-headed strategy presupposes that 1) social distancing is feasible; 2) there is an access to clean water and soap; and 3) that health-care sectors can ramp up capacity in a short period. Even in richer countries on the continent, such as Nigeria, South Africa and Angola, all three of these assumptions pose problems.

African urban areas are often densely inhabited even in relatively sparsely populated countries in the Sahel. Public transport often consists of privately-owned vehicles where people are sitting shoulder to shoulder, and access to clean water is limited for the poorer part of the population even in many of the major cities. [xviii] Of course, there are enormous variations between different areas, even within the same country. While the large majority of white citizens in Stellenbosch, a university town outside of Cape Town, may not have difficulty social distancing and hand washing, only 20 kilometres away in Khayelitsha, the largest township in Western Cape, which has five times the population density of Stellenbosch, this will be considerably more difficult. This is especially the case because, just days before the lockdown was enforced, the City of Cape Town decided to temporarily cut water access for those who had not paid their bills in time. [xix]

Increased tensions in areas where lockdowns have severe repercussions on the population may provoke clashes with security forces. While South African president Ramaphosa urged the military to be a force for kindness and not might, the use of water cannon and rubber bullets to enforce lockdown has been difficult to associate with kindness and is likely to have increased rather than diminished tensions. In the DRC, the head of the Kinshasa police force sent a video to Reuters of police officers beating a taxi driver for violating a one-passenger limit, to encourage others to obey the rules.[xx] These examples of forcible impositions of lockdown are not only likely to lead to largescale evasion and subversion, but also risk crowding in the streets and increased distrust of government motives.xxi

Women on the frontlines

While, thus far, men seem to be overrepresented among COVID-19 casualties, women are more likely to suffer disproportionately from the socioeconomic consequences of the virus’ spread. Women make up 70% of health workers globally and provide 75% of unpaid care, looking after children, the sick and the elderly.[xxii] Women are also more likely to be employed in poorly paid precarious jobs that are most at risk, while access to healthcare for sexual and reproductive health will be constrained during the pandemic. In addition, domestic abuse, which affects women disproportionately, has already seen a horrifying surge in places like China and France, and is likely to continue to rise worldwide, as stress, alcohol consumption and financial difficulties – all triggers for violence at home – increase during isolation. [xxiii]

While these aspects affect women globally, they will most likely hit women harder in poorer countries where the health sector is weak, traditional gender roles are deepseated, and the majority are employed in the informal sector. Entrenched gender roles can be seen in the exceptionally high percentage of single mothers in sub-Saharan Africa – 32%, compared to the global average of 13% [xxiv] – while women’s sexual and reproductive healthcare is likely to be sidelined. In Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, for example, more women died of obstetric complications than the infectious disease itself. [xxv] In places with ongoing conflicts, like Mali, Burkina Faso, South Sudan or the Central African Republic, the risks are obviously even greater as healthcare sectors are already under enormous strains, violence normalised and infrastructures weak.

It is utopic and unrealistic to attempt to change gender roles in the midst of a pandemic. However, it is irresponsible not to do a gender analysis of how the measures to contain the spread of the virus will affect women and men, boys and girls differently. Humanitarian aid should take into account these differences, earmarking funds for the disproportionate risk of domestic abuse that women face during quarantine periods. Providing emergency child-care provision, economic security even for informal sector workers and shelters, which can host abused women and children, are aspects that are needed now. Collecting high-quality data about how women and men are affected differently, both by the actual virus and the socio-economic consequences, also needs to be done now, to be better prepared for the next pandemic.

Conclusion

Africa is a large continent with over 50 highly diverse states. Any analysis that attempts to capture the whole continent is deemed to be general, superficial and miss important differences. This brief is no exception. Similarly, any ‘one-size-fits-all response’ to a global epidemic is likely to neglect crucial local variances. This is why it is critical to take into account countryspecific demographic patterns and make sure to communicate with concerned populations. This is not only for the sake of transparency and compliance, but also to improve the efficiency of the measures. Africa has proven to be more resilient than expected in the face of earlier epidemics like Ebola and HIV. One of the reasons for this is, paradoxically, popular distrust of governments and, instead, reliance on families and communities, prompting innovative local solutions. During the Ebola outbreak, smaller community care centres replaced larger hospitals and allowed for closer cooperation between Ebola responders and families, while communities’ self-quarantine measures often proved more effective than heavy-handed whole impositions by the government. [xxvi] Letting communities propose their own ideas of how to control the spread of the virus, while providing the essential epidemiological facts, is one way to take local differences into account. Here it is essential that both men and women are consulted to ensure that diverse gender needs meet fitting responses.

While Africa’s young demographic seems to make the coronavirus less of a lethal threat than in Europe, the political and socioeconomic consequences will most likely hit Africa harder. Their impact risks undermining significant advances made during the past few decades in terms of democratisation, economic growth and improved living conditions. This is why Africa cannot and should not be facing the coming crisis alone. As US and European states struggle to show solidarity among themselves, they should be rigorous in extending solidarity further south and show that slogans of partnership, sister continents and equality actually reflect values and guide action.

Expanding and improving the quality of girls’ education in Afghanistan

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Afghanistan illustrates how a country emerging from decades of war and in a continued state of conflict can have, together with its donors, a will to prioritize education. Afghanistan is a success story in increased availability of education and in the number of children attending school, girls included. Building up a management structure to handle such a rapid expansion of the education system, while simultaneously improving and maintaining quality, is a massive challenge. At the same time, the government and the international community are faced with tasks of ensuring the collection of accurate data for reporting and planning, the training and development of a sufficient number of qualified teachers, and the provision of a monitoring, evaluation, and assessment system for education quality.

The Afghan Ministry of Education estimates that there are presently 8.4 million students (39 percent of which are girls) in primary and secondary schools, an impressive increase from an estimated 1 million students in 2001. However, around 3.3 million children (about 32 percent of the school-age population), the majority of which are girls, remain out of school. Limited education among adults in Afghanistan poses a significant challenge—the share of the population over 25 years that has completed any level of formal education is less than 7 percent for men and just 3 percent for women.

Major inequities persist within the Afghan education system, including based on gender, geographic location, and language. Afghanistan has the highest level of gender disparity in primary education in the world, with only 71 girls in primary school for every 100 boys. Only 21 percent of girls complete primary education, largely due to cultural barriers, such as early marriage and a lack of female teachers. Further barriers are embodied in long and dangerous routes to schools and a lack of sanitation facilities and surrounding walls once there. There are also major differences in enrollment between rural and urban areas, with girls from rural poor families being most affected.

The Afghan education sector is confronted with numerous bottlenecks in its efforts to improve education. “Supply side” issues include the government’s inability to provide security, limited human resources, poor infrastructure, and lack of trained teachers and teaching materials. On the demand side, economic factors and cultural barriers limit improvement. It is estimated that more than 10 percent of the schools are closed due to insecurity, warfare, and targeted destruction. More than half of schools are in tents, mosques, and private homes. Despite a lack of infrastructure, classes are held outdoors or in other venues.

Afghanistan is presently the world’s second largest recipient of official development assistance (ODA) and is dependent on external donors to maintain and develop its education sector. The expected reduction in external funding and the ability of the Afghan government to maintain its own revenue generation are causes for concern. Without sufficient resources, gains made since 2001 could easily be overturned or reversed.

In a recent paper prepared for the Oslo Education Summit held in July, I describe a number of key opportunities for action in Afghanistan’s education sector, particularly to improve education for girls and increase education quality. Among these are opportunities to strengthen and develop teacher training, increase the number of qualified teachers, and assess if and how the NGOs and community-based organizations might take on a larger role in the education sector.

Equally important is to strengthen the Ministry Of Education in order to improve education quality and better manage the growing number of students. In particular, these efforts should focus on enhanced data collection and management systems, improved coordination, establishing mechanisms for competency-based hiring, and strengthening linkages and collaboration across ministries.

One still cannot overlook the continued challenges posed by insecurity in several parts of Afghanistan as well as community reluctance to send girls to school. Engaging parents and communities in dialogue is key to generating support and resources for education at the local level. If they can see the benefits of education, as well as participate in school management committees and maintenance, parents are much more likely to see schools as a safe environment and keep girls in school.

Integrating these suggestions into government, community, civil society, and donor partnerships can contribute to significant improvements in education for Afghan children, particularly girls.

Note: This blog, dated from 19 August 2015 and written by Arne Strand (Chr. Michelsen Institute), was originally posted on the Brookings Blogs.

The Multiple Tracks of Human Rights and Humanitarianism

By Kristin Sandvik (PRIO) 

Abstract

This book engages with contemporary African human rights struggles including land, property, gender equality and legal identity. Through ethnographic field studies it situates claims-making by groups and individuals that have been subject to injustices and abuses, often due to different forms of displacement, in specific geographical, historical and political contexts. Exploring local communities’ complexities and divided interests it addresses the ambiguities and tensions surrounding the processes whereby human rights have been incorporated into legislation, social and economic programs, legal advocacy, land reform, and humanitarian assistance. It shows how existing relations of inequality, domination and control are affected by the opportunities offered by emerging law and governance structures as a plurality of non-state actors enter what previously was considered the sole regulatory domain of the nation state.

Book available at: Sandvik, Kristin (2013) Part III of Derman, Hellum & Sandvik (ed.) Worlds of Human Rights: The Ambiguities of Rights Claiming in Africa. Leiden: Brill.

PoC: The Politics of Counting Rape in Darfur

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During my fieldwork in Khartoum in February/March this year a paradoxical development was brought to my attention. The records of UNAMID, The African Union/UN Hybrid operation in Darfur, indicate that sexual violence is on a decrease in Darfur. These records are, because of their sensitive nature, not open to the general public. Several interviews with both diplomats and humanitarian actors supported this assertion.

If sexual violence in Darfur is in fact on the decrease, that is good news indeed. But the validity of the assertion invites critical scrutiny.

Interviews conducted with humanitarian and political actors suggest that only the reporting of rape cases to UNAMID has gone down. Sudanese informants referred mockingly to UNAMID as “the African mistake in Darfur”, implying that the largest peacekeeping operation to date is not up to the task. They explain that the reporting to UNAMID has gone down because in 2009, the Sudanese government has expelled the humanitarian actors that were most active in referring cases to UNAMID and in speaking out publicly and bringing attention to the systematic and widespread rape in Darfur.

It is close to impossible to get research permits to Darfur for a Western researcher. But my interviews in Khartoum with International and Sudanese nationals active in Darfur before and after the expulsions suggest that the violence, including sexual violence, may actually be on the increase. In the words of a former minister from Darfur “the violence is escalating (…) It is out of control and it has become an everyday event by the police, the security, the Janjaweed and the rebels. The international community is deserting them. UNAMID is doing nothing. They are not protecting civilians. They cannot even protect themselves. (…)”.

The lack of reporting and the implicit conclusion that sexual violence might be on the decrease, potentially has significant political implications; it backs President Bashir’s claim that the evidence for the systematic and widespread sexual violence in Darfur was fabricated by the international community in an effort to undermine the Sudanese government.

Systematic and widespread sexual violence in Darfur: Government denial

In 2005, the UN published a report on sexual violence in Darfur concluding that the Government of the Sudan and the Janjaweed were responsible for widespread and systematic violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

An arrest warrant for Bashir was issued on 4 March 2009 indicting him on five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape) and two counts of war crimes (pillaging and intentionally directing attacks against civilians). The indictment speaks to 1325 (2000), 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009) 1889 (2009) and 1960 (2010) on women, peace and security and acknowledges the sexualization of violence in Darfur. The President insists that the allegations of widespread and systematic rape were being fabricated for political purposes. In an interview with Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 Bashir argued that

“When it comes to mass rape, there is no document or evidence, just accusations (…). We are fully convinced that no rape took place. It might have happened at an individual level, but this is a normal crime that can happen in any country in the world. Mass rape does not exist.

Expulsion of humanitarian actors from Darfur

The Sudanese government’s reactions to this indictment have had dramatic repercussions for the humanitarian presence in Darfur, including within the area of gender based violence (GBV) programming.

Immediately following the ICC indictment, the Sudanese government expelled 13 international NGOs operating in Darfur and de-registered prominent national NGOs that between them employed nearly 40% of Darfur’s aid workers. The Vice-President stated that

“Whenever an organization takes humanitarian aid as a cover to achieve a political agenda that affects the security of the county and its stability, measures are to be taken by law to protect the country and its interests.”

Government officials made it clear that they would fill the void left by the International NGOs with “national and friendly foreign NGOs”.  In addition to the international NGOs that were expelled, the Sudanese Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) de-registered three Sudanese NGOS; the Amal Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, the Khartoum Centre for Human Rights Development and Environment and the Sudan Social Development Organization (SUDO).

The Sudanese government harbours a particular antipathy towards those humanitarian actors that address gender-based violence, and/or speak out publicly about rape cases. As a consequence, a humanitarian worker explains “The meetings in the GBV cluster used to be packed. Now they are empty (…)”.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was accused of spying for the ICC. In 2005, MSF published The Crushing Burden of Rape,  a report  on the widespread sexual violence in Darfur. MSF reported treating nearly 500 rape survivors from October 2004 to early February 2005. Two senior members of MSF Holland were arrested charged with espionage and publishing false information. In 2006, the Norwegian Refugee Council was expelled from Darfur after publishing a report on 80 cases of rape around Kalma Camp in southern Darfur. Khartoum claimed the findings were false.

In 2013, one of the major concerns on the ground is the diminished capacity on reporting on GBV violations. In the words of an activist from Darfur:

“The arrest warrant of Bashir has affected our work in Darfur. The word ‘protection of civilians‘ became very sensitive. If we use that term then the government thinks that we are collecting rape cases and reporting them to the ICC.  With the ICC, reporting of rape has become more difficult. (…)”.

Similarly, according to an international organization working within the area of GBV violence in Darfur; The gaps left by the expulsion of 13 NGOs following the announcement of the arrest warrant for President al-Bashir in March 2009, remain. (…) The expulsion of the International NGOs has significantly reduced the capacity for monitoring and referrals, as well as diminished the reporting capacity on GBV issues”.

International NGOs as political tools?

The International NGOs most forceful in the work and advocacy on GBV has been expelled. Remaining humanitarian agencies openly admit their reluctance to speak out about sexual violence. Because of government restrictions and intimidation, it is increasingly difficult for the remaining actors to work within the field of GBV without the risk of expulsion. As a consequence the reporting of rape to UNAMID has gone down. This poses an ethical dilemma to the remaining International NGOs:  On the one hand, if the government restricts or even blocks work on GBV, the humanitarian NGOs can still provide vital services in water, sanitation, and food security. On the other hand, by keeping silent on GBV, do the remaining humanitarian actors, described by the government as ‘friendly foreign NGOs’,  simply serve as political tools for Bashir in his claim that ‘Mass rape does not exist’ in Darfur?

PoC: Where the Price for Mobilizing Protection Laws is Your Life – the Plight of Colombia’s Women IDP Leaders

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In November 2012, Human Rights Watch published the report  “Rights Out of Reach: Obstacles to Health, Justice, and Protection for Displaced Victims of Gender-Based Violence in Colombia” documenting the failure of recent improvements in Colombia’s laws, policies and programs on gender based violence to translate into effective protection for internally displaced women, so-called IDPs.  The long-term activist Angélica Bello was interviewed in the report, decrying the lack of protection against rape, the lack of health care and the lack of compensation for displaced women.

At the age of 45, Bello, the director of the National Foundation in Defense of Women’s Rights (FUNDHEFEM) had been displaced four times due to her crusade on behalf of Colombia’s  3,5-5,4 million displaced, of whom a majority are women. Coming out of a meeting at the Ministry of Justice in Bogotá in 2009, she was abducted and sexually assaulted – and told by her assailants that she was being punished for her activist work.

February 16 2013, Bello’s struggle for social justice and better protection for displaced women ended with a bullet to the head. Her death was initially ruled suicide- the authorities stated that she had killed herself with a gun left behind by one of her bodyguards in the government-provided security detail. The Colombian human rights community is deeply suspicious and the National Ombudsman has requested an autopsy. Regardless of Bello’s almost extreme personal courage and whatever the truth about Bello’s death, the kind of insecurity she faced as a consequence of her activism, is an all too familiar story of suffering, violence, suspicion- and of laws not implemented. In recent years, many female IDP leaders have been assassinated. Almost everyone get threats.

CIJUS in Colombia and PRIO have collaborated on a three-year multi-methods study on a particular aspect of the PoC issue, namely the role of legal protection frameworks. We have examined the relationship between legal mobilization, political organizing and access to resources for IDP grassroots organizations in Colombia.  Often overlooked in scholarship on legal mobilization, the acute insecurity of those advocating for implementation of existing law and local administrative regulations have emerged as a key finding in our research.

Recognized as a severe humanitarian crisis, Colombia’s massive internal displacement is a consequence of a prolonged internal conflict between guerrilla groups, government forces and illegal armed groups, compounded by an extended war on drugs. Displacement results in dramatically increased rates of impoverishment. In the city, IDPs experience discrimination in the labor and housing market, and in accessing government services such as education and primary health care. For women IDPs, these crosscutting forms of marginalization are compounded by gender-specific types of vulnerability, such as sexual violence and poor maternal health.

We have looked specifically at the efforts of, Liga de la Mujeres Desplazadas, the League of Displaced Women, to use the Colombian Constitutional Court and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to achieve physical and material security for its members.

In a relatively sophisticated state bureaucracy such as Colombia’s, humanitarian policies will not be based on the traditional humanitarian tool kit, but on administrative structures, social programs, and regulations that are justiciable.

Since the 2011 Victims Act, there has been a shifting in how the displacement problem is being framed:  In the process of mapping and interviewing all of Colombia’s 66 women IDP organizations from 2010 and onwards, we observed that many began to talk about themselves as “Victims organizations”. However, despite this reframing, the situation on the ground remains unchanged:  implementation is inadequate and poverty and insecurity shape the rhythm of everyday life.

Like Bello, the leaders of Liga de Mujeres have received multiple death threats. Located in and around the Caribbean city Cartagena, the Liga’s highly successful efforts at consciousness raising, income generating activities, and participation in local politics, has also meant that its members and their relatives have been harassed, raped, disappeared and killed by neo-paramilitary groups, also called Bacrims (Bandas Criminales). The Bacrims are organized criminal outfits emerging on the tails of the Paramilitary demobilization process, initiated under the 2005 Justice and Peace law. Bacrims such as the Black Eagles and ERPAC rapidly became the main threat to IDP/Victims leaders, as well as community leaders, human rights defenders, trade unionists.

As a consequence, the Liga has been included in government protection schemes for a number of years. However, seen from the perspective of the Ligas grassroots members, inclusion in these schemes did not result in any form of meaningful protection.  In response, the Liga’s turned to strategic litigation.

The Colombian Constitutional Court has been vocal in its defense of Colombia’s IDPS, and several important decisions have specifically considered the precarious security situation of women community leaders, and ordered the government to provide effective protection.  In 2008, with Award 092, the Court ordered the government to adopt thirteen specific, tailored-made programs on issues such as housing, child care, mental health and security. Auto 092 gave orders for the protection of 600 individualized IDP women considered to be at risk, of whom 150 belonged to the Liga.

To oversee implementation of 092, women’s organizations, including the Liga, formed a national monitoring committee. In April 2011 the monitoring committee received a written threat from ERPAC- specifically mentioning the Liga- in which the women “advocating for the implementation of Auto 092” were declared military targets and threatened with anal rape.

By 2011, parallel to the process with the constitutional court, the Liga had obtained precautionary measures from the Inter American Commission for all its members. The content of such protection measures is the subject of negotiation between those obtaining the measures and the government.  When discussions over what effective protection would look like broke down in July 2011, the Colombian state subsequently redefined the Ligas security risk from “high” to “medium”, and scaled back the government protection scheme.  Meanwhile, the Liga has continued to receive threats from Aguilas Negras and ERPAC.

Angélica Bello’s plight is unusually tragic. Yet, she is not the first and will unfortunately not be the last woman to die in the struggle for implementing laws protecting women from displacement, threats, disappearances and sexual violence.

A shorter version of this blog was posted on the intlawgrrls blog earlier in March 2013.