All over wartorn parts of Africa, displaced women are often exposed to many kinds of sexual violence. But a particularly patterned form of SGBV is the one done to women when they venture into forests to gather firewood either for domestic use or for sale.
Regardless of the varied backgrounds and contexts surrounding the conflicts in different African countries, the problem of ‘firewood rape’ appears to be an occurrence common to warring countries.
One too many countries
Owing to the ongoing armed conflicts between the Congolese army, the M23 rebel group, and other armed groups in Congo, thousands of people in search of refuge have fled their homes to displacement camps on the outskirts of Goma, a town in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But even in this place where many have come to in search of succour, women remain endangered, especially when they go about their daily chores such as gathering of firewood either for domestic or commercial purposes. They often fall victim to various manners of sexual violence perpetrated by both armed and unarmed men.
The situation in Goma is so dire that the International organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has termed it “a medical and humanitarian emergency” in its recently published report.
The report also stated that the MSF team in the area has treated over 670 cases of sexual violence averaging “48 new victims per day.”
“For months, our teams have been treating a high number of cases, but never before on the catastrophic scale of recent weeks,” the report read in part, emphasising that almost everyone treated by their team were women who said they were attacked as they were in search of firewood (or food) outside IDP camps.
In war-torn villages, IDP camps, and host communities, women in Nigeria who have been affected by the decade-long insurgency in the country have also been subjected to sexual assaults while gathering cooking fuel.
While some women were able to walk back home with the weight of the horror they experienced, others are taken away and never seen again. One such woman was 25-year-old Balu Aga who had gone missing while fetching firewood and had returned almost a year later, heavily pregnant from her forceful marriage to a Boko Haram terrorist in the bush.
In 2018, the World Food Programme (WFP) conducted a survey which revealed that 85 per cent of women in four local government areas of Borno State feared they were at risk of rape, murder, and abduction while collecting firewood. After this survey, the aid organisation distributed 7000 fuel-efficient cooking stoves to displaced women in the Banki IDP camp as part of its Safe Access to Fuel (SAFE) initiative.
“We are stepping in to save women and young girls whose lives are in great danger when they cross unsafe territories to fetch firewood,” the organisation had said.
Official IDP camps in Borno (the state most hit by the insurgency) have now been shut down and IDPs resettled to their communities but even now, women are still not safe from the menace lurking behind the bushes on the paths to places where they must fetch firewood for sustenance.
The West African country is still in the throes of a conflict chiefly fueled by activities of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) which has driven thousands of people from their homes, causing massive displacement of more than one million people.
With the rise of the insecurity also came an increase in cases of sexual violence, especially in the Center North region of the country where 85 per cent of the survivors are said to be women living in camps in Barsalogho and Kaya towns.
Women in that region have also expressed fears of being raped in the process of fetching cooking fuel. The concerns of the women have equally been shared by officials who have warned women against venturing into bushes alone, a warning which cannot be realistically adhered to as the women have to fend for their families.
“If you are in the forest to collect firewood and the soldiers see you, they will rape you,” a Sudanese woman said to CNN in 2018, going on to narrate how she was raped by soldiers on her way to collect wood, and her daughter made to watch the horrific incident.
Between Oct. 2004 and mid-February 2005, the MSF team in West and South Darfur regions of South Sudan treated 500 women and girls who were victims of rape. An MSF report on the matter also emphasised that the number of women treated by its team was only a fraction of the actual number of victims as many rape cases were underreported. The report also stated, “82 per cent of the rapes occur when the women are outside populated villages/towns while searching for firewood, or thatch while working on their field.”
Self-help initiatives such as setting out together in groups also did not help the women as 65% of women who came forward with reports of assaults were in groups when they were attacked.
Is there an obvious solution to the problem?
To combat the menace of rape and other dangers associated with the fetching of firewood, displaced women and aid organisations alike have sought to find a lasting solution to it; the women’s initiative of going about their chores in groups has so far not proven to be effective as their attackers are usually either armed or in groups as well.
The failure of this countermeasure leaves the seeming option of fuel/stove distribution as the only other solution.
The initiative of stove distribution (as done in Nigeria) and the distribution of firewood (as done in Kenya) has been touted as the obvious solution to the problem of sexual violence against women in volatile areas. This does not seem to hold true.
For example, a 2001 evaluation of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees(UNHCR) firewood distribution project in Kenya (a firewood distribution project started in 1997 “to address the issues of rape and violence against women and girls”) found that while there was a 45 per cent decrease in the cases of “firewood rape,” there was also a significant increase of rape in other locations by 78 per cent and 113 per cent.
“An unanticipated finding is that during the period of coverage when households are fully supplied with firewood from GTZ, we see an increase in the reporting of rapes while women are doing something else,” the evaluation read in part.
The findings of this evaluation suggest that the distribution of stoves and firewood which may seem like the obvious solution to the issue of sexual violence among displaced women is really not, as women and girls will perpetually be in danger even if they do not walk the lone firewood paths.
A sentence from the UNCHR evaluation provides more context: “Our findings suggest that firewood collection provides a convenient context or location for rape but should not be viewed as its cause. We cannot conclude that if women were provided with more firewood, they would significantly be less at risk.”
A more effective way to eliminate the sexual violation of women and girls in IDP camps and displaced communities may be to desist from viewing the fetching of firewood as the cause of the crimes against women but rather at the bigger issue of gender norms and power imbalance between genders.
A 2018 report by Broad Agenda also asserts this notion in a report titled “It is not about the firewood.”
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