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The untold struggles of women during a coup d’état

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Picture: Mahamadou Hamidou/REUTERS/Taken on August 30, 2023 – Nigerien women demonstrate by drumming on kitchen utensils in front of French Army headquarters, in Niamey, Niger, in support of the military junta that deposed President Mohamed Bazoum and seized power in the country.

By Alison Zuva and Tinuade A Ojo

Coups in Africa have been evident even after the independence of many countries and, currently, signs show they are regaining ground. Africa has the highest number of coups recorded in history. Since the 1950s, Africa has experienced 214 attempted coups. Out of this number, 106 coups have been successful.

In the violent and volatile domain of coups that have periodically plagued Africa, there is a narrative that is often obscured by the broader political drama – a tale that speaks of the unsung struggles of African women. While coups can disturb the lives of all citizens, it is critical to focus on how these unexpected radical, forceful and sometimes violent removal of governments affect women more drastically than men. The recent coups that have taken place in countries such as Gabon, Niger, and Burkina Faso have not only jeopardised the stability of their governments but also had far-reaching effects on women in these countries.

Historically, coups have been viewed as male-dominated occurrences, with men serving as coup plotters, military leaders, and political figures. However, the repercussions of these coups are felt differently by men and women in different societies. Women suffer a disproportionate burden, experiencing distinct issues in economics, healthcare, education, and security.

To really comprehend the unseen struggles of African women during a coup, one must recognise the gendered components of these political upheavals. Governments, civil society organisations, and the international community must acknowledge and address the special obstacles that women face in such circumstances. While the rest of the world is focused on political manoeuvrings and military operations, women face a unique set of issues that require our focus and action.

The increased risk of violence is one of the major issues experienced by women during coups. The breakdown in law and order frequently leads to a rise in gender-based violence, such as sexual assault and domestic abuse. In this chaotic environment, women and girls become susceptible targets, with their safety jeopardised as security forces divert their priority to keeping control. Sexual assault cases are normally high during these periods, which leaves many young girls with unwanted pregnancies.

To safeguard women and girls from violence during coups, immediate action is required. This involves the deployment of peacekeeping forces or international observers to deter human rights violations and the provision of safe spaces and shelters for survivors of gender-based violence. During coup periods, women still have a critical role in maintaining the health and education of their families.

These crucial services, however, frequently fail during a coup. Coups destabilise not only political regimes but also critical services like healthcare and education. Hospitals close or become inaccessible, leaving pregnant women unable to receive adequate medical treatment leading to high maternal mortality rates. Women’s reproductive health is also negatively impacted during coup periods. Young children and babies are also denied access to medical care, which leaves a huge burden on women as the primary caregivers of their families.

Coups disrupt the functioning of schools which leads to their closure. When this happens, the girl child is mostly affected leading to their failure to finish school, unlike their male counterparts. Furthermore, girls dropping out of school will lead to forced early marriages, leaving them at a higher risk of being sexually abused, and they may end up indulging in transactional sex as a way and means of survival. This, therefore, creates a huge gender gap where girls are deprived of achieving academically and economically unlike their male counterparts.

When coups take place, they lead to economic instability which will also lead to massive job losses and food shortages for women. Women suffer the brunt of these problems because they are frequently responsible for providing food and other essentials for their families. The majority of women in Africa operate in the informal sector where they own small to medium enterprises, which are mostly concentrated in trading and agriculture. Already in these businesses, women face various challenges such as lack of finances and resources.

The occurrence of coups negatively affects their businesses as they normally come to a halt when the military takes over. Their vulnerability is exacerbated by their incapacity to get resources and jobs as this has already been a challenge for them even before the coup has occurred. Political engagement and representation are essential components of any democracy, yet coups frequently result in women being excluded from political processes. Women’s voices are frequently silenced, and their concerns are ignored as power systems evolve. This marginalisation not only impedes growth but also reinforces gender inequity.

The voices of women are frequently silenced in the chaotic terrain of conflict and political upheaval, their hardships veiled beneath the roar of power battles and the clatter of violence. The obstacles experienced by women during these turbulent times are frequently disregarded and underestimated in the African environment, where coups and crises have regrettably become a pattern.

It is crucial before the coups occur, and during the coups, to promote the participation of women in decision-making, peacebuilding and reconstruction processes. Women’s leadership is vital as it contributes greatly to the construction of a stable and equitable future for all. Despite the numerous challenges women face during coups, women in Africa have frequently proved their strength and drive, even in the face of coup threats, serving as beacons of hope for a more inclusive and democratic future.

It is past time to break the taboo and acknowledge the bravery and strength of African women who undergo unfathomable challenges during coups. We may get closer to a more just and stable Africa by acknowledging their challenges and actively striving to help and empower them. The untold difficulties of African women during a coup are a vital part of the larger discourse of political change. Recognising these difficulties and working to empower women is not just a matter of justice, but also a critical step toward developing inclusive and equal societies across the African Continent.

Alison Zuva is a PhD student at the Pan African Women Studies Unit and Tinuade A Ojo is head of the Pan African Women Studies Unit at the University of Johannesburg