West African standby forces trained in detecting conflict-related sexual violence

ECOWAS, a West African organization for cooperation with 15 member states, can deploy its standby forces in rapid response to crises that occur in the region. High-level personnel in the forces have, on several occasions, been offered FBA training to detect and respond to conflict-related sexual violence. “The idea is that they will now transmit their new knowledge to colleagues and partners”, says project manager Helen Wilandh at FBA.

FBA is commissioned by the Swedish government to contribute to Sweden’s development cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa by supporting regional actors in their efforts for peace. One of FBA’s partners in the region is ECOWAS, Economic Community of West African States, an organization for 15 countries in West Africa established in 1975.

One of the key areas of ECOWAS’ work is peace and security. The organization has implemented an early warning system in order to be alerted of the first signs of a crisis in a member state and, when needed, it can initiate a mediation process. If a crisis escalates ECOWAS can deploy a so called standby force to keep the peace, with police and military staff from various member states.

At the moment, ECOWAS’ standby forces are deployed to Guinea Bissau and Gambia. The force in Gambia was established in the beginning of 2017, when the country was in uproar after President Yahya Jammeh had lost the elections but refused to accept his defeat.

After the deployment of the ECOWAS force to Gambia, Jammeh let go of power and went into exile. The winner of the elections, Adama Barrow, could assume the presidency. He asked the ECOWAS force to stay for at least six months to help restore order and security in the country. The mandate of the force has since been renewed and it is still in Gambia, but the situation there has significantly calmed down, Helen Wilandh says.

She is project manager for FBA’s work in sub-Saharan Africa, and accompanied FBA’s subject matter experts when they held the first training on conflict-related sexual violence for high-level personnel from the ECOWAS force in Gambia during the autumn of 2018.

ECOWAS identified a need for training of the staff in the standby forces, on conflict-related sexual violence. The mandate of the forces includes protection of civilians. But women, men, girls and boys often face different types of violence. To be able to protect all parts of a population, knowledge on this issue is needed, especially given the taboo in relation to conflict-related sexual violence.

Another training session was held in the Gambian capital Banjul in February this year.
We have now trained a total of approximately 50 people at key positions in the ECOWAS force in Gambia.

In addition to that, some key staff from Gambia’s national police and military participated in the trainings, Helen Wilandh says.
For sustainability, it is important to increase their knowledge about the different security needs of men and women as well.

The other ECOWAS standby force is deployed to Guinea Bissau since 2012, when a coup led to unrest in the country. In 2019, FBA held a training for some 30 key individuals within the ECOWAS force in Guinea Bissau, and some key staff from the national police and military.

The idea of training people in high-level positions is that they will be able to easily transmit their new knowledge, and hold their own trainings for colleagues and partners. It is a so called training of trainers, says Teresa Wiklund, pedagogical coordinator at FBA.

Most of the police and military staff serving in the ECOWAS forces in Gambia and Guinea Bissau are from Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana.

If the forces will be deployed to other ECOWAS countries in the event of a future crisis, the staff will still need this knowledge. The knowledge is also highly relevant for them if they will return to their home countries, to serve in their national police or military forces. Training selected key individuals enables us to maximize the impact of the trainings. And if those individuals keep on training others, no matter where they are based in the future, we can create a ripple effect, Teresa Wiklund says.

The trainings have addressed research on the different types of security risks that men and women generally face.

Women and girls run a higher risk of being exposed to conflict-related sexual violence. But men and boys are also exposed, however somewhat differently. It is important to understand this and to have knowledge of conflict-related violence and what it entails, if you are tasked with ensuring safety for all parts of the population, says Marielle Sundin, senior women, peace and security officer at FBA who has facilitated parts of the trainings.

We have also added role-plays where the participants have had to face a situation where conflict-related sexual violence has occurred and where they have practiced on how to meet and interact with survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.  

Most of the participants have been male, since they make up a majority of the police and military forces in the ECOWAS member states, like in many other countries.
– But we have also had female participants. The trainings have received good reviews, both from men and women. Several participants have also said that they needed more knowledge on this topic, Marielle Sundin says.

Alongside FBA personnel, regional subject matter experts have also facilitated the trainings, including personnel from the ECOWAS headquarters in Nigeria, with which FBA has a long-standing cooperation.
– It is important for ECOWAS to assume ownership and take an active role, Helen Wilandh says.

The trainings have also contained pedagogical methods for passing on knowledge to others.
– After participating in the FBA training, I have been able to organize a two-day workshop for my colleagues in the ECOWAS force in Gambia. I have also held a one-day training for my colleagues in the Ghanaian Armed Forces, says James Worlanyo Obimpeh, a military officer from Ghana serving in the ECOWAS force in Gambia and a participant in the FBA training in February 2020.

– I have a better understanding of gender-based violence now, especially conflict-related sexual violence. I particularly did not know about the gravity of sexual violence against men before.

Photo 1: Role-play with some of the participants in FBA’s training on conflict-related sexual violence for the ECOWAS standby forces, which can be deployed to crises that occur in any of the 15 West African member states of ECOWAS.

Photo 2: The forces are made up of police and military staff from the member countries. In the picture, some of the course participants are playing a special board game as part of the training.

Photo 3: Project manager Helen Wilandh with some of the course participants.

Photo 4: James Worlanyo Obimpeh, a military officer from Ghana serving in the ECOWAS force in Gambia and a former participant in FBA’s training, is now holding his own trainings for colleagues on conflict-related sexual violence.

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