A New Network of African Women Mediators for Peace
A New Network of African Women Mediators for Peace
Girls walk on a street in Maiduguri, Borno, Nigeria, 30 August 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
Commentary / Gender and Conflict 7 minutes

A New Network of African Women Mediators for Peace

Political and social leaders are building a new network for women peace mediators in Africa. Crisis Group’s Director of Research Isabelle Arradon attended the African Union conference that debated the idea, and was inspired by the individual initiatives already pushing for change on the continent.

A sick child cries in the city of Maiduguri, north east Nigeria. For hours, nobody picks up the infant, including the mother, a former wife of a jihadist insurgent from Boko Haram. She is too traumatised by what she endured during the conflict. Other members of the local community prefer to ignore the boy, viewing him as having “bad blood”.

This story is just one of many I heard at a workshop for African Women in Mediation held in Constantine, Algeria on 12-13 December that illustrated the dynamics affecting women in post-conflict situations and the impact conflict can have on traditional gender roles and identities. Reintegrating into one’s community is not always easy. Trauma and fear fuel rejection and stigmatisation. And the women activists and mediators who try to help are often operating in the shadows, with little support and state recognition as the issues they deal with are perceived as secondary in a male-dominated society, or viewed suspiciously in a context where cultural behaviours are strictly coded and exposure to violence is routine.

Some of Africa’s most experienced women mediators joined the workshop organised by the Pan-African Network of the Wise (PanWise) and the African Union (AU) Special Envoy for Women, Peace and Security, with the support of the AU commissioner for Peace and Security. Former President Catherine Samba-Panza who led the political transition in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2014-2015, was one of the participants. According to her, women’s political participation and leadership are essential to trigger change, as women are engaged at all levels of society and leading peace actors.

The workshop’s goal is ambitious: the creation of a formal network of African women mediators to help tackle some of the most violent conflicts or crises on the continent, and support women in conflict and post-conflict settings both at high-level and grassroots levels.

Women’s representation as witnesses, signatories or negotiators in formal mediation processes remains scarce at a global level

The need for action is clear. A 2016 Global Peace Study by the Institute for Economics and Peace found that five African states – Sudan, Libya, CAR, Somalia, and South Sudan – featured among the world’s ten least peaceful countries. At the same time, women’s representation as witnesses, signatories or negotiators in formal mediation processes remains scarce at a global level, with a mixed record on Africa, as stressed in a recent study on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325. Being a women’s human rights defender remains also a risky business.

A table on the relationship between the influence of women in peace processes and the outcomes and implementation of such processes. Table extracted from “Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, Securing Peace”, UN Women, 2015, p. 42.

As mediators, in the broad sense of bridge-builders between parties, women identify early warning signs of deterioration, document human rights abuses, provide humanitarian services, facilitate political transitions, or formally mediate between sides. As women, they often bring to the table new and different issues that are relevant to their constituencies and may not have been discussed.

Gender-sensitive security approaches, justice and reconciliation, economic recovery, livelihoods, health, and education are all crucial building blocks toward inclusive and lasting peace. Empowering women to tackle early signs of religious radicalisation or to support reintegration and deradicalisation programs is also important. Equally, men can play a significant role in advocating for broad issues to be included in peace processes, including those mostly affecting women, and in advocating for equal political participation.

Creating a network is an empowering act, as I witnessed for myself as the workshop progressed. Strong women from all walks of life – former government officials, academics, or civil society representatives – pooled experiences and recognised each other’s insights on how to make a difference in heavily patriarchal societies. Over lunch or during working group sessions, women energetically brainstormed on how to effectively support the network, some volunteering to directly take charge of the process and its implementation. Sharing stories united participants, as when a South Sudanese delegate spoke about how grassroots engagement of women was important in dealing with the issue of sexual violence in her country.

As women, they often bring to the table new and different issues that are relevant to their constituencies and may not have been discussed.

Conflict prevention and resolution is a top issue. I was there to present Crisis Group’s recent report on Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency, which analyses how political use of gender norms and identities has fueled conflict in north-eastern Nigeria, and why a gender perspective is essential to devise comprehensive solutions to tackle violence and build peace.

In north-eastern Nigeria, discrimination against women has long been endemic, in law and in practice. Early marriages, combined with low education and high rates of maternal mortality, are widespread. For young girls from lower socio-economic backgrounds, options are few. It is no wonder that in the 2000s Boko Haram leader Muhammad Yusuf, then among many preachers within revivalist religious movements (like Izala, Nigeria’s non-violent, largest Salafi group) attracted many women. Often they simply wanted to escape their day-to-day plight, either to access new education opportunities, or to find refuge from the Nigerian state, perceived as corrupt and removed from their needs. Some also appeared to have been attracted by the sect’s promotion of purdah (seclusion from public life) which offered the potential of less harsh working conditions, by placing the burden of labour, notably in the fields, on men while women could develop their cottage industries and trade from home.

Women’s roles in the North East have long been viewed through a domestic lens and associated with childbearing and marriage. Not surprisingly, women on the Boko Haram side of the insurgency have become slaves or wives of fighters. The large-scale abductions of women and girls – thousands are believed to have been taken by the group – contributes to this plight.

However, as the insurgency grew, women’s engagement and roles broadened. As women raised less suspicion, some became spies, messengers, recruiters or smugglers. From 2014, as the insurgency was short of male fighters, some were trained and started to fight. More troubling, some also became willing suicide bombers, while others, including young girls, were forced to carry such acts and were victims, duped by relatives and possibly drugged, as may have been the case in the recent horrific suicide bombing by two girls in Maiduguri.

Participation of women as combatants is not an isolated incident on the continent. In South Sudan too they have joined combatant forces. More complicated is the role women play as supporters of war, at times, even encouraging violence against other women. When conflict becomes the norm, women’s roles often go far beyond traditional stereotypes, and the lens of victims. More nuanced understandings of women’s multiple roles, and ways to engage them in early warning and post-reconstruction efforts, can improve peacemaking at all levels.

In north east Nigeria, while the conflict has killed a disproportionate number of men, women and girls make up the overwhelming majority of an estimated two million people displaced from their homes. Faced with shortages of food and medical supplies, including a lack of gender-sensitive programming and camps mostly guarded by male officers, many have few options to survive – and some have been forced to resort to survival sex.  

In a society where it is considered morally unacceptable to have a relationship outside wedlock, reintegration into one’s community is hard. For former Boko Haram wives, it is even more challenging as members of the community may resent and fear their perceived association with the movement, even if they were forcibly married and are victims.

[Women mediators] are often neglected, yet are crucial actors in long and lasting reconstruction, and protectors of peace when the early warning signs of conflict emerge.

As echoed at the Constantine workshop, some of the challenges ahead will require sensitisation programs between Boko Haram survivors and affected local communities, differentiation in the treatment granted to those associated to the Boko Haram insurgency (understanding that the lines between victims and perpetrators can be blurred), and appropriate support to those displaced. It will be crucial for the Nigerian government to integrate these dimensions into upcoming conflict resolution strategies, as otherwise frustration and resentment may fuel new violence.

The role of women peacemakers in the North East will be key to find appropriate paths for reconciliation and mutual understanding. It echoes the challenges of other women mediators in Africa, whether they are from Mali, Niger, or the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They are often neglected, yet are crucial actors in long and lasting reconstruction, and protectors of peace when the early warning signs of conflict emerge.

Strikingly, one Congolese delegate could not attend the conference as she was engaged in a high-level dialogue with the DRC government to find a peaceful way forward ahead of the 19 December deadline when President Kabila’s two-term limit came to an end. Another participant reminded us of women’s roles in shaping the Arusha peace accord in Burundi, and how hundreds of women have been acting as mediators to address social, political and land-related conflicts there – including since the tense political standoff following President Nkurunziza’s election for a third term.  

There is still a long way to go to reach a full understanding of the complex and changing roles women can play during wars, and the full inclusion of a gender perspective in upcoming strategies to prevent or resolve deadly conflicts on the continent. The Constantine workshop’s pledge to establish a network of women in mediation is a step in the right direction, especially if words are followed by action.

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