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African women struggle for a seat at the peace table

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African women struggle for a seat at the peace table

From Africa Renewal: 
Women march for peace in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo: "What women want, God wants. Congolese mothers want peace."  Photo: ©UNIFEM
Photo: ©UNIFEM
Women march for peace in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo: "What women want, God wants. Congolese mothers want peace." Photo: ©UNIFEM

The Hutu women of Busoro, near the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, are separated from their Tutsi neighbours in Musaga village by little more than a dirt road and the country's bitter civil conflict. For years that was barrier enough as the fighting ebbed and flowed around them. Over time, the sound of gunfire echoing through the green hills became almost routine, and the absence of the men, off to war or gone in search of jobs, came to seem normal. It was the screaming of the wounded that was hardest to take -- that and the fear that knotted the stomach even after the guns and the cries fell silent.

Until one day it simply became too much to endure. With fires still burning from the latest battle, the women of Musaga collected what food and clothing they could for victims in Busoro. Then they marched to the local government office, where they rallied with their sisters from Busoro to demand an end to the killing. The Tutsi and Hutu women clasped hands to sing "Give us peace. Give us peace now!" They sang together for hours before making their separate,dangerous ways back home. And although the war continued, something important had changed. The road that divided them now connected them, and through their local peace group, Twishakira amahoro ("we want to have peace"), the women of the villages have worked to keep the connection strong.

This is just one of many examples of African women acting locally, often spontaneously, to assist the victims of war and reach across battle lines in pursuit of peace. It is peacemaking at the village level, where Africa's increasingly internal conflicts are fought, and often the first step towards reconciliation in communities shattered by the hatred and devastation of war.

But the contributions of women peacemakers in Africa, from Somalia to South Africa, have gone largely unnoticed. Dismissed by governments and rebel movements who consider making war and peace to be men's work -- and often relegated to the role of "victim" by well-intentioned diplomats and aid agencies -- women have had to fight their own battles for a seat at the peace table. "Women have played a leadership role in the cause of peace," UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer told the UN Security Council last year. "But their efforts have not been recognized, supported or rewarded."UNIFEM Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer


UNIFEM Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer: "Women have played a leadership role in the cause of peace. But their efforts have not been recognized, supported or rewarded." Photo: ©Michael Fleshman

Those efforts received a major boost on 31 October 2000, when the Council adopted Resolution 1325, formally recognizing women's special vulnerability during wartime, and calling for their "equal participation and full involvement" in peacemaking (see page 19). Writing on the second anniversary of the resolution, former Liberian Finance Minister Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the former Defence Minister of Finland, Ms. Elisabeth Rehn, described 1325 as a "watershed political framework" for women engaged in peace and security work. "Even in the most unlikely of places women are organizing on the basis of Resolution 1325," they continued. "It has given legitimacy to a long history of women's peace activity."*

* Progress of the World's Women 2002, Vol. 1, Women, War, Peace, The Independent Experts' Assessment, by Elisabeth Rehn and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Available online at: <>. Hard copies are available by e-mail request only from the UN Development Fund for Women at: <>.

But if Resolution 1325 has strengthened African women's claims to a seat at the peace table, it has not removed the formidable political, cultural and economic obstacles to their full participation as peacemakers or as citizens. The recent experiences of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and in the Mano River Union (MRU) countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, illustrate the barriers women still face in making their voices heard, and how they have organized to overcome them.

Congolese women seize an opportunity

Despite determined efforts by women in the DRC to participate in diplomatic initiatives aimed at ending the country's devastating conflict, they were almost entirely excluded from negotiations leading up to the 1999 Lusaka peace agreement and the implementation talks that followed. It was not until late January 2002, with talks between the parties set to open in Sun City, South Africa, that the Congolese government and its rebel adversaries, at the urging of the UN and the mediator, former Botswanan President Sir Ketumile Masire, agreed to add a few more women to their delegations. It was the slimmest of openings, but the women resolved to take full advantage.

Women march for peace in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo

Women march for peace in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo: "What women want, God wants. Congolese mothers want peace."


Photo: ©UNIFEM


On 15 February women from across the DRC, including representatives from the warring parties, government and civil society, gathered in Nairobi under the auspices of UNIFEM and a Geneva-based non-governmental organization, Femmes Africa Solidarite (FAS) to forge a common position in advance of the negotiations, known as the Inter-Congolese Dialogue. "We knew that we had to be together for the men to hear what we had to say," Ms. Aningina Bibiane, a Congolese peace activist, told Africa Renewal. During four years of fighting "there have been a lot of killings and rapes and other human rights violations among civilians, particularly women and children. Women are the principal victims. That is why we had to stand up."

During four days of debate the women found that, however deep their differences, they shared an overriding desire for peace, a broad commitment to the Lusaka accord and, significantly, a common determination to remove constitutional and legislative obstacles to women's equality after the war. On 19 February, with advice from a respected African "wise woman," former Liberian President Ruth Perry, the delegates issued a joint declaration and programme of action calling for an immediate cease-fire, the inclusion of women and their concerns in all aspects of the peace process, and adoption of a 30 per cent quota for women at all levels of government in any final settlement. The women also announced the formation of a pan-Congolese women's caucus in Sun City to support the peace process and lobby for their full participation.

But with only 40 women among 340 delegates to the formal talks, an early challenge for the women was to find ways to increase their influence. Numbers are important, explained Ms. Bineta Diop, FAS president and secretary-general of the African Women Committee on Peace and Development, a pan-African body established by the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) and the UN Economic Commission for Africa. Without a critical mass of women at the table, "they are just like a toy in the men's structure. If there is one woman among 30 men who have a different agenda, how can that woman deliver?" In any case, she noted, the mere presence of a woman does not guarantee that she will represent the interests of women generally. "But when you have a group of women you will see them acting differently -- as women together. You will also see the men acting differently, because the process is no longer male-dominated."

Speaking as 'sisters and mothers'

To strengthen the caucus, therefore, an additional 33 women, including Ms. Diop, Mrs. Perry, Ms. Bibiane and other representatives of Congolese civil society, joined the women's caucus as advisers. Although excluded from the formal discussions, Ms. Bibiane noted, the advisers played important roles in supporting the women delegates and acting as the eyes and ears of ordinary people back home. "We used a strong press strategy to keep pressure on the parties and inform the Congolese people of what was happening. We prepared technical documents and position papers for the women delegates to use in the meetings, and met with the delegation leaders to try to be part of the decision making."

The presence of caucus members in the deliberations allowed the women to closely monitor progress and adjust their tactics to respond to deadlocks and new developments. When disputes threatened cancellation of the negotiations, Ms. Diop recalled, the women threatened to denounce the parties back home. "They told the men that if they went home without peace the people would beat them," she laughed. "The men knew the women were in touch with the grassroots."

They also made sure the men knew the women were watching. As negotiators entered the conference hall each morning they were greeted by groups of women who called them by name and handed them the "thought of the day" -- a photocopied sheet with a Congolese proverb or slogan selected to respond to the issues under discussion. The handouts ranged from such gentle generalities as J'aime le Congo ("I love the Congo") to demands for progress on specific issues, but they all served to remind the parties of the expectations back home.

In general, the caucus chose to avoid confrontations with the men -- a tactical decision dictated by its small numbers and its ad-hoc and informal status. If the caucus was to have an impact on the process, it was necessary to establish and maintain good relations with the men, who resented actions that appeared to challenge traditional gender roles and who had only reluctantly agreed to the modest increase in female delegates.

"At first, the men were hostile," Ms. Bibiane acknowledged, "because there was this group of women entering 'their' space. But we approached them in a way that made them feel secure. In African culture the woman is your mother. The woman is your wife and sister. If your mother or sister is talking to you, you have to listen. We didn't demonize the men or try to take their place."

Tradition and culture

The women found creative ways to use tradition and culture to enhance their influence. On 8 March, International Women's Day, the caucus was invited to address a plenary meeting of the formal talks. Instead of giving a speech, the women staged a play that dramatized the suffering of women and children in war and concluded with an impassioned appeal for peace. The performance was effective, Ms. Diop said, precisely because it presented the women in familiar roles. "Even the toughest rebels were crying and asking, 'How can the women see us like this? Are the women really suffering this much?'" It showed the men that women were not pursuing partisan political objectives, she noted, but instead expressed the broad public desire for peace.

In the end, however, final agreement eluded the parties at Sun City despite progress on many issues. As the meeting adjourned, the women's caucus blocked the doorway and announced to reporters that delegates would have to remain in the meeting hall until peace was agreed. It was a short-lived gesture of civil disobedience, but demonstrated the willingness of the women to use more aggressive tactics and step outside traditional roles when circumstances required.

"Once the women got [to Sun City] the nature of the dialogue changed," Ms. Heyzer told Africa Renewal. "They were able to break through many of the deadlocks that [the men] otherwise could not." Support from the UN and the international community, she said, was vital to their success. "UNIFEM was the broker. If we hadn't gotten involved [the women's caucus] could not have happened." UNIFEM provided travel and accommodation for the women's caucus and ensured that all parties to the talks were familiar with the requirements of Resolution 1325. "Then we worked to be sure that the women were prepared."

'We didn't have the resources'

It was not until 17 December that a comprehensive power-sharing agreement between the Congolese parties was finally reached. The severe shortage of funds, and continuing resistance to their participation, however, meant that only 10 women were able to attend the follow-up meetings in South Africa in November and December.

Although the group members were selected for their expertise in the issues under discussion, their role was largely symbolic -- limited to private meetings with the delegation heads and public prayers for peace. "The problem was that we didn't have resources," Ms. Bibiane explained. "Although UNIFEM and the UN Development Programme have been able to help us, [after Sun City] we didn't have the resources to be together and strategize."

At one follow-up meeting, she noted, the delegations included only four women among 80 men, although UNIFEM was able to provide training and support for women's peace activities inside the country.

Mano River initiative

Women peace activists in the troubled Mano River basin countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone have also had to struggle to be heard. Since at least the beginning of the Liberian civil war in 1989, Liberian women have organized to assist the victims and encourage national and regional peace initiatives. In 1994 a number of women's religious and development organizations launched the Sierra Leone Women's Movement for Peace, organizing protests against the country's deepening civil conflict and advocating for women's rights. Notably, one of their leaders, Mrs. Perry, was named to head Liberia's transitional government in 1996.

In 2000, explained Ms. Mary Brownell, a veteran Liberian peace activist, women from the two countries met in Abuja, Nigeria, at the invitation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and, together with their counterparts from Guinea, launched a regional women's peace movement, the Mano River Union Women Peace Network (MARWOPNET).

The countries "are so interwoven," Ms. Brownell noted. "Once there is no peace in Liberia, there will be no peace in Sierra Leone. When there is fighting in Guinea, there has to be fighting in Liberia. That is why we had to be in touch as women."

The network got off to a fast start, delivering a women's peace appeal to the feared Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone and addressing an MRU heads of state summit within a week of its launch. The organization also initiated a recruiting drive to increase the membership and effectiveness of its national affiliates. In recognition of their efforts, the women were given delegate status at the 24th ECOWAS summit that December and addressed the leaders about the importance of supporting women's peacemaking programmes.

But it was MARWOPNET's initiative to mediate the escalating conflict between Liberia and Guinea in 2001 that demonstrated the potential of women's peacemaking efforts in Africa. It also highlighted the limits to their effectiveness, due to scarce resources and their exclusion from the formal peace process.

At that time, relations between the MRU countries were extremely tense. Liberian President Charles Taylor had expelled the Sierra Leonean and Guinean ambassadors. This move came amid charges that Liberia was aiding the RUF rebels in Sierra Leone and that Guinea was supporting Liberian rebels opposed to Mr. Taylor along the border between the two countries, an allegation vehemently denied by Guinean President Lansana Conté.

Despite urgent diplomatic efforts by ECOWAS and the then Organization of African Unity, the acrimony blocked arrangement of a presidential summit. "There was a lot of hatred and animosity between the three presidents," Ms. Brownell told Africa Renewal, "especially between Presidents Taylor and Conté. President Conté said he would never sit with Charles Taylor."

In response, MARWOPNET dispatched a women's leadership delegation, including Ms. Brownell and Mrs. Perry, to all three countries to appeal for an urgent meeting of the feuding heads of state. When Mr. Taylor was informed that the delegation was waiting to see him, he is reported to have said in surprise, "Are you telling me that women leaders from Guinea are here in Monrovia? And women from Sierra Leone? How have the Liberian women managed to bring them here?" He agreed to meet the group and added, "they are very courageous."

The 'key' to peace

At that meeting and in meetings with Mr. Conté and Sierra Leonean President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, MARWOPNET decided to take maximum advantage of the limited political space open to women. The leaders, Ms. Brownell said, "know they have to listen because the women are not for war and know that we don't want anything from them except peace." After listening to the women, Mr. Taylor agreed to recall the Guinean and Sierra Leonean ambassadors and to participate in a regional peace summit. "The women in the Mano River network have the respect of the people," Ms. Brownell asserted. "So when we make a move, I think the leaders respect us."

The next stop was Conakry to meet with President Conté. In keeping with their strategy with Mr. Taylor, the MARWOPNET delegation focused on the human suffering caused by the war and the overriding need for peace. But with Mr. Conté still adamant that he would not meet directly with the Liberian leader, a change of tactics was needed. One of the group's elder stateswomen, Ms. Brownell, provided it. She told Mr. Conté, "You and President Taylor have to meet as men and iron out your differences, and we the women want to be present. We will lock you in this room until you come to your senses, and I will sit on the key."

When her comments were translated into French for Mr. Conté, there was a long silence. "Then he started laughing," she recalled. "He couldn't believe it! Finally he stopped laughing and said, 'What man do you think would say that to me? Only a woman could do such a thing and get by with it.'" In the end, Mr. Conté agreed to attend the summit, and he credited the women for changing his mind. "Many people have tried to convince me to meet with President Taylor," he said as the delegation left. "Your commitment and your appeal have convinced me."

It was a major diplomatic achievement for MARWOPNET -- one that regional and international mediators had tried for months to reach without success. But when the three presidents met in Morocco in March 2002, MARWOPNET was absent -- a victim of political marginalization and a severe shortfall in resources. "They only told us on a Thursday, when everyone was leaving for Rabat on Saturday," Ms. Brownell said. "We don't have money, so there was nothing we could do."

But the greater problem, she observed, was "the male mentality that says women are not supposed to be involved in these things. They will meet with you and say they appreciate our efforts and promise all the cooperation. But we don't see them doing that. They want to give us only observer status, and that is what we cannot accept."

Looking ahead

In the short term, argue Ms. Rehn and Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, mechanisms such as trust funds and requirements for gender balance in formal peace processes, combined with expanded training and capacity-building programmes, should be established to ensure that a "critical mass" of women take their seats at the table.Ms. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf


Ms. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: "Women are more concerned about people.... They are in the homes carrying the burden of the home and the family." From that experience, "women bring a sensibility, a sensitivity, to those things which bring peace."

Photo: ©Michael Fleshman

But the only way to ensure that African women become equal partners in peace, they conclude, is to support their struggles for full participation in national political, economic and social life. In the face of entrenched discrimination, they assert, controversial measures to increase opportunities for women, including quotas for women in parliament and the civil service, should be supported "as a first step on the path to gender equality." But such policies "cannot replace long-term strategies to address the socio-economic constraints" that keep women out of the political and economic mainstream.

Invest in women

The key lesson to be learned from women's peacemaking efforts so far, Ms. Heyzer said, is that much greater political and financial capital must be invested in them. "UNIFEM has been supporting these initiatives but we are just a small women's fund." African women can be doubly disadvantaged, she continued, because "some conflicts get more international attention than others, and therefore have more resources."

The return on that investment can be enormous, she asserted. "Unless men are pressured to change, they are still going to have that military mindset." With women at the table, she said, "the peacemakers no longer see security from a strictly military perspective, but from a human security perspective -- including education, health care and economic development. These things must be factored into the negotiations if there is to be real peace."

For African women, Ms. Heyzer continued, the end of conflict and the urgent demands of reconstruction can create opportunities for change. "Many post-conflict countries realize they cannot do without their women," she noted. "At the end of the day many women are willing to break out of the old boundaries in order to build a secure future."

Resolution 1325 has helped open the door to that future, Ms. Heyzer concluded, by recognizing women's suffering in war and their contributions to peace. But on the difficult road from battle-scarred Busoro and Musaga to an equal place at the conference table, women peacemakers in Africa -- and around the world -- still have a long way to go.

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