6 March 1998


6 March 1998

Press Briefing



Four members of the Federation of African Women's Peace Network (FERFAP) discussed the role women played in peace and armed conflict, at a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon, sponsored by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Introducing the speakers, the Chief of Organizational Learning of UNIFEM, Jo Anne Sandler, said International Alert, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UNIFEM were pooling their resources to support FERFAP and build a culture of peace in Africa. The Network brought together women throughout the region in order to promote peaceful resolution of conflict through mediation and negotiation.

Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika, President of FERFAP and a Member of Parliament in Zambia, said FERFAP had been working for peace-building for four years. In 1994, FERFAP carried out a solidarity peace mission to the women in Rwanda and Burundi. At that time, FERFAP warned the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and other regional groups about the dangerous situation that existed in Burundi and Zaire. Unfortunately, those organizations did not heed FERFAP's warning.

Every African country had the potential to explode, Ms. Mbikusita-Lewanika said. African countries were burdened by widespread poverty, undemocratic political processes, illiteracy and the lack of adequate information systems. Yet, in every conflict-torn country in Africa, women had risen spontaneously to mediate, to resolve the conflict and to restore and build peace. Unfortunately, most of those women worked at the local and community levels, and their efforts and initiatives did not catch the eye of the international community.

The members of FERFAP came together in order to strengthen themselves, to expand their services and to intensify their voices, Ms. Mbikusita-Lewanika continued. That network comprised the leaders of various peace movements in African countries, and many of those women had performed daring missions. For example, in Mali, women had risked their lives to communicate with the rebel forces to persuade them to collect and destroy their weapons. In northern Uganda, a minister, armed with only her handbag, travelled into the bush and talked to rebels. Woman after woman had done tremendous work.

The Network also emphasized prevention, she said. It stressed several different methods of preventing conflicts, including the active participation of all citizens, the protection and promotion of human rights, the establishment of a democratic government, and minimizing the manufacturing and sale of weapons. The FERFAP also called on all African governments to reduce defence spending. Women in the North should also put pressure on their

governments to stop manufacturing the weapons that were used in African conflicts.

Rose Mukamkomeje, Member of Parliament of the National Assembly in Rwanda, said she had witnessed genocide, and the international community must understand that peace was precious. Rwandan women had attempted to coordinate the work of grass-roots women's associations under an umbrella association, Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwes. That association tried to help women rebuild their houses, counsel trauma victims, generate activities and educate children. Men had caused the war, but women and children were the first to be victimized by armed conflict. There were 400,000 orphans in Rwanda, and many more in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If those orphans were not helped, another genocide could occur.

Women must become more active in decision-making at the grass-roots level, Ms. Mukamkomeje said. The Network advocated for women by bringing their problems to the attention of high-level decision-makers. It also empowered women by giving them skills. Women in Burundi were suffering because of the embargo, and they had no forum in which they could voice their concerns. Impunity was another problem in Rwanda and Burundi. The Network called on the international community to assist the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Many women victims, who were victims of rape, needed assistance and legal advocates.

Anisia Achieng', Coordinator of the Sudanese Women's Voice for Peace (SWVP), said she was representing the marginalized population in South Sudan, Nuba Mountains and Ingessena Hills. The war in the Sudan had taken a heavy toll, and its root cause had been defined differently by various leaders. Yet, the main issue was that the conflict had caused the deaths of 1.3 million people since 1983, and the majority of those were women and children. In addition, there were over 4 million refugees and displaced persons.

The SWVP decided to work actively to combat human rights abuses in the Sudan, Ms. Achieng' said. If women had spoken up earlier in the conflict, perhaps they would have been able to reduce the number of those killed. The SWVP trained politicians and factional leaders on ways to define peace. The leaders were weak and allow the women to take over and rebuild society. The SWVP had approximately 66 women peace monitors in the conflict zones to promote peace and monitor human rights abuses.

Isha Dyfan, member of the Women's Inter-League for Peace and Freedom in Sierra Leone, said the proliferation of small arms was a major cause of war in African countries. The war in Sierra Leone was a result of a spill-over from the Liberian conflict. The rebel movement in Sierra Leone committed many atrocities, but they had specialized in rape and the amputation of limbs. Women had entered the peace process because of the proliferation of those crimes.

UNIFEM Briefing - 3 - 6 March 1998

Women in Sierra Leone discovered that progress could be achieved by fighting for elections and by insisting that peace be placed on the agenda of the Government and the international community, Ms. Dyfan said. And they were successful in accomplishing those objectives. From 1994 to 1996, women trained in democratic principles, peace-building and reconciliation, and prepared for elections and the final peace accords. Unfortunately, all of that work was erased by the coup d'état of May 1997, which destroyed stability in the region. Now, women in Sierra Leone needed to determine how to re-establish the issue of justice within their reconciliation work. Unfortunately, there was no mechanism in the peace accords to bring murderers and rapists to justice.

The FERFAP also supported increasing the recruitment age for the military and the informal armies, Ms. Dyfan continued. The majority of violent war criminals were young boys. In Sierra Leone, boys were initiated into the militia by raping a woman the same age as their mother. Such practices had a devastating affect on traditional African societies. The Network also believed that the international conventions that addressed wars between States should be applicable to internal conflicts.

What were the main causes of suffering for African women? a correspondent asked. Ms. Mbikusita-Lewanika said there had been a division of labour between men and women in the pre-colonial era, but women had not been inferior. During colonization, only boys were given access to education, and men were removed from their traditional roles and given paying jobs in colonial offices. Consequently, the role of men became superior to that of women. That was the foundation of the problem. The traditional breakdown of society destroyed women's forums and channels of communication. The liberation movement and migrant labour also removed men from African societies.

A correspondent asked if religion compounded the problems in Africa. Ms. Achieng' said that in the Sudan religion did not help. Religious law was implemented as the State law, and women were nothing according to religious law. The Government had adopted Muslim law to rule a country that was diverse. Colonialism had laid the root cause of the current conflict by dividing people along racial and cultural lines.

Asked if women were able to transcend cultural, ethnic and traditional boundaries when building coalitions, Ms. Achieng' said women were networking in all regions across ethnic groups. They were addressing a series of issues collectively, but they did not have access to the Government.

Ms. Mbikusita-Lewanika said that, 30 years ago, during the liberation struggle, tribal and ethnic differences were not the issues. The fierceness of that phenomenon was quite recent and was related to poverty.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.