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Powerful role of African women in resolving conflict

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Women are not only victims, but they bring solutions. Their pain informs their unique insights upon which the foundations for sustainable peace and nation-building can be grounded, the writer says. – Picture: ANA file

By Graça Machel

Women – those who carry the heaviest brunt of suffering and the most painful wounds of victimisation amid conflicts – have perspectives and aspirations that are critical to lasting conflict resolution and effective nation-building.

They are not only victims, but they bring solutions. Their pain informs their unique insights upon which the foundations for sustainable peace and nation-building can be grounded. We must create spaces to listen to and respect the different voices, the diverse intonations, and the varied octaves in women’s perspectives, to enjoy the harmonious and lasting chords of peace.

Despite overwhelming evidence demonstrating that women’s participation in conflict resolution is key to ending violence, and nearly 25 years of the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, women remain a minority at negotiating tables globally. We urgently need to move away from this paradigm of exclusion and disregard to one of inclusion and respect.

There are several personal anecdotes around Africa, which prove that conflict resolution is more successful when women are meaningfully included. The first is the example of Liberia. In the 1990s, this West African country was engulfed in a vicious civil war, and it was brave women of that nation who created the conditions for peace.

The organisation, ‘Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace’, brought together women from Christian and Muslim backgrounds, from city markets and rural villages, from all walks of life and it became an unstoppable force for peace.

They helped to end a devastating civil war, and enabled Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to become the first woman to be elected president of an African country. Their groundbreaking peacemaking efforts were crowned with the 2011 Nobel Prize for Peace being awarded to President Johnson Sirleaf and female peace activist, Leymah Gbowee.

Burundi presents another outstanding example of transformational dialogue. In 1996, Nelson Mandela was the Facilitator for the Burundi Peace Negotiations that brought an end to the country’s protracted civil war.

In his infinite wisdom, he opened the space for women to engage in the mediation process. Under his auspices, the first ‘All-Party Burundi Women’s Peace Conference’ took place. Nearly 80 Burundian women representing the negotiating parties, observers, refugees, internally displaced people and the diaspora met to develop a common vision for Burundi’s peace and reconstruction.

One of the lessons I learnt from this experience was that inclusion is critically important for any peace process, and I now strongly advocate for mandated quotas in mediation.

The women’s conference came up with specific proposals regarding justice for human rights abuses against women, land rights, and women’s engagement in the reconstruction of the country. Beyond contributing to the peace agreement, they also shaped the nation-building processes. They ensured that Burundi’s constitution mandated for women to hold at least 30% of parliament, central government and municipal administration posts.

The impact of women as mediators and community leaders are now entrenched into society and extend far beyond this singular peace process. Today, nearly 4,000 women across Burundi have been trained as mediators and work to address outbreaks of political and domestic conflicts. Through innovative dialogue approaches they resolve issues ranging from domestic violence, disputes over land, and tensions arising from political violence.

A third personal reflection is that of my role within the Kenya mediation process following the outbreak of violence during their 2007 elections as it has been praised as an example of good practice given the influential role of women in the peace building process. This post-election violence was the deadliest conflict in Kenya’s history, with more than 1,000 deaths and the displacement of over 300,000 people.

In 2008, I was invited to Kenya alongside former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and former President of Tanzania, Ben Mkapa, to serve as a panel of eminent Africans under the auspices of the African Union. Our mandate was to help establish an inclusive national dialogue to address the conflict that broke out after their disputed election and help broker a peace agreement.

For 42 days we engaged in intense mediation and steered the political parties to reach a successful power-sharing agreement which brought about an end to the violence. We knew that the inclusion of a broad range of civil society organisations, private sector figures, women’s groups, youth, religious and traditional leaders, and of course, the political factions themselves was key to the success of our efforts.

As the only female lead mediator, I saw it as my responsibility not only to guarantee that women were participating in the peace process, but equally important, to also ensure that the substance of the peace talks included the complex issues impacting women. I was intentional about women’s voices informing peace dialogues because women, along with civil society and religious actors, often serve as influential counterweights to political and military interests of warring factions.

As a part of the national dialogue process, we quickly learnt that women are not a monolith. It was critically important to recognise and address divisions held along party lines, ethnicity, religious leanings and age. Kenyan women formed an informal Women’s Consultation Group which brought together women from divergent beliefs to agree on the principles of a common agenda.

They held a series of honest and painful consultations amongst themselves to draw out their diverse views and find commonality in their positions on the crisis. Through that dialogue, the group was able to agree on shared priorities as women and galvanise a women’s movement for peace and mainstreaming of women’s rights in the mediation agenda.

These consultations were of their own design and became additional avenues of dialogue to cater for the complexities of women’s concerns. They elicited gendered aspects of the conflict we would not have otherwise known. They produced recommendations that fed directly into the negotiating process between the political parties.

They emphasised the need to address the humanitarian situation, and the root causes of the violence, such as economic disparities that lay beneath ethnic tensions. They spotlighted the long-ignored scourge of gender-based violence and the need to address the violence that was being used as a weapon of war.

We need a new model whereby we no longer allow the warring factions who start conflict to be the sole decision-makers in resolving it.

As a direct result of women’s participation in the mediation process, they influenced the design of Kenya’s constitution and achieved greater political representation, as the new 2010 Constitution introduced mandatory gender quotas for elective public bodies in Kenya.

Thanks to these more inclusive structural changes, the following election in 2013 saw the highest number of women joining electoral politics in Kenya’s history. Their impact could be felt beyond the legislature and into the judiciary, as in Kenya there are now more women judges in the High Court and Court of Appeal, as a direct consequence of the 2010 Constitution that contains a one-third minimum gender quota in all public appointments.

One of the lessons I learnt from this experience was that inclusion is critically important for any peace process, and I now strongly advocate for mandated quotas in mediation. Official political processes – whether run by multilateral bodies or by individual governments – should be required to have a percentage of women sitting at the formal negotiation table.

The current architecture of conflict resolution is outdated. We need a new model whereby we no longer allow the warring factions who start conflict to be the sole decision-makers in resolving it. We must shift power dynamics, and instead, move closer to a paradigm where we recognise the strength of multi-stakeholder dialogue and give power to broad-based coalitions of civilian peacemakers to be equally influential in the peace building process.

As the African women I spoke of teach us, we must muster the courage to work through our differences, so we are able to open the clenched fists and extend hands of dialogue for the benefit of our communities and nations. We must be intolerant of the human toll of conflict rather than motivated by the benefits of the machinery of war. From Gaza to Ukraine to Sudan and Congo, our children are paying far too high a price for our inability to quiet our war mongering.

This article is an edited excerpt from a speech by Graça Machel at the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) – Global Forum on ‘Transformative Dialogue: Building Alliances for Peace in a Rapidly Changing World’, May 15, 2024, in Lisbon, Portugal. Machel, is the President of FDC, Mozambique, Chair of ACCORD’s Board of Trustees, and Co-Founder and Deputy Chair of The Elders.

This article was first published at ACCORD