Together for peace

Talking about ‘women power’, often, means making reference not just to single individuals. ‘Efforts to resolve (Ö) conflicts and address their root causes will not succeed unless we empower all those who have suffered from them – including and especially women’, the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, wrote in 2002. ‘And only if women play a full and equal part – he added – can we build the foundations for enduring peace development, good governance, human rights and justice’. Indeed, in many cases, women have made a relevant contribution to peace. Just think, for instance, of the ‘womenís peace huts’ in Liberia: Those peacebuilding groups were created so that women, once a week could discuss the problems the community is facing, and look for solutions.

Peace huts can become a shelter, for instance, for women undergoing domestic violence: they can make recourse to these institutions in order to seek refuge in them and to ask that the question be discussed. In the same country, ravaged by two civil wars from 1989 to 2003, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement has to be mentioned. Founded by Leymah Gbowee and composed by both Christian and Muslim women, through various non-violent resistance campaigns, aimed to reach many warlords and the country’s president Charles Taylor, contributed to the latterís resignation and to the subsequent peace agreement.

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Also the effort of the women of the DRC has to be praised, despite it not being as successful as that of the Liberians, since the war in the central African country and in the whole region is still ongoing: on the eve of the Sun City accords, aimed to bring peace among the warring factions, women were excluded from the inter-Congolese dialogue, which was tasked with preparing the negotiations. However, thanks to the support of the UN dedicated agency and of a group of female African leaders, some 60 women with different political views wrote a document in Nairobi, an initiative which in the end allowed 36 women to be among the 300 delegates taking part in the dialogue.

Many peace initiatives, during the years, have been started by women: in 2004 Betty Bigombe, in Uganda, acted as an unofficial mediator between Joseph Konyís The Lord’s Resistance Army insurgents and the government: she was able to set the stage for the official peace talks, which started in Juba, but eventually proved to be ineffective in stopping the militia. On the other side of Africa, some hundred women recently rallied to ask the government of Senegal to set a timetable for peace in Casamance. Both this case and the Congolese one, however, share a key weakness, which is common to many initiatives: women – who are a relevant part of population and play an important role in everyday life – are part of the process only in an informal way or in numbers which are not proportional to their social importance.

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In a list of 13 African conflicts analyzed by UN experts between 1999 and 2008, taking into account the four categories of people involved in the talks – signatories, mediators, witnesses and negotiators – it has been impossible to find a single case in which women were more than 50%. Also the late Nelson Mandela became aware of this structural weakness when, in 1999, he took over the responsibility of facilitator in the negotiations aimed to end the 1993-1994 Burundi conflict.

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Just 2% of the official negotiators – according to the same UN figures quoted above – were women, so Mandela found another way to involve them in the peace process. Between 17 and 20 July 2000, in Arusha, Tanzania, more than 50 women took part in the All Party Burundi Women Conference, that reached important goals: the inclusion of a womenís charter in the constitution, measures to ensure womenís security, womenís rights to land, inheritance and education, and an end to impunity for both gender based war crimes and domestic violence. The example of the Burundian women and of the Mandela-backed initiative was instrumental in giving, in October that year, force to UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the first to take specifically into account the disproportionate effect of war on women. It was Madiba, said the former UNIFEM (the United Nations Development Fund for Women) executive director, Noeleen Helzer, years later, who ‘helped to breathe life’ into the document which is still today a basic instrument in the attempt to increase the scarce number of women sitting at the peace tables.

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