AFRICAN UNION: Let Women Lead the Way to Peace in Africa

Sunday, April 10, 2011
The Guardian
Central Africa
Eastern Africa
Western Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security

Men with guns are littering Ivory Coast with corpses while my female companions in P.A's Ribhouse in downtown Monrovia outline inspired, achievable solutions to ending that conflict. In the same gentle voices that cajoled Liberia's bloodstained dictator Charles Taylor into resigning his presidency (he is now facing war crimes charges at the Hague) they explain their plans.

These women understand only too well the violence taking place across the border. These lawyers, businesswomen, human rights activists, community leaders and village elders and even a Nobel nominee are the traumatised victims of their own brutal civil war. But they are also the victors.

It wasn't the African Union or the UN but Liberian women who brought the warring sides to the peace talks and subsequently, on the back of that success, have played a major part in conflict resolution in Sierra Leone, Sudan and Rwanda. Now they're worrying about Ivory Coast, the festering sore threatening to pollute the bloodstream of a whole region.

They have good reason to be afraid. The 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone claimed tens of thousands of victims. In Liberia, under the bloody reign of Charles Taylor, women and children were brutalised, sexually violated and murdered.

Now in Ivory Coast, the battle for supremacy between the Catholic, polygamist Laurent Gbagbo, who lost the last election, and the widely recognised winner, the Muslim Alassane Ouattara, has created an

ethnic division that threatens to plunge the region into a similar orgy of bloodletting. Eight hundred people under UN protection were found dead in one village alone, thousands have died in Abidjan and mass graves are being uncovered in the west of the country. "The rebels have guns, they rape women and take children to go and fight," said an eyewitness.

Meanwhile, gruesome images of people being set alight and macheted are an all too grim reminder of the unprecedented anger among a divided population that won't simply disappear when their leader is forced from the presidential palace. As a result, the refugee crisis on the Liberian border, with thousands of traumatised Ivorians arriving daily, is creating resentment among desperately poor people only just recovering from their own war. It's a power struggle that has the potential to create unbearable tensions in a region which had only just begun to believe in peace.

Yvette Chesson-Wureh, of the Angie Brooks International Centre for Women's Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security, a grand title for a small, ambitious project training women in those desperately needed skills, has organised this women's lunch to discuss plans and share concerns about the situation over the border. "We begin with grassroots women's groups and work up to the leaders' wives and then the leaders themselves. You have to have support from the bottom to the top to stop the fighting," Yvette explains.

This isn't specious guesswork. Their combined track record in conflict resolution is impeccable. From Sierra Leone to Liberia and Rwanda, they have proved that when it comes to encouraging and facilitating peace they have unique skills.

So why are they having to lobby the AU and the UN just to be "allowed" to participate this time? they ask. Why are those charged with maintaining peace only now turning to women's groups such as Femmes Africa Solidarité, with a history in ending conflict, when innocent blood has already begun to flow again in the streets of West Africa?

To the frustration of my companions, the AU and UN appear to have more faith in bureaucrats from far-away continents and well-intentioned Scandinavian negotiators than the women on the ground who know the issues intimately and have experience in ending the killing. They want these lumbering, patriarchal institutions to wake up to the fact that when it comes to peace building and maintenance there are no better advocates or custodians than the 50% of the population who will otherwise, along with their children, make up the majority of the victims of war.

The day before my meeting with the peacemakers, I'd watched women from all denominations and political persuasions, including Charles Taylor's estranged wife, applaud the achievements of Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and her recent gong, the FAS African Gender Award, at the City Hall in Monrovia. It was inspiring to witness their determination to collaborate across the political, cultural, tribal and religious divide to raise their children in peace and achieve gender equality.

There are thousands like them on this continent, eager to participate in the future stability of their countries and the management of peace, yet training facilities are rare and international support for their initiatives hard-won. Major-General Patrick Cammaert, former UN peacekeeping operation commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said: "It is now more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in modern conflict." Doesn't that earn them the right to have a voice, an amplified one at that, at every negotiating table?