Most African societies have patriarchal structures whereby men dominate the social, economic, and political realms of communities while women's roles are either underrepresented in these realms or discouraged due to the perceived notions of the traditional roles of men and women.
Although the United Nations has acknowledged that women are among the worst affected by war; when disputed parties start to engage in peace talks, women are rarely given a voice at the negotiation table.
The international media has aided in facilitating a stereotype of women being primarily ‘victims' during wars even through women's roles in society can be versatile: women act as peace activists, educators and mediators thereby contributing to the peace process.
Somalia, located in the Horn of Africa, is often described as a failed state because of the collapse of its central government in 1991 which left its people in a lawless society lacking in basic health care, food supplies, and vulnerable to the violence and criminality of warlords and militant groups such as al-Shabaab. The autonomous regions of Somaliland in the northwest and Puntland in the northeast stand out as the only parts of the country where there is relative peace and order. Part of the reason behind the success of these regions is the commitment by their communities, particularly Somali women, towards acting as advocates for peace.
Somaliland and Puntland are both patriarchal societies where men are perceived as being the decision-makers for conflict resolution and peace building. Despite the restricted gender roles in these regions, Somali women have been able to act as peace builders in their communities. Women take part in organising peace rallies, using the local radio to educate the public about their roles in spreading peace in their communities, and collecting donations to help assist individuals whose lives have been affected by war.
Somalia has a rich culture which values the practice of poetry so much so that it is called ‘a nation of poets'. Somali women have used poetry to describe the devastating effects of war and promote the unity of their communities. On many occasions this anti-war poetry has convinced groups to end inter-communal conflicts.
The Somali society is made up of many clans and sub-clans which serve as an important part of the identities and the political allegiances of Somali people. Clans can be used to secure resources for a group or compete with rivalling clans for access to resources such as grazing land, water, and territory. Although male clan elders are traditionally used as mediators during intra and inter-clan wars, Somali women have also been successful in resolving such conflicts. Women in Puntland and Somaliland provide early warning to neighbouring clans by informing them about the possibility of an imminent attack. Women in cross-clan marriages are able to protect their relations by warning them about an attack on their community. Women have also prevented bloodshed through the formation of a human chain by linking their hands together, and standing in between their clansmen who are fighting with each other. The men are then forced to give up their arms because of the intervention of their women. Women in Somalia have been able to move past the traditional gender roles of their societies to act as peace activists and facilitators of conflict resolution.
Uganda has endured many years of internal instability due to the military coups that brought about the reigns of Milton Obote (1962-1971 and 1980-1985) and Idi Amin (1971-1979) who were both responsible for causing the deaths of thousands of people. Uganda's most recent challenge emerged in 1988 in the form of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) which aimed to topple the government of Yoweri Museveni. The leader of the LRA, Joseph Kony, hoped to overthrow the government in order to establish a state based on his interpretation of the bible's Ten Commandments. The LRA is notorious for abducting children from northern Uganda in order to recruit boys into its army and use girls as sex slaves. Between 1988 and 2006, the LRA abducted 20,000 children and caused the displacement of 1.9 million people in northern Uganda. Although, the Ugandan government were able to push the LRA into the Congo and South Sudan in 2006, northern Uganda is still trying to recover from the devastation caused by the war.
Despite the challenges brought on by the loss of lives, property, and children, northern Ugandan women have taken the responsibility of becoming negotiators and mediators of peace. Many Ugandan women tried to prevent the continuation of conflict by dissuading or preventing their male family members from participating in the war, while other women urged fighters to forsake their armies to return back to their communities. In 1989, the Gulu District Women's Development Committee conducted a peaceful demonstration by marching into Gulu town wearing rags and singing funeral songs. Following the demonstration, many LRA fighters returned to their communities and there was a brief period of peace before conflict recommenced.
Ugandan women work alongside local NGOs which focused on the reintegration and rehabilitation of ex-combatants into their communities. They also participate in psycho-social programs which cater to the people who have been raped or amputated during the war. Betty Bigombe, the Minister for the Pacification of the North, made several attempts to negotiate a peace agreement. In 1994, Bigombe led a delegation to the LRA to discuss the possibility of negotiating the terms to end the conflict. The result of the negotiation was a cessation of violence for almost six months after which the talks failed and the fighting resumed. Bigombe made further efforts to initiate peace talks with rebel groups in 2004. However, her negotiation plans were brought to a halt by Museveni's decision to initiate Operation Iron Fist, a strategy of using force to eliminate the LRA, which proved unsuccessful.
In 1996, 139 girls were abducted from the St. Mary's College, Aboke by rebels in northern Uganda. The Deputy Head Mistress of the College, Sister Rachele Fassera, an Italian nun, followed the rebels to plead with them to return back the girls. She was able to retrieve back 109 of the girls kidnapped. Sister Rachele and the parents of the remaining abducted children founded the Concerned Parents Association (CPA) which sought to raise awareness about abductions. Ugandan women made great strides to negotiate an end to the war, stop the abduction of children, help rehabilitate the victims of war, and encourage fighters to return to their communities.
Sudan, the largest country in Africa, was engaged in a civil war between the government and Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) between 1983 and 2005. During its civil war, thousands of women were made victims through sexual violence, abduction, forced marriages and prostitution. Although many women were victimised during the war, there were also women who participated in the war as combatants, others as nurses and even more as peace builders. The leader of the SPLA, John Garang, sought to include female fighters into the resistance movement. Sudanese women became a part of the SPLA through recruitment into the Women's Battalion which was established in 1984. Women acted not only as fighters but also as nurses, administrators, intelligence officers, cooks, and porters.
During Sudan's civil war, about 4 million people were displaced from their homes. Many women were internally displaced and had to take on responsibilities that were traditionally reserved for men such as generating income to provide for their families. Women who were displaced in the north often had to take on illegal jobs such as alcohol brewing which would make them at risk of harassment and imprisonment for brewing alcohol. Sudanese women took part in a project initiated by the Salam Alizza organization which transformed the practice of ‘Hakamat', the recitation of war poems, into poetry that calls for peace. Although many Sudanese women were victimised by the war through harassment, displacement and sexual violence, they were still able to contribute meaningfully towards the rehabilitation of their society.
The women of Somalia, Uganda, and Sudan have illustrated that women cannot be stereotyped as ‘victims' during wars because women's roles in society are versatile. The traditional gender roles in African societies change during times of war because women take on roles that were previously considered to belong exclusively to men; the role of peace negotiator. Although women are projected as mainly ‘victims' by the international media, their actual roles during wartimes are complex, dynamic, and complementary to post-conflict recovery and reconciliation.