Recently I had a chance to interact with 24 vibrant women from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan (including South Sudanese living as refugees in Uganda) and Uganda, at a training on women, peace and security. After 10 years of experience in this space working with women in conflict settings, I have seen how approaches to leadership that work outside conflicts often fails these women. And we had several conversations on what feminist approach to peace would deliver for many women and girls trapped in conflict situations.
For instance in Sudan, we have peace agreements that have adequate gender provisions such as the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan signed in September 2018 but this agreement has not translated to safety for women and the general population. Women and girls continue to experience sexual violence, displacement and fear of returning home.
This shows there’s still lack of understanding of what peace really means for women and girls. For women and girls’ physical safety, their ability to live without fear will be more meaningful if the assumption that peace simply as the absence of war is disregarded. Even so important especially when the war has been fought on the bodies of women and girls.
Looking into leadership and transforming the way peace is negotiated and built is important for women and girls in African communities that are facing or emerging from conflict.
Feminist approaches acknowledge that women already have some form of leadership skills in their communities. The work we must do is to enhance these skills, bring them to the power brokering tables as they acquire new ones. To make the fundamental shift in peace building processes requires challenging power and bringing voices that fairly represent various communities. But current practices of peace building in the region only deal largely with the already powerful without major shifts in power towards citizens especially the marginalised.
So what is feminist peace?
Feminist leadership has gained momentum in the past 10 years, many activists and academics have written and debated on what feminist peace is and should be, why it is necessary in today’s world. Conflicts have changed a lot from the battlefields to our communities and with women’s bodies increasingly a target, new forms of conflicts are emerging such as fundamentalisms and violent extremisms. Other conflicts related to access to natural resource, leaders clinging onto power, most of which sparks conflicts happening mostly within the borders of countries have debilitating impacts. These changes require new and more inclusive leadership models.
Feminist peace is related to three perspectives; peace as the absence of every type of structural violence; peace and security for all, and peace premised on the universal integration of a gender perspectives as well as the equal participation at all levels and in all peace building processes.
Equal participation would entail addressing gender power relations within households, the community and institutions, interrogate the use of power and masculinities that perpetuate inequalities and normalise the abuse of women. All these different forms of inequalities exist in situations of conflict and post conflict settings.
For instance, the lack of inclusion of the women of Burundi in the failed East African Community (EAC) peace talks is illustrative of the unwillingness to redistribute power even at the start of negotiations.
Feminist peace calls for women’s inclusion in peace processes as a matter of their rights and not just that they add value to the outcomes.
Feminist peace as the absence of structural violence is a long time goal that takes time to achieve in conflict and post conflict settings. Structural violence, as defined by Johan Galtung, refers to a form of violence where social structures or institutions may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. It also includes institutionalised forms of violence such as nationalism, racism and sexism.
In many countries, we see these forms of structural violence where corruption and historical inequalities based on gender and ethnicity right from the state formation, prevent citizens from accessing quality social services and the high levels of unemployment.
Feminist peace pays attention to gender justice; demands more prevention and challenges the practice of militarism and how military practices impact peace building. It advances that peace cannot not be obtained by allowing militarised type of powers, which nurture environments where women suffer violence at home or in the society in the name of democracy.
Justice must be embedded in any attempts to seek peace, address impunities of all kinds through varied mechanisms, including tapping into traditional mechanisms that uphold fairness. But ultimately, justice begins with who is heard from the start.
Helen Kezie-Nwoha is an African feminist peace activist. She is the Executive Director of the Women’s International Peace Centre (formerly Isis Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange). Follow her on Twitter @keziehelen