Women are rarely represented adequately at peace negotiations yet they make up half the population of any country in conflict or at war. This remains the case despite increasing global policy awareness on how women are affected by conflict and the importance of including them in peace and security processes. For instance, the UN’s landmark framework on women, peace, and security reaffirm the important role women play in the prevention and resolution of conflicts.
But how do women in conflict actually engage in peacebuilding? There is considerable academic literature on the links between gender and peace but the lived experiences of women peacebuilders are not well captured.
To understand this better I studied the peace activities of women in Kenya. I interviewed 57 women from six communities affected by violence. They were all survivors of the violence that broke out in the country after elections in 2007. I also convened focus groups to find out what peace activities they had organized ahead of Kenya’s 2017 poll.
The aim was to provide in-depth insights into their agency, perceptions, and contributions to peacebuilding.
I found that women had primarily come to engage in peacebuilding because they had been survivors of violence in their communities. Interviewees highlighted the particular effects of conflict on women. One said;
Women are the ones who carry the burdens of war and so they fight for peace.
They initiated a range of effective peacebuilding activities – including peace dialogues which enabled them to pick up community tensions early on, mediation, and economic empowerment initiatives – which they experienced as empowering and transformative.
This study is important because we need to understand the opportunities and challenges of community peacebuilding from the perspective of those involved, especially in poor and marginalized environments with little or no external funding for peacebuilding.
Women and Peace in Kenya
Kenyans have regularly experienced political violence. It is often accompanied by gross human rights violations and typically occurs around elections. Kenya’s political violence is driven by long-standing conflicts and injustices relating to land, corruption, and the unequal distribution of resources.
In 2007/2008, over 1,000 people were killed, 660,000 displaced or forcibly removed, and 40,000 were victims of gender-based violence. Ten years later the country went through a closely fought but relatively peaceful election.
My study found that women survivors of violence were involved in a number of peacebuilding activities within their communities in the run-up to the peaceful election. Their initiatives included:
- Women organized informal initiatives to provide monitoring and early warning through peace dialogues across ethnic communities. A mother of five who lost her husband to post-election violence, for example, brought together widows from all ethnic communities. The aim was to pick up tensions in the community early on and promote the benefits of peace for the community.
- Women in inter-ethnic marriages were able to become mediators in their husbands’ communities. Some mediation and training activities were undertaken by community-based organizations with donor funding. However, this kind of support was not available in all violence-affected communities. Beyond such funded peace work, women shared their experiences of mediating in very direct and physical ways. Said one;
I talked to the men to stop fighting, to stop burning houses. After some time I started finding myself being a peace builder and the community was listening to me.
- Economic empowerment such as saving and investing money through micro-savings groups. Such groups also served as spaces of encounter and dialogue in which peace could be discussed.
Most of their activities were unfunded, informal, and led by survivors of violence. With little to no external funding for peace work, women used their social roles and networks to foster peace, for example by initiating inter-ethnic dialogue in divided communities.
This kind of peace work at the communal level is sometimes seen as not properly transformative. But my research showed that women’s diverse activities were empowering and also helped transform community dynamics for the better.
‘Gendered’ Nature of Conflict and Peace
Women who are involved in peacebuilding should frame their own engagement. This was the case with the women I interviewed in Kenya. This is important because women and men, girls and boys, are affected differently by conflict. Gender stereotypes persist when it comes to building peace: women are often portrayed as inherently good at, or interested in, building peace because of their social roles as mothers and carers.
But my research shows that women are able to break through these stereotypes and become effective agents in their pursuit of peace.
Despite the empowerment the women in this study described, there are still many constraints to women’s peacebuilding roles. These include poverty, the divisive nature of ethnic identity, and patriarchal cultures and values. Nor does the focus on community-level peacebuilding means that the lack of participation of women at the national and international levels should be neglected.
Nonetheless, activities such as the ones discussed here are essential to peacebuilding in the communities where they occur.
Natascha Mueller-Hirth is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Robert Gordon University.