Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
Back to the Acronym home page
British Policy
South Asia
About Acronym

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 48, July 2000

The Gender Dimension of Making Peace in Africa
By Laketch Dirasse

quot;Women are the worst victims of war and hence the highest stakeholders of peace. People who have to fight to protect even their own bodies from abuse are the ones who understand the full potential of what destruction means."

(Noeleen Heyzer, Women's Development Agenda for the 21st Century, UNIFEM, 1995 p. 26)

"Civilian fatalities have climbed from 5% of war related deaths at the turn of the Century to more than 90% in the wars of the 1990s. Recent times have witnessed new weapons and patterns of conflict, including the indiscriminate use of land mines and anti-personnel cluster bombs as well as the proliferation of light weapons. As a result, many of the casualties are women and children…"

(UNDP, Human Development Report, 1998 p. 35)


The last decade of the twentieth century was marred by unprecedented levels of political violence amidst on-going and emerging crises in many parts of Africa. Complex emergencies resulting from armed conflicts, economic deterioration, environmental degradation including drought and floods, systematic human rights abuse, and ethnic and religious strife have resulted in unprecedented levels of population displacement, overall insecurity and large scale human suffering. The majority (estimated at 65%-80%) of populations displaced by war and conflicts are women and their children. The incidence, character and intensity of wars are also changing. The majority of the African conflicts occur within states and, increasingly, the majority of casualties are civilian.

It is in this context of insecurity and crisis that African women are organising to denounce the impact of militarization and conflict and advocate for peace and justice.


Despite significant gains in human development, especially over the period 1960-1980, Africa's recent development process has been replete with social, economic and political crises. Currently, 44 African countries are either producers of or hosts to refugees and, in many cases, they are both. Out of a total of 22.3 million persons of concern to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in January 1998, 7.3 million were African. Five out of the ten countries producing the largest number of refugees in the world are also African: Somalia - 524,000; Burundi - 515,000; Liberia - 486,000; Sudan - 351,000 and Sierra Leone - 320,000.1

The displaced populations who do not cross their national borders (internally displaced) are more numerous than refugees. Since there is no special agency with a clear mandate for assistance to and protection of the internally displaced, only rough estimates of their numbers are possible. In 1991, the Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Refugee Issues estimated the population of internally displaced persons to be 16 million.2 It is a testimony of the frightening volatility of African crises that these figures do not include the thousands of internally displaced persons in Rwanda and Burundi, or those from Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Republic of Congo.

The consequences of conflict and war spare no one: women and girls, however, are the most numerous and affected victims. Amidst difficult and traumatic situations, African women courageously struggle to build a semblance of stability in the lives of their families and promote reconciliation and peace.

Gender, Conflict & Peace

There is widespread understanding of the link between gender, environment, population and sustainable development and peace as evidenced by the consensus reached at five of the major global conferences of this decade: the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, the World Summit on Social Development in 1995 and the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. While research based analysis of the gender dimension of conflict and peace is in its infancy, there is adequate data on the gender dimension in militarization, war and post-conflict re-construction.

Gender, as the most fundamental social organisational variable in all societies, changes across and within clan, class, ethnic, religious, linguistic and nationality divides. Recent work on gender analysis of the process of militarization at different stages of war and conflict situations clearly indicates a complex interaction. Militarization of a society leads to shifting definitions of masculinity and femininity and to shifting responsibilities for men and women. Gender ideologies of appropriate roles of males and females either get shelved, with women adopting roles traditionally performed by men, or restrictive gender ideologies get re-emphasised. The recent imposition of a dress code on all Sudanese women is an example. On the other hand, women are known to have participated in many liberation and resistance movements, such as Eritrea and Algeria, with opportunities to transform unequal gender roles and relationships. But it is also evident that unless gains of women during liberation struggles are institutionalised, they tend to be quickly eroded in the immediate post-conflict reconstruction phase (for example, Algeria in the immediate post-independence period).

The fact that women are generally excluded from decisions to wage wars and from positions of influence in military structures does not necessarily mean that women do not participate in other roles in support of war efforts. It is also true that women can and have participated in killing, as was evidenced in the recent Rwandese genocide.3 This raises the important question of the interplay between gender interests and ethnic, national or other group interests. Do women as a gendered group have common interest regardless of their socio-economic background? Cross-cultural data amply demonstrates that women of certain social class have more interests in common with men of their own class than with women of other classes. Yet, it is also true that promoting hostility among and between women is an important feature of patriarchal control. It is only with conscious understanding of gender-specific problems and needs and acknowledgement of common and differing existential realities that solidarity has been forged in the global women's movement.

While the structural dynamics between men and women in conflict situations needs further cross-cultural analysis, there is adequate data to show that crisis situations tend to exacerbate contradictions in normal societal relations and telescope social inequities.4 Women and men's socio-economic roles usually get altered with negative consequences for the health and well being of individuals and families. Data on the gender-specific impact of conflicts shows more adverse effects on women.

A major area of concern with grave implications for post-conflict social reconstruction, peace building and development efforts is the psycho-social impact of conflicts on large sections of affected populations. Both men and women experience trauma as a result of war-related flight, dislocation, loss of loved ones and disruption of normal life. Recent research has brought to light a number of gender specific factors that predispose women and girls to different mental health complications. These include trauma of rape and other physical abuse and violence; stress resulting from role overload and increased responsibilities; and guilt and shame resulting in loss of self-esteem because of actual and perceived inability to care for the family.

For example, a study in two health centres in Rwanda found that women as a group had been subjected to severe physical and psychological atrocities resulting in severe trauma. The study also found that by January 1995, eight months after the genocide killings started in Rwanda, "at least four pregnant women were showing up daily at Kigali maternity hospital requesting abortion, which is illegal in Rwanda. These women had been raped during the war. Two women had by then given birth, prematurely, and did not want to see the babies. One of these women had been raped and impregnated by the very man who murdered her husband and four children". Following on the survey, a consulting psychiatrist, recruited by the African Women in Crisis Programme (AFWIC) of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), closely examined 100 women. These women were coming to the clinics to seek curative medical help. The psychiatrist diagnosed 70% of these women as exhibiting severe post-traumatic stress disorders. The rest were suffering from reactive depression, grief reaction and anxiety. Unfortunately, comparable data on men was not collected.5 Studies conducted among refugees in Mozambique, Zambia and Central America have, however, demonstrated that affected populations also deal with trauma in a gender-specific manner. Men tended to worry more about extra-familial factors such as lack of access to facilities whereas women tended to worry more about family issues and relationships with children and husbands.6

A less studied area in terms of gender-specific impact of conflicts is disability. Evidence from Somalia and Mozambique indicates that women and children form the majority of those who have been maimed by landmines. The impact of war-related disability and its implications for intra-familial gender relations and for post-conflict societal reconstruction efforts require due consideration.

As traditional family and kinship networks and support systems break down, the vulnerability of women to physical and sexual violence is increased. Rape as a crass and violent expression of dominance and power is increasingly being used in conflict situations. Rape has featured prominently in the Liberian, Rwandan, Somali and Sudanese conflicts.

There is evidence of sexual abuse and rape of men and boys in conflict situations, which has not been systematically documented. For women, most rapes occur during flight but continue after the women reach an asylum country or internal sanctuary. In displaced or refugee camps women are further exposed to other forms of sexual abuse. Many women are forced into non-consensual relationships in asylum countries in order to receive protection and food security for their children and themselves. The violence against women in camp settings ranges from constant fear (of being raped, robbed or killed), to forced sexual/marital relations, beatings and rape. Violence against women in conflict and war situations is a violation of their human rights. The Vienna Declaration and the Beijing Platform for Action strongly advocate that rape be considered a war crime. Indeed, the recent landmark decision in the Akayesu case at the Rwanda Tribunal is a testimony to the success of women organisations' advocacy and lobbying.

Women Organizing for Peace

Militarization and war are gender-differentiated activities with gender-specific impact and consequences. African women have long realized the heavy cost of war and conflicts no matter which protagonist wins. They have thus been mobilising and organising at local, national and regional levels to promote healing, conflict resolution and peace building.

Many of the groups began as solidarity and mutual support groups to meet basic survival needs or to protest against injustices. Such solidarity is also the basis for the emergence of conscious self-organisation to contribute to the resolution of conflicts and the process of democratisation. The experiences of women's peace movements from selected war-torn and post-conflict African countries are instructive.


Displaced women from Southern Sudan started meeting in solidarity and support groups in Kenya in 1993. The initial group comprised of 600 displaced Sudanese women and their children from different ethnic and linguistic groups. The majority were single heads of households and predominantly illiterate with only a small number with high school education.

With assistance from some church groups, international NGOs and individual well wishers, the women drafted a constitution and managed to get registered as the Sudanese Women's Association in Nairobi (SWAN). By early 1994, with assistance from UNIFEM's AFWIC programme, they set up a centre where they could be provided with important skills and services in the areas of psychosocial trauma management, reproductive health and income-generating activities. Over the years, the group's membership has grown and their programmes have evolved to address issues of peace, women's human rights and political participation.

In April 1998, SWAN trained a team of 20 Sudanese women from diverse political and socio-cultural backgrounds on advocacy for women's political empowerment. As part of the training, participants developed a draft document, which embodies possible aspirations for all the Sudanese women both in and out of The Sudan. The document was subsequently placed before a Conference of Sudanese Women in Nairobi during May 29-30, 1998. Further revisions were made at a second Conference of Sudanese Women in Nairobi. The motion through which the first draft of the document was adopted by the first Nairobi Conference recommended: "That this conference do now receive the draft Sudanese Women's Social Contract and Negotiating Platform on the Status of Women in the Sudan as read, to become a working document on Sudanese women's advocacy at present and in future".7

SWAN plans to table the final draft document at a National Convention of Sudanese women worldwide for final ratification. This document contains issues that the Sudanese women want to see legislated and implemented in The Sudan with regards to their rights, status and governance.

Another group, whose membership overlaps with that of SWAN, launched a peace movement called the Sudanese Women's Voice for Peace (SWVP) in August 1994. This movement, which initially drew its membership from women from all factions in Southern Sudan, has also been networking with women from Northern Sudan, many of whom have joined the movement in its quest for non-violent conflict resolution. Sudanese women refugees in Egypt have also formed a branch of SWVP. The SWVP is trying to harness women's energies for peace and reconciliation to address the conflict between the north and Southern Sudanese as well as the inter-factional fighting among Southerners.8

SWVP members have been empowered through participation in different training programmes and attendance at regional and international meetings. The organisation is currently mobilising and training women in conflict resolution and leadership skills inside South Sudan.


In Somalia, numerous women's groups and organisations emerged after the collapse of the former government and the outbreak of civil war. As argued in a recent study, Somalia between Peace and War: Somali Women on the Eve of the 21st Century, "the existence and activities of non-governmental organisations were sharply circumscribed in the Siyaab Barre era. They have mushroomed since the collapse of the government. The eagerness of many international partners to promote women's issues encouraged a blossoming of women's NGOs. While many of these remain dependent upon external support for their ideological cues and funding, others represent the authentic efforts of Somali women to organise themselves and to assert themselves in meaningful social and political ways. A few more established NGOs - predating the collapse of government - have used the opportunity to establish themselves as important forces within their communities, challenging the hegemony of the military factions of traditional, male-dominated structures."9

The same study further argues that the "overall reduction in hostilities across Somalia over the past few years has been accomplished by a growing disengagement of women from the dynamic of conflict and a growing emphasis on their responsibilities as breadwinners with children and other dependants to support. ...in many cases they have taken an active role in peace processes, both locally and nationally."10

South Africa

In South Africa, Women for Peace was founded in 1976 in response to the Soweto uprisings to protest apartheid and promote inter-racial communication and understanding at the community level. In the immediate post-apartheid period, they joined other organised women's groups in lobbying for a gender-sensitive constitution, and in implementing various socio-economic reconstruction and reconciliation programmes.


In Rwanda, numerous community groups and organisations, such as the Widows Association (AVEGA), came into existence in the immediate post-genocide period as mutual support groups to address the psychosocial and survival needs of their members. Over the past four years these groups have joined hands with the collective of 35 women's organisations, Profemmes/Twese Hamwe, to promote reconciliation, peace and rehabilitation. In 1997, this organisation's peace campaign resulted in it being awarded the first UNESCO Mandajeet Singh Prize of Tolerance and Peace. In 1998, the collective and its constituent community members focussed on advocacy and lobbying for women's political and economic rights, particularly land and property rights, and issues of violence against women and girls.

Women's Role in Conflict Transformation

African women play critical roles in mediation in conflict situations. For example, Somali women have played significant parts in mediating the release of several hostages. Important negotiations with Tuareg rebels were undertaken by the Mali women's peace movement. Yet, such important roles are rarely officially acknowledged or publicised. Peace negotiations are often limited to a narrow range of actors, most of whom have limited accountability to populations and particularly to women and their organisations. Women are rarely included in official peace negotiation teams. In the Mogadishu Peace Conference, women were only allowed to attend as observers. At the Arusha Peace talks on Burundi, it took considerable lobbying before women were for the first time officially invited to attend the January 18, 1999 talks.

Gender issues are rarely addressed in peace agreements. Critical gender concerns such as violations of women's human rights or the need for new legislation to address women's inheritance and property rights should be part of peace agreements. The opportunity to rectify earlier inequities or to safeguard any gains women may have made under situations of crisis including liberation struggles risk being lost in the immediate post-conflict reconstruction period.

The Kampala Action Plan on Women and Peace, which had been endorsed by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Heads of States, the Kigali Declaration and Plan of Action on Peace, Gender and Development, as well as the African and Global Platform for Action, provide important agreed actions and strategies now requiring to be translated into national plans, incorporated in national legislation and implemented.

For their part, African women's peace movements have joined hands and formed the Federation of African Women's Peace Networks (FERFAP).11 FERFAP, whose secretariat is in Kigali, Rwanda, is currently composed of peace movements and networks from 16 African countries, namely, Angola, Algeria, Burundi, Burkina Faso, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Liberia, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan and Zambia. FERFAP's main goal is to contribute to the co-ordination, rationalisation and development of activities that support women's full and effective participation in conflict prevention, management and resolution in Africa. FERFAP also plans to collaborate with local institutions, national and international NGOs and governments, on the promotion and support of universal disarmament, adoption and implementation of international laws, conventions and agreements by African governments for the maintenance of peace.

The formation of FERFAP is a major step in the evolution of African women's peace movements. Both the Federation and its member organisations require well co-ordinated support to enable them achieve their objectives.

Conclusion: Towards Strengthening African Women's Peace Efforts

There is no doubt about the determination and potentials of African women to be key players in the resolution of conflicts and the promotion of durable peace in Africa. This paper has highlighted the nature and potentials of African women's own initiatives for peace. There is need for sustained solidarity and support in a number of areas.

Firstly, capacity building activities are essential in order to strengthen African women's young organisations. Here it is imperative that women are trained in organisational management as well as negotiation skills, conflict management and preventive diplomacy. Administrative and programmatic support is also crucial for the effectiveness of the peace movements.

Secondly, their coalition building efforts at the national, sub-regional and regional levels need to be strengthened and consolidated. A particular priority is the formation of strong alliances at national level with effective participation by rural based women's groups. At regional and international levels, facilitating their involvement in regional and worldwide dialogues and negotiations on issues of peace, governance and development ethics is an important capacity building measure.

Thirdly, networking and strategic alliances with international and regional human rights and women's rights organisations is important to promote cross-regional learning, joint action and advocacy for upholding the rights of African women to peace, equality and development.

Finally, the international community must invest in African women's efforts to resolve conflicts and build sustainable peace.

Notes and references

1. UNHCR , Public Information Booklet, UNHCR by Numbers, January 1998

2 . Center for Policy Analysis and Research on Refugees Issues, 1992 Report on Internally Displaced Persons, Mimeo p.2

3. African Rights 1995, Rwanda, Not So Innocent: When Women Become Killers, African Rights London.

4 . Dirasse, L., 1995, "Gender Issues and displaced populations" in Heyzer, N. et al (eds.), 1995, A Commitment to the World's Women: Perspectives on Development for Beijing and Beyond, UNIFEM, New York

5. Hagengimana, A., 1994, "Psychosocial Trauma management" Consultancy report to UNIFEM/AFWIC, mimeo.

6. El Bushra, J., and E. Piza Lopez, 1993, Development in Conflict: the Gender Dimension, Report of an Oxfam AGRA East Workshop held in Pattaja Thailand, 1st - 4th February, Oxfam UK/I ACCORD

7. Sudanese Women's Association in Nairobi 1998 "Social Contract and Negotiating platform on the status of women in Sudan". Vol. 1:1 October 1998.

8 . UNIFEM, 1999, Sudan between war and peace. Internally displaced women in Khartoum and South and West Kordofan. Prepared by Amna Badri and Intisar Ibrahim African Women for Peace series, UNIFEM Nairobi

9. UNIFEM, 1998, Somalia between war and Peace: Somali Women on the eve of the 21st century. Prepared by Matt Bryden. African Women for Peace series, UNIFEM Nairobi

10. Ibid.

11. The members of FERFAP are: Rwanda - l'Association des Voluntaires de la Paix, Pro-Femmes/Twese Hamwe, Forum des Femmes Rwandaise Parliamentaires; Burundi - Collectifs des Associations et ONG Féminines du Burundi, Reseau des Femmes Burundaises Pour la paix et la non violence; Somalia - IIDA Women's Development Organisation, Dulmar for Women Development, advocacy and peace (DDAP); Sudan - Sudanese Women's Voice for Peace, Ahfad University for Women; Liberia - The Liberian Women Initiative; Sierra Leone - Women's International League for Peace & Freedom (WILPF); Burkina Faso - Reseau Femmes Africaines et Droites Humains (REFAD); Angola - The Roots of Peace Organisation; Mali - Mouvement National des Femmes pour la sauvegarde de la paix et de l'unite Nationale; Mozambique - Mulheres Mocambicanas Pela Paz; South Africa - Women for Peace; Congo Republic - Comite National des Femmes pour la paix; Algeria - Mouvement des Femmes et Groupe de Recherche Violence; Chad - Union of Women for Peace (UFEP); Zambia - Zusa Senanga.

Laketch Dirasse is Regional Director of the UNIFEM Regional Office for East, Central and Horn of Africa in Nairobi, Kenya.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

Return to top of page

Return to List of Contents

Return to Acronym Main Page