As the ongoing peace process moves slowly but steadily forward, women in Darfur have started working actively to bring about peace and reconciliation in the region.
By Sharon Lukunka
Since the beginning of the ongoing conflict in Darfur, women have become increasingly involved in the peace process. Darfuri women, today, are growing to enact active roles as agents of peace, occupying influential positions within their communities and at the state and national levels. According to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “Countries with more gender equality have better economic growth. Companies with more women leaders perform better. Peace agreements that include women are more durable. Parliaments with more women enact more legislation on key social issues such as health, education, anti-discrimination and child support. The evidence is clear: equality for women means progress for all.”
In this context, the Government of Sudan, the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and various international and national nongovernmental organizations have been making the topic of encouraging and empowering women nearly ubiquitous at civil society workshops, cultural events and forums focused on women’s rights. The United Nations’ “Open Days” event, an annually celebrated follow-on to Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, has served as a key mechanism to highlight women’s issues in Darfur.
Resolution 1325 is essentially a legal framework that addresses the impact of war on women, along with the pivotal role women should and do play in conflict management, conflict resolution and sustainable peace. The Resolution calls for increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making, especially in preventing, managing and resolving conflict and in peace negotiations.
The Resolution stipulates that all parties to the armed conflict must take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence and all other forms of violence in armed conflict. The Resolution also calls for strengthening women’s rights under national law and supporting local women’s peace initiatives and conflict-resolution processes.
A strong example of the positive way in which women can bolster peace efforts is Magda Abdurrahman, a school teacher from Zalingei, Central Darfur, who is an active participant in the ongoing peace efforts in Darfur. Ms. Abdurrahman revealed, how, upon getting married at an early age to a local government employee and accompanying him across Darfur, she interacted with different communities, especially women. Upon seeing the needs of the local populations firsthand, she says, she joined one of the movements with the hope of ushering in a positive change; later she joined another splinter group which she eventually left to participate in the commencement of the Doha negotiations.
During these peace negotiations, women’s groups played a major part in ensuring that women’s needs are adequately addressed in the peace process. They also raised issues of concern within their communities including equal participation of women in decision-making positions. Out of 41 members of the Darfur Regional Authority, ten women were selected for high positions; most now hold important stations in government institutions.
On her part, Ms. Abdurrahman has been working to empower more women and ensure equal opportunities in government-run institutions. In 2011, she established a community-based organization, Al Tasamuh, which works to promote and empower Darfuri women and raise awareness in their communities. At the local level, Ms. Abdurrahman is also engaged in peace building and reconciliation efforts among different groups. Her organization recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Catholic Relief Service to conduct workshops among the farmers and pastoralists in Beija village, Central Darfur, to strengthen peaceful coexistence and prevent conflicts between the two groups.
“Achieving lasting peace in Darfur is only possible with the full inclusion of women in conflict resolution and decision-making processes. Our objective is to advocate for peaceful resolution of the ongoing conflict and emphasize the vital role that women must play within peace processes,” says Ms. Abdurrahman.
In keeping with its mandated aims, UNAMID continues to work toward encouraging the active participation of women and youth in peace building, conflict resolution, and human rights at the local, regional and international level. The Mission regularly extends technical, logistic and programmatic support to the Government of Sudan and traditional institutions to raise awareness and improve the protective environment for vulnerable populations, especially women, youth and children, in Darfur, reveals Guang Cong, Chief, Civil Affairs Section, UNAMID. “Our workshops and seminars cover a broad range of topics, such as comprehensive roles in the peace processing, the roles of civil society organizations in democratic systems, and inclusive participation for all groups, including women and youth, in dialogue, mediation and negation,” says Mr. Cong.
In addition to this, since 2009, UNAMID has increased the number of female police officers in its on-ground operations, while, at the same time, encouraging the recruitment of women in local police services. As of February, the Mission’s Police component includes more than 300 female Police Advisers representing 91 countries.
Female Police Advisers serve in many roles and work in all parts of Darfur, patrolling villages and camps for displaced people, assisting in addressing sexual and gender-based violence, building trust among Darfuris and promoting the rule of law. On a daily basis, female Police Advisers accompany their male counterparts on patrol in and around displaced persons camps and villages. While on patrol, peacekeepers assess the security situation in the area as well as interact with the local community and authorities on the ground.
“The presence of female peacekeepers is essential in Darfur, as the most affected people here are women and children,” says UNAMID Police Commissioner Hester Paneras, who cites incidents of rape as one example of how UNAMID’s police women are making an impact. Commissioner Paneras explains that, in Darfur’s cultural context, women typically would not report rape or talk about it with male authority figures. “But there is a change now,” she says. “My experience is that when they see another woman, their faces light up and find it easier to form a connection; they relate.”
This type of bond is exemplified in the work of the female Police Advisers in the Mission. Ms. Esther Agbo and Ms. Mary Kontomah, both of whom work as UNAMID Police Advisers, focus on gender issues in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). “These women look at us as their peers. We learn about each other’s lives, lend a helping hand where possible and advise them on issues that affect their lives,” says Ms. Agbo.
Ms. Agbo, from Cameroon, serves as a Gender Officer in El Fasher, North Darfur, and has been with the Mission for two years, while Ms. Kontomah, who hails from Ghana, is currently serving as the Team Site Commander in Um Baru, North Darfur.
Each day, while remaining respectful of local tradition and culture, they interact with women and girls at water points or in the market areas to discuss any notable developments, including the security situation and other challenges uniquely affecting women and children in the camps. “A majority of displaced women and girls have been severely affected by the conflict and, because of their culture, are unable to speak out. We advise them to report cases of sexual and gender-based violence to relevant authorities so that perpetrators can be brought to justice, while also educating them about how they are the fulcrum of the peace process,” reveals Ms. Kontomah.
Ms. Agbo and Ms. Kontomah also work closely with their female counterparts in the GoS Police. They are in involved in mentoring of female police officers at the various family and child protection centres across Darfur to widen their local counterparts’ knowledge regarding current policing challenges, especially sexual and gender-based violence.
“Through capacity-building workshops, we try to educate our local counterparts on best practices when it comes to dealing with cases related to sexual violence against women, including the investigation process, interviewing survivors and providing victim support through establishing gender desks,” says Ms. Kontomah.
When conflict breaks out, both formal and informal negotiations and peace processes provide critical opportunities to reshape a country’s politics, security and broader socioeconomic landscape. By including women, these mechanisms expand the constituency contributing to conflict resolution, and create broader social buy-in to peace deals. This helps ensure that peace agreements are not narrow, elite pacts, and are supported and sustained by nations as a whole.
In Darfur, in particular, efforts designed to create an environment conducive to empowering women have been ongoing. Women’s groups in Darfur, such as the one set up by Ms. Abdurrahman, are increasingly being recognized in their communities for their efforts to bring about peace and reconciliation in the region as well as their efforts to raise awareness on issues such as women’s rights, gender-based violence and importance of education for girls.
While significant progress has been made across the region with regard to the economic, social and political empowerment of women, more needs to be done as the long conflict has left much of the social and economic burden to the women, especially in keeping family and community structures intact. In an earlier interview with Voices of Darfur, Ms. Nabila Abdulkarim, a legal advisor at the Ministry of Justice in North Darfur, had summed up the role of women in Darfur with simple elegance: “Women in Darfur are the backbones of their families,” she said.
It is in acknowledgement of this crucial role played by women that UNAMID and other relevant stakeholders, including the government, have been supporting the inclusion of women in all spheres of life, including the establishment of sustainable peace.
As Ms. Agbo says, “Our daily interactions with the local populations in Darfur lead us to believe that women are steadily getting more involved in their communities; they are no longer content with being restricted to traditional roles and are pushing for their own rights and for participation in the peace process.”
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On 3 November 2011, UNAMID, in collaboration with the North Darfur State Committee on Security Council Resolution 1325 State Committee, organized an Open Day session on UNSCR 1325 on women, peace and security in Dar El Salaam, North Darfur. Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID.