Does empowering women require a new language?

Encouraging a Gendered Balance in Peacebuilding Discourse - allowing alternative worldviews and values...


“The subaltern woman’s muteness is rooted not in slavish contentment but in her inability to conceptualise the injustice to which she is subjected. Like all diagnoses, this analysis implies the appropriate remedy: what the subaltern woman needs is a conceptual framework, a language capable of articulating her injuries, needs, and aspirations. The existing discourses or texts of exploitation do not provide such a language: even when they promise explicitly to liberate the subaltern, they obscure the distinctive nature of her oppression; indeed, by purporting to speak for her, they position her as mute. In order to articulate her specific exploitation, the subaltern woman must create her own language…She can overcome her silence only by collaborating with other subaltern women in developing a public language for their shared experiences.” (Jaggar 1998:12).

The focus of this discussion is, how can peacebuilding discourse include gendered values and concerns, and in so doing create new languages and worldviews to balance the current dominant paradigms? This question includes such issues as what is meant by “feminine” and “masculine” values, and whether these are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the very nature of discourse itself needs to be examined – including power relations behind and within discourse, and the concept of empowerment in and through discourse.

Further questions relate to the dominant Rational /Scientific paradigm, as expressed in political, economic and development discourses – and consequently in peacebuilding discourse. This patriarchal worldview is in many ways the antithesis of all that is considered “feminine” – emotional, intuitive, inclusive, collaborative, holistic, spiritual. This has had extremely damaging effects not only on women, but also on the natural world, indigenous or marginalised populations, and children. 

Can feminine values and concerns be adequately expressed within this framework? Can peaceful values be promoted through languages based on competitiveness, control and exploitation? Discussion of the African context will attempt to ground aspects of these theories, with reference to specific peacebuilding structures. Do African women involved in peacebuilding share the views of Western feminism regarding gender roles, the importance of ‘gender mainstreaming’, and the need for political participation/ a ‘political platform’?

The discussion concludes that peacebuilding discourse has mostly been from a Western, often neoliberal perspective. Instead of empowering and liberating women in differing cultural contexts, this tends to exclude, mute and misrepresent the concerns of the “subaltern” women of the world. Only once the discourse is truly open and inclusive, creating a space for collaborative contributions from both genders and all cultural worldviews, can needs and values be defined – and only then will they be successfully implemented in peacebuilding programs.


Conflict and social injustice around the world affects men and women differently – and the plight of women is especially heart-breaking - statistics and copious amounts of research surrounding gender and peacebuilding paint a bleak picture of the current state of gender relations. Despite gender-aware programs, gender-sensitivity in language and training, the gap between the genders does not appear to be closing – in terms of actual daily experience. 

Do women need to create their own language? What Jaggar and others are saying, is that existing discourse is inadequate to reflect the experiences and desires of women, especially women of the ‘third world’ – considered to be ‘subaltern women’ because of their subjugation in the social order. However even attempts to point out deficiencies in existing peacebuilding discourse either speak for ‘the subaltern woman’, or suggest teaching her to speak another language, usually that of the existing male-dominant discourse. Jaggar is instead advocating a collaborative exchange of ideas and values between ‘subaltern women’ to enable their own language to emerge. 

In the case of Africa, the focus of this essay – we need to listen to the already emerging language, listen to the African voices – already rich in their own wisdom and values.

Galtung’s concept of cultural violence makes us aware of the “discursive nature of violence” (Lane 1998:43), emphasising the role of discourse and symbolism in constructing a reality where violence and injustice appears acceptable. For this reason, examining peacebuilding discourse around the concept of gender is an important step towards identifying future empowerment strategies, as well as past failures. “We cannot rely uncritically on the categories of established discourse” (O’Neill 2000:316) – discourse established by the dominant (usually male) groups cannot adequately express the concerns of the marginalised (usually women). 

The ‘feminine’ values like care, concern, and co-operation also place a high value on relationship, over control or authoritarianism (Jeong 2000:77), and are in many ways the antitheses of the patriarchal framework within which politics, economics, science and development have long functioned. The feminist movement has proposed an alternative world system, based on the overarching concepts of inclusivity and wholistic approaches - which include consideration of the natural world (Jeong 2000:85). 

In keeping with these values of inclusivity, mutual dependence and cooperation, expressed so well by Gandhi as “Separation is violence” – the central aim of peacebuilding should therefore be to bring unity while celebrating diversity. Rather than creating separate “spaces” or “languages” for each gender, women and men can together build a new language of shared human values, and together educate and strategise for a peaceful future. As Malalai Joya, the infamous female Afghani politician and human rights activist says, “Society…is like a bird – one wing is man, one wing is woman. When one wing is injured, can the bird fly?” (Strong 2007:38).


Peace theorists view peace as a lot more than the absence of war or violence – it can be best be summarised by the Hebrew word ‘Shalom’ - peace, harmony, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, a state of completeness, wholeness, health, prosperity, fullness, rest, and community with others, including the interactions between humanity and creation. A summary of women’s views of peace at the recent International Alert 'sharing know-how’ workshop envisioned:
a world in which rights and democracy are respected and in which people can be content in their own identity, express their own culture and control their own resources, and in which they are able to experience happiness, joy, love and care for others…They wanted diversity and ‘constructive conflict’ to be recognised and celebrated in a context free of fear and violence…justice, respect, progress, forgiveness, understanding and solidarity…respect for women in the home as well as in public life’ (El-Bushra 2003:33).

Peacebuilding is where the universal meets the specific – where peace research and theories need to become concrete strategies in a specific context and culture. One of the central points of this essay is the importance of education and creating a new, shared language with built-in values like peace and justice. However, this should not be taken to undermine the importance of other concurrent peacebuilding initiatives – both the grassroots efforts to make practical changes, and the international campaigns for legal and political frameworks for peace with justice. As Paolo Freire once wrote:
I do not believe in any effort called peace education, if instead of revealing the world of injustice, it tends to cloud and blind its victims…Reflection, if it is true reflection, leads to practice” (Bendana 2003”39).

With this in mind, it is a matter of some concern that peacebuilding has become closely linked with development discourse – which is itself a contested concept, having its roots in economics, politics and international relations. These fields of knowledge are in direct opposition to all of the values which peacebuilding seeks to promote – and we need to remember that when negotiating our way through the current discourse, which is a minefield of assumptions and hidden agendas. While there is a lot of truth to the observation that:
“…the nexus between security and development is indisputable. Insecurity hampers development and the absence of inclusive development substantially exacerbates factors that lead to conflict” (Williams 2006:31);

The concept of development has undoubtedly shaped how Africa sees itself, and frequently attempts to speak for so-called ‘developing’ countries from a Western viewpoint of what is considered ‘the good life’.

In addition, peacebuilding and development discourse rely extensively on the concepts of needs and values - yet needs models themselves are not value- or gender-neutral, but frequently used to promote political agendas and assumed value preferences (Reimann 2002:21-22). One of the central themes of this essay is the fact that “only under conditions of adequate knowledge and undistorted communication can men’s and women’s true needs be known” (Reimann 2002:20).

The neoliberal bias of Western powers overseeing peace agreements in Africa and elsewhere, results in a focus on political and civil rights over social and economic rights (Hudson 2006:14)– which would empower women more directly. Therefore,
“sustainable peace requires a more permanent transformation of social norms around violence, gender and power…it is not enough to change the structures and focus only on claiming rights” (Pillay 2006:8).

Going deeper than political rights and structures, we need to develop an alternative worldview - a new language with peace values from both genders. This would need to be an unashamedly moral viewpoint – as
without a larger spiritual and moral framework, which endows human endeavour with meaning and purpose, with coherence and unity, wouldn’t the emphasis on rights per se lead to moral chaos and confusion?” (Muzaffar 1999:29).

Peacebuilding needs to emphasise personal and interpersonal transformation as the primary means of long-term social change. Lederach notes that transformation must be “rooted in social-psychological and spiritual dimensions” due to “the immediacy of hatred and prejudice, of racism and xenophobia” (Lederach 1997:29). Clearly a re-examination of gender relationships is integral to this process - education and expansion of our language to create greater mutual understanding could significantly impact individuals, transforming our interpersonal relationships, and whole cultures, to the point where war is no longer seen as the solution.


Gender is considered by social scientists to be defined socially, through cultural discourse, symbolism and role expectations. Reimann describes gender in terms of three inter-relating dimensions - “the individual gender identity” (social norms and individual response to those), “the symbolism of gender” (the construction of stereotypical gender-dualisms), and “the structure of gender” (organisation of social action, public and private spheres) – all of which combine in ways which are historically and culturally fluid (Reimann 2002:3). 

In this essay, when speaking of feminine and masculine values or attributes, this is not meant as gender “essentialism” (Lane 1998:44, Nagel 1998:245), or a dichotomised view, but is used in the sense of being “less so” and “more so” in respect to each other (Helliwell 2000:800). This simply implies that women and men are “better” at some things than others, e.g. both genders are able to work and care and lead, but they will excel in some tasks and perhaps not others (Helliwell 2000:802). This common sense approach is a concept which is well accepted in the Eastern world, especially through the Dao concepts of Yin and Yang. This essay will not attempt to explain the causes or extent to which gender differentiated behaviour and values exist – but rather take our experience of difference as the point from which to discuss potential strategies and partnership in peacebuilding.

In many ways Nationalism, militarism and democracy can be seen as masculine projects and institutions, with women as merely “supporting actors” in very well-defined, limited roles (Nagel 1998:243, 253,261). In contrast, as the African proverb says, “a woman has no tribe”(Nagel 1998:261). The values inherent in the process of nation building seem to predominantly include ‘masculine’ ideals like patriotism, bravery, duty, competition and honour (Nagel 1998:251-252). For these reasons, it has been said that women may have less of a vested interest in sustaining particular political systems, and are therefore more likely to advocate peace and reconciliation (Strickland & Duvvury 2003:8). 

Again, it is important to remember that idealised masculinity also excludes many male members of the human community, and stunts the development of most others. Horrocks stated that it requires a certain amount of “self-denial, a shrinkage of the self, a turning away from whole areas of life, the man who obeys the demands of masculinity has become only half-human…” (Nagel 1998:246) Theroux lamented, “the expression, ‘Be a man!’ strikes me as insulting and abusive. It means: Be stupid, be unfeeling, obedient, soldierly and stop thinking” (Nagel 1998:246). In contrast, we could “set these fundamental dimensions of our humanity free from their ‘private’ exile and accept them as the only genuine starting point of meaningful human community” (Rees 2003:234).

In peacebuilding discourse, certain recurring themes can be seen when discussing gender differences, and some of the feminine qualities mentioned relate to an ethic of care, “the need for emotionality and the free expression of emotions” and “a need for otherness…some kind of appreciation of the other whose views are as important as our own” (Reimann 2002:17). However this is a shared characteristic in humans - combat training for example, requires strategies to suppress the ‘feminine’ caring nature of men (Reardon 1990:142). P
erhaps the key is rather to view these as shared qualities which find their expression in different ways in both genders, and to different degrees. 

There is also much reference to the gendered experience of violence – with “the body as the site of violence” for women particularly (Nicholson 25), and the “feminisation of poverty” (Jeong 41) being central to these discussions. Gender is frequently at the centre of structural and cultural violence – and the symbolic significance attached to femininity in many cultures becomes a justification for repressive traditional practices (Jaggar 1998:7). 

This again reinforces the intertwined connections between masculinity and nationalism, which tends towards male privilege and female subjugation (Nagel 1998:254). As a result of the assumed dualisms of ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics, for example, it is expected that men will be stronger and more active, courageous and rational – therefore better suited to leading and ruling – while women are expected to remain in the private sphere because they are seen as emotional, passive, and weak but caring (Cohn et al. 2005:2).
“If we perceive peacemaking as an exercise in rationality, peacekeeping as a display of ‘force’ and peacebuilding as a caring, nurturing endeavour it becomes clearer as to why and where women are excluded or included. It brings forth essentialist notions of the inherent ‘peacefulness’ of women and innate ‘violence’ or ‘rationality’ of men” (Pillay 2006:4)

Gender differences can therefore be seen as based in the shared experiences and education of women as opposed to men - rather than in inherent biological characteristics defining behaviour (Reardon 1990:138). With specific reference to African women as a political group, there is a well accepted notion of their shared “context of struggle” (Sadie & Loots 1998:1). For example, the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security in their 2005 open letter to the UN Security Council stated, “we welcome reconciliation after peace comes, but too often amnesty means that men forgive other men for atrocities committed against women” (Nadjibulla 2005:2). A recent UNIFEM report found that
all over the world…women have challenged militarism and urged reconciliation over retribution…they have transformed peace processes on every continent by organising across political, religious and ethnic affiliations” (Rehn & Sirleaf 2002).

However, there is a fine line between this view and the tendency to assume that women are more peaceful due to their ability to give life – which results in a narrow view of women in only certain roles (Vincent 2003:9). There are also many documented examples of women contributing to war efforts, and even instigating violence (Hudson 2006:13; El-Bushra 2003:25-26).

In contrast to the post-modern critique of feminism, which takes issue with the notion of any overarching values or interests amongst women, it is clear that the agency of ‘the subaltern woman’ (Jaggar 1998:12) can be increased only through
solidaristic community that sustains one’s identity through mutual recognition…Distinct from the language of eternal contestation, conflict and haggling over scarce resources, the primary virtue in politics is the creation of an enlarged mentality’ (Vincent 2003:9).

The idea is of coming together as a group, with shared experiences, to ‘strengthen their voices’ (El-Bushra 2003:36) and thereby achieve their goals – an example of power in discourse being achieved in a ‘feminine’ way, through cooperation rather than competition.

Discourse as Empowerment

Habermas and Apel referred to discourse as a process of “obtaining universal consensus in conditions of domination-free communication” (Jaggar 1998:8). Habermas wrote about an ‘ideal communicative community’, without limits and separate from conventions, where the specific context could give rise to new meanings, created by the power of interaction itself (Ashenden &Owen 1999:159). He viewed ideal communicative action as the orientation of participants towards reaching mutual understanding and ‘an egalitarian relation…that preserves their differences’ (Ashenden & Owen 1999:201). However this is clearly seldom the case, especially from a gendered perspective. Communication is always power-based – with access, inclusion and equal participation being especially problematic for women and non-westerners.

If power can be defined as more than enforcing one’s will, but also as “the ability to impose one’s definition of what is possible, what is right, what is rational, what is real” (Fishman 1983:89). Then discourse is clearly linked to power – where ‘power in discourse’ is the struggle for power within the discursive setting, while ‘power behind discourse’ is the control of forms of discourse and access to discourse, as a means of maintaining power (Fairclough 1989:74). For this reason, “communication is the mechanism of emancipation and the struggle against domination” (Fairclough 1989:75). Lederach also points out that acknowledging and sharing one another’s stories is an essential first step towards reconciliation and restoration (Lederach 1997:26).

The dominant discourse is not necessarily the ‘right’ or even the majority view, but simply the loudest voice. The assumed universality of certain values and ideas further alienates those who are excluded from the dominant discourse, as alternatives are not even considered to exist, let alone debated (Jaggar 1998:11). Feminists have long argued that there needs to be more of an emphasis in discourse on “listening, personal friendship, and responsiveness to emotion…concern to address power inequalities” (Jaggar 1998:22). Whereas current male-dominated forms of discourse “restrict communication to the initiated, leaving all others both uncomprehending and voiceless in the debate” (Cohn 1987:703).

Current discourse in peacebuilding

Current peacebuilding discourse around gender issues appears to focus on including women in programs and decision-making structures – with terms such as “Women in Development” (WID), “Gender and Development” (GAD), and “Gender Mainstreaming”. These are all rather vague and nebulous catchphrases, calling either for quotas of women to be involved in planning and implementing of projects, or for
making women’s concerns and experiences, as well as men’s, an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies…so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated” (Koen 2006:11).

How this is to be done, or whose opinions will be counted as representative of ‘women’s concerns and experiences’ (or even men’s) is open to debate. The justification for this is rather one dimensional too – women are viewed as an untapped resource in the development potential of a nation (Williams 2006:31) - rather than as deserving inclusion and equity purely due to their inherent value as human beings, regardless of their levels of productivity. These narrow neoliberal assumptions frame much of the current discourse on women and peacebuilding (Hudson 2006:11). What is needed is a transformative approach, rather than merely an instrumental one – which usually amounts to co-opting.

A recent report by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) found that despite gender-sensitive language, gender-mainstreaming, and the implementation of institutional frameworks promoting gender equity, peacebuilding efforts
continue to fail to address underlying gender roles and associated power dynamics that lay the basis for institutionalised gender discrimination…[or] the relationship between masculinity and violence against women…[and] gives inadequate attention to the construction of gender norms and the processes by which they can be transformed to ensure more equitable gender relations” (Strickland & Duvvury 2003:2).

Also, the International Alert 'sharing know-how’ workshop participants cited challenges to peacebuilding that included:
centralised control of national resources such as land…the inability of male-dominated authority structures to manage conflicts non-violently…patriarchal cultures, including religion…that undermine women’s rights…traditional reconciliation mechanisms…social fragmentation and a lack of shared identity” (El-Bushra 2003:51)

This is particularly interesting, coming from women at grassroots level, rather than political policy documents or intellectual circles – so one could plausibly assume they are speaking for themselves, rather than having these grand ideas imposed upon them from ‘outsiders’. It appears that the antidote to a patriarchal system is not a stronger women’s movement, causing further levels of separation, but an approach to the future that is the shared responsibility of both genders – inclusive, diverse and cooperative. 

Since the idea of a unified women’s movement and agenda is problematic anyway, the path towards peace may inevitably require individual and interpersonal transformation of this sort - while still recognising the value of political and legal frameworks as tools of administration, it seems unrealistic to expect externally imposed standards to achieve social change.

Dominant Paradigms

At the core of political discourse is the patriarchal idea of the ‘nation-state’, which is ostensibly responsible for the security of its citizens, but simply monopolises the means of violence, and legitmises violence in its own defence (Albrow 1996:38). The rational/ scientific paradigm which gave birth to democracy, neoliberalism, and even concepts such as human rights and development, has long been seen by feminists to “epitomise the ‘male’ stance towards the world…Scientific progress, rather than leading to harmony and co-operation between peoples has fostered violence, poverty and domination” (Perrigo 1991:313). 

The ‘gender-dichotomised pairings’ mentioned previously are again evident in discourse about science vs. nature, mind vs. body, analysis vs. intuition, military vs. civilian (Cohn et al. 2005:3). In its extreme form, this discourse can be seen as the dominance of “masculine” science over “feminine” nature. Habermas referred to this unlimited extension of rationality to every aspect of life as the ‘project of modernity’ (Albrow 1996:28). This contrasts sharply with spirituality and ‘feminine’ ways of knowing and intuition (Nussbaum 2000:328).

Scientific and economic thought often depends on internal logic for its validity, rather than its correspondence to reality, and is removed from any concerns over the morality of outcomes (Cohn 1987:712). Economics is prone to basing its assumptions on human behaviour as selfish, competitive and greedy – which results in very different answers to those obtained by viewing humans as capable of relationship, altruism and mutuality (Cox 1993:274-275). 
Development discourse is equally presumptuous at times, and has been accused of “marginalising or precluding other ways of seeing and doing”, especially with respect to the way the ‘third world’ sees itself (Rai 2002:74). Some research even suggests that the ‘feminisation of poverty’ is “a direct result of women’s inclusion in the development process” (Simmons 2003:244). 

Certainly, development and economic strategies transform subsistence activities, customs and social relations – frequently in ways that are detrimental to all – unless strenuously defended by the local population (Lehman 2003:355). In contrast, ecofeminists envision an alternative model of development which is “anti-patriarchal, decentralised, interdependent and sustainable” (Rai 2002:68). Peacebuilding programs and strategies should rather seek to mediate between competing needs – in other words, ensuring that “the market-place feeds the stomach but doesn’t replace the heart” (Lehman 2003:357).

Since the feminine has been confined to the private sphere, the public sphere has become sanitised of emotions, and the values considered to be feminine and therefore less valued, or ‘unprofessional’, even ‘irrational’. As Cohn pointed out in the context of defense intellectuals, “we must give careful attention to the language we choose to use – whom it allows us to communicate with and what it allows us to think as well as say” (Cohn 1987:690). This can be broadened to include the whole of current dominant peacebuilding discourse - especially development, which does not allow certain questions to even be asked, or certain values to be well expressed. 

Instead, bringing the feminine balance back into discourse could enable us to see these apparent opposites as simply “contingent conflict”(Nussbaum 2000:332) – due to the multi-faceted nature of life, the value of a plurality of ideals and goals must be taken into account, and are often to be held in tension with one another. As for example with reconciliation, which Lederach explained as “the place where Truth and Mercy have met together, Peace and Justice have kissed” (Lederach 1997:28-29).

Collaborative discourse

Learning to operate within existing language frameworks can be very empowering; however the language restricts users in terms of the content and even the perspective from which they can express ideas or objections within the dominant system (Cohn 1987:705,708). Calls to empower women to participate in political and legal frameworks – in a sense teaching them to speak the right language to be heard in ‘a man’s world’ – may be further stripping women of their inherent value as women. Perhaps we should rather capitalise on the fact that
women’s…capacity to influence – where it exists – is not their access to specific forms of political power but rather their capacity to appeal to the common humanity of those engaged in or supporting war” (El-Bushra 2003:53).

This is not a call to abandon attempts to include women more fully at all levels, but simply a reminder that there are multiple ways for women to use their voices, and there should always be the option to refuse to abandon one’s own language for someone else’s.
“To be real, the choice must be totally under women’s control, and the value of other forms of knowledge must not be ridiculed. Economic and social self-sufficiency is surely a better option than integration…to oppressive structures such as the international market…and a violent world order dominated by a powerful group of men…” (Simmons 2003:252).

We need to pull back the neoliberal veil that obscures any ability to see possible alternative viewpoints and solutions, remembering that concepts like democracy, human rights, peace building and gender justice run the risk of being co-opted, and being used to legitimise hegemonic regimes like the United States – especially in the post- 9/11 world (Bendana 2003:33).

The path towards this freedom of thought and inclusive discourse in peacebuilding is certainly through education and a consequent re-assigning of true value and meaning to our terminology. In this way, “Peacebuilding need not follow neoliberal economics in the Orwellian ‘newspeak’ allowing propositions of bombing in order to build, war for peace, or ‘developing’ for impoverishment” (Bendana 2003:6). 

Clearly, what is required is for peace-enhancing virtues to be promoted in peacebuilding discourse, as well as in politics and related fields – regardless of their previous links to one or other gender – as human virtues and values worth preserving in their own right (Vincent 2003:9). Education and language can be used as tools in shaping ‘non-violent gender identities’ of the future – allowing for differences between the genders but highlighting shared values such as peace, care and co-operation (Lane 2003:33-35), and redefining the meaning behind terms like ‘security’ and ‘strength’ (Cohn et al. 2005:11).

The general consensus from international women peace activists brought together for International Alert’s workshop in 2002, was that the most important contribution to peacebuilding which women could make is ‘to develop an alternative, gendered view of society that will lead to transformation at all levels of structures, practices and social relations, including gender relations’ (El-Bushra 2003:5). 

The absence of documented experiences of women in peacebuilding in the south, from their own point of view, was also noted (El-Bushra 2003:6). This effectively mutes women, as stated in Jaggar’s quote at the start of this essay (Jaggar 1998:12), but also raises the issue of whether women must necessarily become politically aware in order to achieve agency – is this not simply forcing women to engage in male forms and frameworks, rather than allowing the freedom to act in many other ways?

The African context

The above discussion can now be brought to bear on the African context, where evidently,
The high incidence of violence against women in Africa can be attributed to an interconnected range of cultural/ religious, economic, political, military and criminal factors. Culture or customary law is the first factor that influences the physical security of women. The subservient status of women, particularly rural women, in many African countries is deeply rooted in tradition. Through various marriage rituals, most of these women are objectified. Rituals such as lobola (bridewealth), (female) child pledging, and the tradition of inheriting women (being regarded as the property of fathers, uncles, husbands and older brothers) depersonalise women. These practices set the stage for inflicting harm on women such as beatings by husbands, marital rape, femicide, sexual harassment, and genital mutilation. In the name of tradition, different moral standards often apply to men and women.” (Hudson, quoted in Koen 200:1)

For this reason, interpersonal transformation is the key to lasting change in Africa, rather than exclusively focusing on political and legal frameworks. Internalising gender equality and peace values is of the utmost importance in delivering any lasting change. This approach would of course take longer - requiring a paradigm shift, and a re-focusing of resources, strategies and energy – however the current approaches are clearly not working. For example, goal 3 of the Millennium Development Goals is to “promote gender equality and empower women” by 2015 (Rehn & Sirleaf 2002). 

Yet, the current experience of women in Africa during times of conflict is particularly disheartening - in their home countries they are raped, mutilated and tortured, forced into sexual slavery and prostitution – and then upon arrival in refugee camps, expecting shelter and aid, they are sexually exploited or abused, or forced to marry strangers to survive in the host country (Magwaza 2003:35).

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSC 1325) identifies these issues, but it is unclear how any amount of legislation will deter those responsible – within the African context, these are events taking place in remote areas, unhindered by the rule of law, and frequently the staff within international organisations are themselves responsible for violations (Pillay 2006:5). Frequently the African cultural frameworks are deeply disrespectful of women’s needs, and it is clear that
legislation alone cannot create a region that is gender-aware and sensitive, and that behaviour changes in society cannot be legislated but need to emerge organically as a result of leadership by example, and the use of the media and prominent figures to promote gender awareness” (Ruiters 2007:1).

UNSC 1325 has contributed to significant progress in African countries to acknowledging rape and other violations of women as crimes of war, and grounds for refugee status (Magwaza 2003:36). Yet the situation in Africa means that gender equity is only one of many identity issues to be resolved - such as ethnic clashes, reclaiming indigenous culture, spirituality and religion, and reasserting independence after colonialism swept the continent (Pillay 2006:1). 

Many African governments are themselves responsible for human rights abuses, or ignore the constitution and rule of law to remain in power – they are hardly likely to focus on implementing the rights of women (Koen 2006:9). In other countries, customary and religious law is given precedence over statutory law - and religious fundamentalism is a growing force in Africa (Koen 2006:9). Even in countries that have made significant progress in introducing legislation advancing women’s rights, like Uganda and South Africa, with pressure from above and from the women’s movements at grassroots level - “the impact of legislation is generally only the first step because entrenched practices do not disappear overnight” (Koen 2006:7). Furthermore, the institutions and structures responsible for enforcing and monitoring women’s rights in Africa, at all levels, are weak and lacking resources to deliver their mandates (Koen 2006:8).

The African Union (AU) in 2002 announced that half of its commissioners would be women (Magwaza 2003:36), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit of 2005 concluded that the current 30% quotas for women in leadership should be increased to 50% by 2020 (Ogunsanya 2006:14). However, this is only a step in the right direction, as it appears that women in Africa can exercise their agency more effectively at grassroots rather than political levels, and concepts like “gender mainstreaming” and quotas have not translated into recognisable gains for women in Africa. It has been pointed out that “the mere presence of women in parliaments does not change the institutional culture or nature of policies” (Ruiters 2007:3) - the African political and cultural background means that often women are co-opted by men dominating, excluding and undermining their contributions (Ruiters 2007:3). Here again is evidence of the power behind and within discourse preventing equal participation.

The SADC also released a Protocol on Gender and Development in 2006, which deals comprehensively with a number of gender equity issues, including a call for the protection of women in the private as well as public spheres (Ruiters 2007:2). However, the most promising aspect of the protocol, in light of the discussion above, is the call for member states to provide “gender sensitisation and rehabilitation programmes, counselling services, and training programmes for service providers, survivors and perpetrators of gender-based violence and sexual harassment” (Ruiters 2007:3). 

Education must surely be more effective than just legislating against gender discrimination and other divisions within societies. Again, women could be instrumental in this process, as educators of their families and communities (Koen 2006:7). The fact that democratisation in Africa has been hurried - and in many cases, externally imposed – means that it has not had time to ‘take root’ and could become problematic in the future (Koen 2006:11), unless ownership of these processes is encouraged at the community level.

Proposals to provide training and support for women to increase their participation in peace talks and decision-making bodies, as well as alternative methods of soliciting women’s views (Pankhurst 2000:19), overlook the fact that these are traditionally masculine contexts, and as such the very framework within which these women would be trained to operate, would ensure that all discussion would take place on those pre-determined terms only. In the African context, this traditional mentality can be summarised in the attitude displayed in Burundi – “women couldn’t be part of the discussion because they don’t have arms…how can women bring their experiences and expertise to the table? We have only paper” (El-Bushra 2003:40). 

We need a new framework, one which is not predisposed toward either gender, but incorporates the peace values of both. In addition, the required institutional culture change needs to be the responsibility of men too, working in partnership with women (Pankhurst 2000:20). This appears to have been the reason for success in South Africa, where the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League demanded that women be “equally represented in the negotiating teams, [or] the negotiations would stop. For a whole day, nobody could talk until all political parties included women” (Modise in El-Bushra 2003:63). The ANC had also taken a deliberate decision to ensure a third of their parliamentarians would be female, “to ‘reward’ women for their role as political activists” (Sadie & Loots 1998:23).

There is also an emerging language of
African feminism with specific needs and goals arising out of the concrete realities of African women’s lives. The point of departure is to address oppressions simultaneously, and in that context gender is but one unit of analysis that sometimes has to subject itself to the universal bond between men and women against racism and imperialism…the notion of ‘womanism’ …better accommodates African women’s reality and identity and…emphasises cultural contextualisation, the centrality of the family and the importance of cooperation with men (Hudson 2006:7).

African women have made it clear that they view men as partners in the struggle for gender equity and social justice – a different focus to that of western feminism. The fact that Africa is “a continent in crisis” (Hudson in Koen 2006:2) – with corruption, undemocratic processes, lack of political accountability, control by elites, and ongoing war in many states – means that both men and women are insecure (Koen 2006:2). However, this also means that there is the potential to reshape the “political opportunity structures and universes of political discourse” (Hassim in Koen 2006:2) in favour of both gender equity and long-term peace. A good starting point for many African countries would be the military and police forces–
As long as African governments continue to pay lip-service to basic democratic principles, the military will remain largely a sectarian and undemocratic institution founded on the principles of the protection of dominant racial, class, ethnic, and gender groupings” (Hudson in Koen 2006:10).

What is needed is to challenge the traditional meanings assigned to masculinity in this context – to re-imagine what a ‘real man’ would do, and provide gender aware training (Pillay 2006:5). The need to explore alternative forms of masculinity and gender roles, is especially important in post-conflict situations, where men’s identities may be damaged, and often they revert to traditional thinking and stereotypes (Sideris in Strickland & Duvvury 2003:9), in their search for security and esteem. Integral to this transformation, is the African concept of “Ubuntu” which many peace activists are already focusing on – it means:
“…my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘a person is a person through other people’. It is not, ‘I think therefore I am’. It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong’. I participate, I share. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others...” (Tutu in Rees 2003:228-9)

The United Nations Observer Mission to South Africa (UNOMSA) in 1994 was a wonderful example of a woman-led, gender-balanced team, who through their presence in the host country, modeled healthy gender relations and the strength of certain ‘feminine’ traits like “concern for the wider needs of the community, shedding symbols of status and power, networking, sharing information, making intuitive decisions, and using a hands-on approach” (Pillay 2006:6). It has been said that the UNOMSA example, as well as the role of women in the anti-apartheid struggle, opened up a space for women to claim their place in the new South Africa (Pillay 2006:8).


If we can bring balance to peacebuilding discourse through a new language containing both feminine and masculine values, this will result not only in empowerment for women – but this ‘empowerment in discourse’ would allow future generations to see the world through new eyes. 

In turn these balanced views and values would result in collaborative peacebuilding efforts and strategies, where mutual understanding and plurality would replace the current patriarchal paradigms. 

This would result in nothing less than empowering men and women to be whole human beings again, and in turn bring wholeness and healing to divided societies. 

The ‘subaltern’ women of Africa need to, and are already creating their own language – but rather than a separate language and further alienation between the genders, this is emerging as a language of partnership with men in re-imagining and rebuilding a future together.


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