Can FemWise-Africa Make Mediation Work for Sustaining Peace?

Group photo of the 2nd steering committee of FemWise-Africa. (via Twitter)

In July 2017, the African Union (AU) Assembly of Heads of State and Government established the Network of African Women Mediators, known as FemWise-Africa, to strengthen the role of women in conflict prevention and mediation. FemWise-Africa’s location within the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), as a subsidiary mechanism of the Panel of the Wise and the Pan-African Network of the Wise (PANWISE), is intended to place it in a strategic position for policy formulation and advocacy, and to narrow the implementation gap in commitments for women’s inclusion in peacemaking in Africa. A number of important steps have already been taken towards the full operationalization of this new mechanism.

The skeptics who have closely followed the AU’s normative and policy advances in the area of gender, peace, and security may be tempted to ask: why yet another mechanism? This is a fair question, particularly since the performance of existing structures dedicated to women’s empowerment and the promotion of gendered responses to peace and conflict challenges has been uneven at best.

In order to prove these skeptics wrong, FemWise-Africa will need to challenge some of the foundational assumptions of mediation that have not kept pace with the changing nature of modern conflict. This would entail discharging its core mandate from a sustaining peace perspective, and not only from a conflict prevention perspective, which has, at times, produced a semblance of short-term stability but not durable peace. This would also involve taking steps to guard against certain practices that may have unwittingly stymied the agency and leadership potential of women mediators and confined their roles to anecdotal programmatic achievements, often the subject of local storytelling.

Mediation Under Stress

Today’s conflicts involve a lethal mix of state and non-state actors whose world views and ideologies do not easily lend themselves to a mediated settlement, and who do not seem to be “hurting” enough to negotiate and compromise. This dynamic diminishes the leverage of multilateral organizations who are seeking to bring parties to the proverbial negotiation table. Furthermore, pressure to keep groups on terrorist lists away from the table is creating added difficulties, even for seasoned mediators. And should negotiations finally produce a settlement, it tends to be dictated by the parochial interests of competing national elites who are more concerned with power than governance, and by regional and global agendas that make such a settlement unsustainable. The impact of these factors is evidenced by the number of stalled peace processes.

Despite these changes, mediation is still operating on an old paradigm of two or more parties coming together—either willingly or under duress—under the auspices of disinterested third parties, with the hope of reaching an agreement that is often sealed by a public handshake. Clearly this model is largely out of step with today’s conflict realities.

Mediation for Sustaining Peace

Researchers who are explicitly studying peace have established that the causes of peace are not addressed simply by removing the causes of conflict or the issues of contention. Ending a war and building peace—while interconnected—are separate processes. Those who can agree to stop wars are not necessarily the ones who can imagine and create a just society. Therefore an approach that seeks merely to “stop the guns,” while ignoring the denial of citizens’ human rights and unjust social and political conditions, will not work in the long run. Evidence shows that although elite handshake deals can stop violence, they do not last unless they are accompanied or followed by broader societal participation and buttressed by a resilient social contract.

Under a sustaining peace paradigm, peace would be more than the absence of violence, or what is called “negative peace.” Peace would be the presence of the conditions that foster and sustain it, including, but certainly not limited to, accountable and inclusive governance, access to food and clean drinking water, education for women and children, security from physical harm, and the pursuit of other inviolable human rights. This is what is called “positive peace.”

It is often said that peace is like a tree; it grows from the bottom up. FemWise-Africa, not unlike other newly-created women mediators’ networks, has rightly put emphasis on unleashing the leadership potential of women at the community and grassroots levels who tend to be the custodians of peace, even amid devastation. It is local women—trying to survive wars non-violently, taking bold steps to stop disputes from turning into inter-communal violence, and repairing broken relations—who often negotiate local ceasefires with armed groups to allow aid and movement of families, and who make it possible for basic, vital services to be delivered.

In order to mediate solutions that foster positive peace, it is critical, however, that efforts like FemWise-Africa go beyond celebrating the heroic efforts of these local mediators and utilize their knowledge and expertise to influence “track 1” mediation processes both at the national and global levels. More importantly, FemWise-Africa should unleash their conceptual leadership not only to address the deficits of current mediation practices, but to define what peace and security mean and how to achieve these in the extraordinarily complex environments of today’s conflicts.

Connecting the Local to the National First

Connecting local and global mediation processes is an arduous task and would be more tenuous without transiting through the national level. FemWise-Africa should, therefore, leverage its strategic position within the AU Peace and Security Department to advocate for national and regional laws that promote and protect the human rights of women and carve spaces for their full participation in national decision-making. As the Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs said at Fem-Wise’s second General Assembly, “If women do not participate in the decision-making process in their society, it will be difficult for them to participate in decisions relating to conflict resolution and the promotion of peace.” In this regard, the African Women Leadership Network might offer valuable advice.

The Pitfalls

There are pitfalls associated with working to unleash the potential of women mediators at the grassroots. One is that focusing exclusively on empowering women at the local level can perpetuate the distinction between the “soft” peacebuilding work that targets social and community issues and the “hard” work of peacemaking that is considered to be the sole preserve of formal, male-dominated “track 1” peace negotiations.

Another pitfall is to equate women’s presence with gender advocacy, or to perpetuate the notion that only women represent women’s views and concerns. Gender mediated responses to peace and security challenges do not have to be, and should not be, the sole preserve of women. Men can be allies in raising and addressing the issues women bring to the table, which tend to be whole-of-society issues. Men can also contribute to the process of reframing cultural perceptions and in advocating for policies that open spaces for women’s meaningful participation in decision-making. In this connection, FemWise may wish to consider creating an informal, virtual network of experienced African men mediators and other influential, pan-African, and international men figures that can be called upon to champion FemWise’s vision and mission. The global HeforShe solidarity campaign for the advancement of gender equality initiated in 2014 by the United Nations may provide inspiration.

The Capacity Building Trap

A small number of FemWise members are outstanding leaders who played important roles in national or AU-led mediation. If it is felt that FemWise can benefit from some capacity building, it is critical to ensure that any proposed training or skill development leverages the existing knowledge and experience among the group. In this connection, ACCORD’s training activities in support of networks of women mediators could constitute a good step in the right direction.

A related point is that training in mediation as an end in itself fails to take into account the need to be purposeful about the content and aims beyond the training. Otherwise it is possible to fall into the trap of thinking that peace will result simply by offering training to women mediators. Empirical studies have shown that doing so does not necessarily lead to the signing of more peace agreements or more sustainable peace.

Knowledge is Power

FemWise-Africa has an ambitious and innovative agenda. In order to implement it and make a sustainable contribution to peace and security on the continent, it needs predictable and sustainable financial and staff resources to do its work but also to produce and disseminate, in partnership with some African and other think tanks, knowledge that can enrich African peacemaking. One area that could benefit from this endeavor would be to analyze good practices and lessons learned from women’s successful contributions in designing, participating, and leading mediation processes at all levels. In this connection, studies on insider mediation and their positive peacemaking impact could be a helpful resource.

Another area would be to analyze, from a gender perspective, why so many African peace processes are stalled and in need of a reboot. Such analysis would, at minimum, help elucidate what prevents mediation from being effective. Such understanding would help reform some of the current peacemaking practices that have not produced stable peace. The knowledge generated could also be usefully mined for enriching the case study components of training and development initiatives directed to emerging female mediation practitioners.

Knowledge forged by experience is power and, if in doubt, the catalytic changes driven by women’s movements across the globe should serve as powerful examples. FemWise-Africa could be a game changer for sustaining peace if it succeeds in helping transform mediation in a way that is fit for the peace and conflict challenges facing Africa.

Youssef Mahmoud is a Senior Advisor at the International Peace Institute (IPI). This piece is based on remarks given during a high-level seminar on sustaining peace and African women mediators convened by the AU Commission, Belgium, and IPI on April 25, 2018.