Ndeye Sow: 25 years of gender and peacebuilding

Ndeye Sow has worked for International Alert for over 25 years in gender and peacebuilding. She has dedicated her career to promoting the value and experience women living in conflict can bring to peacebuilding at every level, whether it’s resolutions at the UN or tackling the root causes of conflict for individuals and communities.

She has seen a great deal of change in the last 25 years, including the historic adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security (UNSCR 1325) in 2000, which acknowledged the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and girls. The resolution also recognised the critical role that women can and already do play in peacebuilding efforts.

For International Women’s Day, we sat down with her to discuss why we must take gender into account when it comes to peacebuilding, the changes she has seen over the course of her career and what she sees as the future of gender and peacebuilding.

Why must women have a say when it comes to peace and security?

Women and men, girls and boys are affected by peace and security differently. The impact could be different according to who you are, where you come from and what you represent. By understanding this and bringing women’s voices into the conversation you can begin to address the real needs people are facing.

There are unique challenges faced by women and girls in conflict. For example, we know that there is an increase in sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) where women and girls are especially targeted. Men and boys are also victims of SGBV but we are at the early stages of really understanding how, as in many contexts the issue of SGBV against men and boys is still a taboo; it is not really talked about.

There are also more subtle interactions between gender and conflict that, which if we pay attention to, can really help how we address the impact of violence on individuals and communities. 

For example, conflict disrupts the way gender relations are organised. When men go to war, when men join an armed group or when men flee the community to avoid the violence, very often you have women becoming the head of the household and providing for the family. They take on the role that men usually play.

These changes in gender relations can open spaces for women and enhance their status in the community. However, this status only goes so far, because the ideology and institutions remain patriarchal. In these situations, when men feel like they are losing power, you may find social norms become more rigid, as men react by trying to hold on to it more.

Very often this can also lead to all kinds of problems in the household, such as domestic violence because for men it is a loss of their masculinity when they lose their role as providers. This is often the case when they find themselves in internally displaced or refugee camps for instance. The women are the ones who go out to look for jobs and food.

It is important for international organisations to be clear on how we play into this dynamic. Our team in Nigeria noticed this problem. While working in internal displacement camps in the northeast they were being told by men, “you are targeting women and we are here; we don’t have any power.”

To deal with this, people must understand what power means. Power is shared. Just because a man is not working doesn’t mean that he loses power. This idea is an imposed cultural and social norm.

Are there examples of peace agreements being stronger as a result of women being involved?

When you involve women, either in a peace accord or by giving them a place at the negotiation table of local disputes it becomes stronger and more meaningful.

Instead of a peace accord being negotiated only by the fighting parties and the politicians, including more groups helps to broaden the agenda and deepen its support. You are able to bring in the concerns of the ones that are directly affected by conflict.

Peace agreements are like a road map outlining how power is going to be shared and how the future of the country is going to be shaped. Peace agreements can only be stronger as a result of women being involved. 

In the African context, I have seen some of these peace accords becoming the basis of the country’s Constitution. For example, the Arusha peace accord in Burundi. If women are included, they can fight to have provisions for more gender equality in the peace accord and therefore into the Constitution. That’s why it is really important for women to be part of the debate and have their voices and concerns heard.

County Profile: Guatemala

Ndeye says:

When women are involved in peace negotiations, gender equality is more likely to be taken into account. They also tend to raise different priorities to men during the process, as they experience life and conflict differently. Moreover, they are often considered honest brokers, which helps the ideas they put forward to take hold. Once an agreement is reached, the endorsement of women’s groups even increases the chances of its implementation.

A success story that has been mentioned to me for years is the Guatemala peace accord that was signed in 1996. When we started helping women to participate in political or peace processes, like in Burundi, the Guatemala peace accord was always talked about because it was one of the first that brought women to the negotiation table.

This was an example of a peace accord that had managed to include gender issues into the peace agreement.

It was also important because 11% of the people who signed the peace accord were women, including [women’s rights activist and peacemaker] Luz Mendez, who I have met several times through our work with the UN and UN Women. Usually only men sign peace agreements, so this was a dramatic and historic moment.

What challenges have you faced when it comes to including women in discussions on peace and security?

In my opinion, women are deliberately excluded because these discussions take place in patriarchal spaces where they want to limit power-sharing to a small circle.

I was recently reading the UN Women’s data on women’s participation in peace processes. This was published in 2018, but it noted that out of six UN-led or co-led processes, women were included in 14 out of 19 delegations. And out of those, they had very, very low engagement with the processes, with only 13% sitting at the table negotiating, 3% were mediators and only 4% of women signed any agreement. So, these are still very much male-dominated, patriarchal, political spaces – they are really exclusion zones.

The women, peace and security agenda has four pillars: participation, protection, prevention, and relief and recovery. When I spoke to partners recently, in Burundi and DRC, they told me that the pillars on protection and prevention are easier to work on because women and girls are seen as a vulnerable group that needs protection. Where there are challenges is the pillar on participation, because there is no political will – patriarchal gender norms are entrenched, making the participation component extremely difficult to implement.

A large group of men and women gathered to celebrate International Women's Day in DRC, 2014

Why and how was the women, peace and security resolution established?

The 1999 global advocacy campaign ‘From the Village to the Negotiating Table’, led to the adoption of resolution 1325.

International Alert was one of the leading organisations for the campaign and also played the role of international secretariat of the campaign. We had a very big role, but it was actually a coalition of international NGOs doing work on the ground, like us, and was led by women activists coming from the feminist and women’s peace movements.

I think there were a few reasons why this campaign took hold, but crucially, it was because of all the women on the ground.

Even though the campaign was run at the international level, it was the women in the countries where there was conflict and where peace processes were started who also wanted to have a say – it was their demands that started all of this. 

In Guatemala, UN Women were supportive of women’s involvement there [in the peace process], but it didn’t start with them. There was already a movement; women were doing everything to be part of the peace process.

In Burundi it was the same. Women were saying: “Men are discussing, negotiating. What about us, when we are the ones doing all the peacebuilding in the community and building bridges between the various communities going to take part? We also want to be involved; we can also contribute at a higher level.”

Alert brought these women peacebuilders to the discussions led by the UN, so they could share their experience and concerns and see how they could be included into the resolution. We brought a delegation of Burundian women to New York to these meetings and there were women from several other war zones in attendance too. It was all part of the campaign to make sure work at the local level, with local voices, were being fed into the global level.

This was an exciting time. I think that the adoption of 1325, despite its problems, was a major breakthrough. However, the resolution that was adopted did not go nearly as far as the proposition that the women’s movement really wanted on women, peace and security. And no wonder, when you know that the Security Council is a patriarchal place; a masculine place.

Country Profile: Burundi

Ndeye says:

There were no women signatories to the Burundi peace accord (2000), but it was the first African peace negotiation where you had women involved at the table of negotiation. Although there was only 1% of women involved, there was a specific effort to make sure that women were involved in the negotiation and they were also some provision on gender issues in the accord.

The President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, was acting as the regional mediator in the Burundi peace process and the President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, was the chief negotiator. The Burundian women activists knew they needed to target these powerful men.

There was a delegation of Burundian women who went to see President Museveni, spending four hours with him, to say they wanted to be part of the process. Museveni was quite open because not only was Uganda coming out of a war, but it also had a very strong women’s movement and very strong women in Parliament. The women from Burundi forged alliances with the women parliamentarians in Uganda to gain their support and help with President Museveni.

The Burundian women also went to see Nyerere and he was the one who virtually imposed the participation of women – he told the political parties, I want women to be part of it, even if there are only 1% at the end.

For me, being able to forge alliances with powerful people who have influence and who can help you come into the process is very important.

Of the women who did attend the peace process in Burundi, they organised consultations with local women to inform them about the peace talks, explain the process to them and also collect their views and concerns, to make sure that the voices of these women were heard and taken into account during the peace talks.

Following the adoption of resolution 1325, what progress have you seen when it comes to women, peace and security?

I think the good thing is that countries have developed 1325 national action plans on the back of it, but the problem is that very often these plans are not implemented. Very often there is no money to implement it and/or these plans tend to stand alone instead of being mainstreamed into the national policies.

I was talking to partners in the Democratic Republic of Congo a couple of weeks ago and they were saying that their first national action plan was developed in 2010, a second one is now planned for 2019 to 2021. However, one of the very prominent men in the provincial government had never heard about it. How can 1325 be implemented in South Kivu if people like him have never heard about it – someone who is supposed to implement it?

I think that we should be grateful that the women, peace and security agenda has been acknowledged by the international development community and by the UN, but I wonder if it should be renamed the ‘gender, peace and security agenda’. Maybe if we talk about gender, peace and security instead of women, peace and security, then it could be more holistic in its approach. We could also gather better gender analysis of some of the issues that women are facing.

What personally inspires you to keep working for the inclusion of women in peacebuilding?

All the women I have worked with over the years inspire me. I don’t want to name one person or one hero because I’ve worked with so many at all levels – grassroots women, activists, women from civil society, women parliamentarians and many more.

They are all fantastic women committed to working in such challenging environments, in countries that are at war or emerging from war. I was going to Burundi, DRC, etc. for 10 days or two weeks and then home again, but they were there the whole time. Some of them lost their lives because of the war.

For example, the Dushirehamwe group that we helped to set up consisted of 25 women peacebuilders in Burundi. Nine of them died because of illness. At the time of war, the healthcare system was completely down. When I saw these women, they were young, they had young kids. They were really devoted to their communities, they were living in the provinces, they were social workers, they were primary school teachers and, for me, they were the victims of the war. They were the victims. Very young women, very bright.

I remember one of them, she was very sick, but she still came from her province to Bujumbura to attend a training International Alert was facilitating. She died three months later. You could see she was not well; you could see she had lost a lot of weight. But she was determined to help right till the end.

For me, these are the women I’m inspired by. These women were fighting just to make their country a better place. When I meet these women, they keep me going and moving on.

Watch our high level panel on 20 years of the Women, Peace and Security agenda on Monday 11 May 2020

The panel is organised with Kvinna till Kvinna and is part of the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development co-hosted by SIPRI and the Swedish MFA.