The above is an excerpt from one of the most famous peace poems composed by Saado Abdi Amare which she first recited publicly, in the form of a woman crying in protest (baror), in 1994 during the conflict in Somaliland. It expresses the poet’s sadness and surprise at the renewal of conflict when people had thought the civil war was over.3
Traditionally women in Somali pastoral society play an indirect but important part in conflict resolution. In the early stages of a conflict they can act as peace envoys for their clans and are sometimes the ‘first messengers sent between disputing clans to break the ice’. As Sadia Musse Ahmed notes in Chapter 2, when final peace agreements are reached they can be sealed with the exchange of a woman (or women) to be brides to their clan’s former enemy. (See Chapter 6)
In the past decade women across Somalia have been deeply involved in peace promotion and peace-making. As well as exerting influence in private over their husbands, sons, brothers and uncles, the traditional means women could use to influence political decision-making, they have organised themselves and exerted collective influence at the community and wider level. Women’s important contributions to ending violence and promoting peace have included formal presentations to warring parties, demonstrations, direct action, petitioning of politicians and elders, and provision of logistical and financial support to peace processes. Many have used the country’s most popular form of expression, poetry, composing influential poems and songs for peace – and for war.
Yet when it comes to policy level peace consultations, or the documentation of events, women are still excluded and their contributions to peace overlooked; perhaps because their contribution has not been considered important enough to be recorded or perhaps because it is taken for granted that women will be against war. Justice Africa points out:
In most societies women are seen as a force for peace and harmony, as nurturers and carers. This may be a myth, a cultural construct, that actually originates in sexist values … The fact that women participate in war and atrocity shows that women have a choice: when women advocate for peace, it is not because they are naturally programmed to do so, but because they have made a moral choice to do so. This should make their contribution all the more valuable.4, 5
Women across Somalia have expressed their choice – mobilising others within their local communities, and beyond, to promote peace. For example, in 1994 women prevented a collapse of the Muduug peace accord; in 1993 women in Bossaso publicly demonstrated to promote a stable peace and this resulted in the creation of a peace enforcement police force; in Kismayo district women provided financial support and played key, informal roles at reconciliation meetings.6
Women peace activists in Somalia have been at the forefront of initiatives to demobilise combatants and to address peace-building and human rights needs. Based in Mogadishu, the women’s umbrella organisation Coalition for Grassroots Women’s Organisations (COGWO) is a leading peace and women’s rights promoter, chaired by Mariam Abdulle Qaawane. Also in Mogadishu is the Dr Ismail Juma’le Human Rights Centre established by Mariam Hussein Mohamed, and among the many individual women who have worked to restore security to their communities, the achievements in Merca of the late Starlin Abdi Arush will be among the most remembered. A tribute to her is presented on page 215.
This section consists of three chapters. Chapter 6, ‘Women and peace-making in Somaliland’, details women’s actions in Somaliland where local peace processes in the early 1990s re-established national stability and law and order, bringing to an end periods of violent conflict which affected areas of the country between 1991 and 1996. (See Chronology on page 228 for the pattern of conflict in Somaliland and Somalia) Chapter 7, ‘Women, clan identity and peace-building’, explores the view that unlike men whose sense of self is intimately bound up with their clan membership, women lack an exclusive clan identity. Sometimes referred to by women as women’s ‘dual identity’, it is argued here that this position enables them to go beyond clan interests, and hence be strong advocates in the search for peace. Chapter 7 also explains why, within a clan-based system, women continue to be excluded from power. Chapter 8, ‘Women’s roles in peace-making in the Somali community in north eastern Kenya’, is a study of how women have intervened to try to end years of violent inter-clan conflict in Wajir, a district in the Somali-speaking region of north eastern Kenya. Although this conflict was not rooted in the war in neighbouring Somalia, what was happening in Somalia affected Wajir and exacerbated the fighting.