In July 1998 WPDC received a report that there was a conflict between the Degodia Fai clan and the Murrulle. The Fai clan had refused the Murrulle access to a water pan. On receiving this information the WPDC put together a rapid response team consisting of three elders, two women, and two government representatives, to visit the area and investigate, with the intention of mediating and finding a solution to the problem. There had previously been fighting between these two clans, so any small dispute report was taken seriously by the committee because it could escalate into bigger conflict and lead to violence.

The team travelled east about 90 miles from Wajir town. On reaching the village they met the area chief and community leaders. The meeting started with a prayer, after which the leader of the WPDC delegation explained the purpose of the visit. Community leaders explained that the problem had arisen because a Murrulle family had sick camels which had been refused access to water by the water management committee, requesting that they move to an area set aside for sick animals. The family was unwilling to accede to this request. The Rapid Response Team, asking the local Ber Janai elders to join them, visited the family concerned.

Two Rapid Response Team members – both women – were veteri­narians by profession; they checked for the disease the community had described and found that the camels were healthy. They reported their findings to the community representatives and to the family of the allegedly sick animals. The community representatives were not satisfied. The WDPC chairman asked each of the three groups – the family owning the camels, the Fai clan representatives, and the Rapid Response Team – to discuss the matter separately and propose solutions.

The family with the ‘sick’ camels proposed that, in the interests of peace, they would move away, since there was no scarcity of water and pasture. But they would do this on condition that they be given time to prepare for their journey, that all their livestock be given water while in transit, and that the Ber Janai elders should take responsibility for ensuring that they encounter no problems while leaving the area. The Rapid Response Team proposed that in addition, for the sake of the future peace, a member of the minority Murrulle clan be added to the water committee, so that they would feel part and parcel of Ber Janai. The clan representatives agreed to these proposals. At the suggestion of the Rapid Response Team a public meeting was called in which the resolution was made known to everyone in Ber Janai.

The conflict in Wajir is far from over. Although there is relative peace between the clans, there has been fresh conflict between one clan in Wajir and the neighbouring Boran tribe, and this has entailed large-scale human and material losses. WWP has again teamed up with the Wajir Peace and Development Committee to work on the problem with the neighbouring district.

Ten years ago, when the women’s peace group began in Wajir, peace was exclusively the concern of elders and government forces. Women were relegated to minor roles, and attempts were made to exclude them from the process. At one early meeting with elders from various clans, the question was asked: ‘What do these children have to do with peace? Why are they telling us what to do?’ Today, any mediation, dialogue or discussion concerning peace in Wajir District includes women as important and respected participants in the work for peace.

Conclusions

The wars affecting Somali societies appear to have fundamentally changed the perception of women’s roles in ending violent conflict and building a peaceful society. Current writing no longer completely ignores the contributions of Somali women, although a number of different explanations are given for their involvement in peace and development activities. Some writers see what has happened as nothing less than a profound reversal in gender roles and power relations. Others say the economic changes brought about by the wars, and subsequent increase in female-headed households, have led to the emergence of women’s voices in Somali society. Still others see this as the organic outgrowth of the roles that Somali women have always played. The truth is probably a complex interaction of all of these and more.

Women’s experience of peace-building has enabled them to develop their own perspectives on what peace means. They have come to believe that individuals involved in a conflict situation have a responsibility to work towards non-violent resolution: peace­building cannot and should not be left solely to leaders or outside intervenors. They have learned that peace and development are linked; without peace, development and economic stability cannot occur, and without underlying economic security, peace becomes impossible. As a testimony to this, the Somali women’s delegation to the 1995 Beijing Women’s Summit stated: ‘There is a strong predom­inance of women-led NGOs active in and for their communities. They have all seen that there can be no development in their communities and country without peace, and conversely, there can be no peace without development.’

To fulfil their potential in peace-building and development Somali women have learned to counter the passive, victim role often ascribed to them by people in their own society and by western scholars and media. They have come to recognise – almost intuitively – the importance of their place in a clan system in which patrilineal descent (based on the male line of descent) forms vertical divisions, while marriage ties create horizontal integration and have unifying potential.

Furthermore they have acknowledged that local initiatives must be the main instrument of peace work, with donor money and advice or training being an adjunct to the work, not the major push. And they have joined with wider peace efforts outside their own conflict, thus placing the conflicts that they are addressing within a wider framework. They take a broad view of a peaceful society, where children can be fed and educated, and where people can live in right relationships with each other. While supporting the work of (mostly) men in negotiating the fine points of settlements, they have themselves been less involved in the details of these settlements than in advocating for a just and peaceful community in which to live and raise their children.

It would be naive to ignore the problems Somali women face in peace-making. Their role has not been accepted easily, either within the local or international community. Gender bias does not disappear during violent conflict, and while women’s roles are often expanded during situations of crisis, they are pressured to return to the status quo after it ends. Women active in peace work have been threatened, both by their own clans and by others. (Of course, neither women nor Somalis are alone in this; working for peaceful solutions in the midst of a violent conflict is often a dangerous occupation.) The peace processes in Somali society, both inter­nationally and locally, continue to be male-dominated, and women’s contributions are often dismissed or ignored. Some fear a backlash against women active in peace and development, which may push women out of the roles that they currently occupy. The way forward is not an easy one; but it is a road that many women must take in order to restore their societies, live out their lives, and raise their children and grandchildren.

Conflict resolution theory and practice have relied on top-level negotiations between leaders of the opposing parties, often with the intervention of powerful third-party negotiators. However, theorists increasingly recognise the importance of an integrated and multi­faceted approach to peace-making, encompassing a variety of roles and activities. They acknowledge the role of mid-level players who can connect the top-level leaders with society’s grassroots, as well as connect horizontally through the dividing lines in the society. In Somali society women such as those involved in Wajir Women for Peace are ideally placed to function as these connecting points, serving as bridges both vertically and horizontally in Somali society. Recognising and supporting these women’s groups is important in helping to build sustainable peace in Somali communities.

It is our hope that this initial discussion of women’s roles in peace­making and conflict resolution in Somali society will validate the important roles that Somali women have played, and continue to play in forging a just and peaceful society, and will stimulate further work and research in this area.

I would like finally to end with a quote from an elder who was attending a peace meeting in Wajir: [3]