Traditional roles for Somali women in peace-making and conflict resolution
To date no systematic account of local conflict-resolution systems has been described in the literature concerning the Somali people. The roles of women in either promoting conflict or promoting peace
have been even less documented. It is clear, however, that women did historically and do today play a role in promoting both war and peace.
Women are usually not part of formal peace negotiation and reconciliation meetings. There are several other ways in which they contribute to formal processes, however. Anthropologists have described a number of roles for women in conflict resolution, including the exchange of nubile girls in marriage and the solidifying of peace agreements and relationships between clans by intermarriage. These are indeed important in maintaining peaceful relationships in Somali society. Yet this is only one aspect of the roles that Somali women have played in building peace in their communities.
Since Somali marriages tend to be inter-clan (according to a Somali proverb, ‘We do not marry our friends’), women are frequently messengers between clans in peacetime and war. Women born into one disputing clan and married into the other often feel loyalty for both, and work hard to lower tensions between them. At such times, women with dual connections to opposing clans are often the only persons who have freedom of movement between hostile camps. They may be sent to state grievances and requests, and to carry responses back, often allowing the conflict to be resolved without violence. The importance of women as messengers has been underestimated in most literature.
Research carried out by a colleague and I in Kenya and Somalia has revealed other traditional roles of Somali women in peacemaking. A woman may resolve disputes at the family and extended family level, preserving harmony between herself and her husband, and ensuring good relationships between her daughters and their husbands. Somali society values hospitality and sociability very highly. It is a woman’s role to provide for guests to her household, and her skilful performance of this role is the backdrop against which clan deliberation and negotiation are set.
Somali society is an oral society, and good orators, both men and women, are highly regarded. Women’s opinions are heard and valued, although not often in public meetings. Women may also lend their weight to attempts at reconciliation by influencing formal proceedings, for example by organising prayer meetings seeking a return to peace.
The inclusion of elderly women in elders’ meetings may not be as rare as portrayed in much of the literature. At least in north eastern
Kenya women past child-bearing age attend councils of elders and may help settle disputes, although they cannot participate in all the activities of elders. These women ‘come to the tree’ where the elders meet, without specific invitation from the elders. They stay silent unless they disagree with the elders, in which case they interject their opinions, which are then considered by the elders in their ensuing discussions.