Somali society is modernising, with a small but growing minority of women receiving education and entering professional occupations. These women are increasingly being recognised as vital to current conflict resolution and peace-building. Wajir Women for Peace is an organisation that illustrates this trend.

Between 1992 and 1998 a violent inter-clan conflict raged in Wajir District, in the north eastern province of Kenya. Although exacerbated by the concurrent conflict in neighbouring Somalia and Ethiopia, with refugees, arms and mercenary soldiers flowing into the district, the Wajir conflict was rooted in local and national issues, including grazing and water rights, parliamentary political represen­tation, and the impoverishment and displacement of thousands of families caused by several cycles of severe drought. Unlike the war in Somalia, this conflict, though devastating to the local population, was limited in area and hardly noticed by the rest of Kenya let alone the international community.

Wajir is one of the largest and driest districts in Kenya. Its population, excepting civil servants and military personnel, is almost entirely ethnic Somali. More than 80 per cent of the population are nomadic pastoralists, with livestock herds of camels, cattle and goats. A ‘closed district’ during the colonial era, Wajir remained under a state of emergency from Kenya’s independence in 1963 until 1992. The Somali people of North Eastern Province, including Wajir District, fought an unsuccessful war for secession from Kenya in the mid to late 1960s.

At the height of the fighting in Wajir District in 1993, all public transport to the district had stopped, lorry traffic (including vehicles bringing food and relief supplies) was disrupted, herd movement for water and pasture was curtailed, most schools and health centres closed, and normal life, for both pastoral and urban Somalis, was impossible.

By 1993 the entire district, pastoral areas as well as trading centres, were insecure. Wajir town was divided into clan zones, and people avoided areas of the town not controlled by their own clan. In the market, women refused to buy or sell to members of other clans, which often included their husbands’ relatives. Fights broke out, resulting in injuries to several women, and further heightening tension in the market place.

At this time several educated Somali women attending a wedding observed that they could go to the wedding together but not visit each other’s homes because of inter-clan disputes. Three women decided to begin work to restore peace and security to their community. They began by spending a week visiting the educated women in Wajir town, representing all clans. The 16 women initially contacted agreed to invite more from their clans to a general meeting of ‘all women in Wajir who love peace’. The first meeting, in July 1993, was attended by more than 60 women, both urban and pastoral. This meeting was very emotional, and focused on the power the women had either to cause the violence to continue or to bring peace to the district.

In that meeting the women agreed to work together for peace in Wajir. The first step was the formation of a committee to monitor the market and mediate in the case of violence, and to bring the market women into the new group, called Wajir Women for Peace (WWP). The committee met every day for over a month with the market women, focusing on the causes of violence and hatred, and the women’s responsibilities. The market women’s theme was that ‘the men start the violence, but it is we and our children who suffer’. Soon many of the women joined the new peace group: fighting at the market stopped and trading normalised.

The initial goals for WWP were to restore peace in Wajir, to reconcile women in conflict and to mobilise the rest of the community toward peace. Membership was, from the beginning, open to any woman in Wajir committed to peace, with no registra­tion or dues. An effort was made to involve women from all clans and social strata. Initially, the group functioned as a grassroots effort mobilising women at family and village levels towards peace rather than violence. Later on, the women realised that the work of peace is not only for women, and that the issues were too complex to handle on their own. They approached concerned men and the District Administration to enlist them in the cause of peace, and in 1995 they together formed a coalition of groups (women, elders, youth, business people, religious leaders, NGO representatives and government representatives) which came to be called the Wajir Peace and Development Committee (WPDC). In 1995 the WPDC became a member of the Kenya Peace and Development Network, linking the local efforts to a national organisation.

WWP, as a member of the coalition, took a leading role in the WPDC, occupying committee positions and acting as trainers and mediators. Women travelled around the district, visiting trading centres and nomadic encampments, and appealing to women to stop the violence. This was done especially by three women elders, well respected for their integrity and wisdom. Training was an important part of their work, and the women organised a series of workshops throughout the district for elders, chiefs and councillors, religious leaders, youth and the District Security Committee. Each of these workshops focused on the violence, and appealed to members to stop encouraging violence and work for peace.

In 1995 and 1996 district-wide peace festivals were held celebrating the return of security and decrease of violence. The women of Wajir were involved in all stages of organising the festival, and took part with poetry and songs that had messages of reconciliation. The guest of honour at the celebration commended the women of Wajir for their efforts in bringing peace back to the district.

Fundraising has been an important part of WWP’s work, since many of the activities involve extensive travel and food and accom­modation costs for workshops and other activities. Early on the women collected funds from local business people to facilitate their own activities as well as the activities of the Elders for Peace group. Later, representatives of the women’s group (by then also represent­ing the other peace groups) approached NGOs and others for funding. The main external funding for peace work in Wajir has come from Oxfam (UK/I), Quaker Peace and Service, and Mennonite Central Committee.

A recent activity of the women’s group is to help with the rehabil­itation of ex-militia. Through conversation with these men, the women recognised that the basis of their fighting was their economic need. Therefore, the women’s groups have begun making small loans (about US$35) to wives of ex-militia members to enable them to start small businesses. The women are required to repay the loan at 35 cents per day. This project seems promising in assisting in the prevention of recurrent problems.

WWP members have been part of direct inter-clan mediation to stop violent incidents. Again it has been mostly older women who have travelled throughout the district, and have intervened in specific situations of violence. In the following example, women were involved in direct mediation with elders and government officials.