Comment & analysis

Women’s meaningful participation in building peace: insights from Myanmar and Somalia

8 March 2019 Halima Godane and Saw Lin Chel Women’s meaningful participation in building peace: insights from Myanmar and Somalia

For International Women’s Day this year, we sat down with the founder of the Somali Women Solidarity Organisation (SWSO), Halima Godane, and Saferworld’s programme manager in Myanmar, Saw Lin Chel, to discuss how peacebuilding organisations can involve women more meaningfully in their work.

What day-to-day challenges do women face in Somalia?

Halima Godane (HG): In Somalia, many women have a low standard of education as they are not encouraged to go to school because of the financial challenges families face. Education for boys is prioritised over girls in many families, meaning few girls are able to go to university. This means they aren’t able to develop practical skills, like English and computer expertise, making it difficult for them to get jobs. Education is hugely important, so we [SWSO] organise debates and get women to brainstorm cultural barriers to their empowerment in society, and provide literacy education to improve their reading and writing. There is also a need for organisations to support women who run small businesses with funding or training. 

Women and girls are also affected by early and forced marriage – some forced to marry as early as 15 years. In many cases, they become dependent on their husbands, losing opportunities and access to their rights in society. To help address these issues they need lawyers to defend their rights, particularly female lawyers. This is something SWSO is doing, along with other organisations in Mogadishu, but it needs to be expanded to Jubaland. We are also raising awareness about the dangers of early and forced marriage.

What steps should be taken when designing a project to allow for meaningful participation from women?

HG: When designing a project, we must include women’s concerns from the start. Women experience all the problems related to conflict, so they need to be involved in all aspects of conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Women are disproportionately affected by conflict when compared to men: they raise children who cannot go to schools, they can be raped or killed, or the father or husband might be absent because he is off fighting, for example. Because of this, it is crucial to include women in conflict prevention. However, they face many barriers to meaningful participation, most of which are linked to their obligations as women. For example, programmes need to be aware that mothers need support funding their childcare if they are to participate in projects or consultations.

An example of how we support women’s meaningful participation in peacebuilding at SWSO is through the Kismayo Women Peace Platform. These women sit together to develop their own plans for action to reduce violence and conflict, and we support them to implement them. Women in Kismayo are now looking to improve their skills to provide support for their families as well as to influence decisions that affect their lives —women are now at the forefront of organisations working on peace.

Saw Lin Chel (SLC): In our work with Saferworld Myanmar, the first step we take is to review existing reports and research on gender and women’s needs in the target area. Then we meet and discuss with civil society organisations working on gender —including women’s rights organisations – to learn about their priorities, needs, challenges, and opportunities for working on gender and women’s development projects. After identifying a partner organisation, we conduct a joint workshop to dig deeper into the gender issues, and understand the barriers and opportunities women face in participating in their communities as well as in the project itself. The final step is to design the project together with the partners, taking into account the previous steps, and with the support of gender experts in both organisations.

What are the main challenges in ensuring peace or development programmes account for gender and include women? What are the challenges when ensuring the participation of women from diverse backgrounds?

HG: Firstly, women’s organisations and programmes have very small amounts of funding to finance their existence and activities, and few programmes can specifically focus on the needs of women. Women need more support than can be provided. Secondly, projects that focus too heavily on women’s participation in Somalia sometimes face a backlash from men who think there aren’t enough projects that support them. So it’s important to involve both men and women and explain how supporting women directly supports families and benefits communities – through providing training for them to get better skilled jobs and increase their income opportunities.

SLC: There are many challenges to consider, and many are related to gender norms that question the need to focus on women’s rights and empowerment. Firstly, most civil society and communities in Myanmar see working on gender as working only on women’s issues. We found that in places where this was the dominant perception, work on gender issues could create conflicts and barriers between men and women. For example, when only women participate in our community groups, this can cause problems because their husbands complain that they are failing to fulfil their duties as a housewife. Second, some communities perceive those who work on gender negatively, even going as far as to label them extremists. In general, these negative perceptions are based on the fact that in Myanmar, cultural norms value the roles of men more than women, and challenging this is one of the strongest challenges in gender-sensitive approaches to peacebuilding. Third, because of these norms, women are sometimes financially dependent on men, they worry about what their community would think of them if they challenge these norms by working on women’s issues, and they may even face risks in their home or community for doing it. Because of this, it’s important to work with men and women and include the impact of the contribution of women in their communities, rather than just on the numbers of women involved.

A woman coal trader sitting outside her stock in Mandalay, Myanmar. Photo: Saferworld.

How can we support not only women’s participation, but women’s leadership and decision-making in projects?

HG: Due to the conflict in Somalia, there needs to be reconciliation among communities before a deeper approach to women’s advancement and rights can take place. But there is no doubt women can play a role in reconciliation efforts. For example in Kismayo, SWSO have set up reconciliation projects and platforms for women to talk to young people and advocate for their rights to regional authorities and parliamentary members of Jubaland. 

We have also supported women to come up with their own action plans and ways of mediation. For example, when two clans fight, we supported them to mediate between the two clans and work towards peace. 

SLC: When we talk about improving the participation of women in leadership roles and decision-making, we normally forget about how men and the roles and power they have can be the biggest barriers for women. We have to aim to challenge the root causes of gender inequality, which includes improving the awareness of men so that they see the value and therefore support the creation of opportunities for women to participate more in leadership and decision-making, and cope with these changes in a positive way. 

How do you address cultural and traditional norms that may challenge women’s participation?

HG: Since many families are very poor and men continue to hold most of the decision-making power, when women get benefits – like training or money – men continue to try to dominate. If a woman gets money to start a business or buy something, husbands sometimes control their finances. So it’s important for projects to consult with elders – and both men together with women – to explain how supporting women can help families in general. This helps to increase support for women participating.

SLC: This takes time and you must adapt to the changing context with flexible projects to address these issues at their roots, and take time to consult with all members of a community. Sometimes we might have to challenge traditional values to improve or change negative cultural norms, and this can take time and can be sensitive, especially in a conflict-affected setting.

What support can international organisations and institutions provide for women’s groups and civil society working to build peace?

SLC: Through our work, we support organisations to do their job in a conflict and gender-sensitive way by minimising possible harm to communities and including the different needs women and men have in relation to their work. Donors should work with these international organisations and institutions to develop tools to measure the meaningful participation of women in their programmes and encourage them to ensure their work always accounts for how women can be included.


 *Interview edited for clarity.

Top photo: Somali women lawmakers attend the closing session of a workshop on capacity building in Mogadishu. Photo: AMISOM / Ilyas Ahmed.