When Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee led women in song at the fish markets on the Liberian coast in the late 1990s, she began one of the most striking peace movements of our time. Amidst brutal civil war, Gbowee mobilized women across diverse religious and political affiliations to demand inclusion in their country’s peace process. As they advanced from church basements to picket lines to presidential palaces, little did Gbowee know she would inspire women over a decade later, almost three thousand miles away in the war-ravaged eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
One afternoon in May, I sat with Justine Masika Bihamba in her tile-floored living room in North Kivu’s gritty, vibrant provincial capital of Goma. Bihama coordinates women’s organizations throughout eastern Congo to strengthen advocacy. Sipping from a tall glass bottle of bright orange soda and weaving Gbowee’s story throughout her own, she told me her plans for raising women’s voices in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
Congo is facing a pivotal transition marked by the recent defeat of the rebel group M23, ongoing armed violence, and elections looming. Late last year, M23 and Congolese government leaders negotiated repeatedly, finally signing limited agreements in mid-December. The next round of regional peace talks is now underway, led by Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos and facilitated by UN special envoy Mary Robinson and US Special Envoy Russ Feingold.
“We’ve asked to be included.” said Bihamba, her eyes narrowing. “But Angola will only talk to heads of state. We were told we were poor and no one would assist us.”
As international and regional stakeholders in the Great Lakes peace process wrap up their last conversations at the White House US-Africa Leaders Summit and head home, they should prioritize finding a concrete way to include women’s voices in high level peace talks. In her most recent post as U.N. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region, Mary Robinson helped promote women’s voices. She traveled to eastern Congo numerous times to meet with women’s groups, and recently launched the Great Lakes Women’s Platform, promising to distribute millions in funding to women’s groups across the region. But empowering women at the grassroots is distinct from including them in high-level peace talks. Both are critical, but one is being left out in Congo.
Robinson just announced she is leaving her post to take up a new role focused on confronting climate change. She has had a seat at the negotiating table since March of 2013 and promised to represent women’s voices. Given Robinson’s impending absence, the need for a formal inclusion mechanism is even more urgent. Now is the time for leaders of the regional dialogues to commit to listening to women’s voices and guarantee opportunities for participation.
Many of the women I spoke to in eastern Congo consider Robinson an ally. “Robinson is on our side,” Bihamba told me. “She knows we’ve been bearing the brunt of this violence. But the problem remains: there are no resources for inclusion.” In fact, says Bihamba, there isn’t even a system to keep them informed of developments.
Although Robinson was not a cure-all for the exclusive nature of the region’s peace talks, she was a beacon of hope for women of the Great Lakes. Her newly appointed successor, Said Djinnit, should personally prioritize women’s input, especially with renewed momentum on the heels of this week’s Summit. He should personally prioritize women’s input, carrying on the critical relationships that Robinson built with local female leaders to ensure the momentum they built together is not lost in the transition.
Beyond “Women’s Issues”
When women are absent from peace talks, so too are issues considered exclusive to them like sexual violence and maternal health. In reality, these are grave crises that concern society writ large and Congo can’t afford to ignore them. But women bring more than just “women’s issues” to the table. Mireille Ntambuka leads a coalition of Congolese female lawyers committed to improving Congo’s security sector reform. Though Ntambuka agrees Robinson has made strides, she says there are no formal channels to feed their ideas into the regional dialogues: “She reaches out to us, and she’s connected to the ‘big men.’ This is an opportunity, but we don’t have results yet. It will require political concessions.”
Testifying before a recent U.S. Senate hearing Jacqueline O’Neill of the Institute for Inclusive Security explained that when women are included in peace processes, “they broaden the discussion…to address the underlying drivers of conflict and reduce the structural barriers that contribute to violence and discrimination.”
“We need a different approach,” Robinson has acknowledged, “One that includes the society as a whole, with a due role given to women.”
Inspiration from Liberia
Risking their lives and livelihoods, the women of Liberia worked for years, holding meetings, marching, and staging protests. Their sacrifices worked. They ultimately reached Liberia’s capital with a simple statement for then-President Charles Taylor: they wanted peace. Their pressure resulted in an historic peace deal in Accra, Ghana, after months of stalemate.
A similar groundswell is growing in Congo. Hundreds of women convene regular meetings, screen documentaries about Liberia’s successes, and assert their demands to their husbands and authorities.
The burden on women to finance their own coordination and tirelessly justify the value of their voices — prerequisites for inclusion — was inappropriate during Liberia’s transition, and it is now in Congo. If need be, Congolese women will carry those burdens. But heads of state and facilitators are responsible for establishing inclusion measures, and they should do that, freeing up ordinary citizens to generate ideas and build healthier civil societies.
“We’ve always been good at organizing, for decades,” Bihamba says. “We don’t need training on that. We need resources to reach surrounding villages. We need access to the high level.”
Creating an inclusive peace process will not happen overnight. But in Congo, it will pay dividends by leading to more viable agreements.
As regional dialogues in the Great Lakes region continue, President dos Santos and Special Envoys Feingold and Djinnit should push for the establishment of a feedback loop that updates communities about the regional dialogues and channels their input into the conversation. Female representatives from the region should participate directly or through parallel structures. No longer should it be possible for heads of state to ignore women’s voices as they negotiate the terms of Congo’s transition to peace.
Without these measures, not only will the region’s peace talks suffer, but they will entrench the notions of gender inequality and silencing already exacerbated by Congo’s war. And thus the talks will fail in their most basic objective: to set the region on a path to sustainable, equitable peace.
“So is there a march to the capital in order?” I asked Bihamba, a playful nod to Gbowee’s now famous journey. Bihamba smiled, then lifted her eyebrows. “It’s a thousand miles from the Kivus to Kinshasa. We’ll do it if we have to.”