Perspectives from Africa,
engagement from Finland

Understanding Africa

Representing Africans


Fireworks at Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fireworks in Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

How Scandinavians support women in war

Women are almost always the greatest civilian victims of armed conflicts, mainly because they bear the brunt of sexual violence by combatants. This has been painfully demonstrated in recent African conflicts such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. The US has estimated that at least 500,000 women have been raped in conflicts in Africa over the last 20 years, according to Xolisa Nkosi, chief operations officer in South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco).

Katja Nordgaard spoke of Norway’s role in the mediation of conflict in MyanmarIn the Kivus provinces of eastern DRC, epicentre of warfare for two decades, DRC soldiers have perpetrated about one third of the countless rapes, he said at this month’s seminar on Women in Conflict Resolution and Peace Building, organised by Dirco and the Norwegian embassy in Pretoria.

In an attempt to address this problem, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 in 2000, urging equal participation of women in all peacemaking efforts and other measures to end sexual violence against women and girls in armed conflicts. Since then participation of women in mediation and other peacemaking efforts has certainly increased. And studies suggest that has helped to end many conflicts. But clearly there is much still to be done, judging by the continuing sexual violence in places like South Sudan, for instance.

At the Dirco seminar Norwegian diplomat Katja Nordgaard described Norway’s role in the mediation of the six-decades long conflict in Myanmar (Burma) when she was ambassador there between 2010 and 2013. The negotiations ended the long military rule and brought internationally-renowned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to power after democratic elections in 2015.

Nordgaard said Norway was able to contribute through the contacts it had established by supporting the democracy movement and civil society there since the 1990s- and also because it was one of the first Western countries to engage with the military-backed government, recognizing that it “was actually serious about moving towards democracy.”

In 2012 President Thein Sein asked Norway to mobilise international support for the peace process he had launched through negotiations with the country’s many ethnic armies. Norway entered the peace process gradually through offering humanitarian and development assistance at the local level, which was managed by village committees. These brought villagers and the military together, breaking down mistrust. Norway also insisted on women being fully represented on these committees, and that gradually broke down the resistance by men to women being involved in the peace negotiations.

Gry Larsen gave an account of her involvement in peace negotiations between the Columbian government and the FARC rebelsThere had been no women in any of the official delegations to the first talks in 2011 but that began to change. Nordgaard’s colleague Gry Larsen, gave a similar account of her involvement, when she was Norway’s deputy foreign minister, in the peace negotiations to end more than 50 years of war between the Columbian government and the FARC rebels which had cost about 220,000 lives and displaced six million people. The official talks began in Norway in 2012 and ended this week in Havana, Cuba, with a comprehensive peace agreement.

As in Myanmar, there were no women in the delegations of either the Columbian government or the FARC delegations when their official negotiations were launched in Oslo in 2012. Nor had the 2012 framework agreement, which was the agenda for the talks, made any mention of a gender perspective or of women’s participation. But that gradually changed as Columbian women – encouraged by Norway - increased their agitation for full participation in the negotiations and for the inclusion of concerns about how the conflict had affected women.

A “huge milestone” was reached in September 2014 when the Columbian government and the FARC themselves established a gender commission to give women a role in the negotiations and to review all the agreements so far to ensure they included a gender perspective. But does the inclusion of women in peace processes necessarily increase the chances of success?

Nordgaard said her Myanmar experience had shown her, that “it is always a dilemma how much one should push in a heated situation in order to secure the inclusion of women - it is necessary to find a pragmatic balance.”

Sweden’s Lena Sundh, former deputy chief of the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (Mousco), made this point even more explicitly. She noted that the two aims of Resolution 1325 – and the wider effort to increase participation of women in peacemaking efforts – were not always compatible. And when they clashed the aim of protecting women from sexual violence had to be considered more important that attaining equal representation for women in peacemaking efforts. To illustrate, she described how she once travelled to a village in eastern DRC to mediate peace talks between two warring militias.

She was greeted at the airport by a huge crowd of women demanding an end to the conflict – and the sexual violence against them which it always brought. But she noted when she got to the talks that there wasn’t a single woman in either side’s delegation. “Should I have said; sorry, no women, no negotiations? That would have betrayed those women who met me at the airport.”

Martti Ahtisaari ran Finland’s Crisis Management InitiativeSo she proceeded with the men-only negotiations and helped achieve a ceasefire. Nevertheless she, Nordgaard and Larsen were all certain that involving women in peace mediation improved the chances of success. Nordgaard said in her experience women were sometimes more results-oriented. They were more interested in seeking solutions to conflicts for the sake of their families and their children.

“As things are today in the world, women are supposed to protect their families and so they are more inclined to avoid conflict. They are more ready to reach across to the other side and to compromise.”

In the efforts to resolve the Myanmar conflict she had found that men were instead often preoccupied with power, the control of territory and arms. Finnish Johanna Poutanen agreed. She said a recent UN study had shown that half of peace agreements failed in the first five years but including women as mediators increased the chances of success by 35 per cent. She was the country manager in Juba of Finland’s Crisis Management Initiative - a peace mediation NGO run by Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari - when the civil war erupted there in December 2013. In 2014 she had helped women parliamentarians from all sides of the conflict to launch an initiative to bring the influence of women to bear on peace efforts. This initiative established a two-way connection to the formal peace talks launched by the regional IGAD organisation, feeding the views of civil society into the negotiations and conversely, informing civil society what was happening in the negotiations.

Poutanen said they first worrying about how few women were in the formal peace delegations but had then realised there were other ways for women to influence the talks. “It was not about counting the women but making their voices count,” she said.

One channel of influence was of the women on each other. Because they represented all political and ethnic groups, they became an instrument and a symbol of unity in a fractured society. Though vicious fighting erupted again between the rival forces last month, the MPs had increased their efforts to promote reconciliation and coalition building.

“They continue to walk the talk,” she said.

Nordgaard and Larsen said the Dirco seminar had confirmed the absolute importance of including women in all peace efforts. It had also shown there were “no more excuses” not to do so. In Africa, the Nordic countries and elsewhere there was now a large and growing body of accumulated experience of women in peacemaking. This includes Dirco’s Capacity Building Programme for Women on Conflict resolution and Negotiation, which graduated a class of 60 at the seminar.

“If a conflict breaks out there are no excuses anymore for not getting women on the ground,” said Norgaard.
“No more excuses,” Larsen agreed.

Peter Fabricius

Independent Newspapers, South Africa


mobille: +27824537110

office: +27116332579

fax: +27118368274