AU official tips on the role of women in democratisation and peace building

A fortnight ago, a high level two-day Gender Pre forum was held in Kigali to discuss the role of women in peace building and democratisation. The meeting attracted gender experts from all over the continent.

A fortnight ago, a high level two-day Gender Pre forum was held in Kigali to discuss the role of women in peace building and democratisation. The meeting attracted gender experts from all over the continent. 

The theme of the meeting “Silencing the guns: Women in democratisation and peace building in Africa” highlighted the vulnerabilities and challenges women face in conflict situations and their role in building democratic governance and peace on the continent.

The African Union Commissioner for Political Affairs, Dr Aisha Laraba Abdullahi, spoke to Doreen Umutesi about the progress of women in democratisation and peace building.

Women have been at the forefront of peace building initiatives although they have not been recognised. Why the campaign of Silencing the Guns now?

At the grass roots level in some countries, especially here in Rwanda, women have played an active role and they continue to play active roles. But this is not true for all the countries on the continent. Yes, women bear the brunt of conflict, crisis and displacements. Women don’t only look after themselves; they look after the children and family during crisis. When we look at the crisis, women are not the ones that trigger the crisis but they suffer more than men.

It’s acknowledged that women are part of the solution so they need to be brought to the forefront. We should try and raise an army of women mediators because at the grass roots level, women play an active role but when the mediation process starts, women are relegated.

We are trying to create a women network for lesson and experience sharing. For example, when we visited the reconciliation village here in Bugesera, women from South Sudan were amazed at how it’s possible for the victim and perpetrator to stay in the same village, being able to forgive one another and reconcile. This is one thing that we would want to promote. We will continue the dialogue.

As the Political Affairs Commissioner, what do you have to say about the limited participation of women in the political spheres in Africa?

Dr Aisha Laraba Abdullahi during the interview. (Timothy Kisambira)

We don’t only do advocacy for women; we also build networks to strengthen the women. We do this with, for example, parliamentarians and other stakeholders. For example for this forum we came to Rwanda because the country is a shining example in women empowerment. We try to promote best practices, share experiences and also try to amplify voices of women. We fundraise to get resources to support women’s activities and participation in development. As long as we don’t link the issues of governance, peace, security and development, then our vision of a prosperous continent with women as active participants would remain an illusion. Therefore women’s participation is very vital just like men.

We also have instruments at the African Union like the Women‘s Protocol which is an additional protocol to the Charter of Human and People’s Rights that addresses issues such as affirmative action. Last year we celebrated 10 years of the protocol and it was also time for stock taking.

What challenges do you encounter to get member states implement such practices that protect and promote women’s rights?

We are increasingly getting more of our member states to provide quotas for women but we don’t want it to remain at that. The quota for women in democratic elections should be like a spring board, it shouldn’t be the end.

But because women face multiple challenges in society, like having to run the home, they don’t really have the money to go into politics. So as we encourage women to be more active, we also have to look for ways to, as I said before, link it to development. Because if they are not economically empowered, they can’t play that active role that we expect them to play.

What mechanism is in place to ensure the sustainability of women involvement in the Silencing the Gun initiative?

We have had dialogue on ‘Silencing the Guns’ for three years now. We shall have the flagship dialogue at the end of this month in Dakar, Senegal. The forum we have held here in Kigali is a pre-meeting to the dialogue. But it’s the first women forum that we are holding. We don’t just want to stop at holding women forums.

We would want, for example, to start with this network of women that are here to spread it to other women, we shall continue to dialogue online. We are also going to make sure that the outcome from this meeting in Kigali fits very well within the major dialogue forum. We shall see how collectively as women we can raise our voices, raise money, and support other women and also inform the African Union periodically on the progress towards women democratisation and peace building.

Briefly tell us how you’re able to handle and solve problems caused by governance deficits in the member states.

Africa has come a long way. Fifty years ago, founders were talking about decolonisation and bringing an end to apartheid and issues of African unity. However since the transformation from Organisation of African Union to African Union, Africa is looking ahead. It’s focusing more on economic integration but most importantly political integration of the African continent in terms of peace and prosperity driven by its own citizens.

However, prosperity will continue to remain a mirage until we identify the root causes of conflict, prevent them effectively and also bring an end to the current conflict and crisis that we have on the continent.

The department of political affairs at African Union is in charge of conflict prevention on the continent. We are saddled with the mandate of promoting good governance on the continent. There is an evident deficit of good governance on the continent.

We do this through a framework called the African Governance Architecture (AGA). AGA is seen as a vehicle for promoting good governance and we have defined it in five thematic areas.

We deal with the area of constitutionalism and law, democracy and elections, human rights and transitional justice, governance and humanitarian affairs.

We are able to do this through the African Governance Platform. For example our trip to Rwanda is a platform activity. The platform provides us with a forum for continuous interactions with the organs, the union and civil society with our partners and the private sectors.

How do you juggle work and family since most of the work you do requires a lot of travelling?

I’m still raising children. I have a 12 and 17-year-old. It’s usually hard to balance work and family. I’m a mother of seven children. I communicate regularly when I travel; I also try to ensure that I have people that are looking after the children when I’m away. I always make sure my children; husband and my community are not forgotten. Family is important because it’s a source of security and being at peace but it should not deter us from making our contribution in society. I encourage other women to continue to pursue the three vital roles as effectively as they can.

I think it’s all about building self esteem; as women we should remain active members of society.

We should cease to be tools of exploitation by the opposite sex and also change the mindset in us that we are the weaker sex.

Is your career path what you wanted as a child?

When I was growing up, my dream was to be a pharmacist. I ended up studying chemistry. My PhD is in Organic Chemistry. However, I was appointed as an ambassador after serving as a public servant and suddenly I became a pseudo politician. I was posted as an ambassador to the Republic of Guinea, a country that was at the time facing a crisis.

Having come from Nigeria, a country that plays a role of big brother in that sub-region, my role in diplomacy, relating with political party actors became stronger and I was recognised for that. It’s the passion in me to create harmony, to build bridges after a conflict and bring men and women to the negotiating table that keeps me going.