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Let's Not Reinvent The Peace-making Wheel

25 November 2001

If we are looking for signs that the sordid mess in Afghanistan is not hopeless, we should consider the surprising recent experience of Somalia.

Tribal conflict? Underdevelopment? Religious extremism? Superpower proxy wars? Armed intervention? Like Afghanistan, Somalia had all of those. It still does, in parts, but the backbone structures of a civil society are in place.

Today the majority of Somalia is more stable than it has been in a decade. Formerly warring clan leaders occupy seats in a transition parliament. So do 25 women who are not just token representatives, but are real leaders in their communities.

The alliance that controls Afghanistan's capital and much of its countryside agreed Tuesday to attend power-sharing talks in Germany next week. The top U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, says talks which will hopefully begin Monday in or near Berlin, are aimed at paving the way for a much larger grand council which would establish a new government.

The Berlin meeting will be attended by three groups aside from the Northern Alliance -- all largely made up of Afghan exiles and all including Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. (The Taliban, whose leadership was mostly Pashtun, are excluded.)

Bringing peace to an underdeveloped country that has been devastated by drought and combat, and ripped apart by local patriarchs and foreign agents who have manipulated religion and ethnicity for their own, often psychotic, ends . . . well, it sounds like an impossible task. But it's not as if it hasn't been done before.

Consider Somalia, and while you're considering, consider a possibility: When it comes to peacemaking, women may have already invented the wheel.

"It's the world's best kept secret," says Hibaaq Ossman, a Somali-born women's rights organizer. Ossman heads up the all-too-little-known Center for the Strategic Initiatives of Women that worked for a decade in Somalia after 1993.

In 1993, US troops under UN command left a lawless and chaotic place. "Women were raped, buried alive, bombs were placed in their vaginas. The brutality was unimaginable," recalls Ossman.

In August 2000, the country welcomed a president and a parliament that represented the four main Somali clans, minority clans and women. The initiative was the result of a three-month peace conference held in the neighboring state of Djibouti.

There were few reasons for hope before the Dijbouti conference. Twelve earlier peace initiatives had brought together warring factional leaders, and each of the twelve meetings had failed. Djibouti gave birth to something different because the psychopaths stayed home and, for the first time, elders from all parts of Somalia, clan leaders and women, came to the negotiating table instead.

The behind-the-scenes story goes something like this: In 1993, Ossman's CSIW -- a neutral group from outside the country -- brought over 60 Somali women from different clans or ethnic groups together in a neutral space. "When the women came together they arrived with anger and pain," Ossman said. "They'd all lost brothers, sons, husbands, homes . . . When they saw and listened to each other, they realized the pain was on all sides, caused by every clan."

After many meetings, and much outside support, the women developed a way, says Ossman, to "speak with one voice." Simplistic feminism? Not exactly, she explains.

"Women were the ones with everything to lose. For women, peace is a personal, not a political issue. From different clans, when they came to Dijbuti, they brought something different to the table -- they brought their tears. "

They also brought years of organizing experience, UN and international backing, and skill. With respect to Afghanistan, U.S. leaders have been telling the world that when it comes to including women in negotiations the Islamic tradition and culture doesn't permit it.

>From her own experience, Ossman says that's bunk. Somalia's population is largely Muslim. "There's nothing about Islam that prevents women from doing what they have to do," she says .

The Somali women, who came together in a group called the Coalition of Grassroots Women's Organizations, were able to raise their voice, Ossman said, because in the intervening years they had -- with international support -- brought schools and potable water, and health clinics to their communities.

"They did the work that gained them the confidence of their communities, and they came to the meeting with strength and with an agenda that the men -- who were just getting together for the first time -- couldn't deny."

The women who came to Dijbuti were what Ossman calls "women of substance," which is to say, not just some warlord's wife.

In August 2000, 25 women became members of Somalia's Transitional National Assembly. This January, the UN Security Council reaffirmed their commitment to peace in Somalia under that new government.

There's no cookie-cutter recipe for peace, but the Somalian example is at least worth thinking about. Peace is a product of political work, not war-waging, the Somali lesson teaches. And peace demands the inclusion of women, which involves building and funding structures and institutions run by women -- not token gestures.

CSIW is working with Equality Now and others, to bring together Afghan women together as they did Somalis in 1993. The first Afghan Women's Summit is scheduled to take place in eary December, in Brussels.

For ways to support that initiative, people can check out CSIW's site or

Also visit, where an international network of women's groups is tracking Brahimi's progress and urging him to bring women to the table in Afghanistan.

Laura Flanders.

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