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Ethiopian women rediscover role as peace builders

By Coco McCabe

The red earth outside Tato Boru's round, mud-walled hut is tamped hard with the comings and goings of goats and family members. One imagines that other visitors must beat a frequent path to her door, too, for her warmth and her counsel.

Tato Boru, 48 and the mother of five children, is a peacemaker. She leads the Moyale area women's peace council which Oxfam's local partner, the Research Center for Civic and Human Rights Education (RCCHE), helped to found.

Here, near the Kenyan border, many people make their living as herders. Droughts plague the region, and their consequences—shriveled pasture and water sources sucked dry—are particularly severe for families of herders and their animals who depend on those resources for survival. Tension over shortages can trigger disputes, as can concern about land demarcation lines drawn by the government. Add guns to the mix, and conflicts quickly turn lethal. Over the years, fighting in the area around Moyale has taken many lives.

One of several similar committees, the council Boru heads advocates for peaceful coexistence among the different ethnic groups in the region and helps mediate between them when conflicts start to simmer. There are also councils for young adults and village elders.

Giving an example of how her group works, Boru told about a recent dispute that erupted when a group of Somalis settled in a nearby village predominantly occupied by Gabra.

"There was a stone attack and there were a few gun shots, but no one was hurt. We felt it was time for our intervention," she said. "We went...and told them that land is the gift of God and we all can share it."

Accompanied by members from the other two councils, the women urged the sparring groups not to resort to violence, but to engage in discussions first, and if that didn't work, to take the matter to court. In the heat of disputes like this, council members try to visit the troubled village at least once a week. As things cool down, they cut back their visits to once a month.

Raising awareness is one of the key objectives of the peace council, and something its members take on regularly in both formal and informal settings. Occasionally, the women will ask community officials to organize a gathering of local people at which the council will then make a presentation. Other times, community events, such as weddings, can serve as an opportunity for peace teachings.

Recovering traditional roles

Peace initiatives like these are helping women reclaim a degree of authority that was once theirs—an authority that gun-fueled violence has severely eroded. With RCCHE's help, women are now speaking out about the suffering armed conflicts shower on their families. They are finding a voice and sharing their burdens of loss and sadness.

"Before this, we weren't in a position to disclose our feeling about conflict. We simply suffered with it. But now, we've got a chance to speak on peace and work on it. Our awareness and participation bring change," said Boru.

"In the late '90s, there was an awakening to the value of traditional conflict resolution methods," said Muthoni Muriu, Oxfam America's director of regional programs. "That's when the role of women in peace building really came on stage."

The toll armed conflict takes

It's a role that is rightfully theirs: Women bear the brunt of hardship when violence rips through a community, leaving husbands dead, homes in ashes, livestock looted.

"They lose fathers, brothers, and sons," said Boru, seated on a low stool in the cocoon-like quiet of her tukul. "They take care of the wounded, the children, the animals. Even if they don't die, they have to shoulder so many of the burdens...the horror."

There is acknowledgement among men in this patriarchal culture that women bring something unique to peace work.

"They are better than men," said Boru Roba, a man and the leader of a peace committee for elders.

"Women can play both a fueling role and a cooling role in conflict," added another man, Galma Roba, a representative for traditional leaders. "If men get initiated for conflict and women interject, the men might change their minds."

Highlighting the awful consequences of conflict—the death, the destruction—against the broad benefits of peace is at the core of the women's strategy. It's an argument few can refute.

"When we try to sensitize them on the importance of peace, there is no man who opposes us," said Mako Dalecha, a mother of five children and a member of the peace council. "Peace—and rain—are the basis for life in our area."