Annette Weber – Feminist Mediation in South-Sudan

An Interview with Dr. Annette Weber, an Feminist Peace and Conflict Studies Scholar. The interview was conducted by Mayme Lefurgey.

MPM: First, can you tell us a bit about what type of feminist-focused work you are currently involved in – through teaching, research and other projects?

ANNETTE WEBER: The one thing I would like to start with is that, very unfortunately, the biggest meditation work I am currently involved in is the opposite of a feminist mediation. The last two years there was not a single woman or a single gender-framed question in the mediation I am involved in South Sudan. The mediation between the armed resistance and the government side in Sudan is an example that really demonstrates the absence of any feminist approach or any gender-based approach under UN resolution 1325. There are no women involved in the peace negotiations at all.

On the other hand, what we are planning to do right now is set up a national dialogue in South Sudan, after the outbreak of the last war, and the focus will be much more on bringing women into the negotiations and ensuring a gendered focus. It is so important to not only bring women to the table and to learn from their experiences, but to also to have a variety of experiences of women represented; not just to see them as the guarantors of peace but to also understand that they are also drivers of war. Women are also mobilizers of conflict in very big ways and they therefore also have to come in when we talk about a transformation from violence to non-violence. They cannot just be taken as the peaceful ground that we can plant our seeds in, where then peace will blossom. It is important to understand that women also have not only violent ideas but that they also use violence in their frustrations in the war situation in general. These two different approaches are quite important and I hope for South Sudan‘s national dialogue, that is not yet started, that this focus will be much more taken care of. So that is from the more practical or practitioner‘s side of what I have been working on.

Women are also mobilizers of conflict in very big ways and they therefore also have to come in when we talk about a transformation from violence to non-violence. They cannot just be taken as the peaceful ground that we can plant seeds of peace in, where then peace will blossom.

In terms of research, last year was the last time I was teaching in Innsbruck and I am not quite sure about the next couple of years but I would like to start a research project, maybe next year, that should have much more of a feminist peace work focus, but that is not yet fully clear. The last review I did that I had a lot of fun with was on feminist approach on the Hollywood side of 9/11 and I think that it was not only super interesting in general, but very interesting for me as a conflict researcher to see the small implications, in lets say movies for example, when they are depicting post 9/11 topics. We can see in these examples how deeply ingrained issues or strata of racism or genderism are and how much they are also describing and creating our post 9/11 understandings. For example, our understanding of who is a terrorist, what is the motivation for this or that, who do we need to be afraid of, the othering— all of this. I think that this was one of the more fun but also intellectually very important things that I have been involved with recently. Lastly, for the 60th Anniversary for Wolfgang Dietrich, I am planning to write a part on feminist transrational peaces – this is what will come next.

MPM: Can you explain what you mean by, “feminist peace and conflict theory” and what exactly this can look like when being applied by peace workers and scholars in this field?

ANNETTE: I think it is a bit of what I talked about in the beginning. Bringing women in to share their experiences in a conflict or post-conflict society is definitely something that is not only necessary but super essential if we are talking about a really transformative approach. This also requires an understanding that we should not fall into the trap of gendering the roles men and women play during a war. For example, seeing men as perpetrators and combatants and women as those mourning the death, bringing life and taking care of peace only is limiting. We must understand the various formations of violence and how they are also carried out by women. For example, women are sending their sons into the war by telling their sons that they can only be their sons, or their men, by protecting them or by fighting the other side. I think we are not very well prepared or equipped for all of these different positions and perspectives when we engage in peace mediation.

It is very easy to see, for example, who are the main leaders for armed resistance or for armed oppositions or groups, collect those with the most arms and then from the counterpart we have the leaders from the government side. But really, who is driving the war, and who is necessary to transform it on a long-term scale? How do we create understanding that a civilian life is not only a loss but can be a gain? I think these issues are not very well performed by many of us. Also, they are not well performed because the focus is not really there. We focus on those carrying the guns, and those with some kind of formal legitimacy. Yet, from a feminist understanding of peace and conflict practice, and also teaching, it is important to go through all these different strata and look not only to who is there, not only to who doesn’t have a voice, but to who has one but that we don’t hear because it is not seen as important or influential because we don‘t want to see it. We don‘t want to see mothers as violent in a war, we want to see them as something positive that can bring peace. We need to invest much more time with people on the ground but we also need much more research; we need to collect more knowledge about these different roles people in their gendered positions play during wars. That is my understanding of the theory.

Seeing men as perpetrators and combatants and women as those mourning the death, bringing life and taking care of peace only is limiting. We must understand the various formations of violence and how they are also carried out by women.

When you start thinking about it, it is becoming much more clear but because the roles are so clearly defined for participants and most mediations tend to be limited because the understanding is that the less people you have at the table, the quicker decisions can be made; but I think that we need to look at it more intently. For example, in Colombia, it is a very huge example of where we cannot just disqualify the frustrations, anger, fear and miscommunications that keep people either from going to vote or from doing what seems to be rational like opting for peace. It is, in many ways, rational for people to say no, we are not ready for peace. What does it mean for mediation but also what does it mean for a feminist approach? Are we overlooking civilians? Are we overlooking societies because we assume that we should be striving for peace because that’s what we consider to be the norm? There is the illusion that everyone will win in peace, but no, that is not true.

I think that then, a feminist approach is not so different from any other approach to a more informed peace and conflict approach. For me, it is a specific view about what are the gender roles and also when we say women can also play violent roles, this goes vice versa. Do we really look into the frustration of young men who don’t want to become fighters such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; do they really have a chance to survive? In South Sudan for example, during the last outbreak in 2013, a lot of young women would go around in the village and say if you are not joining the fight then you will never be married- we cannot marry you. What do you do if you are a young man and don‘t feel like fighting is the right option? There are social options but also what is acknowledged from the mediation level and what is acknowledged on a state level as well? These are important questions to consider.

MPM: Your article, “Women Without Arms: Gendered Fighter Constructions in Eritrea and Southern Sudan” details some of the challenges women have in gaining access to fighter status in conflicts. What are some of the implications of this? More specifically, what are the implications of this for peacebuilding, reconciliation and conflict transformation?

ANNETTE: I think with these two examples, unfortunately you can still see it very clearly in the two countries. In South Sudan, women are not really allowed to gain full fighter status but you do have a small number of women in the formal forces right now, in the SPLA (Sudan People‘s Liberation Army), who were trained and mobilized in the early 90s when the war started. They were even given ranks but were not really allowed to continue to take part in battles anymore. Many of the male combatants argued, saying that if women were being given the ranks and the same expertise and same emotional and practical experiences as men, then there are no differences between them any longer. There is one quote that I used in the article; „we cannot allow women to see us crying in battle, because we cannot allow them to see us as weak.“ For this reason, then women could not get their fighter status.

Now, if you look into societies that come from a very long war legacy, like in Eritrea, Ethiopia or South Sudan, even if there is a successful transformation from a militia or military movement to a government, the identity that the first citizen status is based on is still the identity of the former combatants. So the dominant identity is still one who fought for liberation and for independence. They are not only the heroes, the epitome of their identity — these are the people with the right for full citizen status, meaning they should be given important and influential positions in government and should be high up in decision-making levels. If, for example, by gender, it is impossible for you to gain this status because you have not been allowed to become a combatant then this has different implications for the post-conflict situations that we see such as in South Sudan where the negotiations have been ones where women do have any say. They were referring to women as being the ones who carried the men through, who fed them, who were their mothers etc. Women then were not part of the political set up or part of the new leadership in shaping new government structures.

I think that the struggle will continue for much longer and that the question is really the attention we give. The attention to details; the attention to why are we losing so many voices. It is not only a question of why don’t we hear them but why doesn’t it even occur to us that they are not there?

In a slightly different way, in Eritrea, we saw a representation of 40% female fighters and women in very high ranks. The situation was definitely that women were absolutely and clearly on the same identity level as men. They were also fighters, former combatants and had liberated the country and were applying for and gaining higher positions within the government. This partially happened in the really high up hierarchies. What happened also, was a very quick and quite brutal demobilization of female combatants and a huge push for them to reintegrate back into society and basically a complete failure for them to reintegrate. Men wanted to marry ‘normal’ women; they didn‘t want to live together with former fighters anymore so the divorce rate was huge. The former fighters who had to transit back into very small village communities found it very hard because they were not seen as civil women or docile or whatever the requirements were and what they were standing for was not considered gender appropriate.

So here we had a very different situation from in South Sudan, with a lot of women who were a part of the fighting system but who didn‘t manage to transform that last part— the transformation into civilian status or government.  I think this is where the gender aspect was and is very severe. I have given two different examples but we see very similar consequences for the women involved. It still is of course a huge difference because in Eritrea, former fighter women, although many of them are very frustrated, do see that they were part of the liberation. They do see that they gave something to their country and that gives them of course a different self-positioning. However, they are not part of families in many ways and they don’t get a lot of money from the government and are often impoverished.

MPM: What do you think are some of the central feminist concerns in the field of peace and conflict studies today? From your perspective, what gains do you think have been made and what issues do you think are currently needing the most attention?

ANNETTE: Of course there are gains, as we grow older it cannot just be all for nothing and I think this is why we always find gains. But I think, in looking back, there is more backlash than gains, to be honest. Yes, you see more influential women but I wouldn‘t say that there is a huge transformation in society in terms of gender roles. I think this is obviously not something that progress gives you and then you continue — I think it seems to be a battle that is coming back on and on.

Just if you look at the number of girls that are graduating from school, from high schools and universities and then you look at who is employed and at what level, I don‘t think I have to say more to say that. No we haven‘t reached a question of equality where we could then start to engage in serious business and in serious discussion. I think we still are very much caught up in the bringing women in and making their voices heard. It takes a lot of courage to do that which of course is absurd because basically all peace and conflict transformation studies and practitioners would always say, of course, the voices of women are extremely important and need to be included to have peace. Yet, the reality is that to bring them in you still have the same obstacles as you have for higher leadership because it is still considered less practical, they don’t have gender setting experience and most women you bring in are from a civil-society background and are not organized, because they do not have time to be organized in a political way so again there it is not so different to the 60‘s. Then they take more time because they have no formal training in formal speaking and they don’t have the expertise in coalition-making and building alliances, so basically their voices come in but they don‘t build a powerful position. I think this is where we are still lacking and where we need to take way more attention and way more care because it is not enough to just say, oh yes lets bring in two female voices.

You have to look into the structural violence and specifically, in war situations, ask who is really training who, who is trained to have a political strategy and who isn‘t. It is important to consider all of these issues and I think we still have a long way to go. Again because, you can now say okay lets so a workshop here and there on Resolution 1325 and then we have an equal footing– no of course we don‘t, that takes much more. I think that the struggle will continue for much longer and that the question is really the attention we give. The attention to details; the attention to why are we loosing so many voices. It is not only a question of why don‘t we hear them but why doesn‘t it even occur to us that they are not there? Why does it work so easily that, for example, given the Sudan example, that we have a two-year meditation with the African Union and not a single woman is present? Why is it that women are simply talked on behalf of and that doesn‘t seem to be an issue? There needs to be more attention paid to this.

MPM: Do you have any words of advice for students and young peace scholars/practitioners working at the intersections of peace and conflict work/studies and feminism/gender studies/work?

ANNETTE: I think really the two things I would advise on are not to assume that gender lines are so clear and that we must really look into the spectrum and not assume that all men are the same or all women are the same. We must not assume that all men are violent and all women are peaceful. I think that is one of my biggest pieces of advice. It is important to look deeper and to try to understand the spectrum and understand the society where the violence is ingrained or incorporated. The second bit of advice I have is – and I don‘t know if it’s a question of bravery – but, I think my advice is to take more space and be more out there. Don‘t wait for people to invite you to the table, specifically for feminist scholars of peace and conflict and young people in this field. I think we shouldn‘t loose too much time in listening only but get your voices heard as well.

Image Sources:

  • Featured Image: © Peace Studies Innsbruck
Skip to toolbar