Women of Senegal: agents of peace

The physical and moral suffering undergone by the valiant people of Casamance is incalculable and, as usual, it is the women and children who pay the highest price. From their position as victims, women have decided to become committed agents of peace, says Ndeye Marie Thiam.

Ndeye Marie Thiam
27 May 2013

Read this article in French.

There was once a region, tucked in the southern part of Senegal, tranquil and beautiful, gifted with a rich cultural diversity and immense agricultural resources, fisheries and tourism. It was commonly known as ‘la verte Casamance’ (‘Green Casamance’).

Sadly, this is the Casamance that has been the theatre of an armed fratricidal conflict between the Senegalese state and members of the pro-independence Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFCD). We’ve now witnessed thirty years of conflict! It stands out as one of the longest conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, bringing with it a long history of tragedies: thousands of mines buried into the soil, raids, carjackings and an economy of war in full expansion. This has seriously harmed the agricultural and tourist economy, which have been bled-dry. According to Jean François Lepetit, chief of the Handicap International mission in Casamance, at least 90% of mined land still needs to be cleared. 

‘Green Casmance’ experiences this conflict through the loss of human lives (more than 3,000 deaths directly linked to the conflict) and constraints on economic and social development. The physical and moral suffering undergone by the valiant people of Casamance are incalculable, and, as usual, it is the women and children who pay the highest price.

Women may not fight, but they the carry the weight of the suffering; they bear the mental and physical scars of the horrors of war. Faithful guardians of traditional values, they undergo all sorts of ills which are given names like rape, abductions, mutilations...

Whole villages have been emptied of their peaceful inhabitants, leaving total desolation in their place. The village of Oulampane, on the edge of the border between Senegal and Gambia, was suspected of welcoming and housing rebels. It was set on fire by the Senegalese army’s military forces. The women in the region lost all their goods. They were forced to abandon their village against their will and to seek refuge on Gambian soil. Women from the rural community of Boutoupa suffered a similar fate. Out in a truck in search of cashew nuts, they fell upon a mine...Many others have been victims of rape as they return from the rice fields where they work in rice cultivation or market gardening. I could talk endlessly about the abuses undergone by women. 

And what of the immense cohort of displaced men, women and children? We have seen more than 150,000 displaced persons and/or refugees in our region, more than a hundred villages abandoned in the last fifteen years, with lands polluted with mines. And this is without mentioning, of course, the material deprivation that continues to rise.

And this is why we say with force and determination: STOP! All of this has to stop.

Women: committed agents of peace

From their position as victims, women have decided to become committed agents of peace. In this vein, on September 21st 2011, women’s organisations from the regions of Kolda, Sédhiou and Ziguinchor united their forces in creating the Platform of Women for Peace in Casamance (PFPC).

At first an informal structure of consultation and dialogue, the PFPC, strong with its 170 member organisations and operations across the whole of Casamance, quickly became a front-line player in the pursuit of peace. Through its platform, women demanded frank, sincere and inclusive negotiations between the Senegalese state and the MFDC.

The vocation of the PFPC is simple: to bring together the energies, competences and expertise of women in order to propose a concrete and consensual solution to end the Senegalese crisis in Casamance. It has developed a strategy of intense lobbying, both with the government and with the MFDC. It engages in the fight against the violation of human rights and provides an important role in monitoring and denouncing violations perpetrated against civilian populations. 

Women meet with the President of the Republic, 2012.

Women meet with the President of the Republic, 2012.

The role of the women of the PFPC isn’t surprising, because the history of communities in the region attests to the fact that women have always played an active role in the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts. In the family sphere, for example, to solve disputes between husband and wife, sisters-in-law could enact corporal punishment on their brother, sometimes even in public. Women have used, as arms of dissuasion, ‘bedroom strikes’, rituals, prayers, dances, libations and processions. According to the emblematic leader of MFDC, Abbot Augustin Diamacoune Senghor, ‘[women] are the red cross and the fire-fighters of the community’. Their status as carriers, givers and protectors of life gives them the privilege to place themselves between the combatants and to demand an end to the fighting. According to custom, this is almost a sacred commandment. Those who infringe it could suffer terrible consequences, including death.

Their irrepressible desire to be peacemakers is not a means to challenge the established order, nor an attempt to profit from the situation for the sake of some hierarchical position. In fact, even at the onset of conflict women play a role. The engagement of MFDC combatants in the ‘sermon’ of war takes places in the sacred wood and is led by both men and women.

Because of their role in the mystic preparations of combatants, women are thus implicated in the decision to wage war. It is therefore normal that, in the face of the escalation of this ‘gruelling and harrowing’ crisis, women do not hesitate in undoing the sermon made in the sacred woods and in attempting to re-establish peace. All of this means that the people of Casmance generally understand, encourage and appreciate our approach.

Conflict management by women

It should be stressed that for many years, the Senegalese State has demonstrated nothing but navel gazing in its management of the conflict. Yet today, both the State and the MFDC agree on the need for a political and civil solution through dialogue. This change in position on the part of the authorities has given more space for civil society initiatives, including those by women’s organisations.

Night of prayers in Ziguinchor,  2011

Night of prayers in Ziguinchor, 2011

This is why, women, united around the PFPC, have organised marches, a large prayer vigil in Ziguinchor attended by more than 2,000 women, and meetings with the most powerful state authorities. We not only organised a campaign to get the largest possible number of candidates to sign a ‘memorandum for peace’ before the first round of the presidential elections in 2012, but held further meetings with the two successful candidates during the second round. Secret meetings were held in Guinea-Bissau with the local political wing of the MFDC and combatants from the southern region. 

The Regional Committee of Women’s Solidarity for Peace in Casamance (USOFORAL) also organises several activities for the restoration and consolidation of peace, as reported previously on openDemocracy. Workshops have been organised to train PFPC leaders in advocacy techniques to prepare for a future conference to be held between the state and MFDC factions. This conference, which will include the participation of civil society, including the PFPC, is foreseen for 2014.

The priestesses of the sacred wood

Cultural and spiritual activities are also led by the priestesses of the sacred wood. The women of the sacred wood are respected by the people of Casamance and their messages are welcomed with high regard. Here, in addition to the divinely revealed religions of Islam and Christianity, we observe a religious background which is characterised by syncretism. It is in this context that the women of the sacred wood constitute a powerful deterrent force at the heart of the population.

Whenever there is a threat to the community of whatever nature (an epidemic, catastrophe or other crises which can be traced back to the anger of the spirits), it is tradition that the women lead prayers which are organised to ward off misfortune. These prayers interest those who follow the traditional pagan religion, and also those who follow Islam or Christianity. This is why the famous night of prayers, organised by PFPC, was largely led by women of the sacred wood.

The impacts of these interventions in the heart of communities are real, but they still struggle to carry weight at the national level. In this context we have to ask ourselves, what ambition for women?

What ambition for women?

Resolution 1325 of the United Nations outlines principles of gender and justice and calls on States to not simply consider women as victims of conflict, but to recognise their right to participate in the resolution of conflicts and their qualities as peacemakers. All of the initiatives taken by women prove their capacity to take their fate into their own hands.  

 Women's march in Ziguinchor, 2012

Women's march in Ziguinchor, 2012

During a meeting accorded to the PFPC, the President of the Republic, his Excellency M. Macky Sall recognised women’s right to participate in the resolution of the conflict in Casamance and the necessity of their effective participation at the negotiating table. He also gave them a ‘mandate’ to act for the definitive return of peace.

The women of Casamance are well aware of the incalculable and destructive consequences of the conflict in the region and in the rest of Senegal. Today they are ready to face the situation, hand in hand, with all the women of our country. We need to take this conflict out of its corner of indifference to raise its status to a key national concern.

In truth, all the women of the world share the same desire to offer a healthy and peaceful environment to their family and to their respective countries. In our neighbouring countries, the Mano River Women’s Peace Network brings together Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Conkary. They have done, and continue to do, remarkable work to re-establish and strengthen peace in this part of West Africa. These women have been able to overcome the geographical and linguistic barriers which separate them; they have been able to be true peacemakers.

This is why we are working hard to involve our sisters from Gambia and Guinea Bissau in our fight to make Casamance a peaceful region. We also call for the assistance of the regional and international community. In this regard, we welcome the noble efforts which have led to the liberation of eight prisoners from the Senegalese army who were detained for a year by the MFDC.

It is important to welcome all expressions of goodwill, from whatever source, so that the arms can be silenced forever. We are convinced that thanks to the efforts of all women and men, Casamance will soon know an era of peace.

This article was translated from the French original by Jennifer Allsopp

This article is part of 5050's series exploring themes to be discussed at the  Nobel Women's Initiative conference  Moving Beyond Militarism and War: Women-Driven Solutions for a Nonviolent World  May 28-31, Belfast, Ireland.  Jennifer Allsopp and Heather McRobie are reporting from Belfast. Read 50.50's full coverage of the conference  

 Read more articles on 50.50 from earlier Nobel Women's Initiative conferences

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