The quest for peace in Africa has been largely driven by the determination to prevent, manage, or reverse the traumatic and destructive effects of violent conflict, on a continent where, as Nnoli observes, conflicts “are an everyday occurrence.”1O. Nnoli, Ethnic Conflicts in Africa, (Nottingham: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, 1998), 417.
Unfortunately, the victims of war and the vulnerable groups in society, particularly women, are often conspicuously absent from or underrepresented during peace negotiations. Kuehnast observes that only a few women were involved in the peace negotiations associated with thirty-nine conflicts that have occurred in the past ten years. She notes that most of the peace agreements made no reference to women’s participation and asks why women were not included in discussions critical to post-conflict peacebuilding.2K. Kuehnast, “Why Women’s Involvement in Peacebuilding Matters,” Foreign Service Journal 88 (April 2011): 17.
This essay examines women’s role in peacebuilding, based on a case study presented by Igbo women of southeastern Nigeria. It explores the actions and strategies Igbo women adopt when making or building peace within their communities, and how their role as peace mediators can serve as a guide for connecting women and peace not only in Nigeria, but across Africa as a whole.
Umuada Igbo and Peacebuilding
Since precolonial times, Igbo women have developed various methods and ways of resolving conflicts and building peace. They organize themselves into groups based on the notion of “the daughters of the clan,” or Umuada, who usually meet on specific occasions or at least once a year. They help to foster peaceful coexistence within the extended family, the clan, the community, and the town.
Igbo women are remarkable in being able to organize themselves around their natal and matrimonial homes. In their natal homes, they are referred to as Umuada (daughters of the clan who are married within or outside the community), while at their marital homes, they are called Nwunye di (co-wives—the married women within a family, kindred, clan, or community).
The Umuada exercise remarkable power in their natal homes as peacebuilders, more so than in their marital homes.3M. A. C. Nwoye, “Role of Women in Peace Building and Conflict Resolution in African Traditional Societies: A Selective Review,” http://www.afrikaworld.net/afrel/chinwenwoye.htm, accessed February 20, 2015. This is because of the immunity they enjoy as authochthons, or “daughters of the soil,” in contrast to wives, who are viewed as outsiders or foreigners to their clans and communities by virtue of being married to male members. Nwolise captures the unique role of women in the reconciliation process, extolling the part played by the Umuada in a land dispute between the Umunebo and Umuokuzu communities of Obinze, in the Owerri local government of Imo State in eastern Nigeria. On that occasion, they came out en masse to establish a strong position from which to encourage dialogue between the disputing parties.4O. B. C. Nwolise, “Traditional Approaches to Conflict Resolution among the Igbo People of Nigeria: Reinforcing the Need for Africa to Rediscover its Roots,” AMANI Journal of African Peace, 1 (2004): 59-80.
The Umuada usually meet and deliberate on actions taken by members of the clan or community that are perceived to work against community interests or harmony. They most often stage a march and surround the offenders’ houses armed with either palm fronds or pestles, while singing to inform the inhabitants of their ills and to urging them to desist from such actions. This is done continuously until an offender is made to atone for the offense or succumbs to their collective demands to change the offensive behavior.
The Umuada also serve as pivotal links between women and the clan or community. They have the power to take action against erring members of the Nwuye di, sometimes going as far as to send unfaithful wives or women deemed to have inflicted grievous harm on their husbands out of their marital homes or impose fines on them.
In most Igbo cultural areas, women are recognized as great arbiters, peace brokers, and enforcers. Although Igbo society is in many ways patriarchal, women certainly play supportive and dynamic roles as midwives to peace in the land of their birth.5K.Okoro, “Women and Peace Initiative in Igbo traditional Society: A Viable Option for Peace building in Modern Africa,” Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 1 (2013): 58-69.
Igbo Women’s Involvement in the August Meeting
The August Meeting was an initiative started after the Nigeria–Biafra War ended in 1970. The annual meeting of both Umuada and Nwuye di served, among other things, as a forum for discussing and initiating reconstruction projects to rebuild communities devastated by the war, and it marked a mass return of all Igbo women—single and married, from outside as well as within Nigeria—to the communities of their birth. Eventually it evolved into a platform for addressing other issues and challenges facing Igbo communities.
Today the August Meeting helps foster bonding, unity, and a sense of belonging between Igbo women and other women who have married into Igbo communities. Apart from intervening to resolve family or community conflicts, women also engage in community development projects, contribute to scholarship funds to support the education of indigent members of the communities, and combat domestic violence against women. Other initiatives include setting up self-help projects to engage youths meaningfully. The educated and affluent members also use the opportunity to establish trust funds, voluntary medical services, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to support the vulnerable and poor members of the community. Younger and unmarried women look up to these women as their role models and mentors, who in turn live up to their roles and educate the youngsters on the society’s expectations of them.
The case study of Igbo women of southeastern Nigeria underscores how women use various methods, ranging from persuasion to collective pressure and community development, to resolve conflicts and build peace and harmonious relations at the community and local level. In spite of the pivotal roles they play in peacebuilding, however, these women have neither been accorded any formal or official recognition as peacebuilders nor been adequately represented in official peace talks aimed at resolving any major communal conflict.
If peace is to be sustained and consolidated in Igboland, women’s mediation and peacemaking roles should not be restricted to the family or clan but rather formalized and elevated to the communal and regional levels. Their contribution would be rooted in Igbo cultural roles as mothers, daughters, wives, and caregivers who are able to engage effectively in conflict mediation and intervention. The situation in which most of their stories are relegated to the background by the society, or their contributions toward resolving conflicts are unacknowledged or discounted, has to stop. As the Igbo case demonstrates, governments and international organizations—in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa—have to ensure a narrative that extends beyond the usual stories of women as victims to how they use their agency and mobilize themselves to work for peace at home and within the community, and how those efforts may be formally recognized, documented, and scaled up on a continent striving for peace.
- 1O. Nnoli, Ethnic Conflicts in Africa, (Nottingham: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, 1998), 417.
- 2K. Kuehnast, “Why Women’s Involvement in Peacebuilding Matters,” Foreign Service Journal 88 (April 2011): 17.
- 3M. A. C. Nwoye, “Role of Women in Peace Building and Conflict Resolution in African Traditional Societies: A Selective Review,” http://www.afrikaworld.net/afrel/chinwenwoye.htm, accessed February 20, 2015.
- 4O. B. C. Nwolise, “Traditional Approaches to Conflict Resolution among the Igbo People of Nigeria: Reinforcing the Need for Africa to Rediscover its Roots,” AMANI Journal of African Peace, 1 (2004): 59-80.
- 5K.Okoro, “Women and Peace Initiative in Igbo traditional Society: A Viable Option for Peace building in Modern Africa,” Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 1 (2013): 58-69.