Conflict transformation implies multiple changes at different levels of society in order to deepen and sustain peace, and can be the result of individual or collective efforts. Since all conflicts reflect highly contextual dynamics, they require a thorough analysis of local conditions. Such an understanding increases the possibility of producing strategies that make the most of existing traditional mechanisms as well as local knowledge and practices in the quest for peacemaking, which any approach to conflict transformation should include.
In the same vein, it is important to mainstream gender issues into inclusive planning and decisionmaking on conflict transformation. This means that women should be included in any strategy aimed towards achieving lasting peace in local communities. Peacebuilding strategies should be anchored in the inclusion, participation, and contributions of local populations, such that members of conflict-affected communities have ownership of the peace being built at the grassroots. Of monumental importance, this local engagement in peacebuilding will lead to more sustainable peace over the long-term as people will see themselves and their collective interests reflected in peacebuilding initiatives. Consequently, local people’s participation in peacebuilding needs to be supported through capacity-building and awareness raising programs.
The case of Al-Hakkama in Darfur, Sudan supports these views—that it is essential to integrate traditional knowledge and local practices into peacebuilding agendas and to include women in all aspects of peacebuilding. Conflict transformation recognizes that peace can be built by many actors in civil society. This observation resonates within Sudan’s national context, particularly in the Darfur region of Western Sudan. In Darfur, some women have the cultural role of appraising men’s conduct during war using poetry and songs. Although almost all women take part in this cultural practice, it is Al-Hakkama (literally “the arbiter”) who plays the dominant role (Mohammed 2003, 279). Al-Hakkama can make or break a man’s reputation with poems and songs that praise acts of aggression and bravery, but ridicule timidity and cowardice. The regional governor of Darfur gave Al-Hakkamas reorientation training so that they would compose peacemaking songs, rather than perpetuate a culture of aggression or war. In 1997, the regional government asked Al-Hakkama of Darfur to compose peace poems to facilitate reconciliation between two ethnic communities, “the Rezaigat and the Zaghawa” (Mohammed 2003, 481).
The case of Al-Hakkama supports the point that all conflicts are highly contextual and merit a thorough analysis of their main actors, in the quest for context-specific peacebuilding mechanisms and actions. Women make up the majority of victims in a conflict situation, but are simultaneously powerful agents of peace. Their efforts must be recognized, supported, and made much more visible. However, in most cases, strategies for conflict transformation continue to ignore or overlook the capacity and contributions of women, such as the important role played by Al-Hakkama in conflict and peacebuilding.
The policy thrust aimed towards getting Al-Hakkama to shift from composing and performing poems and songs that encourage violence and killing, to composing and performing ones that promote the virtues of peace and reconciliation provides a powerful example of local peacebuilding. However, this peace initiative can only have a lasting effect on the community if it is supported by Al-Hakkamas themselves. For Al-Hakkama peace songs to have a positive impact on the community, the initiative has to come from within. Al-Hakkamas should be empowered as members of local communities and as women to enable them to build their leadership capacity and influence decisionmaking. They should also be made aware of, and participate in, local and national efforts to publicize United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. Women must be at the forefront of a genuine effort to establish gender equality in the community through gender mainstreaming—by increasing equal participation of men and women in institutional processes, practices, and policies, including peace negotiations.
The case of Al-Hakkama is also illustrative of the efficacy of culture and performance, especially in communities where there is a strong oral tradition, where the level of illiteracy is high, and where significant harm has been inflicted by violent conflict. These are effective ways to express what cannot be said through words alone, and to reach out and influence others who have not been responsive to messages conveyed through other conventional methods of communication.
Nevertheless, structural change and the promotion of gender equality at the communal level are still lacking. Initiatives of conflict transformation (such as shifting the purpose of Al-Hakkama) are capable of, and even essential to, conflict transformation. Of great concern is the risk that their impact may be weakened by traditional patriarchal structures, potentially undermining the rights and role of women and children. This is a particular risk in instances of top-down peacebuilding—in which external, often male, actors impose programs of inclusivity and gender mainstreaming on a community, which may damage local women’s agency rather than strengthening it.
Women, even Al-Hakkama, are frequently the victims of violence and hence at the forefront in the struggle for equality and peace. Increasing women’s participation in decisionmaking processes and peace negotiations, particularly in communities with a history of significant resistance to their inclusion in peace operations, will go a long way towards making peace. This will mark a departure from the situation where women are politely listened to during peace negotiations and then dismissed as not relevant to robust peacebuilding. Capacity-building mechanisms are indispensable to behavioral change, and therefore should be a part of training aimed towards reorienting Al-Hakkama as agents of peacebuilding. However, in practice, capacity-building is often seen as a goal in and of itself, with issues such as the quality of training and assessment of its actual impact not given due consideration.
In conclusion, the case of Al-Hakkama enables us to understand how women’s groups can positively influence peacebuilding. More positive outcomes can be achieved when women’s participation in decisionmaking is expanded, and gender concerns are mainstreamed into prevailing conflict analyses and peacebuilding processes. Women must be empowered and allowed to learn new skills, while opportunities for them to access the resources necessary to live in dignity are expanded. Women and men alike should be able to live in communities where the basis for equal participation in conflict transformation is guaranteed.
Mohammed, Adan Azain. 2003. “Briefings: Sudan: Women & Conflict in Darfur.” Review of African Political Economy 30, no. 97: 479–510.