State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

A Message From Women Activists Across Africa

woman in head scarf staring at water
Peace activist and WPS fellow Omima Alfadil, member of MANSAM, gazes at the water beside her in Sennar, Sudan. Photo credit: Omima Alfadil

Two years ago, news outlets covered a story of prejudice against women activists from African countries in the climate movement. The Associate Press cropped Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate activist, out of a photo with white activists at a climate conference. In the following days, conversations surrounding racism against activists ensued, with more people coming forward to share their experiences. Apologies were issued and the paper claimed they had no ill intent, but this is a broader recurring theme: the media portrayal of environmental justice is often not inclusive of the people who are most affected by climate change. In response to the situation, Nakate said You didn’t just erase a photo. You erased a continent.” The silencing of African activists is especially distressing because countries in Africa are among the places most vulnerable to climate change. Climate change exacerbates existing gender inequities by increasing the risk of violence, jeopardizing human security and hindering everyday peacebuilding.

Columbia University’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) program has worked for the past five years to address these issues, and supports everyday women peacebuilding efforts and climate work by increasing the visibility of grassroots African women activists through fellowships, research and workshops. This winter, the program hosted a global workshop for women activists and scholar-practitioners across 13 countries, marking the culmination of three months of vibrant virtual exchange. The WPS fellowship has supported women peacebuilders in Africa for the past three years by hosting fellowships that create collaborative spaces for sharing everyday peacebuilding strategies, facilitating an intracontinental network of grassroots women peace activists, and publicizing lessons learnt from their experiences.

Women peacebuilders in the fellowship engage in everyday peacework activities, from facilitating sexual and reproductive health and financial literacy programs to resource conflict resolution. This fall, over a number of months, the activists began to organize key messages they have for funders, policy makers and academics aiming to support everyday peacework. They asked themselves and each other what gaps exist, both in terms of knowledge and also myths, that urgently need re-shaping in the fields of policy, practice and funding. Through facilitated small group discussions and virtual exchanges, the women also reflected on their own understanding of peace and security since beginning to work together as a multi-scalar, transnational network three years ago.

In their daily work, these activists interact with funders and policy makers with the resources to aid their mission, giving them direct knowledge on what most urgently needs to shift in the field of peace and security. One key critique was about who was included and excluded in key decision making. Women, youth, queer and disabled people are often missing from critical dialogue, resulting in ineffective policies that are furthered hindered by government bureaucracy. Grassroot women activists play an integral role in maintaining peace and security at all levels of government, as they possess intimate knowledge of their community’s needs and are able to replicate programs on a national scale that influence policy making.

For example, the Hope for the Needy Association (HOFNA) in Cameroon used trainings and capacity building to empower a network of community leaders who are responding to issues of gender-based violence and poverty in their communities. One of the members led an initiative to meet the needs of elderly people and widows in conflict-affected communities. “Everyday peace work in those communities consider the diversity, differences and different perspectives, values, beliefs, and cultures, as these are the elements that make peace work sustainable in the communities,” said Christelle Bay, one of the members of HOFNA

Funding agencies need to engage in conversations with groups like HOFNA, which will allow them to allocate resources appropriately and create a conducive environment for future projects. These women have an expansive view of peace and security that is not limited to the absence of war but includes “access to land, education, health care, infrastructure, equality, equity and social justice,” as stated by Margaret Sedziafa, member of Women International League for Peace and Freedom in Ghana.

women sit in a circle
Omima Alfadil hosts a small discussion with a group of young women about everyday peace and current challenges in Sennar, Sudan. Photo credit: Omima Alfadil

Another core message the group highlighted, however, is that inclusivity is not only necessary in regards to who is seated at the decision making table, but also who is able to tell the stories that influence these decisions. Several women spoke to the importance of being equipped to share their stories themselves, with many chorusing their experiences that Western storytellers often extract “overly emotional or biased accounts” and repeat generalized perspectives without giving space for individual experiences. Over the course of the WPS program, many of the fellows shared how inspired they were to start writing, and documenting their own experiences. At the workshop, several women spoke of the books and creative projects they are working on—inspired by the fellowship and the need to get their voices out in the public sphere. Lineo Matkhala, a Lesotho-based activist working at the Barali Foundation, said, “Let people tell their [own] stories. Get information from both victims and victors. War isn’t just guns and explosives. It exists behind doors, in churches and schools. Do not direct the story, document it.”

The fellows were re-energized by the multiple-month virtual exchanges and final workshop. The messages shared in the virtual exchange are being captured in a co-authored collective paper on transforming the field of women, peace and security and what they have learned in these years as a collective network. They recognize that the contributions of women activists in Africa have been instrumental in toppling oppressive governments, implementing COVID-19 protocols, and serving their communities on a local and national level. Yet, they continue to be silenced in several spaces, from environmental justice to peacebuilding. The fellows restated the importance of funders, policy makers, and academics creating spaces for working together and cross-learning strategies of everyday peace and justice.

Betty Sharon, of Collaboration of Women in Development in Kenya shares the following message to younger women invested in peace and security: “Raise your voices. The more we join our hearts together, the more we join our sisters and raise our voices louder, the stronger we become, the louder our voices become, and that is when we will be heard in all the corners of the world.” This message holds true for activists like Nakate, who are determined to be heard for the benefit of their communities.

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