by Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Women in Liberia are no strangers to peacebuilding processes. Led by Leymah Gbowee, Liberian women in civil society were instrumental in demanding formal talks, leading action campaigns, holding negotiation parties accountable, facilitating disarmament and mobilizing national support for their cause in the aftermath of the civil war. While no female negotiators were formally involved in the peace talks, women in civil society served as observers and represented 17% of the witnesses to the signing of the final peace agreement. Since then, there have been notable milestones with the election of their first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in 2005 and increasing representation of women in the parliament. Additionally, the government of Liberia has identified the equal political and economic participation of women as being critical to its continued efforts to consolidate peace.
After nearly 14 years of brutal and destructive civil war, for Sirleaf’s government, reconstruction, reconciliation and healing traumas remained its most significant challenges. In 2006, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia recommended the revival of the “Palava hut peacebuilding mechanism, to foster peace and dialogue, rebuild broken relationships”, paving the way for eventual national reconciliation and healing, all emerging from the grassroots level1. The Palava huts are a part of Liberia’s long and rich culture but lost their relevance and importance during the war. In their traditional form, the responsibility of meting out justice is reserved exclusively for men. However, the women have reformed these archaic practices and ensure that women are active participants in the process.Independent of courts, these localised structures are open and accessible to all parties and serve as neutral point where members of a community can hear about disputes, discuss them to reach a middle ground and impart justice1. Since this is a home-grown mechanism rooted in local norms, values and culture, they allow for greater direct participation and do not homogenise justice.
Annie Nushann’s Story
While Gbowee and Sirleaf’s stories are widely known and celebrated, the trailblazing efforts of Annie Nushann, women’s rights activist, the Chair of the Totota Peace Hut and one of the pioneers of contemporary Peace Huts in Liberia, are relatively less recalled. Annie’s work spans across the country and she often acts a bridge between distressed communities and women and community leaders, striving to bring about greater accountability for crimes against women.
She established the first Peace Hut and Women’s Empowerment Centre in Liberia, after hearing from a large number of women about their problems, including rape, teenage pregnancy and child neglect. The Women’s Empowerment Centres focus on economic empowerment for women and “provides training sessions in small business management, literacy, tailoring clothes and creating bags and other products”3. The Peace Huts provided a safe and healing space for survivors of violence and held space for women who wished to seek justice in cases of violations of human rights or sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV). These huts also open doors for women-led peace negotiations and leadership training. Today, as Coordinator and Manager for the Women’s Program of the Peace Hut Alliance for Conflict Transformation (PHACT), Annie plays many roles as an organizer, mobiliser, teacher and trainer, working to empower members of the Peace Huts.
Since 2006, Peace Huts have been active in several countries across Africa, with 38 active huts in Liberia. As of 2019, they are registered as a Community Based Organization are firmly embedded in the Liberian peacebuilding infrastructure.
Role of Peace Huts
These huts are safe spaces for women to gather and collectively address issues affecting their communities and have become powerful platforms for female inclusion and representation, leadership and economic empowerment. Initially, Nushann would listen, give advice and sometimes mediate disputes between families. As the membership grew, these peace huts also provide counselling services to women who experience grief and trauma. With respect to mediation of disputes, the Peace huts follow the traditional ‘Palava’ mechanisms wherein both parties get to state their case to local leaders who then facilitates a just and fair middle-ground agreement3.
The Liberian National Police works in close association with the Peace Huts to help in the prevention of crimes and violence. Mobile phones were distributed to both the women in the huts and nearby precincts and a free hotline was set up so that there was a constant channel of communication. Indeed, this measure has proved to be immensely effective as the calls came in less and less as the women were able to successfully nip the violence in the bud in many cases3. This approach has gone a long way in strengthening the communities’ action towards prevention of and response to SGBV, including referring survivors and victims to support services. Keeping in mind the bigger picture of having more women at the top-level tables, the women of these Peace Huts also mobilize on elections and the importance of women’s political participation and governance.
Over time, as more and more women actively engaged in peace building initiatives in their communities in tandem with local leaders and the youth, the Peace Huts became more and more inclusive to boys and young men as well. For instance, UN Women assisted in the creation of ‘anti-rape’ football clubs for boys in the vicinity’s communities and also held focus group discussions with local male leaders3.
Support from UN Women
In 2019, the National Peace Hut Women of Liberia were felicitated with the UN Population Award. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women noted that these women were able to shatter glass ceilings while also establishing “effective, community-led, grassroots alternatives to the male-dominated, ‘business as usual’ mechanisms of conflict resolution”4.
In addition to providing an avenue for reporting cases of domestic violence to authorities, since 2009, UN Women has been actively supporting these women through Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) and income-generating activities.
Encouraging women to be economically and financially independent through saving and entrepreneurial techniques, VSLAs are used in many parts of Africa and aren’t unique to Liberia. According to UN Liberia, in a majority of the Peace Hut VSLAs, women save between 50 to 500 Liberian dollars per week and are used to give loans to members at small interest rates based on what the loan is for. The VSLA also comprises a 20% social fund which can be dipped into by members during times of illness, mourning or emergencies. According to UN Women, although this mechanism has benefited saving and entrepreneurship, investment remains a lacking area. Through further financial assessments, the hope is to find and come up with new income and investment streams and gradually eliminate the need for external financial support and paving the path for sustainable finance5. Currently, the Peace Huts receive financial support from Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund, the Governments of Sweden, Australia and the UK, UNDP and others.
Carrying forward the legacy in Mali
Violent conflict ravaged Mali through 2012 and 2013 and the country was troubled by occupation by militant Islamist groups. After some semblance of peace was restored, UN Women helped establish Women Peace Huts in the most hard-hit cities of Gao, Timbuctoo, Menaka and Berrah. Inspired by the success of the huts in Liberia where such associations have fortified peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts, the ones in Mali similarly serve as focal points for “dialogue, exchange and cohesion”6.
The Women’s Peace Hut in Gao, one of the biggest huts among the 28 operational ones in Mali, was brought about by UN Women in 2014 with financial support from the governments of Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan and the UN Peacebuilding Fund. Here, women from different ethnic communities such as the Songrai, Bambara, Peulh and Touareg, assemble together “to discuss and reconciliate disagreements, exchange experiences and foster social cohesion”6. Sporadically, politicians, religious leaders and state authorities are invited to discuss the problems women face, especially with respect to security.
Capacity Building Measures
In the six years since its inception, the Peace Hut has transformed into more than just an avenue of dialogue, peace and reconciliation and now stands as a formidable driver of economic growth. Now equipped with the skills gained from leadership and advocacy trainings from USAID, Oxfam and other NGOS, the women are on the road to becoming completely independent. Each women’s association takes up an income-generating activity, ranging from making leather items like bags and key chains, to soap-making to making coffee from dates. The women manage their budgets on their own and work together to grow their small businesses and sell more of their products. While UN Women continues to aid in capacity-building measures and business development, another initiative supported by the Embassy of Netherlands allows women to sell their handicraft products to the capital, Bamako, to be sold in local shops for higher profits. Similar to the women in Liberia, the women in this Peace Hut operate a joint bank account that is fully transparent to its members. The account is open for personal needs and particularly benefits widows who receive meagre financial assistance from their families6.
Gbowee once said that these huts were grassroot efforts to “deconstruct patriarchy” from the inside out. Indeed, Peace Huts are powerful alternative justice mechanisms that allow women to decide what is best for themselves and their communities, thus making them highly malleable blueprints for sustained peace. Further institutionalizing these huts can truly revolutionize and revamp transitional justice as it will build confidence in communities and democratize access to justice at zero cost. In rural communities where access to traditional judicial institutions is difficult, Peace Huts are emerging as viable and legitimate conflict resolution models and are filling critical gaps, especially in responding to violence against women.
Inculcating women into peacebuilding initiatives in both Liberia and Mali, and letting them lead from the front has led to invaluable outcomes in the form of reduced violence, increased vigilance, more independence and agency and deeper tolerance. Moreover, in their fight for gender justice, women in Liberia and Mali have gained deep awareness for the imperative of peace for a foundation stone for prosperity, development and growth. By firmly affirming and practicing their rights to participate in conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding, as affirmed in the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the women of these Peace huts stand to carry forward their legacy as guardians of peace and strengthen their position as community leaders.