Tired of Suffering, Ugandan Women Turn to Peacebuilding: Interview with Rose Othieno
As the UN pushes to include more women in peacebuilding, the challenges facing Ugandan women range from finding the time to finding the courage to get involved, said Rose Othieno, Executive Director of the Center for Conflict Resolution of Uganda.
“Even some fellow women would say, ‘But how could she be doing that?,’” Ms. Othieno reported, adding that women have always been quietly contributing to peacebuilding, but “outright, [it] has not been a common practice, and therefore, it is still not very easy.”
But Ms. Othieno said she helped motivate women by telling them it will help them suffer less. “They see the negativity of the practice [of violence], so it was easy to convince the women to start preaching the peace, singing songs, talking directly with the people who were involved in disarmament. Of course, the problem is not totally solved. But, we really believe that a lot has been done because of the participation of women in disarmament.” Ms. Othieno spoke of Ugandans Betty Bigombe and Stella Sabiiti as role models.
Ms. Othieno said that peacebuilding must involve disarmament. "You realize that part of the hindrance to bringing sustainable peace was this issue of a lot of proliferation of illicit small arms and their misuse. So, we saw it fit to bring in this issue of small arms and light weapons, where we joined the associations, the networks for small arms and light weapons at the international, regional, and local level, where we are members to advocate for disarmament."
"And we saw that in many of the communities where these arms were heavily available—especially the pastoral communities, which were a little bit backward and semi-arid, so they depended a lot on livestock— the perception they had—because it’s not true—[was that] they thought that they needed small arms to protect their animals, and even raid more if the stock had been depleted."
Ms. Othieno and her organization also examined policy issues around weapons and domestic violence “because, there is a lot of domestic violence in other forms, but once it's armed with a gun, let alone a knife or anything, it's very, very deadly.”
“Like, when licensing these guns—there should be consultations with the family members, especially the spouses, and also look into the character of the person applying for the license to see if they are either violent, or they are likely to be violent, or, have they ever taken part in violence? And such a person wouldn't be issued the license.”
“When it comes to issues of consulting with a spouse, comes to all the gender things we are talking about, and the masculinity where, in some societies, they still feel if the gun is for the protection of the family, then the head of the family has the right to decide what to do. And you don't know whether these people always decide the right things.”
The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute.
Andrea Ó Súilleabháin: I'm here today with Rose Othieno, Executive Director of the Center for Conflict Resolution (CECORE) of Uganda, an initiative of people working together to prevent and resolve conflicts through alternative and creative means. Rose is an experienced peacebuilder who has served as an expert in the International Conference of the Great Lakes region. She is active in the women's coalition, advocating for women's voices to be heard in peace negotiations between the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Rose is also a member of the Institute for Inclusive Security's Women Waging Peace Network.
In Uganda, a woman leader, Betty Bigombe, has been a central figure in peace negotiations with the Lord's Resistance Army. In your opinion, Rose, has this influenced other women to get involved in peace activism?
Rose Othieno: Yes, it has. Maybe just to go back a step before Betty Bigombe, there were other women who had been on this kind of initiative before, one of them being my cofounder of the Center for Conflict Resolution, Stella Sabiiti, who has been engaged in peace work since the '80s and then in the early '90s—really very instrumental. And that is why we founded this organization, the Center for Conflict Resolution, for the very reason that, at that time, not many organizations were looking into the issues of peacebuilding. At that time, many of the organizations were for relief, development initiatives, and most of the local ones are only now beginning to look at the issue of human rights, but with the lens of accusations—so-and-so is violating rights. And a lot of them said, “Well, something must be going wrong so, let’s look at what peacebuilding is all about.”
So, we started this Center for Conflict Resolution. We gave it that strategic name to sell the idea, because it was a very new idea, trying to bring peace in a country that had been in turmoil for quite a long time. Betty had a very big role, and she was very brave—like many others were—but Betty's role was very, very unique. All of us doing peace work are really proud of what Betty did.
AOS: In your experience, what are the challenges in getting women involved in the peace process in Uganda? And what obstacles do they face?
RO: Narrowing down on Uganda in this case, the obstacles... basically, most women [are] at different levels. The very fact that they have specific roles sometimes is a hindrance to them. Getting the time—let alone the courage, for most women, the courage to get out there and get into the peace work—getting the time, but also where a woman would effectively perform, the perceptions out there from not just from the opposite sex. Even some fellow women would say, “But how could she be doing that,” because it hadn't been so much in the practice—as much as we know that women in the past have been participating in peacebuilding quietly. But to go outright has not been a common practice, and therefore, it is still not very easy.
AOS: You've worked on campaigns with the Center for Conflict Resolution that call for disarmament in local communities where small arms and light weapons are often present. Why have you encouraged women in particular to take a leadership role on this issue?
RO: Our work in small arms and light weapons—you see, our name talks of peacebuilding, conflict resolution. But then you realize that part of the hindrance to bringing sustainable peace was this issue of a lot of proliferation of illicit small arms and their misuse. So, we saw it fit to bring in this issue of small arms and light weapons, where we joined the associations, the networks for small arms and light weapons at the international, regional, and local level where we are members to advocate for disarmament.
And we saw that in many of the communities where these arms were heavily available, especially the pastoral communities, which were a little bit backward and semi-arid, so they depended a lot on livestock, and the perception they had—because it’s not true—they thought that they needed small arms to protect their animals, and therefore, even raid more if the stock had been depleted.
But then the women in all societies have a very big role—just like we have women in the focus of our work—the women have a big role to play in either stopping such violence or even helping to stop them. So, we thought we should use them negatively to advocate for the change. And therefore, the women were used. Because first of all, when you have all these problems, the women feel the suffering more. Some of them may be part of the problem, but in many cases, like the issue of these masculine societies, the women suffer more. The men go out and raid—either they are killed, or they never come back, or if they come back, while they were away, the woman is bearing the burden of everything.
They saw the negativity of the practice, so it was easy to convince the women to start preaching the peace, singing songs, talking directly with the people who were involved in disarmament. Of course, the problem is not totally solved. But we really believe that a lot has been done because of the participation of women in disarmament.
AOS: The Center for Conflict Resolution also had a campaign called Disarming Domestic Violence. Can you tell us about that work, and how domestic violence relates to conflict-related violence against women in Uganda?
RO: This goes well beyond Uganda, but my focus is on Uganda now. Disarming Domestic Violence was actually—I would say “was” because we didn't quite really get to where we wanted—it was a project of the IANSA Women's Network; IANSA is the International Action Network on Small Arms. It was their project. Because we realized that where there is the presence of a small arm or a gun in the house, the spouse—in most cases, the female spouse—is in danger of being injured, and in many cases, being killed.
Unfortunately, the guns used in these killings were legally owned by security forces; and, because of some misunderstanding, they misused the arms and fired, and, in most cases, killed those people. So, we thought there should be a campaign to disarm domestic violence, because there is a lot of domestic violence in other forms, but once it's armed with a gun, let alone a knife or anything, it's very, very deadly. The fact that someone has a gun in the house is bad enough, but when they use it against a spouse, it's even worse.
So, part of this campaign was to look at policy issues. Like when licensing these guns—there should be consultations with the family members, especially the spouses, and also look into the character of the person applying for the license to see if they are either violent, or they are likely to be violent, or, have they ever taken part in violence? And such a person wouldn't be issued the licenseAnd such a person wouldn't be issued the license.
But of course, as I said, the campaign didn't quite go well down on the ground, although the government of Uganda is reviewing their small arms policy. But then, when it comes to issues of consulting with a spouse, comes to all the gender things we are talking about, and the masculinity where, in some societies, they still feel if the gun is for the protection of the family, then the head of the family has the right to decide what to do. And you don't know whether these people always decide the right things.
There are so many instances that we saw—one of the cases was actually a member of Parliament—because there are certain sectors of society that easily get license to guns, so, this was a member of Parliament. Currently, he's actually been put in prison. He was believed to have killed his young wife. Probably another one was a policeman; I think two of them were police people, army people. And then there's other instances where we've known of such things. So, we thought there should be some kind of control.
AOS: And, to zoom out a bit—from all your work to build peace from the ground-up in Uganda and across the Great Lakes region, how do you think that the UN and other international actors can better support inclusive, local, and gender-sensitive peace building?
RO: The advantage with advocacy to a level higher than the national level is that there is a lot of influence that these other actors can have over the activities. Apart from just the funds that they give to these governments—even the partnerships, and all the agreements—they could have it clearly written in the guidelines that this is the way we would like things to go. That is why it's so important for us as a civil society organization not to come out individually, but to come out in coalitions and big networks and go up to the levels of regional governmental organizations, or even international levels, the UN agencies and other NGOs, to make sure that we also get the support for changes that we feel are better. Because we really feel that sometimes things are listened to better when we go to these other levels than when you act individually back at home.
AOS: Finally, in 2015, it will be the 15th anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325, and we've just had another new resolution on women, peace and security this month from the Council. In your view, what are the most critical steps for implementing the Council's women, peace and security agenda and bridging the divide between headquarters and the field?
RO: We are saying that Security Council resolution 1325, of course, has been there for 13 years. Fortunately, my country, Uganda, has had the national action plan, and although the implementation has been slow, I wouldn't say it's lacking, it's been a bit slow, as has been evidenced by the fact that when we have had cases of peace talks and what have you, it never crossed the minds of the people at the table that women should be there. And yet that is what the resolution was saying clearly. But with the coming force of [UN resolution] 2122, we really think that, if the recommendations are followed, things should move more.
But, as for resolution 1325, we really still feel that there needs to be more resourcing to empower the gender issues—not just women, but the gender issues, to be taken into account, and look at the peace and security in a holistic, human security manner. Because people have been talking of security as issues of fighting and winning a war, but we are talking of human security to be included.
Maybe “mainstreaming” is a term that has always been challenged, but we think there should be encouragement of looking into the application of 1325 in whatever the government is doing—really looking back at what the resolution is saying and implementing it in all aspects of the work of the different... not just maybe the one minister, but all the work that is done. When you look at the different sector ministers—look at health, look at education, finance—when you look at the issue of human security, I think a lot of the challenges that we've been having would've been eliminated by taking into consideration the fact that you need to look at the whole of human security.
AOS: Rose, thank you for joining me today on the Global Observatory.
Originally published in the Global Observatory