Building peace from the grassroots: Learning from women peacebuilders to advance the WPS agenda

Building peace from the grassroots: Learning from women peacebuilders to advance the WPS agenda

Building peace from the grassroots

Consultations on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), Sustaining Peace and COVID-19 with local women peacebuilders in Colombia, Northern Ireland, South Africa and Uganda

To ensure that voices of local and national women peacebuilders are meaningfully included in the processes leading up to the 20th Anniversary of UNSCR 1325, the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, in partnership with UN Women and the Government of Ireland, conducted a series of in-country consultations and follow-up interviews on WPS and Sustaining Peace with women from the civil society in Colombia, Northern Ireland, Uganda and South Africa.

Read about the work of some of our participants below!


Featuring Women Peacebuilders

Photo provided by Akudzwe Mhangami

Akudzwe Mhangami, Director, TukRes Women in Leadership Academy, Pretoria, South Africa

“To me, peace means living without fear and having an equal seat at the tables where decisions are made that affect me. It means that being a woman will not endanger me or put me at a place of disadvantage.”

Akudzwe Mhangami is a young peacebuilder and activist from Pretoria, South Africa. She is the Director of the TuksRes Women in Leadership Academy (TRWLA) at the University of Pretoria, where she is studying law. TRWLA’s mission is to empower a new generation of women leaders and change-makers, to build a more equal and peaceful society in South Africa. “We want to grow the leadership potential in young women by helping them to recognize and grow their inherent strength” – says Akudzwe. TRWLA pursues this goal by providing year-long leadership training to young women. The participants attend seminars, workshops and guest speaker presentations. Upon completing the training, the young women graduate and are encouraged to transfer the knowledge they acquired to their peers and their communities. Some of them become mentors and trainers within the Academy. “We hope to create a ripple effect of empowered young women entering all spheres of society as they graduate,” emphasizes Akudzwe, highlighting that the Academy has trained 750 young women since its establishment in 2014.

The work of the Academy is crucial, especially given the many challenges women peacebuilders face in South Africa. Lack of political will to support women’s rights and to curtail the high femicide rates in South Africa, and lack of resources to implement the peacebuilding work are among the most important challenges noted by Akudzwe. She hopes that training a new generation of female leaders committed to social justice and sustainable peace will help address those.

Akudzwe recognizes that women’s leadership for sustainable peace is a matter of urgency. Conflict and instability continue to be widespread across the world. According to the Global Peace Index, in 2018, “global peacefulness declined for the fourth straight year (…)  as a result of growing authoritarianism, unresolved conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, and increased political instability across the world.” Women are disproportionately affected by conflict and global instability. Moreover, they also face violence at home – in 2017, more than 50% of women who were intentionally killed were killed by intimate partners or family members. This is visible also in South Africa, where it is estimated that a woman is murdered every three hours, and femicide has been declared a national crisis.

When asked what motivates her to be a peacebuilder, Akudzwe says, “I do not have the privilege to stay silent or remain complacent. If one of us is silenced, oppressed, abused, used as a weapon of war, all of us are. Peacebuilding and Women and Peace and Security is relevant because the world is in desperate need of a systemic change, change that will free us as women too.”

Akudzwe was one of the participants of the consultation on WPS and Sustaining Peace organized by GNWP, UN Women and the Embassy of Ireland in South Africa in Pretoria on March 2, 2020


Dieketseng Diale, Chief Executive Officer, Lady of Peace Community Foundation, North West Province, South Africa

Photo by: Flow Communications, South Africa

“Peace is a process of working together to create conditions for all to flourish and prosper”

“Effective participation of women in peacebuilding and conflict prevention efforts should be a key priority for our country – South Africa,” says Dieketseng Diale, the Chief Executive Officer of Our Lady for Peace Community Foundation (LOPECO) operating in the North West province of South Africa. “Although we are not a war zone, we are troubled with a rising number of gender-based violence and communal violence cases.” Dieketseng highlights the importance of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, and says we still have a long way to go towards the implementation. “The number of women involved in formal peacemaking processes remains low; and many peace agreements do not include gender provisions that sufficiently address women’s security and peacebuilding needs.”

Her organization, LOPECO Foundation,  seeks to address this gap by providing women with a platform to connect, empower each other, and advocate on peace matters. Our Lady for Peace works at the grassroots level, addressing root causes of conflict through economic empowerment of communities, building social cohesion, and campaigning for peace. Since 2018, LOPECO has organized crafts workshops, teaching women crafting skills, as well as capacity-building and step-by-step guidance needed to start and grow their own businesses. The Foundation also works with local schools, to organize peace dialogues, and peace poems competitions to increase the students’ awareness of the importance of peace.

When asked about the challenges women peacebuilders face in South Africa, Dieketseng points to the limited resources, and the inadequate understanding of the Women, Peace and Security agenda among most government departments and grassroots communities. But the challenges do not deter her! LOPECO has continued its important work even during the COVID-19 pandemic, organizing weekly WhatsApp chat discussions to identify key challenges to women’s empowerment, gender equality and peace, and formulate concrete solutions.

Dieketseng was one of the participants of the consultation on WPS and Sustaining Peace organized by GNWP, UN Women and the Embassy of Ireland in South Africa in Pretoria on March 2, 2020.


Suraya Bibi Khan, Founder, SAWID-Southern Dialogues, Johannesburg, South Africa

Photo by: Flow Communications, South Africa

“To me, peace means communities living in peace and harmony, with a shared value of humanity, taught to me by my parents.”

For Suraya Bibi Khan, her passion for peacebuilding and women’s rights was inspired by exchanges with women activists from around the world. “I began my journey towards peacebuilding during my visit to Iraq in 2003. Seeing the impacts of the war, especially on women and children, cemented my dedication to work for peace.” Shortly upon her return, Suraya participated in a meeting organized by an ad-hoc Steering Committee or women volunteers that led to the establishment of the South African Women in Dialogue (SAWID) organization. SAWID was established by 1,000 women who met in Pretoria in July 2003, and is dedicated to “improving the status of women by engaging national government, the private sector, civil society.”

While it was established by women from South African, SAWID works in the framework of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), and has a Pan-African, as well as national, outlook. It hosts both national and regional conferences and forums to provide a platform for women activists to share their perspectives, exchange their experiences and strengthen each other’s work and advocacy.

In 2004, inspired by the National Annual SAWID Dialogue, Suraya established the organization’s grassroots chapter, SAWID-Southern Forums, working in “Region G” the southern part of Johannesburg. The chapter organizes intergenerational inter-faith dialogues for peace, and raises political awareness at the grassroots level to enable local women’s participation in peacebuilding, democratic processes, including elections and election monitoring, and decision-making.

For Suraya, it is clear that South Africa still has a long way to guarantee women’s meaningful participation and build sustainable peace. “South Africans have emerged from a conflict, but not from the challenges posed by new commitments to democracy”, she says. “As we establish one of the newest democracies of the world in our country, we are shocked by the fact that a large proportion of women from disadvantaged groups will not be participating in our democracy. Why? Simply because they are not aware about processes and the values of democracy.” Thus, awareness-raising and support to women’s meaningful participation in politics have to remain a priority. But there are many challenges – including funding. “Funding outcomes are dictated by donors who do not fully grasp the situation on the ground”, emphasizes Suraya. “This has to change!”

Suraya was one of the participants of the consultation on WPS and Sustaining Peace organized by GNWP, UN Women and the Embassy of Ireland in South Africa in Pretoria on March 2, 2020.


Tintswalo Cassandra Makhubele, Secretary General, South African Congress of Non-profit Organizations, South Africa

Photo provided by Tintswalo Cassandra Makhubele

“Peace is critical, but it is also quite fragile. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated it. To me, sustaining peace means much more than just silencing the guns. It means bringing gender equality, protecting women and children from violence, and taking urgent action to combat climate change. We cannot build sustainable peace if our natural resources are drained away.”

Tintswalo Cassandra Makhubele is the Secretary General of the South African Congress of Non-profit Organizations (Sacono). Sacono is a network of civil society organizations from South Africa and the continent.

In her work, Tintswalo focuses on addressing the root causes of conflict. Through Sacono, she has organized awareness campaigns on water conservation to reduce water consumption. Sacono has also monitored elections, to ensure that they are free and fair, and prevent violence outbreaks. “Respect for the rule of law and human rights is a critical element of peacebuilding”, says Tintswalo, “especially when it comes to care after the war, management of conflict and sustainability of peace.”

Tintswalo believes that addressing violence against women is also a critical element of peacebuilding. Sacono has worked with the judiciary and the police to improve the procedures for handling cases of domestic abuse, and accelerate the turnaround. They assist gender-based violence and domestic violence survivors through psychosocial counselling. They have also established community “food gardens” for women who had experienced abuse, to allow them to build their livelihoods while dealing with their trauma.

“Women peacebuilders are already taking serious action to address conflict and build sustainable peace,” says Tintswalo, “They need to be recognized and supported.” She emphasizes that the same is also true for LGBTQI persons, people living with disabilities and even boys and men, whom we need to nurture to change their mindsets.

In April 2020, Tintswalo addressed the Peacebuilding Commission during the special meeting on Women, Peace and Security, to share her experience and her perspective on the gaps in the ongoing peacebuilding and sustaining peace efforts. “South Africa is not a country at conflict, but we still have a long way to build a sustainable peace,” she recognized. The key challenges she shared included: lack of sufficient communication and coordination among peacebuilding actors, leading to exclusion; insufficient funding for women-led peacebuilding; and short-term planning in peacebuilding strategies. “Ultimately, peacebuilding programs and efforts need to be designed to enable transition from the culture of violence to peace. This is a long-term task that requires inclusion of women, youth, LGBTQI, people with disabilities and all other marginalized groups”, she concluded.

Tintswalo was one of the participants of the consultation on WPS and Sustaining Peace organized by GNWP, UN Women and the Embassy of Ireland in South Africa in Pretoria on March 2, 2020


Andrea Gurrute, Red Departamental de Mujeres del Cauca (REDEMUC), Popayán, Colombia

“Peace means the full enjoyment of human rights for all people, wherever they live.”

Photo provided by Andrea Gurrute

Andrea Gurrute is a political scientist and young peacebuilder from Cauca Department in Colombia. Since 2019 she has been working with the Women’s Departmental Network Association in Cauca (Red Departamental de Mujeres de Cauca – REDEMUC), a non-profit organization that advocates for women’s rights, their political participation, economic autonomy, and female empowerment. She also designs educational methodologies for vulnerable populations, and leads political training for youth and women leaders at the grassroots. She believes that equipping young women with knowledge and skills to participate in the political life of their town and municipality is necessary to promote the implementation of the gender provisions in the peace agreement, which ended 56 years of an armed conflict between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia; FARC). “Peacebuilding is a collective process, and mobilization always begins at the local level”, emphasizes Andrea.

Cauca, where Andrea lives and works, is considered to be one of the hotspots of violence in Colombia. The many intersecting conflicts have brought devastating consequences to the department. The territory has experienced a spiral of violence due to the presence of guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional; ELN), dissidents from the FARC and drug trafficking groups who hold disputes over the drug trafficking routes. Moreover, women leaders and activists in the department face increasing threats and violence, in particular during the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes them an “easier target” due to restricted mobility. As a result, Andrea remarks, “women peacebuilders face many challenges. in particular due to a lack of guarantees and security measures. Their lives are under serious threat, and there is not enough recognition and protection for the work of social community leaders and human rights defenders.”

Although women play an important role in peacebuilding processes and are essential to creating long-term sustainable peace, many of them are not aware of their rights and remain silent about the violence they experience due to the fear caused by threats. Andrea believes that to change the status quo, it is necessary to challenge patriarchal values, which are deeply rooted in Colombian society. “UNSCR 1325 is a useful tool for a structural change”, she says. “it helps women to learn about and understand their rights, while at the same time it forces the municipal and national governments to fulfill their obligations in advancing the Women, Peace and Security agenda.”

Andrea is a member of the Grupo Impulsor (G-10) – an advocacy collective formed by local women from across Cauca during the Localization of UNSCR 1325 workshops conducted by GNWP and Red Nacional de Mujeres (RNM) in December 2019. The group’s main objective is to work as a liaison between local authorities and their citizens. It seeks to amplify the voices of grassroots women by integrating their advocacy proposals in local development plans, ensuring a peace and gender lens. Andrea believes that creating such spaces for dialogue and joint strategizing is essential to motivate the effective and meaningful participation of women in the implementation of the peace agreement. Such dialogue can also strengthen the territorial identity by promoting the sense of joint responsibility and creating alliances between public institutions, social organizations, the community, and the private sector.

Andrea was one of the participants of the consultation on WPS and Sustaining Peace organized by UN Women Colombia, with support from the Government of Ireland, in March 2020. She also contributed to follow-up research on the impact of COVID-19 on WPS implementation coordinated by GNWP.


Zulma Hurtado Ibarbo, Red Departamental de Mujeres del Cauca (REDEMUC), Popayán, Colombia

To me, peace means equity and equality and it is vital to building more just and inclusive societies”

Photo provided by Zulma Hurtado Ibarbo

For Zulma, her participation in a popular education school for women in 2010 was a defining moment in her career as a woman peacebuilder. Popular education is an alternative education model that uses a participatory approach and challenges the way in which traditional education reproduces socio-economic inequalities. At the popular education school, she was encouraged to reflect on the conditions that perpetrate social injustice and how to transform the existing structures of oppression. Since then, she has committed herself to promoting and protecting women’s rights, encouraging their political participation, economic empowerment and the prevention of gender-based violence. She was actively involved in the advocacy that led to the adoption of the Law 1257, which establishes the right of women to live a life free of violence as a fundamental human right that is protected by Colombia’s Constitution. She also monitors the Territorially Focused Development Programs (PDETs in Spanish) – a key component of the local implementation of the peace agreement between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia; FARC) – as well as the implementation of the peace agreement’s gender provisions.

Zulma currently works as a facilitator in the Women’s Departmental Network Association in Cauca (Red Departamental de Mujeres de Cauca – REDEMUC). She explains that the work inspires her because “all the organizations that are part of this network strive for gender equity and equality, for the inclusion of an ethnic perspective and for peacebuilding.” Additionally, she is also involved with the Grupo Impulsor (G-10) – an advocacy collective formed by local women from across Cauca during the Localization of UNSCR 1325 workshops conducted by GNWP and Red Nacional de Mujeres (RNM) in December 2019. The group works together to bring the perspectives of local women to municipal and departmental policy processes – such as the adoption of the Local Development Plans – and monitors the implementation of the gender provisions of the peace agreement at the local level.

When asked about the challenges faced by women peacebuilders in Colombia, Zulma points out that the persistence of gender-based violence against women continues to be one of the greatest barriers to peacebuilding. However, despite the violence they have suffered, she emphasizes that women have shown that they can be agents of change and social activists fighting for equality. “We live in a country where women are constantly attacked, but nevertheless, they never stop workiing to address the structural causes of discrimination and gender inequality”, she notes. Zulma believes that effective peacebuilding takes time, and insists on the importance of creating, funding and supporting sustainable peacebuilding programs, which reach the most remote places where the intersecting impacts of violence, poverty and the armed conflict have done a lot of damage, especially to women.

Her passion for peacebuilding and women’s rights was inspired by the search for gender equity and equality, and her respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. For Zulma, they are key pillars to build sustainable peace and equitable societies. In her words, “peacebuilding has a transformative character that provides well-being and balance to societies”.

Zulma was one of the participants of the consultation on WPS and Sustaining Peace organized by UN Women Colombia, with support from the Government of Ireland, in March 2020. She also contributed to follow-up research on the impact of COVID-19 on WPS implementation coordinated by GNWP.


Elizabeth Law, Chair of Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform (NIWEP) and Jonna Monaghan, Program Coordinator at NIWEP

“To us, peace means women having an equal seat at the table and choice in their own lives.”

The Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform (NIWEP) was established in 1999, to “give women and girls in Northern Ireland a voice at the national and international level.” Elizabeth Law was among the founders of the platform. “Women in Northern Ireland have a long history of peacebuilding, and played a vital role in leading and sustaining communities during the conflict,” she says. “That role, has, however, not necessarily been recognized, and women are finding it difficult to make their voice heard in decision-making in many countries and communities, including in Northern Ireland.

Elizabeth and Jonna Monaghan – a Program Coordinator at NIWEP – emphasize that today, there are still persistent gaps and barriers to women’s participation in Northern Ireland. women are still underrepresented in decision making. “Much of the policy-making in Northern Ireland is actively gender-blind,” says Jonna, stressing that there is a lack of political will to change it. “It is an aspiration, not an accident,” she notes, highlighting that while 30% of members in the devolved regional Assembly are women, progress is slow and there is limited political will to prioritize gender equality.

NIWEP believes that gender parity is a critical element of sustainable peace building. “Our aim is to advocate for gender equality, as well as for full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement,” says Elizabeth. NIWEP has been working towards this mission by coordinating the civil society monitoring of the UN human rights mechanisms, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). NIWEP was also instrumental in introducing the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 to Northern Ireland. Although Elizabeth and Jonna highlight that much more remains to be done, they believe that UNSCR 1325 has helped highlight women’s role in public life and women’s perspective on peacebuilding in Northern Ireland, and provided a means for holding government to account. NIWEP provides the secretariat to Northern Ireland Assembly All Party Group on UNSCR 1325 and Women, Peace and Security, which in 2014 undertook an inquiry that highlighted the challenges to implementation of the principles of UNSCR 1325. NIWEP is currently planning to update that evidence.

“Today, the COVID-19 crisis and other challenges mean that advocacy, networking and supporting women in communities must be emphasised more than ever, to ensure hard won rights can be secured and strengthened in the future”, stress Elizabeth and Jonna.

Elizabeth Law and Jonna Monaghan were participants of the consultation on WPS and Sustaining Peace organized by the Government of Ireland in Belfast in March 2020. They also contributed to follow-up research on the impact of COVID-19 on WPS implementation.