In central Mali, local communities have entered into peace agreements with terrorist groups to regain a sense of calm. Residents in the area have been grappling with a vicious cycle of violence linked to the armed insurgency since 2015.
The agreements generally result from negotiations between community leaders and representatives of the local branch of Jama'at Nusrat ul-Islam wal-Muslimeen - one of the most influential radical groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Sahel. The use of dialogue contrasts starkly with the predominantly military responses used by successive Malian governments.
Recent studies have documented these experiences, including the nature and content of agreements, the conduct of negotiations and their doctrinal and political challenges. However, the vital roles played by women in these local processes have largely been overlooked in favour of the contributions made by men, especially community and religious leaders.
This is partly because of narratives that view women as passive victims of violence. These stereotypes are reinforced by deep-seated patriarchal social practices that have tended to be discriminatory towards women.
The vital role of women in local negotiations with violent extremists has largely been overlooked
Research by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in 2021 showed the diversity of women's experiences and their mixed involvement in the terrorism crisis. Women in the Sahel are not only victims of insecurity but have varied and complex roles in the workings of violent extremist groups, particularly in Niger and Mali. They are also involved in peacebuilding.
The ISS recently documented women's active participation in local dialogues and peace processes in central Mali. Some use their close relationships with armed extremists to facilitate initial contact during the early stages of negotiation - revealing their vital role in gaining insurgents' trust.
Terrorist groups are generally fighting against the established social order, which is often personified by male customary authorities. One woman interviewed by the ISS said she helped her village leaders choose who should negotiate with the armed groups. Her involvement in their selection facilitated the negotiators' acceptance by the extremists.
Notwithstanding their importance in the mediation process, women don't participate in public meetings with the jihadists. They operate behind the scenes during this phase, playing the essential role of adviser to community leaders.
Extremists generally fight against the social order, which is often personified by male customary authorities
At the same time, there are several cases of women who discreetly negotiate with the local leaders of armed groups. Their goal is to persuade the leaders to adopt a softer interpretation of religious rules entrenched in the more formal agreements. This type of intervention is usually carried out by a woman the extremist group highly respects because of her advanced age and privileged social status.
One such case was a renegotiation that lifted the ban on youth playing football in exchange for assurances that players would respect prayer times. In another, a woman negotiated with the jihadists to ensure that unveiled women didn't receive corporal punishment.
Women's negotiating power is linked to their discretion during the process, their social background and their standing or leadership in their communities. This position is either built over time or stems from their status and family history.
Some women belong to highly respected families whose reputation for managing domestic conflicts is historically recognised. Their involvement in peace processes simply extends their responsibility as community mediators. For other women, their participation in professional activities, sometimes in community service, has built relationships and trust with local actors.
Women operate behind the scenes, playing the essential role of adviser to community leaders
While these examples are specific to their contexts and cannot be generalised, they illustrate women's potential roles in finding pathways to peace in the Sahel. These cases provide three valuable lessons for dialogue and negotiation policies in the region.
The first lesson is that the design and implementation of policy on dialogue must be anchored in a comprehensive gender analysis. This would give decision makers and stakeholders a better grasp of the gender dimensions of peace negotiations, particularly the unique roles that men and women play. Second, the success of dialogue policies will depend on their consideration of local dynamics. Interventions must be adaptable to realities on the ground and avoid duplicating standardised models.
Finally, the legitimacy of participants in dialogue processes doesn't always coincide with their official functions. Although women are absent from formal decision making, they can positively influence local negotiations because they work discreetly and on the margins. Interventions such as local dialogue committees should integrate these informal dynamics into their decision-making processes.
The 'all-military' approach favoured by most governments in the Sahel has failed to protect civilians. The region's leaders should take lessons from Mali's community dialogues - in which women play a decisive role - to pursue negotiated responses to violent extremism.
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