Women Building Peace and Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict-Affected Contexts: A Review of Community-Based Approaches

Annalise Moser
Publication Date
October 1, 2007


This United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) document focuses on specific thematic areas of good practice in the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and women's participation in peacebuilding. The study was developed as a background document to inform programming and advocacy within the context of UNIFEM programming, and builds on country-level visits conducted in early 2007. The programme is supported by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID).


The study looks at five areas of intervention:

  • Peacebuilding and conflict resolution initiatives
  • Reconciliation mechanisms
  • Increasing access to justice
  • Access to support services
  • Conflict monitoring systems


Each of these sections examines the barriers women face, and highlights examples of women’s successful engagement in peacebuilding that were selected on the basis of being simple yet innovative and explicitly community-based. The study notes that the long-term effectiveness of community-based approaches to bringing peace and security cannot be isolated from national-level and international efforts to implement UN Security Council resolution (SCR) 1325 on women, peace, and security.


The approaches in the six different contexts - Afghanistan, Haiti, Liberia, Rwanda, Timor-Leste, and Uganda - include coalition-building, promoting the use of digital technologies, and new funding mechanisms, as well as efforts that combine traditional and modern conflict resolution approaches that strive to facilitate women’s participation in local decision-making processes. (A chart on page 2 of the document lists obstacles faced by women in one column and the corresponding solutions listed in the other. )


Communication-related work in the five areas includes:

  • Peacebuilding and conflict resolution initiatives: "Women have used community-based initiatives to create new 'social contracts,' facilitate community exchanges and engage in public advocacy for peace." The ‘Women’s Initiatives for Peace’ project in Colombia, for example, brought together 22 civil society and trade unions to create, through the consensus of small group meetings, a women’s agenda for peace, which could contribute to the national peace agenda. A regular channel for relaying women's views to decision making bodies in Bosnia and Herzegovina is through ‘Coffee with the Mayor,’ weekly meetings since 2001 that have led to the engagement in conversation of women and politicians. Funding constraints are a challenge to the formation of women's community-based organisations (CBOs). To address this challenge in Afghanistan and Haiti, UNIFEM has established funding mechanisms to provide small grants to women’s CBOs, with aims to: reduce competition among women’s CSOs; allow local organisations to access resources through a participatory and flexible funding mechanism; build capacity; and establish networks that promote collaboration among organisations working towards similar goals. In Liberia, WIPNET (Women in Peace Building Network) established Peace Huts where women meet to share information about problems and issues they have heard about in the community, and plan actions to further investigate, publicise, or resolve the issues. In general, where village leadership embraces their practices of conflict resolution at the family and village level, they can be more effective. The document cites the need to involve both women and men as mediators in traditional mediation practices. Digital technologies, as stated here, provide an "unconventional but highly effective means of communication that can be employed by women working to end" GBV, build peace, and prevent conflict. “Useful technologies include the internet (websites, chat rooms, blogs, internet radio streaming, video streaming, and podcasting technology), email, and mobile phones. These enable quick and relatively cost-effective ways of exchanging written, visual, and audio information, organizing, networking and mobilizing, as well as facilitating dialogue, and are particularly useful for those women whose mobility is restricted or for communication with organizations outside of affected areas. Facilities such as mailing lists can create a ‘safe’ space for individuals to organize around an issue that might be ‘risky’ in physical spaces, as well as being a simple and usually cost-free initiative." 


  • Reconciliation mechanisms: "Reconciliation mechanisms often function in parallel to other peace-building processes, combining an emphasis on justice with a process of healing, respect and creating a longer-term culture of peace among parties in conflict....Affected communities face the challenge of strengthening social cohesion, rebuilding relationships and re-establishing trust; this is especially important in reconciliation mechanisms dealing with the aftermath of conflict. An increasing amount of evidence shows that the process of re-building social capital within communities can also be an effective method of challenging the constraints women face in participating in local decision-making structures....An initiative by the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development (ACORD) in Burundi, for example, focuses on reconciliation and conflict prevention through community negotiations, which are followed by a signing of community social contracts in the presence of the community, local authorities, and external witnesses. [Footnotes are removed by the editor.) A gender-specific approach is fully integrated within the initiative to ensure that women participate in equal numbers and with equal decision-making opportunities in the process." "[A]nother approach which women have used to promote reconciliation between belligerent parties is creating greater understanding and compassion, and reducing fear of ‘the other’ through community exchanges....The Israeli organization Coalition of Women for Peace arranged what they call ‘Reality Tours’ geared toward Israelis (women and men) who are willing to travel to the Occupied Territories and meet Palestinians…. [I]n Georgia, the ‘Fund Sukhumi’ women’s organization and the Association of Women of Abkhazia brought women together to talk about security. The events were taped and the videos of the discussions were exchanged over the border....The Blue Ribbon Peace Vigil in Fiji… began in response to the 2000 coup, when the National Council of Women Fiji mobilized a network of women’s groups in Suva to gather for a peace and prayer vigil. The peace vigil became a daily, then weekly, event incorporating a multi-ethnic group of women from civil society organizations. It instigated women’s roles in mediating between conflicting parties, in communicating and advocating with security forces, and in bringing different communities and groups together to pray for peace and unity in the country." 


  • Increasing access to justice: "Women commonly face barriers in their access to justice in the aftermath of armed conflict. Successful community-based initiatives include gender-sensitising traditional justice mechanisms, providing community-based legal support, and working with the police." It I noted that structuring public court hearings, though a frequent structure in the reconciliation process (the Gacaca courts in Rwanda are given as an example), often prevents women's testimony on GBV due to stigma, pressure from families, and insufficient advocacy. Community-based legal support can provide education and advocacy for women, for example: "the American Refugee Committee (ARC) Legal Aid Program in Guinea, which operates a ‘Legal Aid Clinic’ [which] runs an education program [for] refugees, community leaders, government and non-governmental aid workers, as well as United Nations employees, physical and mental health care providers, bar owners, hotel owners, video club owners, law enforcement personnel, and Guinean officials charged with the responsibility to protect." In Sierra Leone, the police (SLP) have established Family Support Units (FSU) with "specially trained male and female officers dedicated to working with victims of rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence and trafficking. Located in the main police stations across the country, the FSUs are supposed to provide compassionate, humane, and appropriate assistance. The FSUs also have established referral services for free medical care and legal assistance. The FSU also engages in extensive public awareness-raising efforts, especially on the topics of sexual violence, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, trafficking and female genital mutilation." This document states that, as a result of this programme, reporting of GBV has increased and stigma associated with sexual exploitation and abuse has diminished. 


  • Access to support services: "Women are affected by multiple issues [in post-conflict settings]: both armed conflict and sexual and gender-based violence affect women’s physical and psychological health, their legal rights, and their capacity to earn an income." In Nigeria, a multi-sectoral approach included a number of components highlighted as important: "The Women for Women International program enrolls widows in a one year holistic program, during which they receive psychological counseling, financial assistance (which gives them the freedom to purchase basic goods, start a small business or send their children to school), and job skills training (more than 150 cooperatives composed graduates have registered with local authorities). Rights awareness and leadership education classes are given once a week. The skills and awareness that women have learned in these sessions have led to strong women’s networks and increased participation in political advocacy, such as the successfully contesting -via traditional rulers - of local inheritance customs that discriminate against widows. The program also engages men - notably traditional rulers, government officials, religious leaders and businessmen - in gender sensitivity workshops." The document emphasises the inclusion of community members, including within refugees camps, in programme design and implementation to increase the involvement of both genders. It also suggests: alternatives for commercial sex workers; medical case management for GBV survivors and advocacy and support for them within the health system; GBV awareness trainings tailored to specific groups - such as security forces, male non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers, drivers, health workers, teenage boys, and vulnerable girls and women; and 'Prevention Grants,’ which are in-kind grants awarded to grassroots community groups who are committed to addressing GBV issues through culturally appropriate means such as drama, dance, music, and debates. 

  • Conflict monitoring systems: "…conflict analysis, monitoring, and early warning are all significantly enhanced with a gender-sensitive approach, because aspects of conflict that might not otherwise be detected are exposed when women’s experience of conflict is addressed." These include "women’s perceptions of subtle changes in community relations, or in the flow of arms and disaffected youth in communities recorded in conflict analysis processes... [as well as] [s]igns of serious inequalities in gender relations - including SGBV...."


    In the Solomon Islands, for example, UNIFEM’s gender-sensitive conflict early warning project:

            • Trained 20 male and female volunteers from five conflict-prone communities,  "successful as a means of involving men and raising their awareness of the consequences of GBV";

             • Developed a set of gender-sensitive indicators of conflict and peace, which legitimised and empowered women to engage in community decision-making and planning around community conflict prevention;

             • Collected data at the community and national levels;

             • Disseminated the data among communities, civil society, government, and donors.


    Another project highlighted is ‘Women’s Safety Audits’, part of the UN-Habitat’s Safer Cities programme, to identify spaces where women feel unsafe and produce recommendations to address the problems. Another example is an anti-gun programme included the following:

             • A workshop on women’s role in weapons collection, providing training to NGOs and political representatives to develop strategies for weapons collection;

             • Capacity-building workshops for civil society leaders; 

             • A conference for 200 women called Women of Diber Say ‘No to the Guns, Yes to Life and Development’;

             • Posters and radio programmes raising awareness of women’s roles in disarmament.


The conclusion of the Executive Summary states: “While community-based approaches play an essential part in peace-building efforts, they cannot on their own stem the overwhelming tide of sexual violence in conflict, nor stop the systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The effectiveness of community-based approaches ultimately depends on a broader recognition of the ways in which violence against women undermines both peace-building efforts at the national level and international security more generally. As the examples in the following report illustrate, peace-building begins at the community level but it cannot end there.”