Beyond tokenism: an interview on women’s leadership in local peacebuilding with Florence Mpaayei
This article from Salma Yusuf profiles the work of Ms. Florence Mpaayei, who shares her experience and insights of women’s leadership in local peacebuilding in Kenya. It highlights the importance and impact of women’s real, not tokenistic, leadership in peacebuilding – to guide and steer the vision, development and implementation of local peacebuilding efforts.
More often than not, women have been included in local peacebuilding initiatives to tick a check-box in terms of representation. In other slightly more positive instances, women are engaged as participants and given a voice to express and share their perspectives. However, women are still rarely given the opportunity to lead in peace negotiations and agreements, government decisions or local peacebuilding solutions.
Ms. Florence Mpaayei is changing this narrative of exclusion. Throughout her peacebuilding work in Kenya, Ms. Mpaayei has championed the women at grassroots and national levels who strive to be drivers of peace, to de-escalate conflict, and link their work to policymakers.
Ms. Mpaayei began her peacebuilding leadership in the North Rift region in 1995 – 2002. There, she was working for an organisation called the Nairobi Peace Initiative Africa (NPI-Africa) where she later became Executive Director, which provided accompaniment to the Rural Women Peace Link (RWPL), which later became known as the Kenya Women’s Consortium.
RWPL came into existence because most initiatives in the North Rift region were led by men. The rural women sought to fill this gap in representation, coming together to intervene in a range of regional conflicts based on resource-scarcity, herder-farmer tensions, and politically instigated conflicts that intensified due to the influx of arms into communities.
Ms. Mpaayei and her team provided accompaniment to RWPL to assist the women in strategising on types of interventions and activities, including how these activities should be linked to larger initiatives that foster sustainable peace. The women were further assisted with identification of which actors needed to be involved in each activity. The RWPL additionally benefited from skills of conducting gender-sensitive analysis and how this ought to inform peace initiatives in the country.
“In order for the work of peace to hold ground, women need to vie for political seats and occupy seats of decision making. Therefore, these women were not only working to prevent conflict and recommend policies for change, but were advocating for women to be a part of local governance structures and involved in local politics in order to have real impact,” Ms.Mpaayei reflects.
Rural women tackle ranging conflicts
Fast forward to 2019 and 2020, Ms. Mpaayei reflects upon how the women she worked with in Garissa stepped up and creatively intervened to address conflicts in their community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to climate breakdown, there were significant changes in weather patterns and the cycles of rain, which intensified pre-existing conflicts between herders and farmers.
Typically, herders and farmers reach agreements on periods of grazing permitted for cattle during the dry season. But when political leaders allowed the herders extended times for grazing in relegation of these agreements, the dynamics of climate change and politics intensified the conflicts.
The Garissa Women Peace Movement stepped up, accompanied by the Nairobi Peace Initiative Africa, to establish forums for dialogue that convened county administration, farmers and herders to unpack the issues that gave rise to the intensified conflicts.
“From this experience, we realised that grasping the issues was insufficient. The importance of how the issues identified were eventually framed and packaged is what ultimately determined our success in galvanising support for resolving the conflict with the support of all parties.”
Gaining a seat at the table
Another women-led initiative had far-reaching national impact in 2007 and 2008, when violence erupted in Kenya following the announcement of the new President-Elect on the heels of an otherwise peaceful election. A group of women leaders, including Ms. Mpaayei, stepped up and demonstrated skilful leadership in organising their efforts in a systematic and strategic way:
First, they convened and engaged in an introspective exercise, asking themselves what knowledge they needed in order to be able to inform and influence the ongoing mediation efforts in the country with a gender-sensitive lens. Second, they did the internal hard work by conducting their own analysis in unpacking what the conflict was about and identifying next steps required to amplify women’s voices and build consensus among themselves to create a constituency that speaks to the issues of women. Third, these women strategised on how the women’s groups could intervene. They also prepared a common memorandum that reflected the aspirations of all the women, so that jointly the women of Kenya were represented in the peace talks and negotiations.
These efforts gained them an invitation to meet with members the African Union mediation team – including H.E. Graça Machel, former South Africa and Mozambique first lady and human rights activist, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annaan, and the former President of Tanzania, the late Benjamin Mkapa – to share their aspirations and perspectives.
The memorandum the women had developed was taken on board – significantly, specific recommendations from the memorandum were reflected in the ensuing peace agreement, including the recommendation for women to sit as Chairpersons or Deputy Chairpersons in Government Commissions. To date, this has been implemented in several commissions in Kenya.
Ms. Mpaayei’s recommendations for other women peacebuilders
Reflecting on lessons learnt from her work in local peacebuilding, Ms. Mpaayei emphasises the importance of readiness and preparation mixed with compassion in order to be able to respond to crisis with the required skills and capacity. Therefore, when the crisis presents itself, women are ready to be propelled into leadership roles and positions.
Further, it is important for women peacebuilders to have deep knowledge of the issues and intricacies around the issues as that will engender confidence in the women peacebuilders to advocate for these issues and be reflected in peace initiatives.
Further, it is important to have clarity on the constituencies that women are representing. Often, Ms. Mpaayei notes, women are asked, ‘’what constituency are you representing?” Merely stating that one is representing “women” is not sufficient. It is important to state which group of women are being represented as this allows for the verification of any claims being made.
Additionally, she stresses the importance of being connected to women groups and networks of peacebuilders.
She also highlights the importance of building solid partnerships with media outlets, particularly those headed by women, to provide a platform for amplifying the voices of women peacebuilders.
Last, but certainly not least, is the importance of maintaining credibility by being inclusive and impartial when offering leadership to peace initiatives. “You have to hold all sides of the conflict as a bridge-builder and support all sides equally so that they can arrive at a solution. This is paramount to build credibility as a peacebuilder. No matter how painful it is, and sometimes it is indeed painful, since it is your own community that is being demonised. Nonetheless, you cannot favour one side, as that will make the other sides weaken and collapse. You have to hold that space and listen with respect on why they see your community that way.”
When asked to reflect on a common thread across her experience of women-led peacebuilding, Ms. Mpaayei says, “In my journey so far I have seen that women peacebuilders naturally step up with courage, commitment and determination and provide leadership when a conflict or crisis erupts within their communities.”
Ms. Florence N. Mpaayei is a seasoned conflict resolution and peacebuilding professional with extensive experience in designing strategies for intervention and implementing peacebuilding programmes. For the past three decades, Ms. Mpaayei has worked in numerous countries building capacities for conflict prevention with a bias on women, promoting dialogue as the best option to bring about positive political, economic, environmental and socio-cultural change. Ms. Mpaayei has vast experience in promoting the work of civil society peace actors at national, regional, continental and international arenas as well as working to ensure the representation of women (young and senior) in activities related to peace processes. This has led to her gaining experience in establishing linkages/partnerships with multiple partners (government and non-governmental) at community, national, regional and international levels, aimed at creating coordinated platforms for conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Ms. Mpaayei continues to accompany many women peace actors including the Rural Women Peace Link at advisory capacity. Since 2021, Ms. Mpaayei is a member of the UN Standby Team of Senior Mediation Advisers on gender and inclusion. The views expressed are personal and do not in anyway reflect the views of Ms. Mpaayei current institutional affiliation.