By Antonia Musunga .
She was propelled to peace work in 2000 during the battle between the Somali and the Borana. It’s her actions at the time that have made Grace Lolim stand out as a woman who has championed for peace and gender equality in Isiolo County.
Although her Turkana community was not directly involved in the conflict, the two battling communities would use Turkana areas as escape routes placing the community in danger.
“The conflict forced me and my husband to flee to Nakuru with our children. However, my parents and siblings were left behind in the village,” says Lolim. She explains: “I feared for their lives and it was then that I convinced my husband to allow me go back and rescue them.”
Lolim left her young children behind with her husband as she back to for the village. “On arrival, I found that villagers were hiding along riverbeds which exposed them to risk of attacks by crocodiles,” she explains.
Despite persuasion from her husband, Lolim refused to leave her relatives in distress. She embarked on a journey of dialogue to end the conflict by joining the village peace committee.
She was appointed by other women to speak during a conflict mitigation meeting at the locational level, a position that saw her interact with committee members from other tribes. Previously, she had been a member of the Turkana Peace Committee which did not have members from the Somali and Borana communities. At this level, it was difficult for peace champions to point out which tribe had initiated the conflict.
“This was not the norm then, no one dared tell the authorities what had fuelled the conflict but I spoke confidently and reported the perpetrators,” Lolim recalls. She adds: “Everyone left the meeting including my allies who thought that I would be shot dead, but this did not happen.”
This incident marked the beginning of her work as a fearless peace champion in the conflict prone county. She was elected to sit in the District Peace Committee in line with the requirement to meet the two thirds gender threshold. Membership of the district (county) committee is drawn from the Somali, Borana, Meru, Turkana, Samburu and other minority tribes who occupy Isiolo County.
“I was aggressive, and the District Commissioner was very supportive because I was the only woman in a 15 member committee,” says Lolim who was speaking at a workshop organised by African Woman and Child Features Service (AWCFS) to discuss role of women in peace and security.
“I did not give up and continued to work on peace building activities.” she explains adding that her passion was evident.
“Our chairman was passionate about peace and encouraged us to make non-tribal peace talks although this did not end the deep rooted ethnicity in the committee,” explains Lolim.
Her efforts in peace building did not go without recognition. In 2002, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) nominated Lolim to participate in an exchange programme in Rwanda to enable her and other women learn about the adverse effects of war. According to Lolim, this experience was an eye opener and helped her embrace diversity.
“I met a young lady who was a flower vendor who had lost her entire family to the genocide and that her tribesmen would hide the bodies of the dead to reduce the number of victims tallied in their community,” Lolim says. She observes: “This was similar to what was happening in Isiolo and I had to make a difference.”
Lolim says: “The role of women in perpetuating the genocide was also highlighted and this challenged me further.”
After the training in Rwanda, Lolim realized that she needed a change of heart because she was not safe during the conflict.
The experience also opened her to the possibility of out of court settlement for those who had perpetuated the war. This was because jailing them meant serving long jail terms which would destabilize families more.
“I pushed for the adoption of out of court settlements to achieve justice and reconciliation among communities in Isiolo County,” explains Lolim. She notes: “When a person who has stolen my cows and kills my husband is jailed, I do not get justice and we have not reconciled.”
Lolim explains: “I embraced Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms because even when a person is released, they don’t have peace.”
However, when Lolim tried to engage the leadership at the time, her efforts to achieve reconciliation between the communities were dismissed.
“I tried to highlight the fact that these battles were very costly but they dismissed me saying that I should be satisfied by the trip I had taken to Rwanda,” she recalls.
Lolim adamantly continued to engage other leaders who would lend her a listening ear. It was during this time when she discovered that pastoralist communities did not believe in seeking forgiveness as it was seen as a sign of cowardice.
“I offered to present the apology on behalf of the Turkana but that was not embraced so I turned to the peace committee,” she says.
Motivated by the plight of women who had suffered immense losses due to conflict, Lolim approached the committee chairman and demanded that they hold reconciliation talks.
After consultations, the idea was taken up by the national government as a pilot project to solve disputes. This saw the formation of Council of Elders and the adoption of Modogashe Declaration.
“With support from other peace champions, we started community policing initiatives and formed the Women of Faith Group which would serve as a platform to help us continue with our work around peace, explains Lolim.
Through this initiative, they were able to encourage the public to embrace dialogue and religion — both Christianity and Islam — emerged as a great tool in ending conflict.
“We preached peace using teachings in both the Bible and Koran. This was a great milestone for the peace committee,” Lolim observes.
This process saw the birth of disarmament programmes by the Government which aimed at recovering arms that were illegally held by members of the public.
However, Lolim was also concerned with ensuring protection of women’s rights during the disarmament programme. With support from other peace champions, they pushed for deployment of women police officers who would be friendly to women during the disarmament programme.
Additional research brought to light that most leaders in the County belonged to one tribe which is what heightened the conflict.
However, the new constitutional dispensation has changed all this and ensured that all communities are represented at the County level.
Lolim recognises that it is during electioneering periods that a lot of violence takes place and women remain the greatest victims.
“We were also aware that women’s rights violations would be rampant during the electioneering period so we set up a response centre. Women were able to vote during this time and even the elderly and sick were included,” she explains.
The formation of Isiolo Sub-county Gender Watch is another milestone that was achieved under her advocacy. It has enabled women to have dialogue spaces where women’s issues are assessed.
A trained peace mediator, Lolim has participated in meditation processes. This training has equipped her with skills that have enabled her meditation work to be successful. Her work has seen her awarded for inspiring change in 2014.
“I ensured that everywhere I go, I spread the gospel of UN security resolutions such as 1325 and 1820 which speak to role of women in peace and security,” says Lolim.
She notes that women understand the importance of political participation as contenders too. This is why many women came out, and were voted in leadership positions. “This saw us raise the number of women in peace committees from one to current five against the 15 committee members.”
However, despite all these successes, the journey has not been smooth sailing. Lolim admits she has encountered many challenges which ranged from exclusion from leadership positions and discussions within the committee.
“I was lucky when the guidelines provided for the position of gender and youth coordinator, because gender is associated with women I was allocated this post,” she says.
Due to patriarchy, women could not access senior decision making positions in the council of elders such an example is the Njuri Ncheke, the Meru Council of Elders. Where women are not allowed in the meetings therefore decisions are made on their behalf.
“Sometimes I would be involved in discussions only to realize that there had been previous meetings which I was not aware of and, therefore, it was difficult for me to contribute,’’ says Lolim.
Cultural barriers and social norms also curtailed her peace efforts. She admits that when she was expecting her child, it was hard for her to work. Taking a break meant being out for a while.
However, Lolim notes that despite all these efforts women also lack experience and knowledge on conflict mitigation and peace building.
Political interference is also is another challenge. Politicians often join in the pretence of being peace champions while in reality their aim is to advance their own political agenda.
“They will try to use members of the committee as their personal puppets and this divides us along political lines,” she says.
Citing the example of Modogashe Declaration of North Eastern, Lolim notes that when people are actively involved in policy making processes, implementations is easy and they own it.
The Modogashe Declaration encourages Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms in conflict resolution. This has paved way for conflict mitigation among the people.
Lolim notes that throughout this time, she has come to understand that peace is a collective responsibility and not a personal one. It also begins at the individual level.
“The importance of truth and courage for a peace maker is a big component of all peace engagements,” says Lolim.
She emphasizes that the role of women in perpetuating violence is huge and therefore working with them is crucial in turning situations for their families and communities.
“Women should stop agonizing and instead organize themselves to advance a common agenda,” she concludes.