Logo SAVE - Sisters against violent extremism

08. May 2003

Maria Nzomo

Maria Nzomo - National Commission on the Status of Women, Kenia

„We have moved from nothing to something“

WwB: : The foreign policy is strongly in male hands…
MN: Yes, it really must change.

WwB: Could you tell us something about the reconstruction process in Somalia?

MN: This is just one case, the Somalia case. Women activists are saying, you cannot reconstruct Somalia without the direct involvement of women at the negotiation tables, it´s not enough to come and tell them after you have made the decisions. They are insisting, that they must be right at the tables for negotiations. And so a whole delegation of them has come to Nairobi to join this clansmen who have been fighting for power, that´s why this problem has not been resolved. Now women said, that they are fed up with their fights, they want a lasting solution to be found and they want to be part of that solution. In terms of even what kind of legal and policy frameworks you are going to put in place in the country. Of course the men have been very resistant, in case that women have been sent out of the negotiations.

WwB: How could the women enter the negotiations?

MN: They have some women NGOs who have based themselves in Nairobi and in other places where they can be with their capacity. And they literally insisted even to the international bodies that were funding the negotiations, that they might be represented. And this I think was made one of the conditionalities, it must include women in the negotiations. But even then they were facing a lot of problems. And so this is an issue, when you think of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kongo, … the issue of the participation of women is always an issue. Are you going to create democracy without women? And only ask them to come later to support democracy? Democracy for who? So I think, what we have to do is a very, very important thing. This has been shown historically: Men are the ones, who bring trouble, generally speaking. They are the ones, who actually decide to go to war without consulting women.

WwB: Nowadays they go to war without consulting the international community.

MN: They go to war without consulting anybody except themselves. But now we are speaking from a gender perspective: they don’t consult women. They go to war, they are fighting over power and resources, which obviously they are not later on willing to share with women. But when the war breaks out, it is the women, who are bothering with the problem of taking care of all those additions, family and so on. When they kill each other, whoever is left, it´s just the women who pick up the pieces for reconstruction. But in the reconstruction maybe they are involved only at a social, economic level, not at a decision-making level.

WwB: Yes, even at this point, they don’t have the leadership, they would have the skills, but they don’t ask for it, they don’t put their foot down.

MN: Yes, but I think, that has a lot to do with how women are socialised. They are not socialised really to be aggressive and to break this kind of barriers. You have to understand, especially in the African context it has been very difficult for women. They are coming from a culture, that shows them from day one they are coming to this world, that decision making is about men, your job is to take care of the family, let the men do all the public matters, and that includes matters of war and peace, that includes this macro-economic decisions in parliaments, whereever. And so, even this is like women get crushed, they are fighting culture, they are fighting themselves and the way, they are socialised, you know, that they will be able to do this, so it´s not easy for them. And I think, you need also to understand, that they are also fighting to get into institutional frameworks, that have not fundamentally changed, and the rules, that define, how an institution works, have been defined by men, and they are not always women-friendly, and that makes it very, very hard for women. Because when they go to a negotiating table, even the language being used is the language of the military, they will even use it more to make women unable to participate. So there are many levels of problems, women have to break, as I said before, they crush trough the doors, and some of them give up, before they even go through the door. Because of the enormous number of barriers they have to break.

WwB: When I consider the curricula of international diplomacy, this should be included, this should be taught in such a modern curriculum, to empower women and to give them the tools to interact with this kind of new community.

MN: It is true, but again, but when I say institutions I´m saying institutions including teaching institutions. Like the university where I teach. I´m there, I´ve been fighting for the last 10 years to even have one single course called “gender in international relations”. It has been fought by the men, both, at the level of the institute and at the level of the larger university. Precisely because they don’t see the gender element in international relations. And of course it goes up, because that higher level is where they can say, “this course is going in or going out”, and that level is where women are not in terms of the final decisions. So it is a vicious circle, and it´s very, very difficult for women.

WwB: What is your estimation, you know, the critical stage women are in now, every woman who stands up is in an exceptional situation, she speaks for the whole group of women. It´s very difficult for women even to speak up in political scenarios. And I think, if women could reach the critical mass, you know, if there would be numbers of critical women, numbers of women, who fight for their rights and for women´s issues and inclusion of women and participation, things would be very, very different. But how can we reach this critical mass of women? Obviously we need new strategies, we need consciousness-raising, we went a few steps backward as well, I mean, we, women in the west, for sure. I think, we are in a kind of a transit situation, so if you think of strategies, what would be your strategic advise?

MN: You know, you are right, the critical mass is an important factor. But I think, that whereas a critical mass of women is important, we also must keep in mind, that being a woman does not necessarily make you gender-sensitive. That we should also expect to have some challenges, even when we have that critical mass, because when you have a critical mass that half consists of women, who are just like the men, they are just thinking of power and how to reach power and get more weight, then you haven´t got very far.
In terms of strategies: yes, the critical mass is an important thing, we must have them, but we also must keep in our mind, that that does not necessarily make women gender-sensitive, and that´s why even us, who are not even anywhere close in Africa to a critical mass in almost all countries, one of the other things we are trying to do now strategically, is to try to recruit and mobilize gender-sensitive men. There are men, who are maybe even more gender-sensitive than women.

WwB: I went to this conference on women and Islam in Berlin, and there was a professor from Jordan, a sociologist, he was fabulous, he was better than most of the women on the panel, because he was speaking from his personal experience, how he was involved in case of domestic violence, how he was politicised by it, you know, and what it means to it, and how he is trying to make a change in this world now, that was just amazing. And I think, we did not really focus in changing men.

MN: Exactly.

WwB: And the young ones, for example we extensively worked in Afghanistan, the de-Talibanization of the male youngsters is one of the crucial points, I think, nobody is working on that, you know? They are talking about girls´ schools, which is good, but what happens with the men, growing up in this warlord-scenario?

MN: That is the direction I´m moving myself in time, because like you say, we have to think strategically. And I think, you are right in saying, “yes, critical mass”; but then we must also say, “what kind of mass”, not just a mass composed of women alone, but of gender-sensitive people, both, men and women. Those are the new alliances.
I think, the other area we really need to look at is how to mobilize and recruit, just how to increase the numbers. I think, we have not to just address women, we must address the legal policy and other institutional factors, that continue to hold women down. And work towards changing those, to facilitate and create a better environment for women.

WwB: For example?

MN: For example in my country, Kenia, the legal policy framework is already a problem for women or women´s participation. The rules of political participation do not allow even to have a chance for women under the current circumstances to ever gain a political mass. Political parties are still controlled by men, and that is a men-forum for recruitment.

WwB: So this is the main obstacle?

MN: No, one of them. And the rules of entering political parties will not create any automatic space for women to participate. The laws, that discriminate against women, even in other areas, and there are many, everything from laws in economic rights, and you need economic empowerment in order to participate in politics, social rights, you know, what women can or cannot do in social relations, all those are obstructions for women, and we are addressing those within the constitutional reform process which is taking place as I´m sitting here. And I´m one of the 600 delegates.
So it´s one of the things which, I hope, will give women a platform. I think, this should be a strategy, that we should have at least a framework, and the right institutions, in a place to facilitate that. This can only be done by women themselves, strategically speaking, it´s a way, they mobilize themselves, within the women´s movements, as well as running for office. My observation is this: Women have their own internal problems within the women´s movements, so it´s a very divided movement, so they don’t know to walk together, and that’s something they need to work on, particularly for political mobilization. But even individually women have gone up with a point, they are willing to stand up and say, “I´ll stand for office”, but they are not willing to do the work, that goes with their willing a seat. You can´t just sit around and expect “affirmative action” without fighting for it.

WwB: Why is that so? What do you think?

MN: It is part of the hangover from not being socialised to participate in politics, so women have no adequate tools.

WwB: Women all over the world are not advanced enough…

MN: It is true. So the critical mass got to be prepared, for example to invest even 5 years ahead of the elections, preparing to get in politics. Getting people to know you, don’t assume, people know you, introducing yourself, learning, what men do in order to win, and not complaining. Because men have their own supports and platforms, where they do their political campaigning and their preparations. Women haven´t learned that. And you can´t assign the socio-economic context in which they work, but if you want to get in politics there is no easy way. Rights are never given, as you know, you grab them, and political rights especially, they are the hardest to get. So that’s an action what I would say strategically has to be done. I think, looking about, where women are now, that we have done well in realising, that we must be there and we must get a critical mass. We have also tried to stand up and say, “I want to stand up for elections”, and that I know my vote and defend it etc. But we have not got to this level, where we have really consciously worked on getting the skills, political skills for getting into power for negotiations.

WwB: I thought about, that we watch like a movie what is going on around us, what is going on in Iraq, you see all these men in turbans, no women, the peshmergas were fighting side by side, women with men, not a single kurdish woman is in this constitutional thing now. I mean, isn´t it something?

MN: It is something.

WwB: And the idea of Women without Borders is, to create international support, and what we saw in the case of the afghan women, it was with RAWA, with this underground organization, this alliance between the women all over the world was very helpful, you see? I mean, RAWA was such a tiny organization, but still they are really empowered by women worldwide.

MN: Believe me, it´s the same with my own story, with all my PHDs, I was empowered right here in Vienna in 1991. And it takes an event like that, where your eyes are opened and then you begin to see things from a different perspective.

WwB: I think, if we work together on strategies now, if we leave this ground of general frameworks, to broad issues, which become depressing, because they become very philosophical, you know. Then maybe we create more power, we have a vision, which is reachable.
This is it. So, on that point I think, and that’s why I was saying fundamentally, whatever issue is about violence against women, their health rights, it is basically about power, that women are denied rights, because they lack power. And what they have to do is to increase their part to negotiate their rights, and not just to negotiate them but to demand them, and to demand them in an effective manner. Because they are entitlements and not a gift you are getting from someone.

WwB: And I think, historically speaking we are at a crucial turning point, being confronted with one superpower, and this superpower is very male. We have a male superpower which is dominating the world and the women. And that’s the big problem. They don’t have women in mind.

MN: Exactly, that’s a big problem. And I´m so glad what you are saying, that I think you should come and teach with me this course I´ve been fighting for.

WwB: We work together!

Interview: Edit Schlaffer


« Back to overviewSend a friend Print article