Empowering Kenya’s women to build a peaceful future

14 Jan 2019 |

Alice Wairimu Nderitu’s dream is to “build a generation” of Kenyans for whom the political process is a peaceful one. When historic tensions flared after the 2008 elections, 1,300 people died and 600,000 were displaced.

“In 2022, if we don’t have violence during the elections, it means we’ll have built a generation that doesn’t associate elections with violence. That is very important.”

If it comes to pass, those young Kenyans will in some small part have Alice’s four older brothers to thank for spurring her on to become one of Africa’s first female conflict mediators.

Growing up, they told her repeatedly what women couldn’t do – but it only provoked her to prove them wrong: “If they said I couldn’t climb a tree, I climbed it. Whatever my older brothers told me I was always competing with them.”

It’s fitting then that, while clinging onto the branches of a tree, the young Alice eavesdropped on local village elders and had a conversation with her eldest brother that would shape her future.

Her brother said girls couldn’t get involved with the process of mediation because it was something girls couldn’t do. And that’s when she became determined to do just that.

What she has achieved since, is nothing short of inspirational. And Alice has been invited to speak at the 2019 Global Education and Skills Forum, drawing from her experiences to address the theme of ‘Who is changing the world?’.

An inclusive approach

In 2010, the only woman among three mediators, Alice sat down with 100 elders from 10 ethnic communities in Kenya’s Rift Valley to negotiate the region’s first peaceful elections in 20 years.

But her initial overwhelming sense of privilege at being in the room gave way to her pushing hard for women’s perspectives and the female agenda.

“I remember one of the elders saying, ‘You know we can’t have the word rape in there, it’s a peace agreement, this will go everywhere in the world and it’s making us look really bad, it makes men look bad’.

“I just stood up and said, ‘No, this is unacceptable – the word rape has to be in there, if we don’t put it in, it’s a guarantee that it’s going to happen [again]’.

Up until that point, Alice explains, she had been conforming and acting as a man in that position would. Now, she was expressing what she really believed.

And when her work took her to Nigeria, she insisted on involving women and young people in the peace process in Southern Kaduna ahead of the Kafanchan Peace Declaration being signed in 2015.

Traditionally it had been men sitting in a room making decisions about how to go to war and then how to end it, even though war affects everybody, she says.

“If you include women and young people in the peace process, it’s easier to sustain the result. The ownership becomes very strong and people want to be part of the implementation.”

Sharing information

As part of her work as Kenya’s Commissioner of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, Alice co-founded the Uwiano Platform for Peace, which links early warnings of violence with early response.

The platform allows people to send free text messages if they suspect there is trouble brewing. People often don’t know who to tell and are afraid to go to the police. The platform is credited with helping to ensure the Kenyan 2010 Constitutional referendum and 2013 elections ran peacefully.

Alice, who won the Global Pluralism Award in 2017, also trains female mediators and writes educational materials to teach children about peace and ethnic relations.

And with her prize money from that award, she has written a guide to mediation for women, which she has introduced through workshops in 15 African countries and is now being translated into Arabic.

Demystifying mediation

The key to successful mediation, according to Alice, is listening, observing and controlling what you say. 

“The solution for ending an armed conflict has to come from the people themselves, because you will leave and they will be left with the problem.

“So, you have to master the art of asking questions that give you the answer that you then feed back to them as solutions.”

Observing who isn’t speaking to who – and working out what isn’t being said – is also essential.

Having blazed a trail as a female conflict mediator, Alice is now encouraging other women to follow her:

“I’m trying to demystify mediation, because you imagine Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, all these guys, sitting behind a table. I want people to know that women mediate conflict in Africa almost on a daily basis and almost 99% of them are not trained to do so.

“There was a time where there weren’t women pilots, presidents and engineers. I tell women not to worry if they don’t know any other female mediators, they can be the first,” she explains.

Her life’s story – and the lessons she is imparting – certainly demonstrate how to be a changemaker.

Hear from other changemakers like Alice Wairimu Nderitu at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2019. And learn more in Changemakers@GESF and EduPolicy@GESF sessions.