Women Leading Peace

Last fall, we sent a special appeal to support a grassroots peacebuilding effort led by Senegalese women in the Casamance region. We’re happy to say that this initiative went forward on December 28!

Local villages in the Casamance are afflicted by landmines, raids, and drug trafficking—the results of a low-intensity war between the national government and an armed independence movement. After more than 35 years of conflict, a partial ceasefire is holding, and the time is ripe for a national peace process.

Karuna Center is supporting local villages to begin the process of calling their rebel combatants home, and holding ceremonies to reintegrate them into their communities. This process not only removes barriers to peace at the local level—it also puts pressure on rebel leaders to negotiate in good faith.

On December 28, women leaders from 21 villages gathered in the spiritually significant town of Djimande, in the Blouf area. The area is home to rebel faction leader Salif Sadio (who has been reluctant to negotiate with the national government) and many more of the independent movement’s most committed fighters.

Watch a video from ATS (Senegalese public broadcasting corporation) about the peace initiative we supported on December 28 in Djimande:

Once they were gathered in Djimande, the women formally called the rebel fighters home to their communities. At the time when village men joined the fight for Casamance independence, local priestesses accorded each of them sacred vows and spiritual protections. Breaking these vows is widely believed to bring about death for the fighters or their loved ones. That is why these same priestesses have now come together, with our support, to “undo” those vows: so that the rebel fighters can lay down their weapons, participate in the peace process, and reintegrate into village life.

Our Senegalese Peacebuilding Associate, Joachim Diene, worked tirelessly to make this initiative in the Casamance a success—in close collaboration with our colleagues in the Alliance pour les Paix en Casamance (APAC) peacebuilding network. Many others also pooled their resources; program participants and peace advocates brought their own bags of dry rice and other goods in order to help feed the hundreds of people in attendance. Karuna Center also made donations to this project and accepted no administration fees.

Due to the post-election crisis in the bordering nation of The Gambia, it was important to act right away, even though our fundraising had not quite met its target. Women leaders were eager to create a way for rebel fighters currently hiding in The Gambia to return home peacefully to Senegal, and to support The Gambia to have a peaceful transition of Presidential power.

As we send this email, our Executive Director, Olivia Dreier, is in Ghana meeting with members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). ECOWAS has played a key role over the past few weeks in applying pressure toward a peaceful transition of power in The Gambia. Olivia is there as part of a USAID-run program which aims to support and advise ECOWAS to improve its efficacy in responding to early warning signs of violent conflict.

This project in the Blouf builds on a very successful initiative that we organized in the nearby area of Oussouye, Casamance two years prior. That initiative brought together 500 priestesses and women leaders to free the combatants of that zone from their obligation to fight. As a result of the priestesses’ actions—which included “undoing” the vows, and holding community meetings to move the peace process forward—rebel raids on villages that area stopped. Because each area of the Casamance has its own specific cultural traditions, only the priestesses of a given cultural area can lift the oaths of combatants in that zone.

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