U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Africa Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee reflects on several inspiring examples of women overcoming differences and leading movements for peace, gender equality and women’s rights.
In 2015, I became Ghana’s first female ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations in New York. As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, I reflect on this life-changing experience.
I remember feeling the thrill of this new recognition in my career, which was applauded by many in Ghana — but also my dismay at the number of people expressing surprise at seeing a woman take on this post. They thought New York would be too difficult for me — irrespective of my training in multilateral diplomacy and 26 years in the Ghana Foreign Service — and that it should be a male ambassador instead.
In much of my career, I have had to go the extra mile, and perhaps double of what my male colleagues did, to be recognized as capable. I strongly believed I could bring the same determination and confidence to bear on the task of representing my country at the U.N. It took five years of hard work in New York but was well worth it.
But the challenges for women do not start or end at the workplace. As the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Africa, I know the immense challenges women face in conflict situations. But I also have firm belief and appreciation of the important role they play in conflict prevention, conflict resolution and lasting peace.
Yet women face many barriers to their participation in political and peace processes. Some are cultural and others are the result of institutions not making room for them to participate, let alone to lead. This means women are often shut out from conflict resolution and peace negotiations.
In my role at the U.N., I have had the opportunity to visit several countries in Africa affected by conflict. During one such visit to Bamako, the capital of Mali, I met women from all over the country who shared with me their experiences and the challenges in making their voices heard. In the country’s initial peace talks in 2012, women were not invited, but they demanded a seat at the negotiating table. This courageous step paved the way for a very different situation today, where women make up 38 percent of the Peace Agreement Monitoring Committee in Mali.
Hearing their inspiring stories and seeing what they achieved, even in the worst possible circumstances, humbles and inspires me. These women had a vision of peace and fought for their inclusion in efforts to secure that peace and ultimately a better future for their country.
In South Sudan, we have women like Alokiir Malual who, after immense efforts and advocacy, made history in 2015 as the first woman to sign a peace agreement. Her signature set a precedent for future women’s representation and participation in peace processes in South Sudan.
On the other side of the border, in Sudan, our political mission facilitated consultations with women’s civil society groups and leaders on bringing the country back to a civilian-led transition. They successfully pushed for women’s rights provisions in the Framework Agreement, signed between civilian and military forces on Dec. 5, 2022, and 15 percent of signatories were women. The hope is that Sudanese women will continue to lead change and bring women’s rights to the negotiating table.
There are countless stories of women across the globe who actively work to prevent conflict, help countries recover from crises, and build peace, often putting their own life at risk.
It is also important to note that while women are diverse actors — they are members of armed groups, politicians, peacebuilders, human rights defenders, and may not always agree on everything — there are many inspiring examples of how women have overcome differences and convened coalitions and movements for peace, gender equality and women’s rights.
Research has shown that women’s participation in peace negotiations brings human security to the fore and is beneficial for the whole of society. Peace is also more likely to last when women are part of the process, and we can rest assured that matters pertaining to the protection of civilians, food security, health and education will be given due primacy.
Women hold up half the sky, and consequently they have a fundamental right to be part of discussions and decision-making that define the future of their families, communities and countries.
The international community has over several decades adopted norms and conventions for women’s inclusion in all aspects of national life. It is now time to live up to those commitments and walk the talk. We need to bring the voices of women to the negotiation table in political and peace processes. We must empower them through capacity-building and provide the support they need to be heard. This is a must for sustaining peace.
This article was initially published in Ms.Magazine