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Since attaining independence from Portugal, in 1973, Guinea-Bissau has had almost a dozen presidents, none of whom has managed to finish his mandate. Recurring coups, assassinations and political turmoil at the elite level have contributed to a landscape of instability and underdevelopment and vulnerability to organized crime, especially the illegal drug trade.
However, unlike some of its neighboring states, Guinea-Bissau has not relapsed into full-blown civil war in almost 20 years. Overcoming the present political impasse is therefore necessary not only to prevent recurrence of armed conflict but also to consolidate stability and lay the basis for a more sustaining and inclusive peace.
Against this backdrop, women in Guinea-Bissau have made inroads in conflict prevention, helping to defuse tensions around an impasse that Guinea-Bissau leaders have called “explosive.” To this end, the women have created new ways of influencing political processes in the country, drawing on task forces and network-building.
After the latest coup d’état, on April 12, 2012, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) led efforts to generate a road map toward peace, structured around six points for establishing an inclusive dialogue process and forming a consensus-based government to carry out reforms until the 2018 elections.
Ecowas hosted talks in Conakry, Guinea, between Bissau-Guinean political leaders, along with civil society and religious leaders, leading to the signing of the 10-point Conakry Accord on Oct. 14, 2016. The deal outlined in detail plans for implementing the road map. Nonetheless, the two sides have had divergent interpretations of key points in the agreements, creating challenges for implementing the accord.
One sign of the impasse was that President José Mário Vaz and Domingos Simões Pereira, who served as prime minister from July 2014 to August 2015, when the president dismissed the government, had not spoken to each other in almost two years.
Breaking this ice became one of the stated objectives of the Group of Women Facilitators, which was created in May 2017. The group, composed of 10 women from civil society organizations in Guinea-Bissau, began promoting dialogue among the important parties in the negotiations. Among other initiatives, the group arranged meetings in late June and July with several leaders.
One meeting marked the first time that Vaz and Simões Pereira spoke to one another in two years. After months of intense work, the group prepared reports and considered to have attained “around 90%” of their goals, according to another member, Francisca Vaz, who stressed in an interview that the overarching goal was to “avoid violence” and allow people to “deal with their grievances, dialogue so as to put into practice” the well-being of the population.
The initiative has been lauded in New York by the current president of the Peacebuilding Commission Country-Specific Configuration for Guinea-Bissau, Brazil’s ambassador, Mauro Vieira. Vieira underscored the usefulness of the group in building confidence, alleviating tensions and opening communication channels among the relevant players.
Although full dialogue has yet to be resumed, the role of the women’s group can still contribute toward a broader objective, one that is likewise relevant to conflict prevention: greater gender equality in Guinea-Bissau. As Suzi Barbosa, the leader of another important initiative, the Network of Women Parliamentarians (Rede de Mulheres Parlamentares) in Guinea-Bissau, recently noted, the crisis in the country would not be quite as serious if there were more women in Parliament and in the executive branch.
Although women make up the majority of thes country’s population, at an estimated 52 percent, they lag behind in political representation. This is particularly problematic because when Guinea-Bissau underwent democratization more than two decades ago, the number of women in legislative and executive branches was much higher, with 30 deputies. Now, there are only 14 women among 102 deputies.
Only 10 percent of Parliament seats and government are held by women, and they hold only one-quarter of all public administration jobs. In 2017, Guinea-Bissau has no women ministers, which means that there are no gender-sensitive policies being put into place, a gap that can contribute to the recurrence of violence as women are excluded from the political process.
The Network of Women Parliamentarians has been working with the UN peace-building office in Bafatá to encourage more women to run for office and participate in politics; to work toward the implementation of gender quotas; and to include gender equality in school curriculums.
Efforts by women’s groups, such as the Group of Women Facilitators’ work to carry out the Conakry Accord and advocacy by the Network of Women Parliamentarians for gender-sensitive policies, may intensify in the next few months. The UN’s special envoy in Guinea-Bissau, Modibo Touré, has said that the UN Security Council, along with representatives from Ecowas and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries, should demand that President Vaz implement the agreement calendar by September 2017.
Touré noted, among recent advances, not only efforts to combat the illegal drug trade but also progress in women’s rights. Fully overcoming the political impasse and putting into gear the implementation of the Conakry accord, however, is only one step toward resolving the differences that have led to recurring political instability and largely excluded the women of Guinea-Bissau from the country’s political process.
Ensuring women’s meaningful participation, both in the agreement and in the country’s broader political process, is essential for productive conflict prevention in Guinea-Bissau.
This article originally appeared in the Igarapé Institute website.