A purposeful role for women in peacebuilding in Mali

To achieve durable peace in Mali, citizens and their government must ensure that transitional justice and peacebuilding efforts are as inclusive as possible, putting the interests of women and marginalised groups at their forefront.

As ceremonies unfold to mark the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, we are reminded of the precarious nature of rights protection and the challenges facing communities emerging from extreme violence. Nowhere is this more difficult than in Mali, where decades of exclusionary politics and poor governance have enabled cycles of violence that most recently erupted, in 2012, in the country’s North, and continue today. To achieve durable peace, Malians and their government must ensure that transitional justice and peacebuilding efforts are as inclusive as possible, putting the interests of women and marginalised groups at their forefront.

With the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the nature and scope of mechanisms to promote, protect and realise human rights have broadened considerably. Beyond commemorating victims of past tragedy, transitional justice processes seek the lofty goal of “never again”. Never again should violence and atrocity rear their ugly head for future generations. Coming in varied forms such as truth commissions, memory work, prosecutions, and institutional reforms, transitional justice mechanisms can contribute to the social, political and economic transformations needed to build peaceful, democratic societies.

In Mali, the International Criminal Court opened an investigation under which one accused has been found guilty for war crimes, with another trial still on-going. The country’s truth commission (Commission Vérité, Justice et Réconciliation pour la Paix et la Stabilisation au Mali, CVJR) has been operating with a mandate to examine the links between the commission of serious violations dating back to the 1960s and the agendas of various actors, both political and armed. (Of note, the UDHR is the primary normative framework from which the Commission can assess human rights violations committed in the 1960s, since few others existed at the time.) However, with intercommunal violence intensifying amidst limited progress on the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation (the Bamako agreement), much more is needed.

Following three prior Northern rebellions starting in 1963, Mali’s 2012 rebellion and current crisis are the result of long-standing issues: “there is little doubt that the erosion of democracy, rise of criminality, and impunity of state officials are at the very root of the Malian crisis, and that these processes opened the door for various groups to flourish in the north, gaining territory and, in some instances, popular legitimacy.” (Wing) By attributing security threats to Islamist or terrorist groups, political actors shift the blame for violence away from their own poor records of governance and representation. Meanwhile, women and girls have borne the brunt of the conflict, including the systemic commission of gender-based crimes such as forced marriage, rape and sexual slavery by armed actors.

The 2015 Bamako agreement prescribed a framework through which interim security and institutional arrangements would be established and eventually lay a foundation for deeper peacebuilding measures. Unfortunately, “it is clear that most of the focus has been on the security and institutional pillars of the Bamako Agreement, to the detriment of the justice and development pillars.” (Boutellis & Zahar) Impunity for serious crimes, particularly sexual and gender-based violence continues. Moreover, little progress has been made [.pdf] on the inclusion of women in advancing Mali’s peace and security agenda.

If underlying drivers of structural violence and marginalisation are not addressed, instability and violence will continue. This is particularly the case for Mali’s women and girls. The mode by which gender-based crimes have been committed during the conflict reflect not only the poor status of women in Malian communities, but deeper patterns of marginalisation of local groups. Armed groups have deliberately instrumentalised rape to provoke mass displacement of local communities. Ethnically-targeted sexual violence [.pdf] as a form of reprisal and domination persist: abductions and forced marriage of girls [.pdf] have reinforced traditional practices of ethnic and female subjugation. Moreover, the use of sexual violence by the armed forces against men (or their wives and daughters) of rival factions as a tactic of humiliation have served to further delegitimise the state in the eyes of victims.

Despite these dynamics, the participation and protection of Malian women and girls have not been prioritised in peacebuilding efforts. Current and future initiatives can improve their effectiveness by assuring women’s representation as well as including gender justice issues on their agenda. This includes: i) mounting judicial responses to impunity for gender-based crimes; ii) broadening the work of the CVJR; iii) involving women in Northern reconstruction and development; and, iv) actively including women on the peace and security agenda.

Judicial responses to fight impunity: Clearly, failing to effectively fight impunity for gender-based crimes has had severe repercussions for the protection of women and girls, and their communities. The Malian justice system needs to begin to seriously tackle these crimes and deliver on the right of survivors to an effective remedy.

Combining truth-seeking with reconciliation: The CVJR has an important opportunity to expose how deep-seeded forms of discrimination against women and other marginalised groups leads to instability and violence. For example, truth-seeking efforts can link gender-based crimes with social practices that violate gender equality norms. Likewise, the CVJR can tackle misperceptions about ethnic and religious groups that drive their marginalisation, as well as, expose structural conflict drivers. Beyond relying on the UDHR and related rights instruments, the Commission can base its recommendations in Mali’s obligations under Security Council Resolution 1325 (women, peace and security) as well as, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Involving women in reconstruction: Development assistance and reconstruction initiatives in Northern Mali must include gender-specific measures and explicitly include women’s inputs. International aid should be conditioned on the adoption of gender-inclusive measures by Malian authorities. More is needed to address stigma and encourage sexual-violence survivors to come forward and receive assistance services, as well as, support women and their children born of war-related rape.

Women, peace and security: Women negotiators played a constructive role in negotiations following the 1990s’ northern rebellion. Women’s mediation and negotiation expertise should be preserved and deepened. Experienced female stakeholders should be appointed to political, military and diplomatic bodies. Moreover, women-led literary and poetic initiatives should be included in conflict prevention and management initiatives.

The situation across the Sahel is incredibly complex. Regional and local political and security dynamics are further complicated by inter-ethnic rivalries, conflicts over land and resources, climate change, drug trafficking and the influence of Islamist and terrorist groups. A women’s agenda is not the magic wand to solve the crisis in Mali. However, pursuing a gender justice agenda can drive peacebuilding responses that are more inclusive and hence more sustainable than otherwise.


Arthur Boutellis and Marie-Joëlle Zahar, “A Process in Search of Peace: Lessons from the Inter-Malian Agreement,” New York: International Peace Institute, June 2017.

Susanna Wing, “Mali: Politics of a Crisis,” African Affairs, Volume 112, Issue 448, July 2013, 476–485.

About the author

Sharanjeet ParmarSharanjeet Parmar is an international human-rights lawyer and president of Glasshouse Initiatives Inc., a development consulting firm. Previously, she was affiliated with Harvard Law School, first as a Lecturer and Clinical Instructor and later as a Visiting Fellow in the Human Rights Programme. For three years, she served as an Assistant Trial Attorney with the Office of the Prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone. She has worked on projects for multiple organisations, including the International Center for Transitional Justice, the United Nations Development Programme, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers UK. She was a O’Brien Fellow in Residence at McGill's Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism from January to May 2019.

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