This post is part of the Women and Foreign Policy program’s blog series on women's leadership in peacebuilding and nonviolent movements, in which CFR fellows, scholars, and practitioners highlight new security strategies. The following interview is with Fatma El Mehdi, one of eight negotiators in the Western Sahara peace process and a leader in the Sahrawi community.
Women are too often excluded from peace processes. Over the last twenty years, seven out of every ten major peace process did not include any women. In the Western Sahara peace process, however, one woman is represented on each side. What led to women’s participation and how did you get involved?
The Polisario Front believed in Saharawi women, saw that we are strong, and helped make us visible. During the Polisario talks in 2018 and 2019, I was the only woman at the table. It was three men and me.
Many experiences led to my selection as a political negotiator. I started as a student activist fighting for a free Western Sahara through nonviolence, spent years in refugee camps, and eventually got involved in politics and formal peace talks. I have participated in both rounds of the UN-led peace talks in Geneva, served as vice president of Women Advancement for Economic Leadership Empowerment in Africa, led the National Union of Sahrawi Women as secretary general, and am currently the Minster of Cooperation in Western Sahara—one of four female ministers in the government.
At the ministry, we are working with young people to promote a culture of peace. We aim to show people that they can collaborate to build peace, so we’re not just waiting for the UN. We have worked to establish centers for victims of war with psychological trauma, especially women.
One very formative experience was my travel to the United States. For my first trip in 2016, I was there for a UN conference. I remember that was very challenging because I didn’t have a country that is recognized by the UN. It was a very sad moment for me, and I will never forget that. I was able to be there thanks to other women from Africa who paid for my flight and accommodation. I was lucky to be there and give a voice to people who couldn’t be there.
What role have Sahrawi women played in building peace?
Sahrawi women have been working at many levels to promote peace in Western Sahara. We're strong. And over the past forty-five years we have demonstrated our capacity. We have built refugee camps and we oversee them while men are at war.
Some women want to be prepared for the war; they want to have the same responsibility as men. In the military arena, we are not encouraging women to accelerate war, but they just want to be prepared like the men are. We have established a military school for young women who want to be leaders, so that they can study how they can collaborate on peace and protection for the Saharawi people.
Women are also working now with young people, especially those under the age of eighteen. We want to prevent them from going to war in the future through providing training on peace. But this is not easy—many have suffered from living in camps and watching their parents endure war. We as women are trying to make them understand the situation and trying to present another vision.
This is the situation of many, many other societies, especially Muslim and Arab societies—violence is a cycle. Women have a large role to play in the peace process.
What is the current status of Sahrawi women’s participation in politics and what barriers do they face? How do women contribute to achieving stability?
Western Sahara has four women ministers, including me and two female governors, and women represent 34 percent of our parliament. We have a quota of at least 25 percent female representation in parliament and we have far surpassed that. Quotas are a good strategy, but it can be challenging to make people understand why. Some men believe quotas are used against them; they think women will now take spots that were formerly controlled by them. They are egotistical about it. On the other hand, many women also don’t fully understand the quota system. They believe it is for those who cannot speak for themselves or independently demonstrate their capacity. We have to change these perceptions.
Women involved in politics at all levels are working to liberate women across the region. Our struggle will not end with the liberation of Western Sahara. We will continue working and fighting for equal opportunity between men and women. We also confront religious challenges because some Muslims don’t believe in gender equality. They are against women who challenge their traditional thinking. But our interpretation of the Quran, centered on equality and respect for all, supports us in the construction of a new, modern, and equal society.
What are the main challenges facing women aiming to build peace and resilience in Western Sahara?
The ceasefire was signed in 1991, but in many ways, we’re still living in the same situation as back then. As Sahrawi women, we are working to strengthen our role in society. Normally, when the war ends and men return from fighting, they want to take back their role of power responsibility. That’s a big problem for women because it can silence them, even though they took on most responsibility while the men were away. Men need to begin sharing power. When we reach independence, we need to have a society prepared to model a new democracy, one grounded in equality. Being recognized in politics and the peace process is good progress, but this is not enough for women. Women have to be equal with men at all levels in order to build a peaceful and resilient society.
What is your hope for the peace process?
My hope is that it gives a voice to Saharawi people. I hope that Saharawi people are able to take an active role in peacebuilding, so they are not just waiting for the UN to deliver a solution. We have been waiting for this peace process to be implemented for almost thirty years, and we shouldn’t wait any longer. When you are waiting, it’s hard to see the results—but when you’re active and involved you feel a responsibility to contribute.
Saharawi people should have agency in this process and play a frontline role in building peace. The solution should come from us. Building peace should first happen at local levels from Saharawi people; Western Sahara’s police force should be strengthened; and then formal agreements with Morocco should be signed. What is most important is that all Saharawi people, including my children and their children, live in peace.
Elena Ortiz is a former intern in the Women and Foreign Policy program.