Seeking a Road to Peace in Southeast Africa

This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report that coincides with global events in March celebrating the accomplishments of women. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Deborah Julio, 36, has a past that helped shape her role as an advocate for women’s rights and a conflict mediator between the southeast African nation of Malawi, where she lives, and neighboring Mozambique.

Ms. Julio lost her father when she was 2 years old and dropped out of primary school after the loss of her mother. She eventually studied to be a pastor, and now has a grocery store in her town. Her first husband died in a car accident in 2016, and she has since remarried. Today, she has two stepchildren and three children from her previous marriage. In addition to advocating women’s rights as chair of the Women’s Movement in Mangochi District, Malawi, and as secretary of the District Peace and Unity Committee (DPUC), Ms. Julio helps with conflict mediation supported by U.N. Women Malawi.

Ms. Julio’s work is especially relevant because she resides in an area that’s impacted by religious conflict, violence around borderland disputes and a high rate of early child marriage.

How did you end up being a broker of peace?

In 2016, I attended a conflict and peace-building training in Mangochi. Afterward, I was selected to become one of the first members of the DPUC, a voluntary group that supports the local council with conflict resolution and peace building. I was picked as the secretary.

U.N. Women got to know of our work and invited me to attend a Women’s Movement training, where they equipped us with skills to address gender-based violence. I was then elected as chairperson for the Mangochi Women’s Movement group.

What initiatives have you worked on?

They include a chieftaincy wrangle, and religious disputes between Muslims and Christians in the district. I also intervened in a potential human trafficking case where somebody from Mozambique pretended to have an interest in marrying a community member from Lulanga (in Malawi) but had intentions of trafficking her.

For the Women’s Movement, I have intervened on issues that have the potential to disrupt the peace in the community. For example, there was a case in Lulanga where five boys raped a 14-year-old girl. Her parents decided to conceal the case to avoid public shame, but we enlightened them on the need to take the child to a hospital and also helped them report the matter to the police. Now, the perpetrators are serving their jail sentences.

There was also a case where a community health worker tried to entice a 14-year-old girl to sleep with him in exchange for a job. The girl needed money to survive. This issue was reported to the chief who ordered the health worker to leave his area and pay a fine of three goats and 100,000 Malawian Kwacha ($60).

Can you share a specific instance where your gender influenced the way you approached conflict mediation?

There was an issue recently in a village in the district of men resisting a woman taking up a leadership role in the community. The village chief was spearheading the opposition. I approached him and used my own example as a woman in a leadership role to show him that women can succeed as leaders. A few weeks later, I learned that the community had accepted the woman, and she has now taken up the position.

Can you elaborate on any approaches you’ve used to prevent tensions from escalating into violence? What role does early warning play in your work?

Historically, some areas are prone to violence, especially regarding land disputes. Through monitoring these areas, the Women’s Movement saw that there were undercurrents of tensions brewing in a place called Makanjira, along the Mozambican border. We had to intervene when accusations between two villages around land demarcation started.

Before the villagers could mobilize each other to cause more harm, we intervened by meeting with chiefs from both the Malawian and Mozambique sides. We figured out a solution where communities got a piece of land. Right now, there is no dispute about the border for that piece of land. In another bright side, women and girls are often affected by these border disputes, but, in this case, women from both sides are allowed to farm on their designated lands and are helping to sustain their families.

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