Women are agents of change, resilience, and development in pastoral societies. They play key roles in pastoral value chains, including milk processing, local commerce, and managing small ruminants. Yet, across the Sudano-Sahel, rural women are sparsely represented among governing bodies, trade associations, and customary institutions that handle disputes, negotiate access, and manage natural resources. Though pastoralists and other rural women often have fewer opportunities for leadership as authority figures, they exercise influence in other ways. Pastoralist women are more likely to stay behind in villages or home areas to manage household and economic affairs while their relatives take the livestock on migration, leaving them to maintain social and economic bonds with neighboring farmers and shape the beliefs and attitudes of the youth who also remain behind.
Despite their leadership in community affairs, women’s voices often go unheard as most interventions give undue weight to the role of traditional authorities. Engaging pastoral women as allies and direct beneficiaries in programming can be difficult, as access must often be mediated through traditional (and generally patriarchal) institutions. Their distinct experiences as victims of violence receive little attention: as victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) domestically and during conflict; or, as the ones left to provide for their family with limited trade skills and livelihood opportunities when their men are killed in conflicts. But women are more than victims. They are also social influencers who can support reconciliation or act as spoilers. Though women are rarely combatants in violence between pastoralists and farmers, their voices can incite or dissuade violence in others.
At the same time, traditional culture and gender norms can also contribute to conflict dynamics involving pastoralists, where ideals of masculinity shape expectations of how livestock, clan, and family must be defended. In some pastoral cultures, youth conduct cattle raids as a rite of passage to manhood and to acquire chattel to pay a bride price and marry. Such violence can trigger repeat cycles of theft and retribution between communities, perpetuated by traditional values and gender roles.
Women are equal stakeholders in the use of rangeland resources, yet their voices are generally not represented in the state or community-led institutions that manage these resources. Women constitute a significant proportion of subsistence farmers and participate in pastoral livestock production as both caretakers and sellers of animal products. When they are left out of decision-making processes, efforts to reform land tenure or mediate resource disputes are less likely to serve the interests of the whole community. When external interventions recognize the traditional barriers to the inclusion of women in both formal and informal governance, they can play a valuable role in opening opportunities for women’s leadership.
Programs integrate gender sensitivity into policies on resource management.
The relationship between gender norms and resource management is still not a universal consideration in policy decision-making or program design. While there are some resources to help interveners and policy-makers assess the needs and interests of pastoral women – such as the tools produced by the International Fund for Agricultural Development – gender is still often a secondary consideration in governance reforms or rural development. Interventions working on these issues can help mainstream gender sensitivity by supporting specialized mapping of risks and opportunities for women when working with pastoral communities. Policymakers and governing agencies should be advised to consult with specialized legal, gender, and cultural experts when new policies and development schemes are designed.
Programs and public officials support women’s leadership in both state and customary institutions.
Pastoral rangelands are often governed by plural systems where customary leaders and state bodies both exercise authority. Increasing women’s representation in state bodies, like land management committees, is critical to protecting their formal rights and informing the allocation of state resources. However, ensuring that they are consulted alongside traditional leaders during informal processes – such as community discussions over the location of transhumance routes – may have a more direct impact on how limited resources are apportioned. Women face unique barriers to entry in both official and customary governance that should be analyzed before designing programs or policies to promote equity and inclusion.
Capacity-building and media programs create visibility for models of women’s leadership. As more women take on public leadership roles in resource governance, they act as role models that pave the way for others. In Rwanda, Search has found that women who have become mediators in land conflict have encouraged their peers to seek election to traditional conflict resolution institutions. Elevating the visibility of women involved in resource governance – through women-led media programs or civil society organizations – is a key element in the long-term transformation of gender norms.
Programs that advocate for greater recognition of women’s interests and rights appear threatening to traditional power structures.
Securing the buy-in of traditional leaders to reform land tenure laws, for example, will be harder if reforms are seen to expand women’s right to land ownership in contradiction to local custom. Efforts to equalize the inheritance rights in Mali in 2009, for example, sparked major controversy among the Islamic religious establishment. Such reforms may only be feasible over a longer timeframe with the support of local champions, as they require both shifting attitudes toward gender norms and overcoming structural barriers.
Declarations in support of women’s leadership at the national or regional level are not reflected in local implementation.
Despite international interest in increasing representation of women in resource governance and transhumance discussions, these changes are not always reflected at the local level. As reflected throughout this Toolkit, there is often a wide gap between the decisions of national leaders and the lived experience of the pastoralists and rural farmers living by customary practice. Greater representation of the interests of pastoral women in regional conferences or dialogues should not be mistaken for greater inclusion in relevant decision-making and oversight.
Beyond the inherent value of engaging all community stakeholders in resource governance, women can bring experiential knowledge that is critical for decision-making. In Chad, the Association des Femmes Peules and Peuples Autochtones du Tchad led a process to create a 3-dimensional map of local resources and migration corridors to guide policymakers on effective land management. The participatory process that created this map incorporated local insights and data shared by community leaders. After an initial map was developed by the male leaders, women were invited to review. They quickly began correcting the location of water points and other resources, recommendations that were later validated by their male counterparts.
Photo: Somali women fill water cans tied to a donkey at a traditional cistern for harvesting rainwater. Credit: Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Women’s channels of influence in community affairs are rarely reflected in customary leadership or state institutions but can constructively influence peacebuilding efforts. Too often, “leaders” are seen as those who hold official authority rather than those who have the capacity to influence those around them. This limited understanding of leadership can sideline women, who often have limited access to public leadership roles but still exercise significant influence. Women who lack official roles or positions may still be mobilized as mediators, emissaries, or peace advocates. They can play a role as a bridge-builder between pastoralist and agricultural communities, leveraging their social and economic ties with women in other communities who are also absent from formal peacebuilding or governance activities. However, building partnerships with women within pastoral communities can be challenging for outsiders. Most of the ways of establishing communication channels and making connections (e.g., through traditional leaders or trade associations) are dominated by men.
Interveners invest time in building trust to facilitate access.
Barriers to engaging pastoral women can be high, as they are less active in the public sphere and male leaders can interpose as gatekeepers. Engaging women in traditional communities may require cultivating trusting relations with customary authorities. In other cases, access may be mediated through service programs, such as vaccination campaigns or mobile maternal care, or building rapport through trade associations like milk marketing groups. Entry points will be different in each context but frequently require cultivating strong relationships with intermediaries.
Programs support social cohesion between settled women from farming and pastoralist communities.
Pastoralist women tend to remain in place during mass herd movements, where they maintain economic and social links with their rural neighbors. When conflicts emerge among these settled communities, women may be better positioned to improve intercommunal relations than their male counterparts.
Programs build upon women’s existing leadership roles.
Although women’s influence as leaders in local trade, education, or animal caretaking is often less visible than formal positions of authority, it is no less significant. Peacebuilding initiatives should first consider how women’s existing roles as leaders can be strengthened. This may be through supporting formal women-led networks, or building women’s capacity in informal roles, such as mediating disputes amongst settled communities while men are out on migration.
Programs are designed to reach the quiet enablers of violence, not just active combatants.
Women play an important role in shaping attitudes toward violence, even if they do not engage in violence themselves. Some pastoralist women in South Sudan, for example, have a traditional practice of singing songs to encourage men to participate in cattle raids or revenge attacks. Just like their male counterparts, women feel pressure to resolve violence with violence. One survey on attitudes toward conflict in South Sudan found that women were just as likely as their male counterparts to believe that violence against another tribe is justified. Reaching these potential spoilers is rarely the focus of programming, which tends to focus on working with women only in their capacity as victims of violence or existing champions of peace.
Women peacebuilders are isolated.
In contexts where men defend and reinforce traditional gender roles, programming aimed specifically at women may arouse suspicion, even hostility. Even when effective, women mediators may not be respected by their male counterparts, or may be dismissed as relevant only in cases involving other women. Women in these leadership roles may be subject to social ostracism or violence from armed groups. Programs should be careful to abide by Do No Harm principles and avoid pushing women beneficiaries to assume roles that will make them targets.
Programs allow customary leaders to be sidelined.
Attempts to increase women’s visibility and capacity within traditional communities can meet resistance and limit local support. During one education initiative in the Sahel, for example, pastoral men steadfastly refused to take classes with the women of their community, forcing implementers to set up parallel classes. Programs that are perceived to import outside values and practices will backfire. This is a particular risk for programs that aim to empower women to take on new responsibilities such as dispute mediation or resource governance that have traditionally been held by customary leaders.
To address ongoing conflicts between pastoralist and farming communities in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, the UN Development Program (UNDP), UN Women, FAO, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) launched a joint program to strengthen the role of women in resolving intercommunal conflict. Women leaders in Taraba and Nasarawa states organized town hall meetings that brought together women from across different ethnic groups, including Fulani herders and Tiv farmers, which were later expanded to include men. The short term results of these dialogues have been mixed, but the initiative has helped to carve out greater formal recognition of the role of women in mediating conflict. In 2020, for example, the Taraba state government budgeted funds for the first time to support the UN Women, Peace, and Security Agenda.
In Cameroon, women play influential roles in ensuring good relations between pastoralists and Gbaya farming communities. Mbororo women solidify their economic ties with their Gbaya friends by trading the milk from their livestock for vegetables before they take it to market. Gbaya women have also played a critical role in peacebuilding as practitioners of Soré Nga’a mo, a ritual practice in which a cocktail of Soré leaves and sacred water is sprinkled across people or a village. The ritual is used in a variety of contexts – resolving conflicts, reconciling with enemies, legitimizing local authorities, or purifying a village after conflict or natural disaster – and illustrates one way in which women have traditionally exercised influence as peacebuilders. In the early 1990s, for example, the practitioner Koko Didi was called upon by government authorities to perform the ritual to help end ongoing conflict between the Gbaya and Fulani communities. In addition to the ritual performance, Koko Didi served as part of a reconciliation commission between the two communities that facilitated an end to the violence.
Rural and nomadic populations are often far removed from the legal and medical services offered to victims of SGBV. SGBV is an all-too-common occurrence among many rural women and can be yielded as a weapon in hostilities between pastoralist groups, or between pastoralists and settled communities. Absent legal systems to hold perpetrators to account, SGBV can add fuel to cycles of retaliatory violence. Securing justice and accountability is a social and legal challenge in weak and fragile states as it requires accountability for acts of SGBV to be an accepted norm and public institutions that recognize it as a crime. A multi-sector, holistic response to SGBV in pastoral rangelands may require mobile courts or legal services and awareness-raising programs that are adapted to pastoral realities.
Programs engage trusted interlocutors to reach mobile communities.
Efforts to socialize SGBV awareness can be challenging among mobile pastoralist communities who are often beyond the reach of legal, medical or social services. Yet many pastoral communities do maintain periodic contact with service providers (e.g., animal health, mobile schools) who can serve as conduits for SGBV awareness raising, as they are already known and trusted. Even where justice services may be limited, programs to promote social accountability for preventing SGBV may still be powerful.
Programs support mobile justice systems.
Pastoral rangelands are typically underserved by state justice systems, which tend to be centralized in larger towns and regional capitals. This creates a major barrier for victims to secure justice, as customary justice systems often fail to address these crimes. As a stopgap measure, mobile courts or mediation services can provide some accountability and resolution in cases of SGBV, as seen in case studies in Sierra Leone, the DRC, Somalia, and elsewhere.
The unreliability of second-hand accounts.
Pastoralists are often suspected of violence (including SGBV) because they can be armed and move outside the sight of local communities or authorities. The mutual suspicion and misunderstandings between pastoralist and settled communities is fertile ground for rumors and there is always a risk that accusations of SGBV can be instrumentalized in intercommunal conflict. In the absence of robust reporting systems, anecdotal reports of pastoralists as perpetrators of sexual violence should be treated carefully and with an eye toward conflict sensitivity.
With a limited body of empirical research and few opportunities for pastoral women to share their perspectives with national and regional audiences, government officials and aid practitioners often lack firsthand evidence to guide their policies and programs. Improving understanding of the role of women and gender norms by supporting locally-led research and the inclusion of women in public diplomacy activities is an essential starting point.
Diplomats and public officials raise attention to the role of women.
At the most basic level, external interveners should ensure that gender and women’s empowerment is on the agenda for addressing pastoralism-related conflicts. This may include meeting directly with women mediators or leaders of women’s trade groups, promoting gender parity in conferences on transhumance, or highlighting the efforts of women peacebuilders in public statements. Women leaders can often be left out of public diplomacy initiatives either because they do not occupy recognizable public roles as authorities or because they have not had previous opportunities to form social networks with public officials.
Research highlights the experiences of women not just as survivors but as community influencers.
It is vital to document how women are affected by pastoralism-related conflict both as testimony and to ensure their experiences inform future interventions. Women play critical roles in shaping the relationships between pastoralist groups and their neighbors, whether through joint cultural celebrations, inter-ethnic marriage, and everyday trade relationships. These are important opportunities for connection that can be lost or eroded during periods of conflict. Future research must delve deeper into the role of women as community stabilizers and drivers of group recovery.
Analysts mainstream gender perspectives across all forms of pastoral research.
The influence of gender resonates across all conflict dynamics highlighted by this Toolkit. Because gender is often compartmentalized as a niche area of expertise, it can be neglected in research on wider development trends in conflict settings. A gendered lens is critical in all areas of study, from livestock value chains to cattle raiding to land tenure.
In 2010, a group of pastoralist women from 32 countries (including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali, and Niger) gathered in Mera, India to increase the recognition of women’s voices in the development of pastoralism policies and issue a global call for action. The resulting Mera Declaration called on governments to accept 23 points, including recognizing pastoralists’ role in environmental conservation, ensuring the equal rights of pastoral women, creating specific policies to assist pastoral lifestyles, and giving equal representation to pastoralist women. The Declaration was a novel concept as the first such statement that specifically focused on the role of pastoralist women, though it is not yet clear whether it has effectively catalyzed policy change in the Sudano-Sahel.
Photo: Displaced cattle cross the Lol River in Bahr El-Ghazal, Sudan. Credit: Malcolm Linton/Liaison.