In the hot, dry region of Gao in northern Mali, women from all ethnic groups gather in a small, simple hut. The Women’s Peace Hut.

Gao was freed from extremist occupation in 2013, yet it remains one of the most dangerous places in Mali. Thousands were displaced, the economy nearly collapsed and essential infrastructure and services have been destroyed. Recovering from such devastation takes time—and unity.

The women come from all ethnic groups living in Gao and the surrounding villages. The hut began as a gathering of seven women’s associations; it has now grown to include 65 groups. “We all share the same destiny and we try to collaborate,” explains Mouna Awata, the president of the Women’s Peace Hut.

Every Thursday and Sunday, the associations meet in the tiny mud hut, decorated with wall carpets, colourful sheets and photos. They discuss hard topics such as the implementation of the peace agreement, or how to prevent gender-based abuse and help survivors.

Women from all ethnic groups in Gao and the surrounding villages come together in the Peace Hut. Photo: UN Women/Sandra Kreutzer.

Women from all ethnic groups in Gao and the surrounding villages come together in the Peace Hut. Photo: UN Women/Sandra Kreutzer.

But peace, reconciliation and justice are not the only topics of conversation. Each of the 65 women’s associations specialise in a different income-generating activity. Some produce leather bags and key chains; others make soap, fabrics or coffee made from date beans. With this wealth of knowledge, the women of the peace hut also gather to promote women’s education, entrepreneurship and economic empowerment.

The Women’s Peace Hut in Gao is one of 28 similar sites across Mali, built by UN Women in 2014 to train local women on leadership, management and advocacy techniques.

“Now the women are completely independent,” shares local UN Women project manager Sekou Traoré. “They have built their own structures and run their own budget. They are also focusing on growing their businesses and finding niches for selling their products. The hut is fully in their own hands.”

Women from Gao also learned leadership and business skills, and some now have businesses to independently to sell their products. Photo: UN Women/Sandra Kreutzer.

Women from Gao also learned leadership and business skills, and some now have businesses to independently to sell their products. Photo: UN Women/Sandra Kreutzer.

While women’s empowerment and economic development is important to those at the Women’s Peace Hut, peace remains their top priority. One reason for this is that continued unrest disrupts their efforts and restricts their ability to sell their products in local markets.

But more importantly, in one woman’s words, “When your mind is not free, your heart can never be.” These women cannot move freely, without the fear of being attacked, robbed or harmed. For them, “peace” is not merely a ceasefire, but rather peace of mind and freedom from the constant threat of violence.

“We can achieve a lot, if we want it,” President Awata asserts. “But we have to stay together. This is what we have learned here.”

Next year, they want to participate more actively in the process of disarmament and promote the voluntary hand-over of weapons and arms within their communities. “The most important thing is that the violence stops”, the women concluded. “We can only develop this country in peace—and we, the women of Gao, have already found our peace.”