Women PeaceMaker Profile

Fatma Mehdi Hassam

Western Sahara , Africa

Fatma Mehdi Hassam of Western Sahara has been a refugee in Algeria for nearly 40 years because of the largely forgotten — yet longest ­running — territorial conflict on the African continent. For 30 of those years, she has been raising the voices of fellow Saharawi women and advocating for their inclusion in governance and the peace process.

After fleeing her home in Western Sahara at the age of 7 while bombs fell around her, she walked without food or water for days through the desert with a small group of men and women. Mehdi arrived in the Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, and has spent the rest of her life there. She has since become the president of the National Union of Saharawi Women (NUSW); chair of the Women and Gender Cluster of the African Union’s Economic, Social, and Cultural Council; and the North Africa regional coordinator of Women Advancement for Economic and Leadership Empowerment in Africa.

Mehdi was a prominent student leader while studying in Libya, organizing cultural activities and educational opportunities for fellow Saharawi students to learn about their history and the dynamics of the conflict. She returned to the refugee camps determined to educate and organize those who were marginalized. Her first action as president of NUSW was to support people with disabilities to ensure that all members of society were being treated equally, and so all could be active participants in the daily life of the camps.

While the armed actors in the conflict negotiated a ceasefire and anticipated a resolution to the conflict in the 1990s, but which has failed thus far, Mehdi has focused on creating a culture of peace and collaboration within the camps, so that true peace could take hold in the aftermath of the war. She established “women’s houses” where women could engage in self ­organized activities — everything from language courses to sports — and has worked tirelessly to empower women to take active roles in the governance of the camps. According to one statistic, today 85 percent of the administrative positions in the camps are occupied by women.

Mehdi continues to advocate for women’s inclusion in the peace process, government, and public life, and with NUSW has created an additional strategy of organizing women’s groups across borders throughout Africa to find new solutions to the stalemate her country finds itself, and to discuss issues of culture, religion, and women and resistance. The most recent international conference the network held was in April 2016, in the Sawahiri refugee camps, with women from places as diverse as Nigeria, Algeria, and Namibia.