Where Women Are Leading the Peace
A new study shows where — and how — women are at the vanguard of ending conflict. And why their voices make armistices stronger.
The civil war in South Sudan has ravaged the world’s youngest country, resulting in a catastrophic humanitarian toll. The signing of a new peace deal between the government of President Salva Kiir and rebel forces was welcome news to the international community. And yet, the exclusion of civil society voices — including those of women, who comprise the majority of the population — from the official process casts significant doubt on the country’s chance at a lasting and sustainable peace. In Syria, the protracted conflict has produced more than 4 million refugees, mostly women and children, and many of whom are desperately seeking passage to Europe. Despite multiple attempts to reach a ceasefire between the warring factions, the prospects for peace remain tenuous. To date women peacemakers have been visibly absent from international efforts to end the civil war, even though Syrian women from civil society continue to advocate for peace, at great personal risk, in Zabadani, a fiercely contested village near the Lebanese border, and elsewhere.
Globally, women are most lagging in comparison to men in the area of political participation; this is especially true in conflict-affected settings. In the last two decades, women constituted a mere 4 percent of all signatories and less than 9 percent of negotiators in official peace processes. We know, however, that more than half of all peace agreements fail within first five years. When women’s perspectives and contributions are left untapped, not only are their voices silenced, but so too are societies shortchanged, along with prospects for sustained peace and prosperity. Research and experience demonstrate that women bear disproportional and distinct burdens during and as a result of violent conflict. And yet, in the business of peacemaking they remain marginalized at all levels. As we search for solutions to the world’s most intractable conflicts, we must consider the roles and aspirations of women in creating long-lasting peace.
A new study by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security sheds light on the ways in which women have engaged in making peace, providing critical insight into the difference their participation makes. These lessons are vital, not only for those on the frontlines of peacemaking today in some of the most dangerous war zones, but also for officials and others who could benefit from their vital participation. The analysis demonstrates that the inclusion of women in formal peace negotiations makes it possible to ensure that critical issues — ranging from reconciliation and transitional justice to human rights — will be included. Research shows that more inclusive peace processes lead to longer-term peace. Further, women’s involvement in brokering peace often serves to crystallize women’s movements, thereby emboldening women’s rights and enabling their public leadership in a range of arenas.
In the case of Northern Ireland, women took advantage of a special election to create a new political party, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC), and won formal representation at the talks that produced the Good Friday Agreement the 1990s. The NIWC prioritized issues like integrated education, recognition for victims, and the creation of a civic forum to ensure community voices were heard — issues that were otherwise ignored by negotiating parties. These types of policies address longer-term social change and are necessary ingredients for sustainable peace. Although the political situation in Northern Ireland remains contentious and the full implementation of the recommendations made in the Good Friday Agreement remains unrealized, the presence of the Women’s Coalition ensured that a broader set of issues was on the agenda.
Women’s involvement through civil society in Guatemala’s peace process helped ignite a broader women’s rights movement in the country, the effects of which we still see today. When the Civil Society Assembly (ASC) was established as a formal mechanism through which civil society could engage in and inform the formal peace negotiations between the government and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (known by its Spanish acronym, URNG), women came together within one week and against significant hostility to form the Women’s Sector. They would prove to be an integral part of the ASC, not only because of their ability to forge strategic alliances across political and social divides, but also because of their substantive contributions to the peace accords, including on justice, right of return of refugees, property ownership, poverty alleviation, and access to basic services. Dr. Claudia Paz y Paz, former Attorney General of Guatemala and a distinguished scholar in residence at the institute, notes, “The Women’s Sector opened a new space for women’s participation at all levels, from the peace table to the streets. In Guatemala today, women are still in the streets, fighting for justice.“
The role of international mediators and special envoys, although not always exercised, is critical in promoting women’s participation and creating the space for civil society leaders to be heard. When Kenya was engulfed by election-related violence in late 2007, the international community intervened to shepherd a mediation process to resolve the conflict. Former South African First Lady Graça Machel served on the Panel of Eminent African Personalities that was appointed by the African Union. Machel roused the efforts of women in civil society to coalesce as a diverse but unified group, which made it possible for women to lobby the mediation team. Machel demonstrates that having someone who has a nuanced understanding of these issues leading as a mediator of negotiations makes a notable difference in ensuring that women’s voices are heard and their impact realized, which was codified by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000.
Of all peace agreements signed between and 1992 and 2010, 16 percent make reference to women. However, there is a notable — albeit inadequate — spike in the references to women after the year 2000, especially where the U.N. has been involved.
In January 2014, Miriam Coronel Ferrer of the Philippines became the first woman chief negotiator to broker a peace deal when she signed the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which brought the decades-long conflict between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to an end. While this was an historic accomplishment, the peace process was also remarkable in that there were multiple women on both sides of the negotiations in a variety of leadership capacities — as negotiators, technical experts, and advisers. Ferrer, who was at first received with skepticism because of her gender and her non-governmental background, was able to convince her own colleagues as well as the MILF panel that women’s meaningful political participation is salient to achieving peace. Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF panel chair, explains, “When women are involved in the peace process … their presence influences the deliberations as well as the output of the negotiations.” Civil society leaders from diverse groups noted a strong sense of solidarity with the negotiation panels due to the extensive consultations Ferrer and others facilitated. Although it is unclear whether the Bangsamoro agreement will be upheld by parliament and successfully implemented as written, the example set by Ferrer and others in the Philippines provides important lessons-learned for the global pursuit of peace.
Despite these powerful examples, the inclusion of women is still not seen as fundamental to peace processes. As we mark the 15th anniversary of the adoption of historic U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which recognized the disparate impact of violent conflict on women and girls, and affirmed the participation and representation of women in building peace, it is critical that we reflect on and learn from the experiences of women who have played leading roles in brokering peace at international, national and local levels.
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