Women Are the Key to Peace

Cease-fire negotiations that exclude them are more likely to fall apart. Here’s how the U.N. can boost their participation at the bargaining table.

A woman holds white balloons during a demonstration to demand the endorsement of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in Bogota on Nov. 30. (Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman holds white balloons during a demonstration to demand the endorsement of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in Bogota on Nov. 30. (Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images)

Conflict rocked more countries in 2016 than at any other time in nearly 30 years. The upswell in violence led U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to call for a “surge in diplomacy for peace.” Part of that effort, he has advised, should be increasing the number of women mediators—and finding more ways to engage female civil society leaders—in peace processes. Our new research from Georgetown University confirms the wisdom of Guterres’s approach: Talks are more effective when women are involved.

To date, women are vastly underrepresented in formal peace negotiations, where they make up only 2 percent of mediators, 5 percent of witnesses and signatories, and 8 percent of negotiators. When belligerents sit down to bargain an end to a war, in other words, women are still overwhelmingly shut out.

That’s a major problem. Beyond the fact that women deserve an equal hand in shaping their societies, it is also true that their participation leads to better outcomes. Studies find that when civil society groups and women’s groups are included in negotiations, resulting peace agreements are 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years. That is huge, considering that settlements break down more often than not. A more gender-balanced process enhances local trust and buy-in, injects legitimacy into the process, and increases the chances that problematic social norms and power imbalances that contributed to the conflict will be rectified.

Of course, it is important not to focus on the formal negotiating table alone. Although women may have largely been shut out of talks at the highest level, they have not been passive observers of men’s efforts to resolve conflict. Rather, they’ve actively engaged in what negotiators call Track II processes—that is, the informal efforts that often accompany more formal Track I peace negotiations.

In Liberia in the early 2000s, for example, formal negotiations were bolstered by Track II efforts by women, who launched mass campaigns and sit-ins to demand peace; organized consultations among warring parties, negotiators, and regional actors; and legitimized formal negotiations by calling for rebels and the government to sit down together. When talks faltered, moreover, women’s groups successfully demanded that the factions come back together to conclude an agreement.

The Liberian experience is not unique. In the first systematic study of women’s involvement in informal peace processes, the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security recently found that, of 63 such negotiations in the post-Cold War era, 38 involved informal initiatives. In a majority of those, women’s groups were actively involved.

Connecting the formal and informal tracks is essential to ensure that women’s voices are heard at every stage of the negotiating process. Doing so will enable the ideas, aspirations, and goals of those excluded from formal politics to reach the warring parties. As Guterres said: “Mediating an end to today’s complex conflicts means we must bring all these tracks together, in a coordinated way.”

The responsibility for doing so lies first with mediators, who wield considerable power to influence the dynamics of peace negotiations. In some cases, they’ve taken up the challenge. For example, during the Guatemalan peace process in the mid-1990s, a mechanism called the Civil Society Assembly famously served this purpose, elevating the voices of civilians to the negotiating table. Women used the channel to advocate for land reform and development assistance, in an effort to redress inequalities that may have sparked or exacerbated the war.

Similarly, those mediating between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government in the last decade arranged for both parties to meet regularly with women’s and civil society groups. They successfully lobbied for the inclusion in the final peace deal of provisions to address gender inequality, victims’ rights, and reparations. As a result, the agreement went beyond addressing the combatants’ interests. It advanced justice and offered restitution for human rights violations endured during the war.

Meaningful peace settlements don’t just ensure an end to gunfire. They also encourage justice, opportunity, and equality.

Meaningful peace settlements are like this. They don’t just ensure an end to gunfire. They also encourage justice, opportunity, and equality—all elements that can prevent a reignition of war.

Connecting Track I and Track II peace processes is not only a good idea. It is something the United Nations can pursue today.

First, the United Nations should create a directive under Security Council Resolution 1325 requiring mediators to include civil society groups and women at bargaining tables and formally linking Track I and Track II negotiations wherever possible. The U.N. Department of Political Affairs should also explore establishing consultative processes to set negotiating agendas, schedule civil society consultations during talks, and arrange official briefings by civil society groups and representatives of Track II processes.

Second, policymakers should create specific bench marks for the quantity and quality of women’s inclusion in Track I and Track II peace processes. Leading academic institutions, companies, and local nongovernmental organizations can serve as partners in gathering and processing the data that informs such bench-marking.

Third, donors and aid-sending governments should create grants for women’s and civil society groups. By earmarking funds for such organizations, the international community can meaningfully advance their work. The money should be targeted at supporting the capacity of women to engage at both the grassroots and national leadership levels.

Formal negotiations tend to focus on belligerents. But wars affect whole societies. Broadening the range of voices that are heard during efforts to end them should make peace more durable and post-conflict societies more just and stable.

Melanne Verveer is the executive director of the Institute for Women, Peace, and Security at Georgetown University. From 2009 to 2013, she was U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues.

Anjali Dayal is an assistant professor of international politics at Fordham University. She is also a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace, and Security.