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How to Close the Gender Gap in Peace Talks

Women’s representation is critical to lasting peace, but they are losing ground at the negotiating table.

By , the director of inclusive diplomacy and systems change for Independent Diplomat.
Members of Afghanistan's peace negotiation team
Members of Afghanistan's peace negotiation team attend a meeting with then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 21, 2020. PATRICK SEMANSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

On June 30, a coalition of governments, civil society organizations, and United Nations agencies will meet in Paris at the Generation Equality Forum to launch a global compact to boost women’s inclusion in conflict prevention and resolution. The compact is the culmination of decades of feminist activism, and although women have achieved important gains during this period, increasing their direct representation at the peace table remains elusive.

Only 3 in every 10 peace processes in the last three decades have included a female mediator or signatory. During that time, governments, mediators, and the U.N. have recognized the importance of women’s inclusion. Women have played instrumental roles outside of the negotiating room as advisors, advocates, and participants in informal Track II processes. But recent years have seen a rollback in women’s direct participation in peace talks.

On June 30, a coalition of governments, civil society organizations, and United Nations agencies will meet in Paris at the Generation Equality Forum to launch a global compact to boost women’s inclusion in conflict prevention and resolution. The compact is the culmination of decades of feminist activism, and although women have achieved important gains during this period, increasing their direct representation at the peace table remains elusive.

Only 3 in every 10 peace processes in the last three decades have included a female mediator or signatory. During that time, governments, mediators, and the U.N. have recognized the importance of women’s inclusion. Women have played instrumental roles outside of the negotiating room as advisors, advocates, and participants in informal Track II processes. But recent years have seen a rollback in women’s direct participation in peace talks.

In U.N.-mediated conflicts between 2018 and 2019, the number of party delegations that included women decreased. In several major ongoing peace processes, from Yemen to Sudan, women remain excluded from high-level negotiations. And in newly revived peace processes, such as the one between the Taliban and the Afghan government, those numbers could look even worse.

Women’s exclusion from peace processes doesn’t just hold back women themselves. It also holds back the prospect of achieving lasting solutions. Studies show that women contribute to more durable peace agreements. From Ireland to Colombia, when women come to the table, they bring important perspectives and often embrace more consultative working methods. Women’s inclusion in peace processes is also more likely to produce agreements that protect and codify women’s rights.

Women need roles both outside official negotiations as activists and advocates, and inside the negotiating room as delegates.

To maximize their impact on peace processes, women need roles both outside official negotiations as activists and advocates, and inside the negotiating room as delegates. It is critical that those advancing the global compact support not only women in civil society but also women as political decision-makers. They can do so by increasing financial and material support for female negotiators and putting greater political emphasis on inclusive delegations.

As an advisor for the nonprofit diplomatic group Independent Diplomat, I’ve worked with women who have held seats at the peace table and others who have advised negotiating delegations, served as elected officials, or led political movements. Although they come from diverse backgrounds, these partners have met similar challenges during thorny and often protracted peace processes. They have also developed feasible ideas about how to advance women’s participation in peace processes and how the United States and other governments can help. It’s time the international community took their advice.

Providing female negotiators and leaders with much-needed resources is an obvious place to start. Without independent resources, it is often difficult for women to attend peace talks—particularly when they are held in costly diplomatic locales such as Geneva—and to participate in the active diplomatic outreach needed to build support and assemble coalitions. Mariam Jalabi, a co-founder of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement and the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s representative to the United Nations, warns that many women simply can’t afford to maintain positions within high-level delegations. “When you’re dealing with a conflict like Syria’s, it’s money and access that decide who is represented at the table—and women often can’t compete,” she said.

Advocates for women, peace, and security issues often focus on civil society, maximizing resources for grassroots engagement in peace processes and for women-led organizations. Those funding opportunities are important, but they often exclude women seeking a formal role in a political delegation at the negotiating table. Providing women with financial and material support, information, and visa assistance would empower them as political decision-makers and allow them to engage assertively in the peace process.

Resources alone won’t solve the problem of underrepresentation. Delegations themselves often don’t prioritize the inclusion of women and in some cases actively work against it. It’s then up to outside governments, mediators, and local activists to reinforce the importance of inclusion from the very start of a peace process. These stakeholders should treat gender representation as essential, not peripheral, to the achievement of a political deal and invest more political capital in bringing women to the table and keeping them there.

For example, mediators can set stronger guidelines on the inclusion of women, including quotas on seat allocation, which can bind parties into making more inclusive appointments. In Libya, former acting U.N. Special Representative Stephanie Williams pushed for inclusion, resulting in 23 percent female representation in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in 2020. Lamees BenSaad, a parliamentary candidate in Libya’s 2021 elections and one of the 16 female delegates who participated in the forum, said that Williams’s commitment to inclusion “ensured we were not sidelined from the process and she paved the path for women’s inclusion in politics,” after years of women feeling “cut off.”

Moreover, inclusive representation among governments and mediators on the other side of the negotiating table can also help to increase and enhance women’s participation. It certainly isn’t lost on negotiating parties that many of the actors stressing the importance of women’s inclusion don’t embrace it when it comes to their own delegations. Stakeholders can strengthen the argument for women’s representation in peace processes by adhering to their own rhetoric and appointing more women to high-level decision-making roles, including as envoys and senior diplomats.

When women do participate in peace processes, they often find their roles tokenized.

Finally, if women are included as political decision-makers, they need to be treated as such. Governments and mediators leveraging resources and political capital can help increase women’s representation in peace talks, but this does not ensure their meaningful participation. When women do participate in peace processes, they often find their roles tokenized, not only by their own delegations but also by the governments and mediators overseeing the peace process. Stakeholders frequently ask women to speak to gender-related issues but bypass them when it comes to the wider political issues affecting their constituents.

Governments and mediators should do more to enable women to lead on policy areas such as transitional justice, civilian protection, detainee release, and cease-fires, and above all give women the room to the tackle the root causes of their respective conflicts. “One of the most important steps the international community can take is to stop limiting women’s roles to victims, peacemakers or members of civil society, and instead recognize that women are also political agents,” Jalabi said. “We just need help leveling the political playing field.”

As world leaders prepare to gather in Paris to ramp up their commitments to gender equality, it is imperative that they focus on the women who are striving to lead their countries out of conflict with formal role at the table. Allowing women to determine what they need and what they want to achieve within peace processes is key to advancing conflict resolution. More inclusive peace processes will generate sustainable political agreements that reflect the priorities of those most affected by conflict—something that will benefit women and men alike.

Marlene Spoerri is the director of inclusive diplomacy and systems change for Independent Diplomat, a nonprofit diplomatic advisory group. Twitter: @MarleneSpoerri

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