Gender and Peacebuilding

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Why Women’s Involvement in Peacebuilding Matters

By Kathleen Kuehnast

Is carrying a gun the only way for women to get a place at the peace table?

This may be a provocative question, but most negotiations are dominated by men, many of whom were once active combatants. What about a peace negotiating table set for those who are going to build the peace, including women?

Amid 39 active conflicts over the last 10 years, few women have actually been present at peace negotiations. And out of some 585 peace treaties drafted over the last two decades, only 16 percent contain specific references to women. If women are critical to building the peace after conflict, then why not have women setting the conditions at the negotiating table?

The absence of women from formal peace negotiations is all the more astonishing given the fact that women are increasingly parties to conflicts. In addition to being recruited into regular and irregular armed forces, they have also become powerful voices opposing conflict.

In Sudan, for example, women and girls played active roles on the front lines of the two north-south civil wars, both as combatants and peace activists. Yet despite these developments, women remain largely absent from formal peace negotiations. How can peace be sustained without women helping to craft it in the first place?

As New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof has pointed out, women comprise more than half of the world population––so whether they are combatants or survivors, peace-builders or bystanders, women must play a role in the transition from war to peaceful development. This is not just a moral issue or a question of equality; it is an efficiency issue. At this rate, we lose half of the world’s potential by not including women in all aspects of global problem solving.

When it comes to settling conflicts, we know that many more creative ways exist than simply picking up a gun and threatening your enemy. There are countless examples of women who have intervened in conflicts, but most of their stories have never been recorded, and their efforts not counted. We see the value added that women have brought to peacebuilding processes, from the ability to form coalitions across conflict lines as in Northern Ireland when a group of Catholic and Protestant mothers said, “Enough!” Or in Liberia, when Christian and Muslim women united by waging “sit-ins” at the markets, and refusing to work as a means to stop the out of control violence of Charles Taylor and his armed gangs. Women have been working across the Israeli-Palestinian divide for decades, but rarely allowed into the formal peace processes.

At the international level, we now have consensus that women should be included in all peace talks. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (adopted in October 2000) acknowledges the disproportionate impact of violent conflict on women and recognizes the critical role women should and can play in the processes of peacebuilding and conflict prevention, including peace talks, conflict mediation, and all aspects of post-conflict reconstruction.

Already, 25 countries from Liberia to Norway, from Nepal to the Philippines have developed action plans to implement Resolution 1325, and a number of others are in the process of drafting plans. In December 2011, U.S. President Obama signed an executive order that establishes women, peace, and security as U.S. policy. This policy promotes women’s participation in conflict prevention, management, and resolution, recognizes sexual violence against women as part of violent conflict and promises a national action plan for the U.S. on Women, Peace and Security to reflect the tenets of Resolution 1325.

National-level action will also be greatly strengthened by passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December 2010. Similar to Resolution 1325, this bill recognizes that the issues affecting women are international security issues, and that the protection of women from violence must be prioritized in U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy efforts.

At the local and community levels, we need better and more creative outreach and educational strategies to highlight instances where women have played roles as problem-solvers, entrepreneurs and leaders. And we need avenues beyond newspapers, policy briefs or academic studies to illustrate the roles women have played to bring peace to their community, state and region.

Abigail Disney’s 2008 film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is a good example of an alternative outreach strategy. The film depicts the pivotal role of Liberian women in helping to oust the former warlord and president, Charles Taylor, and mobilizing the people for the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president. Sri Lankan civil society leader Visaka Dharmadasa contends that the film has had a major impact on women in Sri Lanka and has convinced them that they could do something as powerful and game-changing as the women in Liberia. Though military operations have ended in Sri Lanka, women there continue to call for a more inclusive political formula that will bring lasting peace to their country.

Women’s involvement in peace negotiations is not just an issue for women, but also for men. The point is to improve life for all people. Toward that end, men have to see the direct benefit of engaging women in peace talks, something male leaders are critical in helping to explain.

Moving forward globally in an effective and efficient manner, women will need to play a pivotal role in the security and peacebuilding in this new century.

Learn more about USIP’s work in gender and peacebuilding.

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