I wrote this for Fabiana magazine on women and peace processes for their first issue, published in Autumn 2011:
No country is a model of perfection when it comes to gender equality. The reality of what power imbalances between women and men means in practice sharpens when looking at countries affected by violent conflict. Here, women experience sexual violence, displacement and torture but their needs, realities, experiences and perspectives are often excluded from consideration.
As Kofi Annan, then United Nations Secretary General, said, “For generations, women have served as peace educators, both in their families and in their societies. They have proved instrumental in building bridges rather than walls.” Thousands of women mobilised onto the streets in Liberia demanding ‘peace and no more war.’ The Women’s Mass Action for Peace was instrumental in bringing the warring parties to the negotiating tables and its barricading of delegates in meeting rooms led to mediators securing agreements and setting deadlines. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, consisting of Catholic and Protestant women, was able to engage all parties, easing tensions and promoting dialogue while ensuring the process moved forward. Women for Human Rights in Nepal ensured the rights of widows, a group particularly marginalised and vulnerable, were recognised in the interim Nepali Constitution through their advocacy efforts.
However, despite their crucial roles in calling for and working towards peace, human rights and justice, women are largely absent during formal peace negotiations. In the past 25 years only one in forty signatories to peace agreements has been a woman. Only 16% of peace agreements concluded between 1990 and 2010 mention women and many of these references contravene human rights. This is not a coincidence. There is a link between participation, power and voice in politics, the economy and culture, fulfillment of women’s human rights and fear of continuing violence. Women experience conflict and its aftermath differently from men and when women are excluded, their needs are not identified, prioritised and allocated resources. In Egypt, women were central in the revolution, with virginity testing of women activists in Tahrir used to oppress and intimidate, but have been marginalised in decision-making since. In contrast, the involvement of women civil society groups in peace processes has led to greater gender sensitivity in peace agreements in Guatemala, Uganda and Burundi. Women have an equal stake in building a durable peace and the potential to contribute to deliberative democratic processes in the same way as men. Women have the right to take part in decision-making processes that will determine their future and that of their country. Furthermore, decision-making that is more representative, inclusive and democratic is a more responsive process, leading to better decisions and outcomes. Experience shows peace negotiations and agreements that exclude women are far less effective than those where all within society are involved. Donald Steinberg, former US ambassador to Angola, believes that “The exclusion of women and gender considerations from the peace process proved to be a key factor in our inability to implement the Lusaka Protocol and in Angola’s return to conflict in 1998.”
Despite recognition of women’s right to be fully included in peace and security structures and in peace processes and post conflict governance in the form of human rights law and numerous resolutions passed by the Security Council, challenges remain. Family commitments, communication and safety concerns play a part. Furthermore, the prevailing view continues to be that, as women do not make up the majority of those carrying the weapons, they have no stake in being around the peace table and no influence that they can bring to bear. Issues around women, peace and security remain in the margins.
However, the UK has been a leader in this field, driving forward the agenda at the Security Council and being one of the first countries to have a national action plan on women, peace and security. However, much more needs to be done to translate rhetoric into reality. Gender Action for Peace and Security works to strengthen government policy so it has further and lasting impact for women. Our No women, no peace campaign calls for leadership, coordination, investment and accountability around women’s rights in conflict. No women, no peace currently focuses on women’s rights in Afghanistan. At this crucial time, the UK must take action to ensure women and women’s rights are central to discussion around transition in Afghanistan. For peace to be meaningful, the end of conflict must mean the end of violence for women and women must be involved in decisions that shape their societies and their future.