Shyama Venkateswar Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College and Director, Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

Posted on March 21, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday

In the often fraught and uncertain environment that defines the process of post-conflict mediation and peacebuilding, women’s voices are conspicuously absent at the negotiating table. Despite several UN Security Council Resolutions that offer concrete recommendations on how to have a more inclusive process – starting with the landmark Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, and followed in quick succession by Resolution 1820 (2008), Resolution 1888 (2009), Resolution 1889 (2009), Resolution 1960 (2010), and Resolution 2122 (2013) —  while drawing attention to the prevalence of sexual violence in armed conflict and identifying women and girls as important stakeholders during wartime and peacetime, women are largely excluded from formal peace negotiations. In a study of 585 peace agreements in 102 peace processes since 1990, only 16 percent contained at least one reference to women and gender. It is not surprising, then, that 50 percent of peace agreements brokered fail within the first 5 years.

Involving women in peacebuilding is a matter not just of morality or equality, but one of efficiency. There are several key reasons why incorporating a gender framework to peacebuilding should be implemented. Firstly, the disproportionate impact of war on women places them in a unique position to offer different perspectives on the key social and structural issues that might present as chronic barriers to sustainable peace. Secondly, bringing in a gender lens would allow peacebuilding to be a more inclusive and sustainable process. Keeping women out of the process has implications for who has access to resources, legal rights, economic rights and gender equality, as well as the outcomes for peace negotiations. Thirdly, a gender perspective is helpful in understanding the role of brutality and masculinity in war in psychological, rather than biological terms. Fourthly, in the aftermath of war that includes a process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR), violence and tension may escalate as women are forced to revert to traditional gender patterns after having newly acquired social, political and economic leadership roles in wartime. Fifthly, a gendered perspective includes post-conflict reconstruction to encompass the very different needs of women after conflict that is at once culturally sensitive and empowering. Finally, including women helps to build a critical mass that can advocate successfully for gender inclusive language in drafting new constitutions and ensuring legal rights for minorities and vulnerable communities.

Of course, women are not inherently meant to be bystanders in the peacebuilding process. Studies here and here, which look at different ways in which men and women mediate and negotiate transactions in stressful corporate environments, suggest that gender is not a good predictor in performance. Rather, the nature of the environment – unclear boundaries and lack of transparency, ambiguous standards for engagement or agreement, and competition – often act as a gender trigger where responses break down along preconceived notions of male/female behavior.

While certain gender trigger outcomes may discourage women from leadership positions, many, like consensual styles of interaction, a strong focus on relationships, and process over outcome, can be turned around in women’s favor at the bargaining table in the context of peace-building and conflict resolution. Women, more than men, are able to negotiate effectively for other women, their communities, men, and their nation. They are able to articulate the different needs of women after conflict, including counseling services, access to healthcare, property and legal rights, protection from gender-based violence, education, and economic security, to name a few. Given the critical role of women in sustainable peace-building processes, it is not sufficient to relegate women to the area of cultural and social reconstruction, but to bring a gender perspective into formal processes relating to conflict resolution, peace negotiations, and reconciliation.

Although the role of women has been limited in peace processes, they have played important roles as formal mediators in some of the world’s most recent intractable conflicts like Graça Machel in Kenya in 2008 and Dame Margaret Anstee in the early 1990s in Angola; or as delegates of negotiating parties such as in the DRC or part of the Darfur Peace Agreement. Additionally, in 1998 in Northern Ireland, all-female negotiating parties pushed forward an agenda that included housing, youth, and prisoner reintegration. Women, in a few instances, have also been signatories and witnesses to accords such the Bonn Agreement to end conflict in Afghanistan or at the Juba peace talks between the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.

Yet perhaps the best known and most widely-reported example of women in peacebuilding operations is the pressure group role played by the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, a coalition of interfaith Christian and Muslim women led by Nobel Peace Prize activist Leymah Gbowee, to end the bloody civil war in Liberia in 2003. The Liberian women staged sit-ins and blocked all exits until a peace agreement could be hammered out, a story that was remarkably captured in the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 was the very first international instrument that recognized the important role – albeit still untapped and underused – of women as effective negotiators and peacebuilders. It recognized that women experienced conflict differently than men, and that special provisions had to be made in post-conflict reconstruction that addressed women’s unique needs. It clearly articulated the nexus between sustainable peace and women’s participation in decision-making, and called on member states to accelerate efforts for women’s participation in peace and security.

To date, there are only 43 countries that have a National Plan for the implementation of Resolution 1325, a reminder that women’s roles are severely overlooked in key decision-making institutions and processes on a global level. Developing a National Plan would give women the necessary training required for leadership positions, implement gender sensitivity training for political and military representatives, and ensure comprehensive knowledge for gender mainstreaming and analysis that can be directed towards positive outcomes in peace negotiations.

Follow Dr. Venkateswar on Twitter @DrSVenkateswar

The writing and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute or Hunter College.