Despite growing international recognition of women’s effectiveness at promoting peace and increasing awareness of the disproportionate impact conflict has on women and girls, female representation in peace and security processes has lagged. Yet, when women are at the negotiating table, peace is 35% more likely to last at least 15 years.
I spoke with expert Jamille Bigio about these opportunities and challenges around women, peace, and security. Bigio is a senior fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. In the Obama administration, Bigio served as director for human rights and gender on the White House National Security Council staff. She also advised the White House Council on Women and Girls on its international priorities and first lady Michelle Obama on adolescent girls’ education and the Let Girls Learn initiative. From 2009 to 2013, Bigio served as senior advisor to U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, Melanne Verveer, in the office of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Why does armed conflict have a disproportionate and unique impact on women and girls? And what exactly is that unique impact?
We know that the victims of today’s armed conflicts are more likely to be civilians than soldiers. We know that armies and armed groups often subject non-combatants, particularly women and children, to conflict-related sexual violence. That includes rape, sexual slavery, and forced marriage.
Sexual violence fuels displacement, which affects whole families, but in particular has an impact on women and girls who are vulnerable to trafficking and violence as they’re travelling. On the road and in camps, there’s often limited protection.
“Women’s rights and physical integrity are often the first targets for fundamentalists”
It’s also the case that sexual violence complicates reconciliation post-conflict. Beyond the physical and mental health trauma that it causes, it can lead to stigma for survivors. This affects their ability to reintegrate into their families, communities, and societies.
Evidence shows that when women participate in peace processes, peace lasts longer. Why is that?
The Council on Foreign Relations recently launched a new tool on women’s participation in peace processes, tracking the number of women at the peace table, and assessing the effect they’ve had. It shows that women often take a collaborative approach to peace-building and are able to organise across cultural and sectarian divides, such as in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland. This allows them to incorporate the concerns of diverse groups affected by a conflict, increasing the prospects of long-term stability.
Women have different social roles and responsibilities to men, so have access to different information and community networks. They are more likely to raise priorities like political and legal reform, economic recovery, transitional justice – issues that make agreements more durable. These are often left aside when women aren’t included, resulting in an agreement that focuses entirely on military action, territorial gains, and power-sharing arrangements, which don’t help communities to recover and don’t build local support for the peace process.
“Women staged a sit-in and refused to let any party leave the premises before they reached a negotiated resolution”
In the negotiation process itself, women may also be viewed as honest brokers. This perception is rooted in the reality of women’s exclusion from existing power structures or from the fighting forces in many places. In Northern Ireland, the women at the table worked back-channel to gauge opposing parties’ positions on critical issues, and when the leading Irish Catholic party, Sinn Fein, was temporarily barred from the talks, the female negotiators maintained communication and eased their reentry to the process.
Women’s groups have also successfully staged mass actions and mobilised public opinion campaigns. In Liberia, when an impasse threatened to derail the peace process, a group of women met then-President Charles Taylor and pressured him to participate in talks in Accra, Ghana. In Accra, women staged a sit-in and refused to let any party leave the premises before they reached a negotiated resolution; the talks culminated in the signing of the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
What obstacles are limiting women’s ability to participate in peace and security processes?
Within conflict countries, women are fighting for the opportunity to influence decision-making processes at the highest level, but are often blocked by political leaders. Some leaders argue that women’s groups would threaten an already fragile process. Yet, women’s participation actually reduces the threat of spoilers and improves the public’s perception of the legitimacy of the process.
We also hear sceptics say that it’s not feasible for women to participate, especially in conservative societies with cultural barriers. But in fact, from Afghanistan to Yemen, women leaders want to engage and have found ways to influence peace processes.
The safety barrier is significant, and countries can do more to invest in protecting the rights and safety of women working on the frontlines and women engaged in these processes.
Funding is also an issue. Despite the role that local women’s groups are playing in creating peace and stability in their societies, an OECD analysis from 2012-13 found that just 0.4% of aid to fragile states from major donor countries went to local women’s groups.
Are things getting better? Or is progress stalling?
Progress is uneven. In Syria, for example, women have played critical roles in promoting stability in their communities: they’ve negotiated local ceasefires; secured the release of detainees; and documented human rights violations. Women have had a seat at the negotiating table, mostly representing the opposition, but they are still fighting for their continued opportunity to engage. They actually just formed the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, calling for 30% representation in negotiations and deliberations on Syria’s future.
“In Syria women have played critical roles in promoting stability in their communities”
The Philippines and Colombia are two other good examples of peace processes where women had an active role, both formally and through their roles in civil society. That contributed to successful negotiations and to final agreements that set the countries up for full recovery.
What is the role of governments of the Global North here? What sorts of policies or programs should they employ to help?
First, it’s important that they lead by example. As they advocate for women’s participation in peace processes, they should in parallel include more women in their own delegations, military units, and the like. This will also make their own teams more diverse and thereby more effective.
“There’s an opportunity to set a norm that women’s participation is critical”
Another area is to diplomatically continue to call for women’s participation in peace processes. This means supporting quotas and other measures to ensure women have an opportunity to engage. It also means investing financially in these opportunities, whether that involves building women’s representation in government institutions or ensuring trainings are available to women. There’s an opportunity to set a norm that women’s participation is critical to the effectiveness of all these investments and institution-building work.
We also recommend that countries adopt the UN funding target, which aims for 15% of all peace-building and security assistance in conflict-affected countries to promote women’s participation and protection. Given the benefits of women’s participation, this would make the security assistance more effective and would actually maximise the return on security investments.
(Picture credit: Flickr/UNMISS)