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The contribution and potential of the women, peace and security agenda

December 2023: In Afghanistan, the Taliban are limiting women and girls’ access to education, work, and public life. Israel’s siege and bombing of Gaza is the first war in history where children comprise over 40 per cent of casualties. In Sudan, millions have fled their homes and sexual and gender-based violence is rampant. The juxtaposition of this human devastation with the luxurious backdrops of Jeddah or Doha, where ceasefire or hostage negotiations are taking place, is jarring.

In an era of geopolitical division and flux, there is competition between states, UN and multilateral organisations and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) for involvement in peace mediation. As others in this volume discuss, the peace they pursue – a cessation of violence and short-term stability or sustainable peace grounded in social justice – is itself contested. This contestation is particularly evident regarding women’s participation, whether as mediators, in political delegations, or independently, even though the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda, initiated in 2000 through UN Security Council Resolution 1325, has long been a locus for innovation in peacemaking.

Since 2000, wars have grown more fragmented and protracted, and societal polarisation is rising as identities are weaponised and the pushback against women’s rights and participation in public life is more vociferous. Despite – or perhaps because of – these trends, WPS is even more relevant and necessary to contemporary peacemaking.

Women, peace and security: evolution, perception, and opposition

Resolution 1325 was the first time the Security Council addressed women’s experiences of war and roles in peacemaking. It was the result of a tripartite collaboration between civil society, the UN and states – notably Bangladesh and Namibia. Canada, France, and Slovenia were early supporters. It followed a global NGO-led campaign to bring visibility to women’s experiences of war and peacemaking: Women building peace, from the village council to the negotiating table. The campaigners consulted women fighters, mediators and activists confronting military occupations and calling for justice and reconciliation even after genocide. They found a common and yet transformative fact: in conflict settings, women have agency and influence. Yet much of this agency had remained invisible.

Resolution 1325 highlighted the role long played by women across many cultures in mediating disputes, fostering peace, or calling for ceasefires.
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Resolution 1325 came at a critical moment in the UN’s history. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the Council was grappling with how to address internal conflicts while respecting the principles of non-interference and state sovereignty. The pragmatic and innovative message – women build peace – resonated with Security Council members. It also highlighted the role long played by women across many cultures in mediating disputes, fostering peace, or calling for ceasefires. Yet in multilateral and diplomatic spaces suffused by post-colonial mindsets and sexism, this contribution of women to peace had gone unrecognised.

Despite the power of the messages, the agenda has been plagued by misconceptions. For example, the emphasis on women’s rights and ‘peace for women’, antagonises men and circumscribes women’s involvement to ‘women’s issues’, excluding them from broader discussions on security and governance that are also highly relevant to women. It does a disservice to women peacebuilders, who typically advocate peace and rights for all.

Despite evidence of women’s contributions to sustainable peace and the increased visibility of women peacebuilders, many mediators remain sceptical about women’s inclusion in peace processes.
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Meanwhile, despite evidence of women’s contributions to sustainable peace and the increased visibility of women peacebuilders, many mediators remain sceptical about women’s inclusion in peace processes. ‘The parties won’t include women in their delegations’, is an often-cited reason for their exclusion. Women peacebuilders do not want to be forced into delegations, and instead advocate independent representation. Mediators also often relegate women peacebuilders to ‘women’s issues’, which, they believe, are not a priority. Yet often women peacebuilders are addressing critical security-oriented issues. For example, in the Yemen process, the exchange of prisoners was one of three components of the Stockholm agreement mediated by the UN in December 2018. In Stockholm’s aftermath, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) initially struggled to secure releases. The Abductees’ Mothers Association, formed in 2016, was pivotal in focusing attention on the issue of civilian detainees. Working through local and tribal mediators and lawyers, it has been involved in the release of around 950 civilian prisoners and – having been excluded from earlier security dialogues – now engages with the ICRC and UN.

International mediators also often fall back on the excuse that conflict parties ‘won’t bring women because of culture’. However, women’s exclusion is nearly universal across cultures because exclusion is about power. Male-dominated belligerent parties do not want to cede power to women or answer to independent women peacebuilders. But as Esra Çuhadar describes, women have also initiated measures to counter resistance to their presence at high-level negotiations.

WPS: achievements, and evolving innovations in mediation

Despite these challenges, the WPS agenda and women peacebuilders have altered peacemaking irrevocably. They have exposed flaws and initiated strategies that improve mediation and peace outcomes, and demonstrated how integrating local peace actors – their strategies, perspectives, cultural know-how and initiatives – with established high-level (track one) practices is essential to addressing today’s complex conflicts.

Bringing women’s agency and gendered approaches to international attention

Historically, the Security Council primarily concentrated on state security and the actions of armed actors. Resolution 1325 brought attention to women’s experiences, which prompted more recognition of civilians and particular sectors of society, and later contributed to the development of the youth, peace, and security agenda. Men, too, have been recognised. For example, during the negotiation of Resolution 1820 on conflict-related sexual violence in 2008, WPS advocates pressed for language to acknowledge sexual violence perpetrated against men. Faced with resistance from negotiating states, they secured reference to non-gendered terms such as ‘civilians’ and ‘people’ that enabled attention to sexual violence against men and boys.

The WPS agenda has catalysed new practices in state and intergovernmental institutions. The UN Security Council invites women peacebuilders as briefers and its travelling delegations meet with women’s peacebuilding organisations. Increased reporting on gendered context analysis and information about local women’s peace initiatives are important steps to understanding the problems and solutions that societies face from within.

The UN has also appointed gender advisers and more women as envoys at its headquarters and in peace operations. With advice from civil society experts, it developed guidance on gender and inclusive mediation processes, including seminal work on incorporating the prohibition of sexual violence in ceasefire agreements. Experts provide advice on inclusive process design and the gendered dimensions of agreements. As Julie Hawke reflects, the UN has been quick to use digital tools to further inclusion. As far back as 2012, the UN enabled public participation in constitution drafting in Somalia through text messaging.

The Women Building Peace campaign also succeeded in attaining WPS resolutions at the European Union and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 2000. WPS advocates have ensured that other regional organisations and states have similar commitments.

The African Union, as Chido Mutangadura describes, adopted a robust normative framework including a WPS Envoy and the FemWise network. But gaps between states and institutions’ policies and practices are significant – as the Afghan process showed.

In 2019, the launch of the Global Alliance of Regional Women Mediator Networks was another innovation. The idea was for member states and the broader mediation community to have a pool of experienced women from which to draw. Yet these women’s expertise and knowledge remains largely un- or at least under-utilised.

Innovating for meaningful participation

There is ample evidence of the vital contributions of women’s movements and representation in peace processes to increasing the sustainability of agreements and promoting accountability of belligerent actors to constituencies. Different strategies have been pursued to promote women’s participation.

In Burundi, Nelson Mandela demonstrated the sort of leverage mediators can apply. In July 2000, he convened women representing the 19 negotiating parties, observers, refugees, the internally displaced and the diaspora and enabled them to negotiate key issues. As Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury later recalled, ‘Mandela briefed…the Security Council and said men weren’t willing to involve women. In the evening he would sit and listen to the women and in the morning, he would suggest their points to the men as if they were his own ideas. The men loved them. Eventually he told them, these were the women’s points. That’s how he brought women into the final two rounds of talks.’

The Philippines-Mindanao peace process is among the most far-reaching examples of Resolution 1325 implementation. Women held key leadership positions in the formal talks. Muslim and indigenous women were fundamental in civil society engagement with the process. They also created a multi-ethnic, all-women’s ceasefire monitoring contingent launched in 2010 by the Mindanao People’s Caucus. It owed its significant impact to its reach into and trust among affected communities.

The Yemen National Dialogue Conference (NDC) of 2012–14 saw notable innovation in process design. The UN team proposed including political and tribal leaders, youth, and women. There was an all-woman delegation and a 30 per cent women’s quota in other delegations.

Structural innovations in peace negotiations have included gender sub-commissions and Women’s Advisory Boards.
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Structural innovations in peace negotiations have included gender sub-commissions and Women’s Advisory Boards. The Sri Lankan sub-commission initiated in 2002 during talks between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was productive but disconnected from the highest-level political negotiations, which collapsed in 2003. The Colombian sub-commission – part of the talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – was greeted with scepticism but grew to play an important role in the process and mainstreamed gender perspectives across the 2016 peace agreement. Colombian women peacebuilders remain strong advocates for the agreement’s implementation and broadening participation, including in the participation mechanism discussed in this publication by Donka Atanassova and Philipp Lustenberger. Their influence is also evident in current negotiations between President Gustavo Petro’s government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), where there is near-gender parity in negotiating delegations

The Syrian Women’s Advisory Board, the first of its kind, established in 2016, was designed to advise the UN Special Envoy for Syria. This was replicated in 2018 in Yemen as a Technical Advisory Group, in parallel to a larger consultative mechanism, the Women’s Pact for Peace and Security. Women’s advisory boards have been criticised for many reasons, including the risk of relegating women to secondary roles rather than as equal parties in negotiating their country’s future, as well as for their flawed selection processes. But they can be learnt from and improved upon.

Ad hoc structures or initiatives cannot replace the political will that is needed from belligerent parties, but they can sustain and keep the urgency of peace alive, when negotiations stall or tensions arise. Victims’ delegations are a case in point. First introduced by Femmes Afrique Solidarité in West Africa in the early 2000s, victims later played a powerful role in Colombia’s peace process. Delegations of Colombians from different regions of the country – 60 per cent women – impacted by state and FARC violence travelled to Cuba to speak to the parties directly. They brought immediacy to the imperative for stopping the violence and contributed to integrating victims’ needs and restorative justice into the agreement.

Recognising women’s innovations and harnessing of cultural power

The ‘tyranny of the urgent’ is typically why international actors convene exclusively military and political elites for negotiations. Yet these negotiators are often far removed from the violence they perpetuate and may have little concern for affected populations. By contrast, many women peacebuilders living at the frontlines of conflicts take on the responsibility to protect others or engage in peace efforts. They rely on creativity and tactical cultural entry points to assert influence.

The harnessing of cultural practices – be they kinship ties, religion, or traditional practices – to advance peace has been a signature strategy among women peacebuilders. (This is not without some irony, given that international mediators often refer to culture as the rationale for women’s exclusion.) Such indigenous strategies confer legitimacy and enable them access to both conflict parties and grassroots communities in ways inaccessible to outsiders.

Somali women peacebuilders, for example, drew on kinship ties, using their marital status and position as the daughters of clan elders to initiate dialogue and resolve disputes between government figures, through informal channels. The Yemenis Abductees’ Mothers Association (mentioned above) used their traditional role as mothers to engage influential tribal leaders. In Cameroon in 2018–19, inspired by historical women’s secret societies, the Southwest/Northwest Women’s Task Force organised ‘public lamentations’ against the war. Five thousand women sat in the streets wailing in protest at the recruitment of youth into militias and the rape of girls and women – shaming the government and armed groups into ceasefire and peace negotiations. In Lebanon, the NGO March uses the arts for peacemaking. Director Lea Baroudi brought young people from warring factions together to act in a play they eventually performed to sold-out audiences. They came to rehearsals armed; during months of rehearsals, they shifted from enemies to friends, realising how poverty and multi-generational trauma fuelled radicalisation.

Such initiatives abound and the international WPS community of practice supports them and draws attention to the cultural and psycho-social aspects of peacemaking. But senior mediators – especially state and inter-governmental representatives – rarely acknowledge such approaches within process design, and too often assume that technical solutions and political bargains are sufficient.

Esther Omam, Executive Director of Reach Out Cameroon and vision bearer of the Southwest/Northwest Women’s Task Force, leads a coalition of over 1,000 women in a peaceful protest against the massacre of school children in Kumba, Cameroon, October 2020. The sign she holds reads 'I am Kumba, we will never forget'.
Esther Omam, Executive Director of Reach Out Cameroon and vision bearer of the Southwest/Northwest Women’s Task Force, leads a coalition of over 1,000 women in a peaceful protest against the massacre of school children in Kumba, Cameroon, October 2020. © Reach Out

From pledge to practice: implementing WPS today

There are two critical ingredients for peacemaking: first, political will among belligerent parties to stop violence and negotiate; second, representation of impacted communities – recognising the diversity of women, of youth and other marginalised groups, especially those already active in peacemaking – to inform negotiations and press implementation forward. WPS can contribute to both if its full potential is realised.

A starting point would be to shift from ad hoc to systemic and consistent practices, building on precedence and what we have learned from decades of innovation on WPS. This is critical and doable – even in today’s polarised international landscape.

Supporting an inclusive process involves leadership on the part of mediators and their teams to counter the tendency towards more transactional peace processes by designing inclusive, gender-responsive processes. This includes ensuring:

  • gendered context analysis and gendered issue-specific expertise from the outset;
  • inclusive consultations and process design that normalises the participation of independent women peacebuilders’ delegations;
  • early identification and systemic engagement with women peacebuilders on process design and substance including through cooperation with existing specialised WPS networks and INGOs;
  • enabling women peacebuilders to convene and negotiate agenda items and offer fresh perspectives and solutions;
  • funding, logistical and technical support to women peacebuilders to enable their participation in formal gatherings and processes;
  • maximising efforts to encourage the participation of women in the delegations of belligerent parties; and
  • including women mediators in mediation teams.
The key innovation needed at the international level is support to women who have the courage to step up as peacebuilders even amidst raging war.
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The key innovation needed at the international level is support to women who have the courage to step up as peacebuilders even amidst raging war. Bilateral or multilateral bodies need to engage and, crucially, heed the expert analysis, advice and solutions offered by women peacebuilders and other civil society actors, and act on them. Across the diplomatic and mediation community, implementation of the WPS agenda has to be normalised and prioritised.

In 2002, two women peace activists spoke to the Security Council. ‘Peace is made between peoples and not between leaders’ said Palestinian Maha Abu-Dayeh Shammas. ‘If we leave it only to men, we get Israeli generals and Palestinians – who will not be defeated – there is no room to negotiate.’ Her Israeli-American colleague, Terry Greenblatt, added, ‘Even when we are women whose very existence and narrative contradicts each other, we will talk – we will not shoot… We are willing to sit together – on the same side of the table ... look at our complex joint history, with the commitment and intention of not getting up until – in respect and reciprocity – we can get up together and…fulfil our joint destiny.’

Considering the events of 2023, their vision of peacemaking is needed more than ever. It embodies the raison d’être of Resolution 1325 – an agenda long overdue for implementation.