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Innovation in response to resistance: Women’s inclusion in peace mediation

Human history has always evolved in back-and-forth steps. Major breakthroughs and innovations typically have to overcome resistance from those who want to preserve the status quo. Innovative thinking, especially during times of crisis, has helped our survival and development.

There has been a growing backlash against women’s inclusion in peace and political talks and processes.
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Inclusion in peace processes is an innovative practice that has progressed considerably over the last two decades, building on years of global struggle for gender equality and minority rights. Research shows the positive impact of women’s inclusion on the durability and quality of peace, and that it can catalyse other innovations in peace mediation. Lessons learned from expanding women’s inclusion have further helped to inspire the participation of young people and other excluded groups. And in Libya, for example, restriction on women’s participation as a result of Covid-19 and due to cultural practices curtailing women’s mobility helped stimulate the expansion of digital methods for inclusion (as Julie Hawke describes).

Important gains have been made and the number of women included in peace processes has slightly increased. But this has not always translated into the substantive changes needed for more inclusive outcomes, and tokenistic inclusion is still pervasive. There has also been a growing backlash against women’s inclusion in peace and political talks and processes, highlighted in traumatic developments in Afghanistan and Sudan. Resistance to women’s inclusion takes place at every stage of a peace process: from preventing women’s participation in negotiations, to resisting the codification of articles supporting gender equality, and delaying implementation of gender-specific provisions in a peace agreement.

This article briefly considers why resistance to women’s inclusion in peace processes persists, what the types of resistance are, and what innovations have been – or could be – adopted in response. Overcoming obstacles to women’s inclusion needs to start with understanding what is motivating resistance, because different resistance behaviours need to be met with different responses.

Implicit, explicit and coercive resistance

Types of resistance behaviour to women’s inclusion vary on a spectrum ranging from implicit resistance (unintentional acts due to unconscious bias), through explicit and manipulative resistance (intentional resistance short of the threat or use of violence), to coercive resistance (involving the threat or use of violence). Interviews conducted by the author in 2021–22 with women negotiators, mediators and facilitators revealed patterns of resistance behaviour across different conflict contexts.

A recurrent example of implicit resistance is where women involved in negotiations are assumed by male negotiators and colleagues to be in secondary, supportive or administrative roles. Such biases are not necessarily intentional, but the mere presence of women in settings predominantly associated with men can automatically activate certain gender stereotypes. Women find this experience frustrating, but this type of resistance can usually be rectified through constructive dialogue and awareness raising.

Director of the Afghan Women’s Network Mary Akrami, Afghan civil society and women’s rights activist Laila Jafari, and Member of the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of the Afghan assembly) Fawzia Koofi attend the Intra Afghan Dialogue talks in the Qatari capital Doha, 7 July 2019
Director of the Afghan Women’s Network Mary Akrami, Afghan civil society and women’s rights activist Laila Jafari, and Member of the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of the Afghan assembly) Fawzia Koofi attend the Intra Afghan Dialogue talks in the Qatari capital Doha, 7 July 2019. © Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images

Explicit resistance includes intentional behaviour like foot-dragging, sabotage, false compliance, and verbal opposition and insult. In one case from my research, for example, a woman mediator was directly confronted by a tribal leader who told her: ‘We were expecting a man. What are you doing here?’ In instances of false compliance, resistance is more subtle and manipulative. During the Intra-Afghan talks in Doha, for example, Afghan women delegates’ participation was curbed through spontaneous scheduling of late-hour meetings in a place that women found difficult to access. Incorporating transparent decision-making rules and procedures into process design can help address this type of resistance. And while this may risk restricting spontaneity in peace talks, spontaneity currently often comes at the expense of women’s inclusion.

When the reaction to women’s participation is coercive or violent, the priority is to protect women’s physical well-being. Out of 30 women interviewed, seven mentioned an incident of a threat or use of violence experienced either by themselves or other women participating in the same process. One high-level woman negotiator reported a social media campaign that claimed that as a woman she would be a ‘weak negotiator that would easily give away key interests’ and was thus a ‘traitor’. The campaign called for ‘killing and raping’ her. Equating women negotiators with weakness is yet another example of knee-jerk, stereotypical responses that emanate from patriarchal ‘legitimising myths’ (a term Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto use for the ‘values, attitudes, beliefs, stereotypes, and ideologies that provide moral and intellectual justification for the social practices that keep the hierarchical group status in a social system’).

Elsewhere, 17 women who participated in the Libyan political dialogue in 2020 were threatened on social media or had fake social media accounts created in their names. As Catherine Turner and Aisling Swaine underline, any initiative that promotes women’s inclusion needs to safeguard women’s protection as an integral element of the participation agenda.

Depth of resistance

Resistance also varies in terms of depth. Resistance can be driven by comparatively ‘shallow’ circumstantial factors such as lack of appropriate resources for women mediators. In a Nigerian example, male rather than women facilitators were deployed to a remote, rural area because of poor sanitation, lack of lighting on roads at night, and the difficulties in meeting childcare needs. Women habitually experience exclusion due to such structural inequalities even if this is not the intention of their colleagues. Women may also be allocated limited places in consultative bodies or committees during a peace process, which, if badly handled, can contribute to competition among them – for example, between younger and older generations of women with different priorities, interests and approaches. Ways to tackle shallower obstacles include increasing resources to support mediation, or promoting problem-solving dialogue among women when participation is limited.

Strategies to overcome resistance to women’s inclusion need to be tailored to the type of resistance behaviour in question.
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Other forms of resistance may be more deeply embedded in culture, ideology, and identity – and be more systematic, institutionalised, and stubborn. Here, efforts to advance gender inclusion can be seen as threatening. In deeply patriarchal societies in which men are dominant historically, materially, socially and politically, attempts to change the hierarchy are likely to be seen as a challenge to men’s identity and superior status. The primary motivation of the privileged group is commonly to maintain exclusive access to economic, political, and social power and resources, and male-dominated elites tend to resist efforts to expand inclusion – of women or other marginalised groups.

Furthermore, resistance to inclusion may be masked by collective narratives and ideologies to justify the abiding hierarchy, such as protecting ‘culture and traditions’, ‘the family’, or ‘the nation’ against ‘foreign values’. Resistance to inclusion may be also defended by subordinate groups – including women – in the name of ‘protecting traditions’. Identity-based resistance is often very difficult to overcome as this requires long-term cultural and social change.

Innovations to tackle resistance to women’s inclusion

Strategies to overcome resistance to women’s inclusion need to be tailored to the type of resistance behaviour in question. Women negotiators and mediators across different contexts have come up with many innovative approaches, sometimes confrontational or competitive, at other times collaborative or problem-solving.

Confrontational and competitive approaches include: organising non-violent action to overcome resistance to their participation; establishing alternative channels for information gathering in peace negotiations; pushing back against people who oppose women’s involvement, verbally and in other ways; and allying with influential and supportive insiders to increase leverage in talks, including with supportive men in positions of power.

Collaborative and problem-solving approaches include: lobbying for transparent selection criteria or quotas for participation in negotiation and mediation processes; leveraging women’s technical expertise to be included in talks; advocating clear procedures and rules for decision making in participatory spaces like committees and national dialogues; using effective communication and dialogue skills to persuade resistant groups; building trust with conflict parties, including by taking risks that other mediators might not be prepared to take; or building strong networks, coalitions and alliances with supporters of inclusion, such as other women or sympathetic international actors.

Collaborative approaches are often respectful of local priorities and sensitivities – such as using counterarguments from within local traditions, or using skills in reframing language to achieve more broadly acceptable formulations on potentially sensitive topics. Use of humour and carefully targeted preparation and capacity-building have also been found helpful to anticipate and deflect resistance.

Approaches like quotas, lobbying, alliance – and capacity-building, and non-violent mobilisation are well-established. Building trust with conflict parties by taking unexpected risks is an example of a more innovative strategy. Examples from my research include a Croat woman negotiator who crossed a forbidden checkpoint into a Serbian-controlled area unexpectedly, and a Ugandan mediator who ventured into a jungle alone to meet with the head of an armed group. The exceptional initiative of these unarmed women determined to pursue peace at considerable risk to their lives had a real impact, and in both cases the parties requested that the women be involved in subsequent peace talks. The strategic implications of approaches that involve very high levels of risk are unclear, but the positive outcome of these individual acts of bravery and ingenuity bears further investigation.

Another little-known approach comes from women who have set up alternative, informal channels to obtain important information about peace talks that they would otherwise not obtain. Women in Northern Ireland relied on other influential women in politics who were informed about the process, while women in Sudan drew on social media networks. In these and other cases, women have created their own systems to make sure they keep informed about what was going on in negotiations.

An untested idea to overcome resistance is to embed a high-level ‘inclusion ombudsperson’ in a mediation team, with whom women and others could share relevant complaints confidentially and explore solutions. This role could potentially overlap with a gender adviser. While this has not yet been tried in a peace process, there are comparable roles in organisations in other fields. In the meantime, systematic evaluation of the ideas and practices brought forward by women negotiators and mediators to overcome resistance discussed in this article could help inform much needed further innovation in the future.

Resistance to women inclusion research was supported by the USIP through Jennings Randolph Senior Fellowship and RA support. The first part of this research was published as Esra Çuhadar, Understanding Resistance to Inclusive Peace Processes, PeaceWorks, Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace, March 2020.