What is the most effective way of translating commitments to the women, peace and security agenda into reality for women on the ground? This collection of Accord case studies suggests that the answer lies in supporting women’s own varied and broad-ranging peacebuilding initiatives and capacities.
Spanning three continents and more than a decade, the case studies present strikingly similar experiences. They demonstrate that women’s peace activism covers a huge range, from humanitarian to economic, from rights advocacy to mediation and negotiation. These add value to mainstream peace processes because they derive from real life experiences rather than from political power play.
The case studies demonstrate women’s resilience and their capacity to use what leverage their social and cultural positions allow to influence those set on violence. However, while underlining the capacity of women to mobilise and organise for peace, they also point to their marginalisation and exclusion from peace processes, political settlements, and post-conflict political forums. As a result of this exclusion, most peace agreements are gender-blind, failing to pay special attention to gender-specific concerns or to recognise women’s contributions to peace.
Challenges and lessons for women peace activists and organisations
Many of the constraints women peace activists face are practical ones. These include the costs – in time and money – of organising and sustaining an inclusive and consultative approach, as well as women’s general lack of familiarity with the practice of advocacy.
The biggest challenge, however, concerns political engagement – in formal political processes but also the politics of engagement in decision-making generally, whether at household and community or national levels or within civil society movements.
For peace to be sustainable it requires structural change towards greater levels of inclusion and participation. This means going beyond expressing women’s immediate and practical needs or simply promoting quotas. New political structures and practices are needed in which the involvement of women as decision-makers is accepted as legitimate and normal.
What lessons can be learned about women’s involvement in political processes? A key strategy used by the women described in this volume was to play a neutral and facilitating role.
The NIWC developed a broad agenda and supported the rights of marginalised groups, whether men or women. They formed alliances with other parties in the negotiations, whom they were then able to influence, and took on the politically neutral role of upholding procedures and processes. In this way they helped define common ground between otherwise polarised positions.
Similarly, women in Sierra Leone gained influence by being perceived as politically neutral. Women in Angola who took part in peacebuilding platforms rather than political parties found that this enabled them to present a united front. Bougainville women attending the Sandline talks in Burnham in 1997 also found that unity, in spite of their different political affiliations, enabled them to influence talks more effectively.
Ensuring strong links between national-level representatives and their grass-roots supporters was another key strategy, and one adopted successfully by the Angolan women’s organisation OMA as well as by women in Sierra Leone and Sudan. In Aceh, women’s organisations took this strategy one step further by promoting political education at the grass roots to ensure that the general population was familiar with government and international policies (and the budgets attached to them).
As the case studies show, evidence about women’s capacity to influence the political process is contradictory. The NIWC did exert a positive influence on key political decision-making, raising issues such as victim rights, which would not have been addressed by the main protagonists. Yet women often lacked the confidence to confront experienced political actors and felt more comfortable influencing situations indirectly.
In weighing up the risks and challenges attached to political engagement, some women, including those in Sierra Leone, have felt that gradual change is more secure – and incurs less resistance – than radical change.
But, as Anne Itto describes in Sudan, a pragmatic approach may simply privilege the warring parties, no matter how culpable they were during the war and even if they represent past institutions whose interests are threatened by the notion of inclusivity. Once fixed, decisions agreed early on in peace negotiations can be hard to influence later.
The Aceh and Bougainville case studies, for example, demonstrate the risk that old politics may simply continue as ‘business as usual’. Case study authors from Angola and Cambodia also viewed with alarm tendencies to perpetuate patriarchal structures that violate women’s rights.
Clearly confidence is a key asset for women seeking to influence political settlements. Sharing lessons and strategies can help to build women’s confidence and showcase ways of overcoming obstacles.
Lessons for policymakers
The most significant lesson brought out by the case studies is that women should be viewed as legitimate political actors during conflict, during negotiations around peace settlements, and in post-settlement political accommodations. Women’s peace movements derive legitimacy from the fact that they represent a broad and inclusive constituency at times when inclusivity is a critical ingredient in building a new society.
Finding practical mechanisms for involving women in peace processes from the beginning is therefore a win-win strategy. Governments and donors often prioritise the involvement of armed parties in order to guarantee security and prevent a return to violence. They often justify pushing ‘women’s issues’ back on grounds of pragmatism, arguing that there are more urgent priorities and that gradual change is best.
But, as noted above, decisions made early on are hard to reverse later. It is wrong to assume that involving women is inconsistent with addressing pressing security and reconstruction issues. On the contrary, women have important things to say about all components of conflict resolution and reconstruction processes.
Peace processes consist of negotiations not only for ceasefires and an end to violence, but also for a whole range of instruments that contribute to the foundations for a newly emerging society. These include plans for the transition to civilian governance, such as demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration, as well as plans for political power-sharing, economic recovery and transitional justice. A broad range of interest groups need to contribute to dialogue on these issues if the post-conflict political settlement is to be inclusive, and therefore sustainable.
Women can help to achieve this, but to do so they need to gain access to those planning and managing peace processes and political settlements. The breadth of consultation that women bring to peace processes needs to be acknowledged in the timing of events and in the costs of logistics and communications. Women’s inputs into peace processes can be maximised through relevant and timely support. This might include helping them develop political awareness as well as organisational and advocacy skills.
A clear lesson from the case studies in this volume is the importance of networking. Linking women across divides, facilitating contacts and consultations between women in capital cities and those in the countryside, can enrich peace processes by contributing to the development of broad-based agendas. Moreover, women peace activists and their organisations gain confidence and inspiration from learning about other women’s experiences elsewhere in the world, as Bougainville women did for example when they attended the Beijing Conference on Women in 1994. Indeed, in the case of countries divided by war, such forums may provide the only occasion for women from the different sides to meet at all.
Most significantly for donors and decision-makers, the case studies illustrate how ‘peace’ is a gendered concept. The women peace activists writing in this collection describe a view of peace that is holistic and inclusive. Involving women in peace processes, on their terms, will help to ground settlements and ensure their sustainability.