Conflict is fuelled by deeply engrained divisions, mistrust and exclusionary politics. Women’s peace efforts, like many civil society activities, often challenge these dynamics in both formal and informal spheres by advocating consensus building instead of recrimination and inclusion instead of elite-dominated politics. These efforts often aim to address the structural changes necessary for sustainable peace, and can attract wide support for women’s groups and build their legitimacy.
Consensus and inclusion as a key strategy
A key strategy used by women’s groups is to take a non-partisan, unified and consensus-based approach to achieve influence. Women in Bougainville and Northern Ireland developed forums and networks as a way to achieve strength through consensus and unity. In Sierra Leone in 1995 the women’s peace campaign put the issue of a negotiated settlement in the public domain in a non-partisan and non-confrontational manner, combining non-threatening events like prayer meetings to mobilise support with more direct measures like marches and meetings with government. As a result a negotiated settlement became a respectable option for both the government and the rebels without loss of face.
Advancing broader issues of social justice
Inclusion – ensuring that a wide range of perspectives is represented, including marginalised sections of community – is an important factor for sustainable peace. Women’s groups can broaden the range of substantive issues on the table, promoting not just women’s rights but also social justice. Many peace processes prioritise elites and those carrying arms and aim to satisfy their demands. Issues key to long lasting, durable peace such as reconciliation, equality and access to land can go unaddressed. Women’s groups can therefore gain legitimacy and support by appealing to a broader constituency; they can also help ensure the interests of a wider section of the community are heard.
During negotiations for the Belfast Agreement, the Northern Ireland’s Women’s Coalition (NIWC) ensured that victims’ rights and reconciliation were included. These became key issues in the referendum campaign for the agreement. Accord author Kate Fearon argues that if the agreement had not addressed these concerns, many people might have voted against it.
In Cambodia and Sierra Leone women’s groups reached out beyond urban centres. Cambodian women activists worked to promote a broad social development agenda focused on the neglected rural majority. The Sierra Leone Women’s Movement for Peace (SLWM) opened branches in all accessible parts of the country which strengthened its support base and helped to share information and coordinate marches.
Building peace beyond the negotiating table
Women activists also promote a vision of peace that goes beyond the negotiating table. The case studies demonstrate that women have been at the forefront of grassroots and civil society initiatives to address violence and build peace, and that their actions have often been instrumental.
Peace conferences in Somaliland in 1993 and 1996 would not have taken place without the collective lobbying of elders by women who urged them to intervene to end conflicts. Women were also instrumental in mobilising funds for peace meetings to take place.
Women have contributed to stopping violence and alleviating its consequences in a range of ways: providing humanitarian relief, creating and facilitating the space for negotiations through advocacy, and exerting influence through cultural or social means. They have also spearheaded civil society and reconciliation activities.
In Bougainville, individual women used their status in the family to negotiate peace in their communities and managed to use their influence and act as go-betweens with the warring factions to maintain constructive dialogue.
Women in northern Uganda worked collaboratively to revive cultural institutions and prepare the community for reconciliation and the reintegration of armed groups through prayer meetings and peace education, as well as through songs and story-telling.
Peace process support often focuses on formal negotiations and settlements, overlooking the significant contribution of broader, complementary peacebuilding efforts that are vital to sustainable peace. Important contributions by women, often at the household and community level, tend to go unrecognised.
It is therefore essential to link efforts at multiple levels more effectively, to open up the space where women and others excluded from formal forums work, and for this space to receive more recognition.