As a mediator, my job is to is to listen to people’s stories, concerns and interests so I can understand what factors are driving the conflict and how to navigate difficult conversations. Conflict mediation is traditionally dominated by men, due in part to cultural mindsets that discredit women and also the political nature of peacebuilding. As a younger female mediator, I’m usually not what people are expecting.
Whether conscious or not, the different sides I’m working with bring with them a bias that can cause them to question my knowledge or experience. It’s the same whether I’m mediating in Canada or working on peacebuilding initiatives in Asia or Africa.
Women play an active role in mediating conflicts around the world – whether in high-level international peace talks, or when working with local community groups. But their roles are still under supported by governments and those involved in negotiations, despite the commitments made 20 years ago at the UN Security Council.
I’m a member of Women Mediators across the Commonwealth (WMC), a network of 50 global mediators that are actively working to eliminate the gender divide. Collectively, we are championing and supporting each other in our work and aiming to increase the recognition of women mediators in peace processes globally.
Challenges faced by women mediators
The members of the WMC have faced the universal experience of gender bias whether working in Canada, Nigeria or Afghanistan, in international peace talks or while facilitating grassroots processes.
I have experienced misogyny from men who have questioned my expertise, belittled me or tried to intimidate me. I’ve experienced men making inappropriate comments and objectifying me or choosing to only speak to male counterparts. My colleagues at the WMC share similar stories of how the gender bias impacts their work.
For those mediating in developing countries, this impact pertains to the threat of sexual violence and security risks. These risks are something that women need to factor into process design in order to ensure that safety and security mechanisms are in place for them and their families. Funding to support the implementation of these mechanisms is a challenge in itself due to systemic biases that dictate budget allocation.
What women mediators bring to peacebuilding
Contrary to what the media reports and what we hear from male decision-makers, women are on the front lines of global peacebuilding. For example, Betty Bigombe’s work leading talks between the Ugandan Government and the LRA or Mossarat Qadeem’s work preventing and countering violent extremism in Pakistan.
Women are the glue in their communities and have invested time in building relationships and trust. They therefore know the impact of conflict intimately as they hear the personal stories of how it jolts every segment of society. Upon deeply listening and internalizing the ways in which their community is struggling, women insert themselves into peacebuilding efforts; they do not wait to be engaged.
Women also look at conflict holistically, understanding that conflict does not end when an agreement is reached. Conflict transcends 'peace' as there are lasting psychosocial effects on societies who are left to pick up the pieces and re-build their communities post conflict.
What women mediators have taught me
The inter-generational exchange within the WMC is invaluable, as I am learning from women who have been lifelong peacebuilders. Through the sharing of stories and experiences we have created rich connections. These women have shown me incredible kindness, support and generosity, which has given me more confidence and led to some valuable lessons.
Firstly, being a woman is a source of strength. I have found strength in my empathy, ability to build trust with communities and support parties with my emotional intelligence. I have learned to lean-in to a collectivist approach to peacebuilding by collaborating with co-facilitators and inviting parties into the design process. I am more confident working with senior lawyers, politicians, experts and military officials as I have found empowerment in my abilities as a woman mediator.
Secondly, my knowledge of the field has increased. We have expanded our peacebuilding networks to one another and are thus able to tap into each other’s networks for information, support and further collaboration in order to inform our work. Our innate drive to build bridges within our communities means we instinctively build bridges with one another in order to strengthen peace efforts globally.
Thirdly, I have learned even more about my privilege as a white 'purist' mediator who was afforded training out of interest as opposed to inserting oneself into processes in order to stop violence and bloodshed. I have met exceptionally talented women mediators in almost every country across the globe who have natural mediation skills and community relationships that cannot be taught in any formal training. Inside mediators need to be engaged and empowered in high level processes, because long after an agreement is reached women leaders will be supporting peace efforts on the ground.
To be in a room with women peacebuilders is to be in a collaborative and inclusive space of intelligent and experienced practitioners. Instead of sitting around a table we sit in circles. We share the stage and tell stories, sing, share tears, laugh and cook together. The room is loud and filled with colourful clothing and energy, the same energy that is brought into each and every one of our peace processes. Women mediators are creative and driven by the hope and optimism that they see in their communities every day.
Alicia Kuin is a conflict analyst and mediator who facilitates complex multi-party processes. She provides training on conflict analysis, process design, and the roles of power, culture and identity framing in peace processes. Alicia is a member of Women Mediators across the Commonwealth (WMC), a network hosted by Conciliation Resources that connects and supports 50 female mediators worldwide.