Women’s roles in conflict prevention, resolution and implementation of lasting reconciliation processes–and the magnitude, variety of forms and decisive impact of these roles–remain largely unrecognized by the public.
From disarmament campaigns led by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) at the start of the 20th century to the Black Lives Matter movement created in 2013 by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza, and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, women take action against violence.
On the ground–in Asia, Africa and Latin America–far from the public eye, over 100,000 local NGOs working in reconstruction and reconciliation are currently run by women.
Peace is no more a matter for men only than is war, as Joan Johnson-Freese demonstrated in her book “Women, Peace and Security”. Women have never simply resigned themselves to being passive, silent victims. From one continent to another, their mobilization efforts have never ceased to inspire others.
Lack of parity in organizations and peace processes
International organizations have understood that the presence of women at the negotiating table is an essential precondition for lasting peace. This is the key issue of UN resolution 1325 from 2000, which calls for “increased representation of women at all decision-making levels…in institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict.”
In addition to ensuring justice, this is also a matter of effectiveness. Peace presupposes that no category of victim is forgotten. Yet women are particularly, often disproportionately, affected by conflict. In addition, facilitating women’s access to positions of power after regime changes enables countries to benefit from a wider range of expertise.
Yet according to UN Women, only 5% of peace treaty signatories were women and women accounted for only 2% of mediation team members between 1990 and 2017. But the quantitative aspect is not enough. It must go hand in hand with a qualitative approach: the parity objective must not overshadow the importance of ensuring that the designated women are given real decision-making power that is not simply limited to care issues.
Women’s critical role on the ground
In addition to formal frameworks, the involvement and expertise of women working on the ground are just as critical and decisive. The range of their action is vast: support for civilians, defense of women’s and children’s rights, the creation or rebuilding of social links and institutions, the establishment of international partnerships, lobbying and resistance against oppressors.
The fight for peace or emancipation has also developed high-level scientific, citizen and activist knowledge, and has been largely led by women. This can be seen in the existence of women and peace studies and feminist peace research, which are aimed at spreading this knowledge and informing public decision-making and diplomacy.
In the Handbook of Feminist Peace Research, which they co-edited in 2021, researchers Tarja Väyrynen, Swati Parashar, Élise Féron et Catia Cecilia Confortini demonstrate that conflict resolution also plays out on the sidelines: the violence that affects bodies in many ways, climate disasters, famine, access to health care, these are all forms of violence that are “less spectacular but just as critical,” such as when women and girls are unable to flee tsunamis because they have not been taught how to swim,. The issue of justice is therefore what must be prioritized, especially since peace is a process, not a fixed, definitive point in time. Far from marking the end of violence, the signing of a peace agreement is often only on step.
At local, national and international levels, political, economic and diplomatic objectives must also integrate gender conscious issues. On the one hand, this is key in ensuring the specific difficulties faced by millions of girls and women are truly taken into account: access to resources and rights, the fight against forced marriages, femicide, and rape. On the other hand, it is also key in targeting all vulnerable groups. An intersectional–also called inclusive–approach is therefore crucial in ensuring, for example, that rural populations are not forgotten. This case of fighting self-segregation shows once again that agenda and governance go hand in hand.
Avoiding the danger of Western-centrism
Finally, it is important to refrain from imposing Western models on the rest of the world. Feminist foreign policy does not always avoid the pitfall of the post-colonial approach, whether that be through “top-down” development policies or the contradictions in these policies. Taking the context into account is particularly crucial in avoiding a “backlash” against policies led by international stakeholders without sufficiently consulting the population on gender issues.
This is why it is important to support existing initiatives led by local women’s organizations, who are familiar with the situation on the ground, the resistance they are facing, and the most effective drivers for making an impact. This does not mean succumbing to cultural relativism, but rather remaining closely attentive to the population’s needs.
Finally, prejudices still remain regarding the “passivity” of women in certain countries or regions subjected to oppressive regimes. Part of the media coverage of the situation of Afghan women since the Talibans’ return to power in August 2021 is emblematic of this issue. However, women’s organizations, both formal and informal, played a huge role even before 2001, when the American forces intervened against the Taliban.
NATO was then able to support their resistance, especially in large cities, but it did exist beforehand: one example is the role of NGOs, like the Afghan Institute of Learning, led by Sakena Yacoobi, which enabled thousands of girls to receive schooling secretly. International feminist networks have mobilized in support of these types of initiatives.
In post-conflict situations and reconciliation efforts, it is therefore important to recognize the needs of those most exposed to structural violence, especially women, without underestimating their capacity to take action and resist the various forms of oppression.
Marie-Cécile Naves would like to thank Élise Féron, a senior research fellow at Tampere Peace Research Institute (Finland), for her valuable contributions to this text.