Women’s Participation Key to Achieving and Sustaining Peace

When women participate in peace processes, a peace agreement is more likely to be reached and implemented. This was a key finding aired at the June 18th launch of an IPI report “Reimagining Peacemaking: Women’s Roles in Peace Processes.” The report examines the challenges and opportunities presented by women’s participation in peace and transition processes.

According to UN Women, between 1992 and 2011, just 2 percent of chief mediators and 9 percent of negotiators in peace processes were women. Based on research carried out at IPI and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, the report shows how the lag in women’s participation is linked to broader dilemmas in the peacemaking landscape today.

Ambassador Virachai Plasai, Permanent Representative of Thailand to the UN, which co-hosted the event, said in opening remarks, “Findings from this report compel the questions, what has barred women’s participation in peace processes? Have we done enough? What should we do to increase women’s involvement if the empirical study has proven the efficiency of their role in peacekeeping?”

“A number of dilemmas in the peacemaking landscape itself are creating barriers to women’s participation,” said Marie O’Reilly, editor and research fellow at the International Peace Institute (IPI) and co-author of the report. She shared three key dilemmas: whether the main goal of a peace process is to end the violence or to build long term peace; how the dominant conception of security focuses on the direct rather than the indirect effects of war; and the changing mediation landscape.

“Research shows that both mediators and belligerents perceive a tradeoff between the short-term goal of ending the violence and the long-term goal of building peace,” Ms. O’Reilly said. “The short term goal of ending violence is emphasized at the expense of the longer vision of how to build peace, and this rationale feeds into the exclusion of women.”

Women experience conflict differently than men, she noted, arguing that the indirect effects of war, which relates to the breakdown of social order, human rights abuses to health care issues, impact women more.

“Women’s priorities for peace differ from men. We see this when they do participate in peace processes, especially when they’re not a member of one of the belligerent parties, women very often bring up a more diverse range of issues,” Ms. O’Reilly said.

“Today there’s a proliferation of mediation actors,” she contended, “and very often the UN and others that have prioritized women, peace, and security in their frameworks are not necessarily acting as the main mediators in a process.”

Ms. O’Reilly added that there’s also a deeper resistance to change, particularly to women’s empowerment. “Very often, conflict parties don’t tend to see it as a strategic benefit to include women’s group, and the same applies to the mediator.”

Thania Paffenholz, senior researcher at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and co-author of the report, said that the likelihood an agreement is signed and implemented in the longer term is much higher when women were involved, particularly when they had real influence.

“Being at the table or being at a mediation set-up is not enough,” she added, citing the examples of the constituent assembly in Nepal and Yemen, where there was 35% women participation across delegations, but this did not bring women’s issues, larger peace issues or citizen rights onto the agenda.

However, as Dr. Paffenholz pointed out, in Liberia, Northern Ireland, and Kenya, where women groups were extremely active and had influence, they not only put gender provisions on the agenda, but also hard-core issues of the conflict, such as land rights and power sharing.

Women’s groups had a big impact when they collectively united across delegations and jointly pushed for signing agreements, Dr. Paffenholz argued. “We’re not talking about the normative good thing to do. We’re talking about effectiveness.”

The report also features a case study on two distinct peace processes in the Philippines, both which had record levels of women’s participation in negotiations. Co-author of the report, Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, who is a senior policy analyst at IPI, said the quality of participation and influence in the processes matters.

In March 2014, the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a major peace agreement, where women were 50% of the government negotiating team and 25% of the signatories. In an earlier peace process, the government of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front (NDF) signed a joint statement in 2011, and women were 35% of delegates to the process and 33% of signatories.

“This kind of broad participation for women has the potential to carry a lot of influence, but we found that even with such high numbers, the quality of influence really varies,” Ms. Ó Súilleabháin noted.

In the NDF talks, there was no selection process to appoint delegates, and many women at the table were consequently the wives and relatives of the political party leaders. “Critics will say that undercuts the independence and ability of the women at the table to voice their own unique perspectives,” she said. “Numbers does not automatically equal meaningful participation.”

In order to increase the chances that peace can be reached and sustained, Ms. O’Reilly enumerated four key strategies that mediators, civil society activists, supporting organizations, and policy makers can use to try to help women participate more meaningfully in these processes: build coalitions using both normative and strategic arguments for women’s inclusion; establish a credible selection process; create the conditions to help make women’s voices heard; and keep power politics and the public in mind throughout the process.

The conversation was moderated by IPI Senior Adviser Youssef Mahmoud.

Watch event: