Around the world, women are active participants of local and global civil society, political and grassroots activists, and agents of change. Yet, despite their efforts and their important role in societies, they are most often excluded from peace processes. UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and subsequent Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security recognized this fact, as well as women’s potential to contribute to peacebuilding, and called for their greater inclusion.
This paper considers the ways in which women experience conflict and act within the context of post-conflict societies. Through an analysis of women’s role in war and peacebuilding in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chechnya, Liberia, Serbia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda, it is shown that women have an important contribution to make to the peacebuilding process. It is further demonstrated that their different experience of the conflict, as well as the different roles they play in society, gives them a unique perspective, which can contribute to achieving a more sustainable peace. With the view to enhancing women’s peacebuilding potential, four factors that can influence the success of women-led peace movements are identified. These are: women’s education and experience in leadership; the availability of outlets for citizen’s agency and the freedom of the civil society; women’s access to state institutions; and general position of women in the society.
It is concluded that women’s role in an armed conflict is by no means limited to that of victims, and that recognizing their role as agents necessitates their greater inclusion. This requires full implementation of the UNSCR 1325, as well as the fulfillment of the four conditions, identified as potential enhancers of women’s peace activism.
The importance of women’s involvement in peace processes has been recognized in United Nation Security Council’s Resolution 1325 and supported by many scholars (Helms (2003), Fuest (2008), Hunt and Posa (2001), Onyejekwe (2005), Karam (2000), Porter (2007) and Gizelis (2011) ). Women’s involvement in processes is important for several reasons. Firstly, women constitute roughly 50% of most societies and therefore should not be excluded from the processes deciding these societies’ fate.Secondly, although “[w]ar has been historically a form of human activity, where roles are strictly defined along gender lines” (Romanova and Sewell 2011: 223), one should not infer from it that women have been less involved in wars, or less affected by them. Women are important agents in most armed conflicts. It is important not to reduce their role simply to this of passive victims and to recognize their agency in the context of war. Including them in peace processes is one of the ways of recognizing their agency, as well as the value of their experiences. Thirdly, women’s experiences of war often vary from those of men and thus their vision of peace and their understanding of the society’s needs is a valuable contribution and should not be disregarded. Finally, one should not be wooed by the easy definition of peace as the absence of war. Peace is not easy. It is a process, and it is crucial that this process is conducted in a fair, just and inclusive manner. Peace process is a one of building a new order in a society, and it is crucial, for the sustainability of peace that its order be based on inclusivity and diversity, rather than discrimination and marginalization.
This paper seeks to provide a theoretical framework for thinking of women’s role in peacebuilding. It does so, by briefly discussing the different roles women play in conflict and identifying and discussing four factors that affect the success of women’s organizations in bridging differences and contributing to conflict resolution: (1) women’s education and experience in leadership roles before conflict; (2) the availability of outlets for citizen’s agency and the freedom of the civil society; (3) women’s representation in politics and access to state institutions; (4) general position of, and respect for, women in society. These are by no means the only factors that affect the extent of the women’s organizations’ success. However, as the examples from conflicts in Bosnia, Serbia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Chechnya and Rwanda will demonstrate, they are particularly important in determining the success, or failure, of a women’s peace movement. As such, they provide a helpful framework for analysis of women’s involvement in peacebuilding, and as basic guidelines for a more successful inclusion of women in peace processes.
Women in Conflict
There are three important observations to be made about the role of women in armed conflicts. First, as mentioned in the introduction, women are far from being passive victims and exercise agency in war to the same extent as their male counterparts, although sometimes in different ways. Women are increasingly joining armies, and many militias (for example in Liberia) recruit, or abduct, girl soldiers (cf. Maulden, 2011). Moreover, female suicide terrorism is becoming increasingly popular – in Russia, 68% of suicide attacks are committed by women (Eliatamby and Romanova 2011: 55). Although women’s decision to become terrorists has often been contributed to their trauma, desperation and coercive recruitment techniques, this should not be used to deny the fact that, regardless of their motifs, by making a decision to perpetrate violence, women act as agents in war. Although their agency is sometimes clouded and limited by the inherently coercive nature of war, during which the line between being a victim and a perpetrator, coercion and agency, is necessarily blurred for both genders, they are nonetheless active participants in warfare and not merely passive observers, or victims.
The second observation concerns the fact that due to their different traditional social roles, women experience being a victim and being a perpetrator differently from men. This gives them a distinct point of view on war. Violence against women often has a symbolical or “extended” character. For instance, they are affected by rape much more often than men, and family transformations tend to affect them more than their male counterparts.
The third observation is that women’s experience of conflict is deeply marked by the way they are perceived by society, notably the symbolical image of women as “life-givers”. In nationalistic discourses, women are often viewed as the “symbols” of the nation. Consequently, violence against them often also has symbolical character. They are violated to degrade and disgrace their families. Thus, sexual violence against women tends to take the form of a conscious tactic to humiliate and defeat the enemy – a process through which rape becomes a “weapon of war”. Women’s role as perpetrators is also marked by this symbolical dimension. Female suicide bombers have been welcomed by terrorist groups, since “[f]emale suicide terrorism is even more distressful and draws more attention (…) There is a profound contradiction in the actions of female terrorism and the ways of portraying them” (Eliatamby and Romanova 2011: 62). The “way of portraying” women, mentioned by Eliatamby and Romanova, refer precisely to the traditional image of women as life-givers.
In the following section, it will be shown how these three elements impact the role of women as peacebuilders, which (1) gives them a way to exercise their agency more fully; (2) is enhanced by the diversity and uniqueness of their perspectives; and (3) is also closely tied to their traditional roles and symbolisms.
Women in Peacebuilding
Women’s different experience of conflict – both in their role as victims and as perpetrators – provides them with a unique perspective on war and peace, which therefore makes them valuable assets in the search for a comprehensive and inclusive peace. Hunt and Posa note that “[w]hile most men come to the negotiating table straight from the war room and battlefield, women usually arrive
2. Such as disappearance of the extended family links, refugeeness, changing power relations and the fact that women often become heads of families in the times of war, increased base of domestic violence in war-torn countries and refugee camps.
3. For a more detailed analysis of the ways in which women are affected by the context of being a refugee, see, Szczepanikova (2005); for a variety of examples of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in the context of post-conflict countries, see the reports by Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (http://gnwp.org/resource-type/publications).
straight from activism and (…) family care”, which makes them “crucial to inclusive security” (Hunt and Posa, 2001: 38). Today’s wars involve citizens to an unprecedented degree and most of them originate from, or are sustained by, the tensions within society rather than grand military strategies and decisions at the high political level. Thus, it is unconceivable that any sort of satisfactory and sustainable peace can be achieved without the participation of all the parties involved and the civil society, including women who “are often at the centre of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), popular protests, electoral referendums, and other citizen-empowering movements” (Hunt and Posa 2001: 38). It should be noted that women’s peace movements have often started before, and gone beyond, the official peace processes. In Serbia, most of the women’s peace groups, many of which, like the Women in Black, still function today, were established in early 1990s, when first anti-war protests and rallies began. In Colombia, the National Network of Women (Red Nacional de Mujeres, RNM) has played a leading role in peace activism before and during the first failed negotiations between FARC and the government, 1999-2002. After the failure of the official negotiations women continued to campaign, organize peace marches and advocate for a new, inclusive peace process.
The role of women as “bridge-builders” has been recognized by many scholars. Helms (2003:15) notes that in Bosnia “[d]espite legitimate fears, women were the first to cross ethnic boundaries”. Hunt and Posa (2001: 41-42) emphasise that “women have bridged the seemingly insurmountable differences between India and Pakistan by organizing huge rallies to unite citizens from both countries” and “helped calm the often deadly ‘marching season’ by facilitating mediations between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists” in Northern Ireland. Further, Romanova and Sewell (2011: 228) assert that women in both Liberia and Chechnya, contributed to peacebuilding through their effort to “build bridges and establish a strong and supportive networking”. Even in situations where women were involved in perpetrating violence, such as in Rwanda where 2.3% of genocide suspects are female (Uwineza and Bown 2011: 146), “women on both sides of the ethnic divide have demonstrated a keen interest in reconciliation process” (Uwineza and Bown 2011: 146).
Women’s contribution to peacebuilding – both through state-level and international advocacy, and through local bridge-building in their communities – is thus undeniable. However, far from being a result of their “natural capacity for peace” (cf. Simbine 1999: 91), this phenomenon can to a large extent be attributed to the role of “prime carers” that women assume in most societies (Cf. Porter 2007: 39). In her book, “Peacebuilding: Women in International Perspective”, Elisabeth Porter convincingly argues that successful peacebuilding must be founded on building of relationships, and recognizing humanity in “the other”. This is why, the women’s role as prime carers, and the “feminist ethics of justice and care”, which Porter associates with it, are essential elements of successful peacebuilding.
Women also seem to find it easy to identify common grounds on which they can build understanding across class, ethnicity and religion divisions. This is in line with the feminist theories, such as the “feminist theory of justice and care” referenced by Elisabeth Porter (2007), which observe that competition is a traditionally “masculine” trait, while care and willingness to collaborate for the wellbeing of the society, is a “feminine” characteristic. In Liberia, for instance, educated and uneducated women worked side by side to address the needs of their communities. In Chechnya, Chechen women united with Russian women and found common ground through their strong and powerful love for their children that spanned the divide produced by the war” (Romanova and Sewell 2011: 228). In ex-Yugoslavia, women’s organizations from Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina engaged in building coalitions and nurturing relationships between civil society organizations in these countries, thus laying the grounds for cooperation and better mutual understanding. Porter notes that “all these seemingly disparate global examples (…) share a significant factor, namely the urgency for women to thrust aside those divisions that cause conflict in order to find those commonalities which allow coalitions to form” (Porter 2007: 4).
The traditional roles and images of women – as nurturers, life-givers, community-binders and crucially mothers – once again come into play, this time providing women with a shared element around which they can build dialogue and understanding and which can help them overcome the rifts and tensions in the society resulting from, and contributing to, the conflict.
Yet, despite their prominent role as peace activists and peace-builders in their communities, as well as their capacity to overcome differences, and build bridges, women have rarely been included in the so-called “Track 1”, or formal, negotiations. UNSCR 1325, which will celebrate its 15th Anniversary in October 2015, calls for – among other things –a greater inclusion of women in peace processes in accordance with other Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security,. However, even though some progress has been achieved, as is visible in the inclusion of two women, Maria Paulina Riveros and Nigeria Renteria Lozano, in the Colombian government’s negotiation team earlier this year, women’s participation in formal peace processes remains a challenge.
Furthermore, the success of women’s organizations’ peace initiatives is often also impeded by harmful government practices and perceptions within society. The extent to which women are
able to extrapolate the sense of unity and understanding and initiate a dialogue on a national scale, depends on several factors, four of which (based on my analysis of the women’s movements in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Chechnya and Rwanda, I found particularly important) have been outlined in the introduction and will now be discussed in more detail.
4. It should be kept in mind that the categories of masculinity and femininity are socially constructed. As such, the characteristic of “care” is not intrinsic in all women. Rather, they are socialised into it through the accepted practices of the society. While an important theoretical consideration, this does not, however, affect the analysis of the practical implications of such socialisation on the behaviour and roles of women in conflict.
Women’s Peace Movements – Basic Conditions for Success
(1) The first factor is the women’s education and experience in leadership roles before conflict. Since strong leadership is crucial for the effectiveness of work of any association, and running an organization requires a set of basic skills, such as the ability to plan, write grant applications, prepare speeches, appeals, or reports, and organize events and other activities, the success of any women’s association will depend – to a considerable extent – on the possession of these capabilities by the women running it. A positive example of this factor contributing to the success of women’s peace effort is Rwanda, where women in exile, especially in Uganda, took on responsibilities and leadership roles within the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which “prepared [them] for future opportunities in coalitions that have shaped post-genocide policy and reforms” (Uwineza and Bown, 2011: 143). Similarly, in Liberia in 1970s, “eight ministerial posts were held by women” (Fuest, 2008: 208) and at the beginning of the 1980s, “women constituted 30 percent of the university teachers, 14.7 percent of the judges, 9.4 percent of the doctors and dentists, 32.2 percent of the secondary school teachers, and 48.2 percent of the nurses” (Fuest, 2008: 208). Women were, therefore, not only present in the public sector but also given the opportunities to develop their leadership and other organizational skills through professional occupations. This gave them the ability to clearly formulate and communicate their vision and their demands to the government, and the confidence to advocate for them in front of ministers and other government officials, as well as among the rebels.
(2) The second factor regards the availability of outlets for citizen’s agency and the freedom of the civil society. Since women's peacebuilding efforts often in the realm of the civil society, the extent to which the civil society is given the space to act within the country and shape its politics is crucial for their success.
For example, the fact that women in Chenchnya were unable to exert political pressure and achieve impact on a national scale can be, to some extent, attributed to the "broader context of civil society in the post-Soviet Russian Federation", where "[c]ivic activism (...) is largely marginalized" and "[g]rassroot initiatives have been significantly restrained by the limited domestic support, strict government control, lack of funding and civilian reservations" (Romanova and Sewell 2011: 227). On the other hand, although the Freedom House listed Liberia as only “partly free” in 1999 and 2001 – i.e. at the beginning of the conflict – and as “not free” in 2002 and 2003, when the conflict entered its most intense phase, Romanova and Sewell note that the government and the society were characterized by “[r]elative openness to civil activities” (Romanova and Sewell 2011: 230, table 13.1). Therefore, as can be seen, lack of liberty and restrictions on civil society can obstruct women's peacebuilding efforts by depriving them of an outlet for their activities and forcing them to work in a context of extremely limited freedom, and distrust or apathy from the general population, unaccustomed to the work of civil society organizations.
(3) The third factor concerns women’s representation and access to state institutions. Needless to say, it is affected both by the first factor, since if women are uneducated they will face internal obstacles – so called "indiosyncratic factors" (British Council 2012: 57) – to accessing state institutions, and by the second one, because if the state institutions are generally exclusive, oligarchic and inaccessible to the citizens, they will – by extension – be inaccessible to women as well.
However, it is sometimes the case that women face discrimination from state bodies and are underrepresented even if the first two conditions are satisfied. Often, such discrimination is embedded in state institutions and therefore, in order to fight against it, the government must recognize and "emphasise the need for women's involvement in the reconstruction process" (Uwineza and Bown 2011: 144) and undertake measures to ensure female representation, such as establishing a Ministry of Gender, ratifying the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), or undertaking affirmative action and setting up the quota for female representation at all levels of decision-making. Such solutions were adopted in Rwanda, resulting in much higher female participation in the government and in the peace and reconciliation process more specifically. Equally, Liberia – in addition to having female ministers in various departments of the government – established the Ministry of Gender in 1991, officially bringing the problem of gender, gender discrimination and women’s access to politics to the fore. This is not to say that the existence of a Ministry of Gender or the signing of CEDAW guarantees women the access to state institutions. However, it is an important first step and a good indicator of the government’s and society’s awareness and general attitude to women and gender issues.
(4) The last factor is perhaps the most elusive one. It concerns the general position of women in the society. This can be understood as the general attitude to women, the prevalence and respect for women’s rights, the extent of women’s seclusion from the public and political life, and the prevalence of patriarchal ideals and structures in the society.
To illustrate referring as previous to the Rwandan example. Uwineza and Bown (2011:141) contend that “women in pre-colonial Rwanda were well-respected and protected with a particular reverence to their role as mothers”. Moreover, they argue that women were consulted by their husbands and perceived as having authority in the matters of the household. They point out that the word “mabuja”, used as a term of endearment while referring to one’s wife, signified at the same time a respectable person with whom one consults one’s decisions. Similarly, in pre-colonial Liberia, “although women as a class could not adopt any public political roles, [they] appear to have commanded considerable space for socio-political maneuver” (Fuest, 2008: 206). Women were members of “exclusive secret societies”, where they could “[control] junior dependents (…) [enforce] their interests through a ‘women’s chief’ and a council of female elders who ‘had both a deliberative role and veto power over important decisions made by the men’” (Fuest, 2008: 207). Although the colonial era tended to limit women’s role in politics and “shift [them] into [a place] of an increasingly marginalized group” (Uwineza and Bown, 2011: 142), these trends in the pre-colonial society were reflected in the relative independence and respect for women in post-colonial Rwandan and Liberian societies. This is illustrated by women’s relatively high participation in politics and public services in both countries, as outlined above, as well as the fact that the Liberian government, the rebels, and the women’s husbands took the women’s opinion into account and – despite the initial attempts to threaten and ignore them – agreed to fulfill their demands and sit down to the negotiating table. Women’s voice was, therefore, listened to and respected, reflecting the pre-colonial set-up, in which women enjoyed relatively high levels of authority.
However, this situation should not be idealized. Years of violent conflict and enormous atrocities experienced both in Rwanda and in Liberia resulted in – among other things – widespread sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and violation of women’s rights which carried into the post-conflict era. Thus, presence of women’s voices in the public sphere – while commendable – should not be unequivocally interpreted to imply respect for women’s rights in the country. Protection of women is a crucial aspect of enabling their peacebuilding efforts, since fear of abuse can be an important factor discouraging women from raising their voice, and getting involved in the public space. Therefore, combating SGBV, as well as discrimination and violence against women activists, has to be a key issue in discussing the condition of the “general position of women” in society.
Moreover, it is crucial to bear in mind that “respect for women” may sometimes be a vague and elusive notion. For example, in Chechnya, women traditionally enjoy a high level of respect and reverence, especially in their role as mothers. However, due to the patriarchal nature of Chechen society their opinions are not allowed in the public sphere. That is not to say that Chechen women cannot exert some kind of influence on their husbands. However, it is much harder – though not impossible – for them to extrapolate this influence into politics. The “respect” they enjoy is thus of a different sort (which is not to say that it is dishonest or illusory). Thus, although respect for women and women’s rights is of crucial importance in general, and can be also an important factor in the success of women-led peace-building, it should be treated cautiously, since it is not easy to define or measure and can be expressed differently in different cultural contexts.
The above paper sought to demonstrate that women play a prominent role in conflict and peacebuilding. Importantly, it has shown that women’s role in an armed conflict is by no means limited to that of victims. While women suffer, often disproportionately from the effects of an armed conflict, it is essential to recognize their role as agents and active participants of both conflict and peacebuilding.
One facet of such recognition would be a greater inclusion of women in Track 1, or official, negotiations, as well as formal peacebuilding processes. This requires full implementation of UNSCR 1325, including effective protection of women and women’s activists in post-conflict environments, inclusion of women at all levels of decision-making, as well as in official negotiating teams.
Finally, the already existing and robust women-led peace efforts should be recognized, enabled and encouraged. This can be done through – among other things – ensuring that the four conditions identified above: women’s education and leadership skills; freedom of the civil society; women’s access to state institutions and decision making; and respect for women and women’s rights, are fulfilled. Once again, it needs to be emphasized that this is not an exhaustive list of the requirements for women’s inclusion in peacebuilding. Rather, the four elements should be seen as four pillars of just and sustainable peacebuilding, and thus incorporated in peace processes, national and international level policy-making, and peacebuilding activities of international NGOs and donors.
- British Council (2012) Gender in Nigeria Report 2012: Improving the lives of girls and women in Nigeria, 2nd ed.
- https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/67333/Gender-Nigeria2012.pdf [Accessed 06/02/2015]
- Eliatamby, M. and Romanova, E. (2011) Dying for Identity: Chechnya and Sri Lanka. In: Cheldelin, S. and Eliatamby, M. (eds,) Women Waging War and Peace: International Perspectives of Women's Roles in Conflict and Post-Conflict Reconstruction, 6th ed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.
- Fuest, V. (2008) ‘This is The Time to Get in Front’: Changing Roles and opportunities for Women in Liberia. African Affairs, 107 (427), 201-224.
- Gizelis, T. I. (2011) A Country of Their Own: Women and Peacebuilding. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 28 (5), 522-542.
- Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (2012) Women Count – Security Council Resolution 1325: Civil Society Monitoring Report 2012. Available at: http://gnwp.org/resource/women-count-%E2%80%93-security-council-resolution-1325-civil-society-monitoring-report-2013 (Accessed 06/02/2015).
- Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (2013) Women Count – Security Council Resolution 1325: Civil Society Monitoring Report 2013 Available at: http://gnwp.org/resource/women-count-%E2%80%93-security-council-resolution-1325-civil-society-monitoring-report-2012 (Accessed 06/02/2015)
- Helms, E. (2003) Women as Agents in Ethnic Reconciliation? Women’s NGOs and International Intervention in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. Women’s Studies International Forum, 26 (1), 15-33.
- Hunt, S and Posa, C, (2001) Women Waging Peace, Foreignpolicy.com [Internet] 19th November 2009 Available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/19/women-waging-peace/ [Accessed 06/02/2015]
- Jones, A. (2004) Gendercide and Genocide. USA: Vanderbilt University Press.
- Karam, A. (2000) Women in War and Peacebuilding: The Road Traversed, The Challenges Ahead. International Feminist Journal ofPolitics, 3(1), 2-25.
- Maulden, P. (2011) Fighting Young: Liberia and Sierra Leone. In: Cheldelin, S. and Eliatamby, M. (eds,) Women Waging War and Peace: International Perspectives of Women's Roles in Conflict and Post-Conflict Reconstruction, 6th ed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group. Porter, E. (2007) Peacebuilding: Women in International perspective. New York: Routledge.
- Romanova, E. and Sewell, E. (2011) Engaging Legislation: Liberia and Chechnya. In: Cheldelin, S. and Eliatamby, M. (eds,) Women Waging War and Peace: International Perspectives of Women's Roles in Conflict and Post-Conflict Reconstruction, 6th ed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.
- Szczepanikova, A. (2005) Gender Relations in a Refugee Camp: A Case of Chechens Seeking Asylum in the Czech Republic.Journal of Refugee Studies 18 (3), 281 – 298.
- Uwineza, P. and Brown, P. N. (2011) Engendering Recovery: Rwanda. In: Cheldelin, S, and Eliatamby, M, (eds,) Women Waging War and Peace: International Perspectives of Women's Roles in Conflict and Post-Conflict Reconstruction, 6th ed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.