The voice of women can be a potent force for peace, so why do we silence it?

29 October 2022 | MAHA AKEEL | Arab Times

In the year 2000, a group of women from Sierra Leone, Guatemala, Somalia and Tanzania, joined by women from international non-governmental organizations, approached the UN Security Council and persuaded it to recognize the role of women in conflict prevention, peace-building efforts and the rebuilding of war-torn societies.

On Oct. 31, 2000, the council unanimously passed Resolution 1325, in recognition of the role of women in promoting peace and security and not only as victims of gender-based violence. It provided a framework for the participation of women in all stages of peace processes.

We are all familiar with images from wars and conflicts of suffering women and children. Although men also suffer during conflicts, it is generally acknowledged that women and children bear the brunt of the suffering in times of war.

Each member of society suffers in different ways. War is destruction; lives are lost, homes are demolished and life is completely shattered, with long and lasting consequences.

While women suffer physically, mentally, sexually, economically and in many other ways during wars, they are also actively involved in making a living, keeping their families safe and resisting the forces of destruction, risking their lives in the process.

What we do not see are the women who have become heads of households and sole breadwinners because the men of the family are at the battlefront, dead or missing, and they are taking care of the children, the elderly, the sick and the wounded or disabled.

We do not realize the important work being done by women who are organizing and helping each other cope and survive, the women who are mobilizing support for their communities and efforts to end conflicts, and those involved in mediation and reconciliation work in their communities.

Despite all this work with their families, communities and at the grassroots level, when it is time to sit down for official, formal peace talks, women are mostly excluded.

Despite the evidence from research on the contributions of women to conflict prevention and resolution, they continue to be marginalized in peace processes.

A study by the Council of Foreign Relations on peace negotiations between 1990 and 2017 revealed that women represented only 2 percent of the mediators, 5 percent of the witnesses and signatories to peace agreements, and 8 percent of the negotiators.

Where are the women during these negotiations that will shape the future of their countries? Why are warlords, militias and gangs given priority to participate in negotiations and the right to demand and gain advantages from the outcomes, while those who have suffered the most and actively sought peace are sidelined?

Waiting until everything is settled and the negotiations done and then bringing in the women during the final stages of the process is too little, too late, especially if it is done just to give the impression that women were listened to and included.

Even in humanitarian work, including the allocation of funds for projects and reconstruction efforts, it does not make sense not to include women during the design, planning and implementation phases because, most often, women are the ones who benefit, directly and indirectly, and therefore they have a better understanding of needs and means.

Why are we still thinking of peace as meaning only the silencing of guns and the laying down of weapons? The concept of peace and security has changed. What kind of peace do we have when women and girls cannot step out of their houses to go to work or school? What kind of security when there is no food on the table or clean water?

What kind of life when there is no justice for victims of domestic violence, rape, abduction and other human rights violations? There are many conflicts in the Muslim world. And  unfortunately, it is where a lot of discrimination persists.

Blaming religion and culture is absurd. It is a lame excuse and an easy way to justify shortsightedness — a quick fix. It is more convincing to recognize the prevailing political structures and interests, the underlying socioeconomic conditions and the insecurity in these countries, and try to address them to facilitate the representation of all members of society.

The history of Islam is full of stories of the participation of women in peace accords and their positive contribution to mediation and negotiation. Modern history also provides examples of a number of countries in which women were involved in peace processes.

In fact, religion and culture could be used effectively to support the inclusion of women and their rights. This approach will have better results because it will be accepted by local communities and stakeholders, as opposed to imposed foreign interventions and ideologies.

The UN is making efforts to include more women in peace negotiations and more provisions relating to women in peace agreements but organizations such as the League of Arab States and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation are still lagging far behind, even though their policies and initiatives look good on paper.

Stereotypical views of women and the patriarchy continue to result in the exclusion of women from participation in peace negotiations, despite the active role they play in peace-building efforts and the valuable contributions they can make to negotiations. There are many examples, such as Indonesia, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Nigeria and Mali.

Men and women have differing negotiating styles and bring different perspectives and experiences to the table. It is preposterous to think that women are unqualified or incapable when we see illiterate men and warlords participating. Insisting that we listen only to the men and appease them while ignoring the women is counterproductive.

The inclusion of women in negotiations, and ensuring there are provisions for women in peace agreements, is not a panacea or guarantee for peace. Based on empirical evidence, however, peace is much more likely to succeed and endure when women are involved and their voices are heard.

  • Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1