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Promoting Women's Participation: How Women Are Building Peace

By Kavitha Suthanthiraraj
Kavitha with participants at a youth leadership conference, Liberia, 2009

Over the past decade there has been growing recognition of the importance of women's engagement in all aspects of conflict and post-conflict societies, including: accessing the peace table, rebuilding war-torn societies, standing for parliament and redefining gender-specific security needs. Women's rising position as "agents of change" rather than merely as "victims" can be seen through the numerous women worldwide who--as government representatives, activists, leaders of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and women's networks--have persevered to initiate transformative change within their societies. Undeterred by rebel groups, authoritarian regimes, cultural restrictions or resource limitations, and often at great personal risk, these countless women continue the work of promoting peace and security in their communities.

Asha Hagi Elmi Amin, on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security has said, "Women's participation in peace processes is not optional: it is a requirement."

What do we mean by women's participation? Participation is not solely a matter of counting "how many women" or merely filling quotas. It is about how substantively women are able to participate, how much they are able to access power structures, and what difference such participation makes. It is also about the diversity of women involved. Participation is not only for the elite; it is for the women directly affected by conflict, such as refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and survivors of violence. Further, participation is not limited to conflict and post-conflict contexts. International instruments and treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979) and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) call for women's equal participation in all aspects of life and challenge men and women to meet these goals.

Security Council Resolution 1325

The question of participation is central to Security Council Resolution 1325 (SCR 1325), adopted in October 2000 by the UN Security Council. This landmark resolution recognizes the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on women and the critical role of women in peacebuilding. It provides the framework for integrating women as equal participants and into decision-making and leadership positions. It also places responsibility on governments, non-state actors, and the United Nations to ensure a gender lens across all peace and security initiatives. While the resolution provides the structure, it needs the strength and commitment of all to ensure it moves from "words to action."

This article is based on a recent publication, Promoting Women's Participation in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies: How women worldwide are making and building peace produced by Global Action to Prevent War, the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security and the Women's League for International Peace and Freedom (see www.globalactionpw.org for more information). The publication was also recently launched in Tokyo in collaboration with SGI and the UN University. The publication focuses on the work of national and grassroots organizations, based on over 40 interviews and desk-based research, highlighting the experiences of community-based initiatives promoting women's participation. It reflects the challenges faced by these women, the work they have done to overcome barriers, and the consequences of women's inclusion in and exclusion from peace processes.

While many international instruments and frameworks have been developed, there continues to be a wide gap between actions discussed at the policy level and the reality in the field. While some progress has been made, women continue to be marginalized, underrepresented and more often targeted as a "tactic of war."

Women's lack of participation can be clearly seen in these statistics:

  1. To date, the United Nations has never appointed a woman as lead mediator.
  2. In 60 years, only eight women have ever been appointed as UN special envoys. Only 2.4 percent of all signatories to 21 major peace agreements in the past 20 years were women.
  3. Women hold 18.8 percent of parliamentary seats (2009) up from 11.3 percent in 1995. Yet, women are still underrepresented at the ministerial and committee levels.
  4. 2.3 percent of 88,661 military peace-keepers serving in UN missions worldwide are women. Improvement is seen in UN policing with 8.2 percent of the 13,221 police personnel being women.

Challenges and Innovative Local Responses

Women are often confronted with challenges including cultural barriers, traditional patriarchal structures, minimal legislative support and lack of resources. This creates critical barriers inhibiting the transfer of their learned knowledge and firsthand experiences into a recognized and formal environment. However, many women's organizations have developed informal and innovative community-based responses that are transforming attitudes (of men and women) and reshaping women's roles in their communities.

Women voting in the 2009 Afghan election [Jenny Matthews/Panos]

As noted by Visaka Dharmadasa, chair of the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW) in Sri Lanka, "You can't just say, 'include women, include women.' You have to strengthen the capacities of women."

The courage and tenacity of local women's organizations is illustrated through the work of AWAW, which in 2003 led a group of women from both ethnic groups involved in the conflict in Sri Lanka to meet the second-in-command of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebel movement. This helped pave the way for a cease-fire and peace talks. While these early peace talks faltered, this empowered organizations like AWAW who consequently focused their efforts toward improving women's representation in the political process.

AWAW initiated a campaign in 2008 to train women on local laws, human rights, public speaking, budgeting and campaign strategy.

The initial stage of the program involved training 25 women leaders and focused on strategies for enabling and encouraging additional women to run for political office. This group, called "Team 1325," was composed of one woman from each of Sri Lanka's 25 districts, and each woman committed herself to train an additional 25 women in her district. To date, AWAW and Team 1325 have trained 600 women and begun workshops involving 750 more women across Sri Lanka.

Some of the women have achieved observer status at local government meetings, and others have been elected to office at the provincial level. Furthermore, these women have become well positioned as role models to other women in their communities and also to serve as moderators within their neighborhoods.

Gender Justice

Myanmar (Burma), ruled by a military junta, is a country marked by ongoing violence and repression.

The Women's League of Burma (WLB), comprised of 12 women's organizations of different ethnic groups, has been working with local and international NGOs to highlight gender injustice in Burma. According to recent research, sexual violence in the country has reached levels tantamount to war crimes.

To raise awareness of these crimes, the WLB together with the Nobel Women's Initiative held a "mock trial" in March 2010, bringing together key advocates, victims and international lawyers. It provided a unique forum for women to tell their stories and raise awareness of the suffering endured by the Burmese women and their communities.

WLB also continues to work with its organizational partners to document gender-based crimes in their ethnic areas. Through local networks and access to internally displaced persons and refugee camps, they keep a record of the crimes, which is a key step in legal fact-finding and evidence gathering for prosecution and accountability.

In Afghanistan, in the post-Taliban era, women's rights and gender equality have risen to the forefront of nation-building efforts. With international support and strong and courageous advocacy from local women's organizations, tangible victories for women have occurred.

However, women continue to experience enormous challenges, such as poverty, a lack of education and security, and ongoing targeted violence.

Organizations such as Kabultec and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) have sought to address issues of literacy and capacity building. A core program developed by Kabultec is their education and literacy project targeting husbands and wives. With rates of illiteracy among women near 80 percent, this project is critical toward developing a skilled pool of women to enter into government.

In the lead up to the Provincial Council election, NDI organized "Women in Politics Campaign Schools" for women candidates from all regions of Afghanistan. The organization also plans to hold workshops to help women councilors overcome unique challenges including engaging effectively with male-dominated civic and government entities, and identifying issues of interest to women.

Wider societal gains have been realized through these leadership training programs, with women in government sponsoring campaigns to ban marriage under the age of 18, legislation to prevent violence against women and support the rights of minorities, challenging the legitimacy of warlords, and broadening women's voter participation.

Women Making the Change

These three cases illustrate a small portion of the numerous programs undertaken by civil society seeking to bring real change to the lives of women within their communities. Many of these projects are still small-scale and resource-poor, requiring more systematic support from governments, international agencies and concerned citizens from all societies.

Better educational and training opportunities must be cultivated, greater financial and technical assistance must be obtained for grassroots women's organizations, larger forums and networking venues must be established to enable the formulation of common agendas, there must be greater cultivation of local female leadership, and more supportive men must be integrated into these processes.

October 2010 saw the 10th anniversary of SCR 1325 with many government pledges and calls to commitment. Civil society from all nations must now take action and hold their governments accountable and ask the important questions posed by Sarah Taylor of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security and other advocates: Where are the women? Why are they not part of these processes? What can I do to change this?

Kavitha Suthanthiraraj is a research and policy manager at the Centre for Peace and Conflict at the University of Sydney. She is coauthor of Promoting Women's Participation in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies, produced by Global Action to Prevent War, the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

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