It is often said that women's lives are the most deeply affected by conflict. However, when the time comes to discuss matters of peace, they are rarely consulted. This lack of representation is not only detrimental to women's rights; it has been found to drastically increase the risk of failure of reconciliation efforts.
In 2015, a study by the International Peace Institute found that peace deals are 65 per cent less likely to endure if they do not include women. Female participation has also been found to bolster “peace building and democracy”, according to the United Nations. In recognition of this, the body adopted Resolution 1325 in 2000, which “reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts”. From Colombia to Gaza, women have made significant contributions towards the reduction of violence and subsequent reconciliation. Many now believe that they could even hold the key to some of the region’s most complex and intractable problems.
So, why does gender appear to have such an impact on negotiations? Is there such a thing as a specifically female approach to peace and, if so, how is it different to traditional, masculine models? The simple fact is that peace agreements are more likely to last when the interests of all communities affected by a given conflict are considered, and women have a strong record of doing precisely that.
Take the historical example of Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition was a non-sectarian political party specifically created to gain access to these negotiations. The work of its members proved essential to the success of the dialogue, prioritising co-operation over partisan allegiances, maintaining communication with the republican Sinn Fein party when it was temporarily barred from the talks, and facilitating its re-entry to the process. The NIWC also managed to secure language in the final agreement referencing victims’ rights and the reintegration to society of political prisoners. These measures proved fundamental to creating a sustainable peace.
In 2016, peace talks between the Colombian government and the communist guerrilla group FARC successfully brought a 50-year conflict to an end. When the process began in 2012, it included only one female negotiator. By 2015, the government's negotiating team of 40 included eight women, and nearly half of all FARC representatives were female. They successfully argued for provisions that secured access to property for rural women and indigenous communities. They also rejected the idea of an amnesty for perpetrators of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Still, it is important to note that female negotiators should not be viewed solely as defenders of women’s rights. Their roles in peace talks must be about much more than that. As a number of long-running hostilities across the Middle East appear to be at critical junctures, women should play central roles in creating a stable future for everyone.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban is negotiating with the United States to end an 18-year war that has torn the country apart. However, talks held in February included only two women out of a total of 50 participants. This augurs poorly for the resulting agreement, which many fear will roll back considerable advances in women's rights made in recent years.
Between 1996 and 2001, Taliban rule denied women education, the right to work and freedom of movement. Though they have been largely sidelined from official conversations, Afghan women have found creative ways to help broker peace, guiding the reintegration to society of Taliban fighters and even securing the release of hostages, on multiple occasions by reaching out to the wives of Taliban leaders. Given these substantial contributions, Afghan women must not be once again relegated to the status of second-class citizens.
Now that ISIS has been driven from its last redoubt of Baghouz, the time is ripe for serious peace talks in Syria. However, women have been underrepresented in negotiations so far. None were invited to the table at Astana, and their numbers remained low during the Geneva talks in 2017.
This erases the life-saving efforts women have made since the very beginning of the nation’s eight-year civil war. As early as April 2011, thousands of women blocked a highway in the north-western city of Baniyas, successfully demanding that hundreds of men rounded up by government forces be released. In 2015, another group of more than 470 women from the Damascus suburb of Zabadani managed to pressure insurgents and regime forces into a ceasefire. Throughout the conflict, women have helped to broker local truces, secure the release prisoners and documented human rights violations.
Women make up half the world’s population. Ideally, all official negotiating parties would reflect this, but peace can be built via other channels. Accordingly, governments and political leaders must uphold women’s rights and encourage them to play an active part in civil society. Whether their actions have official backing or not, women all over the world are working to create better futures for their families and communities. To ignore their efforts is to overlook an invaluable resource and squander hard-won opportunities for peace.