Leymah Gbowee and fellow women’s rights activists won the Nobel Peace Prize 2011 for their work promoting peace in Liberia. One of our supporters, Abigail Disney, made an incredible documentary on Leymah’s story available on DVD: Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
Do women hold the key to a peaceful society? Much is known about the victimisation of women through rape, trafficking, and early marriages, but much is yet to be discovered about how women can be empowered in conflict settings to bridge the gap towards peace.
I recently conducted research analysing female peacemaking and found that women do hold a significant role in the peace process. However, this role is not always long-term, unless gender equality is institutionalised through quotas. A better understanding of how women can transform conflict situations, and how to create space for them to do so, will be vital for the UN and other concerned actors in the coming years.
The needs of women have not always been a focal point in conflict management and post-conflict reconstruction. It was not until 2000 when the UN passed security council resolution 1325 detailing specific risks women face in conflict and determined to tackle the issue. From this resolution, activists, academics, and policymakers began to address the specific “burden of war” women carry and how the international community could protect and empower them.
The recommendation for female leadership in the peace process gathered greater force after success stories like the one about women’s peace activism in Liberia. A report by UN Women (pdf) also strengthened the call for more female peacemakers by revealing that only 4% of participants in peace processes were women.
Advocates for greater female representation say that women are essential because they bring a more comprehensive peace plan to the negotiating table by addressing societal needs rather than solely focusing on what will make the warring parties happy. However, from my analysis of data on Uppsala’s Peace Agreements, a couple of key challenges emerged that determine the extent to which women are able to help the peace process.
The results demonstrated that women do have a positive and significant impact on peace, as encouraging their participation increases the probability of violence ending within a year by 24%. However, restrictions do apply. Including a woman from outside the conflict, like from the UN or the African Union, does not necessarily result in a more durable peace agreement. Rather, local women from the conflict are vital for creating a lasting peace agreement. This distinction is extremely important because it reveals that female presence does not necessarily provide the key to peace.
While these results do show the precedence of women in the peace process, it is the reconstruction process after conflict that can be the most critical indicator of long-term peace. Institutionalising gender equality by ensuring female participation in the implementation of a peace plan and establishing gender electoral quotas can significantly increase the likelihood of peace lasting. For instance, implementing gender quotas for national legislatures could increase the probability of violence ending within five years by 27%. These long-term policies empowering women to move past victimisation and into leadership positions can provide the keys to establishing a more peaceful society over time.
While quota policies requiring a certain number of women in peace processes can seemingly create stronger agreements, special attention needs to focus on the qualities of female participants that are truly pushing towards conflict resolution. At this point, female representation has often been regarded as a requirement to check off the long list of peace agreement measures. This focus on quantity rather than quality of representation has been criticised by women’s groups, especially in policy development at the UN.
Current cases like South Sudan illustrate how local women desperately want to become more involved in the peace process but are side lined by the warring parties. How might South Sudan’s recent recurrence to violence be resolved if women are granted greater access to the negotiating table and a developing peace plan? Identifying these barriers will be critical for increasing the participation of women in peacemaking and therefore increasing the probability of lasting peace.
Based on these initial results, building local women’s capacity will be an important area of investment for the international community in order to encourage female leadership. Only by creating more inclusive policies inviting the participation of women can the UN and governments understand the vital role women carry. Building quality representation in local female leadership may be the key ingredient to a peaceful society as women are empowered to transform conflict.
*Laurel Stone is a researcher on conflict management, genocide prevention and women’s security.